Hiking is good for many things. It’s good for the health, it’s a good way to visit places inaccessible by car, and it’s good for moralizing. You can always draw a nice moral or two from a long hike. Sometimes it’s not new, but it’ll feel new for a while, and that’s invigorating.
I just finished a three day trek through the mountains surrounding Manali, a town nestled beautifully into the Indian Himalayas. I had a wonderful time and, two days later, I’m still in incredible pain. My calves hurt. My knees hurt. My thighs hurt. I’m going to spend more time recovering from this hike than I spent on the hike.
So what morals did I collect, in recompense for all this pain?
There’s always someone more hardcore than you.
I admit I patted myself on the back a little before I set out. Trekking through the Himalayas! How daring of me! I stopped the patting when I realized I was the slowest and weakest of the seven people who’d booked onto the same trip. A fifty-seven year old Spanish guy zoomed ahead of me as though his legs were made of steel springs, neatly destroying any age-related excuses I might have cared to make.
But I was not that Spanish guy. Nor was I the twenty-two year old Swede who mostly guides rock climbing tours but can lead a trek in a pinch, or the pair of Australians who loped up the steep trails without once stopping to pant or wheeze. I was me, and I had to go at my own pace. I had to stop to catch my breath more often than I’m really proud of. I had to pause to let the burning in my thighs die down.
But I got there in the end. To camp, to the little rocky lake we’d climbed to see, to the ridge with the panoramic views. We all walked the same trail, the same distance.
The limit of your tolerance is not the limit of your abilities.
So on this trek, we climbed up – just up, up up up up – for two days, and down for one. See the imbalance? On the third day, when we descended, we had to cover the same distance we’d hiked on the first two days combined but at twice the speed. Like on the first two days, the trails were sketchy, hard to follow, and incredibly steep.
I’d thought going up was hard but the descent nearly broke me. I hit the wall. I reached the limit of my tolerance. I was drained, in pain, and hours away from the finish line. Stopping wasn’t an option, so I slogged on. I’d picture myself sitting down in the dirt and throwing a tantrum, but no amount of wailing or whining would get me any closer to the bottom of the mountain. The only way I could end my torment was to keep going.
About an hour away from the bottom, we started seeing signs of habitation. Apple orchards, especially. The trail bordered a low stone wall, next to an orchard. A water pipe had broken and for who knows how long had been spraying water onto the trail instead of the apple trees. For a few hundred paces, the trail was a great sucking mud pit. Opposite the wall lay a thorny bramble. No going around.
I was already miserable. I had already passed beyond the limits of my tolerance. And I was wearing sandals.
Too bad. I stomped through the mud. I got it all over my feet and between my toes. Mud crusted on the hem of my pants. I kept walking. The mud dried. My feet looked like the belonged to a cavewoman.
An hour later, I reached the finish line. I had some fresh-squeezed apple juice. I took a shower and uploaded my photos to see what I had seen.
We all reach emotional walls. Physical ones. Come face to face with our own limitations. And we can all break through those barriers, by necessity or choice. Especially at the end, on the descent, I was thinking of the long road to publication. How sometimes I want to give up, whine and throw a tantrum – boo hoo, it’s hard to land an agent, hard to find an audience. Too bad. I haven’t reached the finish line yet. I can keep going.