Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Above It All? My Hike at Thunder Mountain

View of one of The Sentinels, headed to summit of Thunder Mountain

My post today isn't about the trail so much as it is about a few revelations that I had while on the trail. For factual information, the Thunder Mountain trail head is located up highway 88 in Amador County (El Dorado National Forest), just before you hit Kirkwood ski resort (technically between the Carson Spur and Silver Lake). The starting elevation is 7960' and the high point is 9408'. Our route was an out and back to the top, clocked on my IPhone at just about 7.1 miles. The trail is listed as both a moderate and strenuous hike. (Ha! Ha!)

Yesterday I enjoyed a lovely hike, high up in the Sierras at Thunder Mountain. The weather was perfect, clear and warm,with variable and cool winds. It was a small group, just the four of us: me, my hiking buddy, and my two constant companions, Fear and Doubt. Fear and Doubt travel with me everywhere; they are never far from my side. They like to tell me that I can't take a hike at 9100' +, that I can't possibly climb over some difficult terrain, and that I surely should not look down the side of the mountain to the beautiful valley below. They especially like to remind me that I am not a "hiker" even though I look like one with my ridiculously overstuffed pack, my technical pants, and my sturdy hiking shoes. They suggest to me that I don't know what I am doing and maybe I should just stop and turn back. My imaginary friends are really helpful that way, letting me know that the time to fail is now and please hurry up about it already, they are tired of waiting. Well, they can wait a little longer I guess because I made it to the end of the hike and back to the car. 

Despite my anxiety (and despite myself, really), the hike turned out to be great for several reasons. For starters, the scenery was spectacular. It's not possible to get a sense of the grandness of these mountains by getting out of the car at an observation point and looking around. That way is akin to being on the periphery of something rather than smack dab in the middle of it. High up on the ridge of the mountain, it felt both intimate and remote. Maybe it's silly, but I felt as if I was a part of the scenery; that I was somehow both in it and of it, if that makes sense. The wind was blowing so strongly and we were buffeted about just like the plants and trees. We were just as high up as everything else and just as vulnerable. At the same time though, looking out to the surrounding valleys and mountains, it was impossible to not appreciate the distance and vastness of the area. There is really a juxtaposition of those feelings and ideas, of being both small and large and of the closeness and the distance.

As mentioned, we made it to the top. It was a struggle for me though. Not physically, really, as I have been hiking regularly since late 2016 and by now, my muscles are stronger and my endurance is a little better. What I mean is that I struggled a bit mentally. What I am coming to realize is that aside from the physical effort, hiking is very much a "mental" activity. Success or failure can depend on your own internal dialogue. It's very easy for me to lose faith quickly, particularly if my two buddies Fear and Doubt are whispering in my ear. I have to mentally "gird my loins" to get over the hurdle of thinking I simply can't do something or that I might want to stop because I am afraid. Such was the case yesterday when I approached a steep section with a group of rocks to walk over. I was tired at that point and wasn't certain about continuing to the end. My friend kind of kept on walking, saying something about the view around the corner. So, I just sort of crawled up the rocks a bit cautiously and made it to where she was standing and waiting. No problem as it turned out. And isn't that often the case? Whatever the hurdle seems to be, it always ends up being smaller than you imagine.

It happens often that I don't really know what to say about something until the moment is long past. I knew that my fear and doubt had dissipated as I reached the top. Looking out to the landscape, I knew that I felt a sense of wonder, believing that I was seeing something beyond my comprehension; something that was beyond myself. I felt awe and gratitude towards my Maker, that I was somehow allowed to be present at that moment. But it wasn't until later that I was able to expand my thinking a little further, to do an analysis of my feelings of fear and doubt that crop up every time I take a hike. 

The word "humility" has been on my mind lately. Having that quality in my approach to life, (including hiking), is something worth striving towards. I don't want to be a person who is held back by fear and doubt but I also want to be mindful of reality. I think humility balances confidence with knowing your place in the scheme of things. One of my favorite quotes is from a Stephen King novel, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. After getting hopelessly lost in the woods while on a hike, the main character realizes that, "The world had teeth and it could bite you with them anytime it wanted.” This, to me, is a sensible approach to things. Recognizing your place in the greater picture is key. Being physically prepared to hike helps but being mentally prepared to combat those "teeth" is critical. It takes a healthy dose of both humility and confidence to make it to the top. 

As I stood on that mountain yesterday, I felt that sense of humility; that I was in the presence of something greater than myself and that I needed to pay close attention lest I take a literal or figurative misstep. Fear and doubt sat themselves down far away from me for a bit and I was able to enjoy a peaceful lunch with just my one friend! I was humbled by a power so great, by something that could create my body and allow me to finish that climb. I gave a mental nod and thanks to something beyond myself, to a force that created all that I saw and all that I did. And for those things, I am grateful.

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