On day 4 of our 32 day hike, Jess and I were hurt. She with an overactive IT band and myself with Achilles tendonitis. We perfected what AT hikers call the “hiker hobble” as we made our way into Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
For the first 7 miles we were under the spell of Ibuprofen which probably made our mild injuries much worse–two hours passed and our blood began to thicken. The pain was searing for me, and Jess was in tears.
The path just north of Harpers Ferry is a flat, gravel tow path that travels along a river. Every step was gruesome inside my boot–nothing felt good. I turned to the left, glanced at the river and during the span of one millisecond I thought, “oh, a river…I like rivers…”
In the second week of August, I had been “off the trail” for two weeks when Sean and I traveled to New York for a wedding. Before the wedding weekend, we stopped to see his parents in Cornwall, New York. Conveniently, my brother’s girlfriend, Chelsea, lives in the next town over and I convinced her to take me on a hike. She took me to a trail called “Breakneck Ridge” which is a steep rock scramble that left me out of breath. You can do a loop that will provide 3.7 miles of trail and several great views, but we decided on an out and back route in order to save time. I found several websites that rated this hike a 10/10 in difficulty, and that may be true for this area, but I would call it more of a 7. For me, the scramble is fun! Leave your running shoes at home, though, this one calls for trail runners or trail shoes.
When we reached the top, Chelsea and I sat for awhile discussing different things as we took in the view. We talked all about the life changes I have experienced in the last year (marriage, change in career, moving to a new state, etc., etc., etc.), and after a few minutes of silence she turned to me and said, “what do you think about your brother considering leaving the military?”
She said, “We’ll just so you know it doesn’t have anything to do with me. I would support him in whatever he decided. This is all him.”
“Well” I approached the topic with caution, “I honestly think he will regret it.” I wasn’t sure if I should go on or if I needed to…there was a lot of silence during this conversation. Then finally, all in one exhale I continued: “I think he has worked really hard to develop this set of skills and I know that he feels strongly about using them. I don’t think he’s fulfilled what he set out to, and I’m worried that he will regret leaving before he gets the chance.”
We continued to discuss, but it was all more of the same. We talked about things he could do instead, and reasons for his decision, and why it might be okay in the end. She could feel my apprehension and I felt sorry for that. I looked down to the cliff that lay below and thought how appropriate it was that there was an American flag waving as we worked through this conversation. The river traveling slowly behind the flag carried a Barge and beyond that a train caressed the side of the mountain in the opposite direction. I let out a deflating breath.
Later that day I couldn’t stop thinking of our hike and the expanse of the river. It truly is overwhelming–All of it. I thought back to the book Siddhartha, written by Herman Hesse. I taught this text while I was a student teacher and there is one quote that I have come back to frequently. Siddhartha sat beside the river and acknowledged that “the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth…in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere, and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past, nor the shadow of the future…Siddhartha the boy, Siddhartha the mature man and Siddhartha the old man [are] only separated by shadows, not through reality…Nothing was, nothing will be, everything has reality and presence (87).”
I interpret this to mean that we can only be who we are right at this moment. As much as we plan and scheme, we will only ever be who we are. The river moves so slowly that most times you can’t see it flowing among the rocks and trees. When your river comes upon a shallow, rocky area, you tend move quickly through it, and when you find depth you have the luxury of passing each day slowly, at ease.
As Jess and I left Harper’s Ferry, we walked along the same Shenandoah river we came in on. It, quite literally, took my breath away, but I couldn’t figure out why. I was hurting, but not nearly as much as the previous day. As we hobbled our way back into the woods, I decided that our perception of time is directly correlated to the amount of pain we are in. When I hurt physically on the trail, each mile feels like ten. When I hurt emotionally in life, each day feels like one hundred days. At this moment on the trail, I wasn’t sure if we would make it, but I hoped desperately that we would.
I have spent a majority of the last year wishing it away. I chose not to embrace life changes but to clench my core and wait out each minute, trying with all my might not to regurgitate each passing day. How silly! There is something good in every minute. And furthermore, how crazy am I to think that my brother would react the same! We can only be who we are today, and we should spend time embracing the rocks, not wishing them away.