It’s a useful thing for a man to know his limits. Once those boundaries are clear, life’s choices become much less of a gamble. But some folks, bless their hearts, just love a good risk. I should know. I encountered a bevy of them on the John Muir Trail, a place where I discovered just how often I’m willing to roll the dice.
The plans began innocently enough, as they always do. The four of us would enjoy a week-long vacation in glorious California, backpacking fifty miles in one of nature’s treasures, Kings Canyon National Park. We would behold the grandeur of the High Sierras, relax among vast and tranquil lakes, and encounter a delightful array of woodland creatures. With nothing but our packs and our inalienable right to liberty, we were about to pursue more happiness than you can shake a trekking pole at.
Or maybe I’d end up praying for the sweet release of death.
What? How could such an experience be anything less than invigorating, enlightening, and thrilling to my very soul? The answer, my friends, came only too swiftly and vividly in the days that followed our arrival. Here now, after two months of gradual mental and physical recovery, I am ready to recount this dark episode of my life and its lone valuable gift: a clearly defined limit of bodily stress to which I am quite sure I will never again submit voluntarily.
This is not a gift I accept lightly. Indeed it has opened my eyes to a new way of living. No longer will I feel the anxiety of “missing out” on some sort of personal enrichment when some zany scheme is suggested as a preferable alternative to maxin’ and relaxin’. For now I know better. Now I know my limits. Now I know myself.
I shall recount the five-day affair by providing a brief description of each day’s activities followed by the type of breakdown I suffered somewhere along the way. Together these breakdowns combined to tear asunder the illusory ideal that such an excursion is somehow to be appreciated and treasured for its own sake. No, such a trek instead provides a harsh reminder from nature that frail man is but a fool.
It didn’t take long for me to realize I had made a mistake. Sure, everyone always says day one is the worst, but that is when one’s mind is still sharpest. Were we to heed its advice, we might spare ourselves future agony. Within the first mile we were hiking upwards at a severe grade and with maximum weight on our backs. I was quickly losing steam. Not only the obvious physical steam, but my mental motivation was nowhere to be found. I have a terrible lifelong habit of constantly asking, “Why?” and tragically no answer was forthcoming on this day. Any sense of adventure and anticipation was swiftly replaced with dread within the opening stages of our jaunt. I found that walking in quick bursts and stopping for frequent rests of less than a minute was my best course of action, but before I resigned myself to that fate, I suffered my first breakdown.
Breakdown Type: Threatening to Turn Back Immediately
The other three gents were eager beavers, ready to put aside their discomfort and forge ahead. This was the spirit of adventure! Who could know what astounding sights were just around the bend? These lads weren’t the least bit concerned with such trifling questions as “Why are we doing this?” They were doing this because this is what needed to be done! At some point they crested a hill, then I didn’t see them for a long while. My mind had already resolved to walk right back down that hill and drive to the nearest hotel while the rest of them played out their fruitless fantasies. At last I caught a faint glimpse of our fearless leader hurrying back along the trail towards me. When he finally arrived, the words were simple and pointed: “This isn’t going to work.” In my mind I concurred. The only way this was “going to work” was for me to exit stage left. When we met up with the others I announced my grandiose plans to leave and wished them all the best. Then something happened. Rational thought gave way to whimsical ideas of “trying harder” and “pressing on.” I had been on hiking trips before—even one that lasted just as many days—so I foolishly convinced myself that I could establish a more reasonable pace. I assured them that I would not fall behind like this again. And perhaps in this I succeeded. But when we arrived at our first campsite, the concept of success could not have been further from anyone’s mind.
Oh, did I leave you hanging? Then allow me to explain the scenario when we arose at dawn. Only two of us had brought tents, and for the rest of my life I will thank God that I brought mine. The morning greeted us with its sky blurred by a vast swarm of mosquitoes. The very same hell-spawn had driven us to our premature slumber the night before, after a truly miserable dining experience. And now they threatened to keep us holed up forever on this freshly rain-soaked hill out in the middle of nowhere. My fellow travelers were beginning to see what truth this portended: this hike was destined to break us, one by one. We needed to dispatch any romantic notions of strolling comfortably over snow-capped peaks while friendly marmots chirped happy songs in unison. This “vacation” was to be our ultimate trial. When we finally emerged from Mosquito Valley, we merely found ourselves marching under sweltering heat and fording absurd streams that could not possibly be part of a trail intended for recreation. Right? Day two’s frustrations boiled over into a momentous outburst.
Breakdown Type: Yelling and Cursing at the Top of My Lungs
The itinerary called for one last extreme elevation gain before setting up camp. But it would not come to pass. Driven to the brink of insanity, I pressed onward towards the others with the assistance of a series of adrenaline boosts wrought by extreme anger. When at long last I happened upon their crude forms, I aimed my head low and prepared to unleash my fury. There they sat as I slowly removed my giant backpack and threw it to the ground. What happened next would help define the terms of our subsequent agenda with startling clarity. I clinched my fists, opened wide my maw, gazed toward the heavens, and roared with a great and primal force. Sustaining an incredible volume I bellowed my displeasure at the false gods whose will it was to see me sacrificed on this mountain. Your unholy plans be damned! Curse all of it! And curse those who led me astray! My body shaking, my mind reeling, I brooded for the remainder of the evening. Not only was my mental state in utter disarray, I felt as if my kidneys were caught in a vice. For some reason, I could barely breathe. Slumber took hold of me, and I wished in vain that the struggle would soon end.
The slight adjustment to our schedule meant that the aforementioned dramatic ascent was our first challenge of the morning. My mind was in a markedly improved condition, so I decided to get a head start on the others and plow ahead while motivation could still be summoned. My pace was steady and deliberate, dotted with short rests. I was able to progress several miles before we all met up for a lunch break. As the day wore on, however, my resolve devolved into an incessant recitation of that foreboding question, “Why?” Today’s campsite destination was Evolution Lake, and as the hours rolled past, I imagined myself plunging into its watery grasp, having resigned all hope. My last few miles consisted of prolonged periods of rest as I ruminated at length about the life I left behind.
Breakdown Type: Utter Despondency
Dusk had nearly arrived by the time I shuffled into camp. I gently removed my bag and sat down on it, placing my head into my hands. This lake was no respite. This sunset no reward. None of this mattered. Why was I here? I thought back to all those moments of uncertainty prior to getting on that plane and flying myself into this chaos. They were perfectly legitimate doubts! My hesitance was not baseless! The previous two years I had been part of groups that flew out west for voyages that involved hiking. But hiking had never been the sole purpose of our endeavors. Time was set aside for casual pursuits as well: restaurants, museums, landmarks, big cities. As my memory alighted on each treasured experience, I knew that I had committed a gross error by agreeing to a trip wholly devoted to rigorous labor and without a hint of precious leisure.
Believe me, I tried to spin the present situation in any way that could uplift my beleaguered spirit. The majority of this forsaken trail is done! Our packs are a little lighter! Our legs a bit stronger! But as day four unfolded and we traipsed across craggy terrain, I suddenly found myself consumed with sorrow. As I repeated the same questions to myself—questions that could not be sufficiently answered—all traces of willpower vanished, and under the unrelenting fire of the sun, my feet barely moved. My eyes firmly affixed to the ground before me, I removed my pack almost unknowingly and sat gingerly upon a large rock. This could not continue. This will not continue. I leaned back slowly and tilted my head towards the sky, my eyes overwhelmed with the brightness of the sun’s rays. Was this the end?
Breakdown Type: Blubbering Like a Baby
The tears came quickly and boldly. My spirit had been broken. What more did you want from me, Earth? I readily admit defeat. I freely defer to your awesome majesty. I am not your equal, nor even close. You are the breaker of bones. You shatter the souls of the prideful. What right have I to tread your mighty shoulders? Look upon my bitter weeping with pity. Release me from this bondage. Suffer no further affliction upon my weakened husk! Alas, so did my cries echo across this vast canyon. And this Earth did hear my entreaty and did placate this lost man. I wiped the tears from my face, arose from my seat, and walked not ten paces before I saw it—a roof at first, and then a quaint stone hut, there waiting to take in the sick and the weary to give them rest. Upon entering I noticed my companions had already partaken of its salvation. After about an hour of napping, eating, and self-examination, I was sufficiently recuperated. With a new energy I proceeded with haste along the remainder of the day’s trail until we finally arrived at our communal campsite. We exchanged stories of glee and woe with our fellow adventurers. Then we slept.
This was it. The last full day of the hike. It would cover more miles than any day heretofore, but once we reached camp, it would only be another four or five miles the next morning to reach our long-awaited destination. But something happened on the way to this goal, and it happened early on. A foul temptress would beset me with promises of instant relief and unvarnished joy. Freedom, she vowed, was only a mile or two down the trail. This black-hearted witch took the form of that most sacred of shrines: the ranger station. If only I could make it there, she would deliver me from this debilitating charade! Her chosen sentry, the ranger, would escort me from the premises with due haste, and I would finally taste again the freedom of a life worth living. Oh, I could hear her calling me closer. I am almost there, my sweet…
Breakdown Type: Intending to Leave the Trail Ahead of Schedule
Sure, we were close to 80% done with our trek. All it would take is a modicum of focus to see me through to the end. Why allow myself to be enticed by thoughts of a swift and preemptive exit? Ah, but the reasons are only too easy to recount! We had encountered an unrelenting barrage of mosquitoes throughout the week. We had sizzled in the harsh summer heat. We had been rained upon during the night. We had grown sick of crumbled granola and melted Snickers. And we were mystified by countless creeks that could only be crossed with perfect precision. In short, we were fed up. Or perhaps more critically, I was fed up. Any sense of accomplishment had long since been abandoned. Only a fool would undertake a quest like this, I thought, and only a fool would feel any sense of achievement in its completion. This was brutal torture that had to be stopped, and the earlier the better. When I saw the ranger station, I glided towards it on clouds of hope. A veritable Mecca, it seemed. Freedom regained at last… One problem though. No one was at home. And who knew when anyone ever would be? I stewed there for several minutes, appraising the environment: a wheelbarrow leaning against a tree, a clothes line with undergarments on display, a sign that warned against stealing any of the trinkets on the lot. Soon enough it became clear that this place was not to be my final rest. Dejectedly I set out for the last leg of our journey, looking back frequently on that sturdy log shanty, wishing beyond reason that I would spy her tenant returning so I could dash down the mountainside and into the welcome release she had promised me that morning.
The climb immediately following the ranger station was mean. Further and further, higher and higher we marched. But eventually, it leveled off into a quiet wooded area that was all too dreamlike. Along the way, I met people of all ages and all walks of life who were each drawn here for one purpose or another. There were couples on missions to conquer trails together, college students who were convinced that the sensation of pain was nothing more than a mental illusion, and a few old timers who had been here many times before and continued to challenge themselves anew. Everyone seemed at peace here and quite comfortable with their decision to be here. I knew I was not like them, but I surely admired them. These monstrous pillars that touch the sky are not where they discovered their limits as I had discovered mine. No, these were their solace. Their limits were likely of an entirely different stripe than my own—perhaps academic, perhaps social, perhaps financial. As for me, I was heartened by the realization that I had discovered my limits here among these peaks. It seemed to me the sort of profound epiphany one hopes to experience in such a place, even if the revelation is a bit paradoxical. “I am not meant to be here.” It was a liberating truth.
The rest of the journey was not so bad. Soon I was walking alongside mammoth lakes, their waters undisturbed but for an occasional fish leaping near the surface. The light shone brilliantly off the ripples and against the mountainside. Earlier our group had met up and decided to finish this unforgiving trail on this very day, forsaking our prior plan to camp one more night. We were all ready to be done with the whole affair. The last couple of miles seemed especially long, but the promise of finality bore us along. Once I climbed that last flight of stairs, I found myself in one of nature’s most wondrous gifts from man: a paved parking lot. My cohorts and I boarded a red Dodge Charger, and before long the four of us ended up at a place that felt a lot like heaven. The folks out west just call it The Pizza Factory.