Tears welled up as I felt the hard, slippery root slam into my hip. As I looked up at the cloudy sky, I decided to lie still for a moment, take a deep breath and just let the rain fall on my face. I was soaking wet and exhausted. Ale and I had been making our way through the Hundred-Mile Wilderness in Maine, we were nine days into our Thru-Hike of the Appalachian Trail and to say the least, it was kicking my ass. Literally. After days of constant rain, it felt as though the trees surrounding us rapidly growing around us, and with their growth their roots seemed to rise from the Earth and trip me at every turn. At the beginning of our hike, I was actually counting the number of times I fell down, although when I think back on it now I have no idea what motivated me to do so. When the number began to climb to embarrassing heights, I decided it might be better to just focus on getting back up rather than keeping count.
Although every muscle in my body ached during the ascents, it was the descents that really took me out. I think I fell down more mountains than I hiked down those first few weeks. Dirt covered my rain gear, my pack pulled me down heavily into the muddy trail, anchoring me and forcing me to learn the art of the “turtle roll” in order to actually be able to stand again (until you’ve mastered this, lying on your back with a heavy pack feels something like this). At this particular moment as I stared up at the clouds and rain, I was contemplating the best direction for me to angle my turtle roll so that my heavy pack would not tumble me further down the steep pitch.
“Are you okay?” Ale yells up to me. “Yes,” I half-heartedly grumble as I roll onto my chest and manage a push up-warrior pose, grabbing the nearest wet tree trunk to brace myself and survey the trail ahead. My boots squish, feet soaked after too many rainy days and flooded trails. I’ve learned that Gortex can only withstand so many drownings. Raindrops form on the front of my hat and splash on my face, blurring my vision momentarily. I readjust my hat, wipe away the water, tears and dirt from my eyes and choose my next step carefully. The trail holds and I gain confidence, stepping with slightly more momentum and reaching forward with my walking stick. I manage to get four more steps in before I am again crashing down the trail on my backside. “It’s not how many times you fall Greta,” I think to myself as I grit my teeth and prepare to roll again, “It’s how many times you get back up.”
It feels a bit cliche but I literally had to embrace the essence of this saying while hiking those steep, wet, black fly and mosquito ridden, root-covered mountains of Maine. There was plenty of opportunities to dwell on the misery, to think only of the awful black fly that bit you until you bled; the constant swarm of mosquitos that never left your side; the strong slippery roots that sent you careening down the mountainside; the fast flowing, freezing rivers that had to be crossed; the incredibly uncomfortable first moments of putting on your cold wet socks, pants and shirt from the day before that had not dried in the night; the tired, sore muscles and blister-covered collar bones. But there was also the stunning embrace of being in wild places everyday. The beauty of it was that I awoke each day, despite the hardships of the day before, filled with gratitude to be in such a magic place. The pristine wilderness that I was living in took my breath away (when it wasn’t knocking the air out of me). The early mornings I awoke just before the moon retired…before the rain clouds would unleash the torrents of the day, when I would crawl from the tent and hike out to the rock slabs, sit with my journal and the dew-soaked spider webs and the songs of the morning birds, the soft mist blanketing the forest around me. Every one of those little moments felt like an incredibly precious gift, and the struggles of the day seemed a small payment to make in order to relish in the experience of living this way.
Those months spent hiking the AT broke down my complex perspective of the world. At the age of 24, I had worn myself down into a perception of the world that was overwhelmed by our endless thirst for consumerism, an unexpected understanding of the “reality” in which most of the products we bought were made and the environmental and social impact of that reality. My perspective of the world involved countless airplanes, hotels and city streets with no rest in between, daily border crossings, encounters with masses of humans that I had never imagined as a child growing up in the woods and fields. It involved bribes and pollution, it involved poverty and construction, it involved gender discrimination and culture shock, it involved growing cities and shrinking wild places. The world I was living in was shaping my priorities, and before I had known it I was so caught up in the grind that I had lost my purpose and the intention of the path I was blazing with this precious thing called life. I had lost that flame of inspiration that is necessary to overcome moments where hopelessness threatens to take hold. Without realizing it I had fallen, and I didn’t know how to get back up.
The wilderness whittled away the priorities of my former life so that the most bare of essentials were all that mattered. To be warm, to be dry, to have food, to have water. To retreat into the essence of the love that I had for my partner who had chosen to walk beside me as we were both finding our way into the next chapter of our lives. To get up every time I fell down, no matter what, because that was literally all I needed to do that day, and everyday, for 2,180 miles. I was constantly confronted with the choice between misery or perseverance, the choice of dwelling on the difficulties or celebrating the accomplishments, no matter how small they might be.
The day before I began my Thru-Hike, I recall stressing out about how I, as a young woman just beginning her career, could have an immediate positive impact in the world of business, how I would ever find the “right job” where I, despite my youth and gender, could influence change among broken systems and how the gap in my resume would be perceived when I finished the trail. In the wilderness, I had to instead draw my focus to the grand accomplishment of managing to stand my 108 pound frame up beneath the 45+pound backpack that I was carrying (don’t worry, I quickly learned to prioritize gear and by the time I finished my thru-hike my pack was a mere 28 pounds with 6 pounds of water and 6 days of food). At the end of the day, the answers to all those other fear-induced questions really didn’t matter. I was forced to focus on my present state of being, to let go of the weight of the unsolvable (seemingly) problems beyond my reach and instead manage only the weight that I could carry on my back.
I had to dig deep, I had to confront the fact that I was too hard on myself, I was literally keeping track of the number of times I fell down for goodness sake, and I had to learn to let go. I had to learn how to simply acknowledge what I had immediate control over and put my energy into that. What I could not control, I must accept and move through, and turn my eye toward the positive hues of the environment around me.
While I was digging, I also found that my perspective of the “real” world had become so overwhelming for me because I was focusing only on the falls. I was focusing on the problems and the challenges so intently that I could not possibly see any solutions, or have any room for creativity. The first few times I fell on the trail and was confronted by the weight of my pack and the difficulty in getting back up, it took me a little while to find the right twist, the right maneuver to put myself upright again. Eventually, I figured it out, and I became pretty damn smooth with my turtle roll moves (well, as smooth as you can be when literally using the same technique as a turtle to get up). I still fell, but I got better at getting up, and as I did the falls weren’t nearly as discouraging, they weren’t nearly as overwhelming and my recovery was faster every time.
When I stepped off the trail I was ready to “get back up” when it came to my work. I was able to see beyond the overwhelming expanse of problems that lie within the arena I was going to enter again, and instead I could focus on my fundamental strengths and hone in on opportunities to contribute the way I wanted. I had learned the importance of letting myself trip, of taking a tumble but not forgetting to look around in the midst of it and feel gratitude for the place that the path was leading me.
Although the early years in my career had taken me down a path I had never expected, it was exactly the path that I was meant to walk. And even though I felt as though I had failed in my ability to influence change in those early days, and I saw myself contributing to more problems than solutions, I would learn later how this experience would become the fundamental driver of one of my greatest passions, and would lead me to do work that I loved with an incredible company for many years. When the industry had pushed me down I managed to find a way to get back up that inspired, rather than discouraged, and as a result I continue to believe in the endless possibilities we have before us to come up with creative solutions to the vast and complex problems we face in this day and age. Should we only choose to get up and persevere.
How have you confronted the challenges in your life that threatened to discourage your perseverance? What moments are you most proud of your recovery, of your ability to get back up even when you have fallen? What drives and inspires you to continue on a path that might not be easy, but that you know with all your heart is right?