The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.–Marcel Proust
There are times in life when you have no idea where the path onto which you have stepped will lead. For example, if you have been married for a number of years, think back to the day you said, “I do.” When you examine the innumerable moments between the “I do” to the present day, it is sometimes astonishing the ways in which the life journey of a marriage meanders and leads. Even if you aren’t married, or haven’t been married long, once you hit a certain age of awareness, you begin to witness how very unpredictable life can be with all of its plot-twists, side paths, and meandering stops, starts, and–SURPRISE–unpredicted events.
The weekend before Thanksgiving, my husband, John, and I, spent a few days in the Black Mountain/Asheville area of North Carolina. Our intent was to take a break from the work routine and spend some time hiking through the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains. We had researched a few hiking trail options we thought we would enjoy tackling, but we had also selected a couple back-up alternatives in case those didn’t work out.
Typically, another part of our travel habits is mindfully allowing time to relax and not adhering to a said schedule since our work life as school teachers is very schedule driven. Therefore, when traveling, we usually try not to rush through our mornings to get out of the door. Additionally, we both enjoy experiencing new dining venues as part of the fun during out-of-town expeditions. This often means that part of our relaxed morning is savoring a late morning meal (sort of a brunch). The downside to this habit, when hiking, is that it can cause us to arrive at a trailhead anywhere between the hours of 11:00 am and 2:00 when numerous other relaxed hikers are likewise arriving. This is why we’ve learned to have several hiking paths in mind for any given day as many trailheads have limited parking.
There were two trails at the top of our list of preferred hiking experiences–one that led to Rattlesnake Lodge and another to the top of Craggy Pinnacle. Unfortunately, we were not able to hike either one. Instead, on one of the afternoons during our trip, we found ourselves at the closed-for-the-season Craggy Garden Visitor Center, with its ample parking area and scenic views, staring at a map of hiking trails that could all be accessed from the parking lot. We picked one that wasn’t part of our so-called list-for-the-day and headed off down the trail without conducting any research. Why not, right? After all, we had already successfully hiked one of the trails shown on the map on a previous trip; therefore, how much more difficult could another trail in the same area be?
Stepping onto the trail, which was part of the 1,174 mile long Mountain to Sea Trail that crosses North Carolina, we saw a trail marker indicating that Greybeard Mountain Overlook was a “mere” 2.8 mile hike and Douglas Falls was only 3.6 miles away. Perfect! We had plenty of time, as it was early in the afternoon, and the mileage didn’t seem insurmountable–silly, unsuspecting fools that we were!
Without prior research, we were completely ignorant of the level of effort required on this section of the MTS trail. In hindsight, we would later learn this section of the MTS trail was rated at a difficulty level of 5, across a multitude of hiking platforms–on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the easiest and 5 the most difficult. Plus, let’s be honest, John and I are definitely not spring chicks. While we both maintain overall good health, we are not near as young and fit as we once were. Nonetheless, we knew nothing of the trail’s ranking, so we persevered on, writing off the exacting switchbacks, arduous ascents, and demanding descents to our age–oblivious to the fact that the segment of MTS over which we hiked would challenge even the most fit.
Up and down, over and around, slipping and sliding, grasping and pulling, we made our way over the craggy, uneven, and mountainous terrain. We paused here and there to catch our breath and/or rest our legs–especially John’s right knee, which no longer has a meniscus thanks to an injury and requisite surgery a little over a year prior to the writing of this piece. In spite of it all, the quietude we experienced on this trail was serene and surreal, even when our hearts were often pounding in our ears! With each pause and rest, we would gaze all around at the wondrous mountain scenery and soak up the calmness that accompanies the whisperings of nature.
Nearly two hours later, we encountered a trail marker at a fork in the footpath informing us that Greybeard Overlook was still 1.1 miles away down one fork, and Douglas Falls was still more than 2 miles away along the other fork. What? Surely, this was not possible. Had we accidentally wandered off the trail, or were we really moving that slowly? Cloud cover, throughout our hike, had gradually been increasing, which meant that darkness would envelop the mountains sooner than the predicted 5:20 sunset. It was already after 3:00, we were deep into a cavernous crevasse, so we felt the safest choice was to turn around without reaching either destination.
I wavered. I wanted to see more. Therefore, John, used to my enduring curiosity and energy level, said he would wait while I explored ahead a bit more. While he sat down to rest on a large rock, I carried on to the Greybeard fork which began climbing once more. Continuing further along, the path became more wet and somewhat less rocky. I stepped through muck and oozing mud as small rivulets trickled along this part of the path. To my left, through statuesque trees, I spied those aegean tinged Blue Ridge Mountains, sentinels of the BRP, standing watch over it all. I wanted to continue further, but visions of being trapped in a rocky ravine overnight surrounded by bears and numerous other critters kept me from straying too much further up the path, perhaps only hiking a ¼ of a mile more!
Turning back without having reached our destination was heartbreaking at first. What was the point of hike without some sort of distinctive destination? Nonetheless, as we made our way back up, over, and around the formidable trail, John and I reflected upon the rewards of this trail’s experience–from the scenic views to the tranquil stillness and from the heart thumping ascents to the balance-demanding descents–we challenged our mind, body, and spirit in new and unpredictable ways. We hiked by faith, and our faith grew as God met us there on the mountain path. Isn’t that like life?
Life finds ways to force us out of our comfort zone in order to step out into the unknown. Through living, we experience mountain top high life events, endure darkened valley can’t-see-the-sun-for-days-on-end time-periods, and live through all manner of ups, downs, and unforeseeable meanderings. Life is not about the destination, but about gathering experiences. Furthermore, life is best met through faith, appreciation for all the Creator has given us, and a recognition that the great Sentinel stands watch over us, no matter the path we trod.
How blessed we are to live in a world with mountains, valleys, and an assortment of craggy paths!