What I Learned From Hiking

“Scott,” a young scout at the time, taught me a lesson about hiking, one that I’ll scarce forget. If the truth is to be known, that experience that loomed before us at the bottom of the switchbacks in northern Colorado stays with me still. I wonder if I could have handled it better and I have yet to receive an answer.

But first, a bit of background. My son was involved in scouting and at different times of the year, his troop went on week long camps. One such camp was taking place in Estes Park, Colorado in the Rocky Mountain National Park. The troop leaders asked if I could help out and I agreed. I had the time off from work and enjoyed camping.

I spent many weekends as a teenager, hiking and camping in my own scout troop. Most summers, the other scouts and I would spent Fridays and Saturdays exploring the mountains near our homes. I have many fond recollections of those camps – picking and eating wild fruit along the trail, watching a fellow scout attempt to catch prawns in a stream by sticking his BB gun in the water and firing it at the creature (the gun never worked after that), and eating what we then called hobo dinners: potatoes and ground beef wrapped in foil and tossed into the fire to cook. Those memories pulled me into helping my son’s camp.

After a two hour car ride, we located our camp site, set up the tents and other gear. Once settled in, the scout leader informed everyone that the culminating hike consisted of a twenty mile hike that ran over several ridges, making the whole trek a challenge. He wasn’t completely heartless though – he planned on several smaller hikes to get everyone ready. I was grateful for that as well – even though I was in good shape, the shorter trails made it easier to handle the challenge that the twenty mile hike would become.

The strategy to get everyone prepared for the long journey and the scouts handled the less grueling trails without much difficulty. I imagine that these treks first built stamina and the confidence in the scouts, so when they tackled the monster mountain, they didn’t quit. Still, in the back of everyone’s mind, the final hike crept ever closer until the eventful day arrived.

The hike started as each had before. There was a steep climb and the more active members of the troop shot ahead and we had to call them back before they disappeared in the distance. The excitement of the journey, the traveling upon a new trail adds a quickness to our steps. A start of the journey often does that – there is something special about a new beginning that quickens the heart.

Yet that elation does not last forever. What was once fresh becomes routine and we fall back into old habits. We plodded along the trail, up steep inclines and down the other side of the ridge. Breaks were doled out at the top of every hour, but unlike the others, I did not sit nor lie down. Long ago, I learned that when a persons sits for a while and then has to move again, legs and feet ache worse than if a person never rested in the first place. I thanked my wise Maori scoutmaster of my youth for sharing that knowledge with me.

We reached the halfway point, ate, and rested on the mountainside, enjoying the fresh breeze and camaraderie of our fellow scouts. Too soon, it was time to start again, but at least the group was refreshed and ready to tackle the second half of the journey. This proved to be the more difficult part.

By the time that I reached the three-quarters mark of the hike, most of the other scouts lay far ahead of me. Hanging back, I made sure that no stragglers were left behind. Three of us made up the tail of the hikers: the scoutmaster, myself, and Scott – a chubby and earnest young scout that struggled with the trail. I leaned heavily upon my walking stick and I looked ahead and saw that switchbacks zig-zagged up the side of the ridge. It was going to be a difficult climb.

Where I saw a challenge, Scott saw a brick wall. His heart failed him and fell to the ground, his hope drained. I sympathized with what he felt, but we had to get over the ridge to get back to the camp. The scoutmaster and I told him that we were going to rest and then take on the switchbacks. Scott didn’t budge. We let him know that we weren’t able to carry him and no rescue team was going to save us. He shook his head, refusing to listen. We yelled at him and told him to move. That stirred him a little.

Encouraged, in firm, more moderate voices, we told him the only person that would get him out was Scott. Eventually, he stood and we made our way up the mountain ridge. Slowly, to be sure, but we persisted. We made it back to the camp and celebrated.

I still wonder if that was the best approach to motivate Scott. I’d like to think that calm persuasion would have won out at the end. But hiking his taught me that you have to use what you have. Spending strength at the beginning of the hike makes the rest of the journey that much more difficult. And never expect others to carry you out if you still have options, even if you move at a pace that makes a tortoise snicker. That is what you do. And I’ll always thank Scott for that lesson.

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