Last weekend, I did something I didn’t really think I could do. I carried my possessions on my back while I hiked 5.5 miles through the wilderness, slept in the frigid cold… and then hiked back the next day.
And I didn’t die.
I didn’t even see a mountain lion.
And it was GLORIOUS.
The forest was waking up after one of the darkest, coldest, most unbearable winters I have experienced to date. And it made my heart sing.
Climbing over boulders and crossing rocky streams was HARD… And I’m not referring to the physical exertion. I’ve been working out quite a bit lately (because I can’t lose my kayak), so I was actually pretty pleased with my ability to push through the pain.
It was the mental challenge that I wasn’t really prepared for. Constantly trying to figure out where to put my trekking poles… my feet… my hands… so that I wouldn’t slip and fall.
Feeling relief as we reached a flat stretch of trail, only to be met with more uphill rocky terrain moments later.
Not being able to enjoy the scenery around me because staring at my feet was the only way to prevent toppling over.
The mental aerobics were exhausting, and it really started to hit at the end of the first day of hiking.
Let me back up…
We arrived at Taum Sauk State Park around 2:30 p.m. on Saturday afternoon after begrudgingly waking up early…
Organizing all of our gear and food…
Stopping for a few things…
And then finally setting out on our three hour drive to Ironton.
By then, I was already mentally tapped.
Once we got our boots on and our packs ready, we started the walk down to the Mina Sauk Falls trail – a very very rocky descent down to Mina Sauk Falls.. And then an INCREDIBLY technical descent out of the falls and onto the Ozark Trail toward Johnson’s Shut Ins.
Yes, we picked the hardest section of the trail to start our backpacking endeavors… Rookie mistake? Possibly. Yet, I’ve never really been a “dip my toe in” kind of a person. Just rip it off like a band-aid. Sink or swim. It’s just how I roll. And this trip was no exception.
After three or four miles – long past the Saturday crowds who were only hiking in to see the views from the Falls – the mental exhaustion began to kick in.
We were nearing our 6 p.m. “we have to set up camp” time, and the two designated campsites we passed were already occupied. There was one remaining campsite about a mile ahead – after that, there wouldn’t be another one for several miles.
Though I was so weary… I knew I could push through for just another mile. It’s just another mile, right? I can do hard things.
I repeat… I CAN DO HARD THINGS.
So I pushed through. I kept up with Mike and just focused on putting one foot in front of the other. One pole. And then another.
Certain that we were getting close to the campsite, we checked our position on the map. Surely there wouldn’t be much farther to go.
Not even a quarter of the way to the campsite.
OH MY GOSH.
That’s when the whiny-ness kicked in. And the desperate prayers, offered quietly with each click of my trekking poles.
Please let the campsite be empty. Please let the campsite be empty. Please let the campsite be empty. I just can’t do this anymore. I just want to stop. To eat. To go to sleep.
And after a gazillion more steps and whines, rock scrambles and prayers… we saw the campsite from a distance. Littered with tents and people milling about.
As we emerged on the campsite, we walked up to the group of people warming themselves around a very large bonfire and asked if we could set up our camp nearby.
It turns out, they were all part of an Ozark Trail Backpacking group formed on Facebook – and they were out on an organized weekend section hike. They were so welcoming and graciously allowed us to set up our tent.
Though my ideal backpacking dreams of escaping civilization were now dashed, I was thankful that we didn’t have to build our own fire.
Mike and I got busy setting up our tent, prepping our dinner, and changing into dry clothes and shoes (thank you, flooded stream). It was a bit awkward finding a place to pee, but I was so tired and foggy, that I didn’t care who could see me.
A bit shy, we carried our dinner packs over to the fire and found a spot to plop down. Many of the other hikers had foldable chairs to relax in – I was so impressed. And as we boiled our water and waited for our dinners to cook, I just sat and listened.
It wasn’t long before I realized that many of those who surrounded us had infinitely more experience and wisdom than I when it came to wilderness, hiking, and backpacking. One man who seemed to be in his early fifties, had hiked the Appalachian Trail in one fell swoop with his dog. Another young single woman had plans to do a solo Yosemite hike for a week. Several had thru hiked the Ozark Trail.
They had tips on how to stay warm (something I definitely did not accomplish on this trip), where to hang a bear bag (and that in Missouri, a bigger threat than a bear is a mouse who will chew through a $300 pack to find a $1 pack of nuts), how to measure yourself for a backpack, and so much more. One woman even let me try out her foldable chair to see how comfy it was.
This group was so incredibly welcoming, and though I craved solitude and an evening alone with Mike, the camaraderie, laughter, and protection I felt in the midst of them was somehow better.
Seriously, it’s not every day you hear a story about a man who was too exhausted to get up to pee in the middle of the night and opted to simply roll over, unzip the tent a little, and “aim himself” onto the ground instead. Such luxury.
It was finally time to get settled in to sleep, and I was thankful to realize that a) most of the other campers were ready to turn in about the same time we were, and b) I remembered to pack earplugs to tune out the three who weren’t.
If there’s one thing I want to remember for my next backpacking trip, it’s to concentrate more on warmth and comfort while sleeping. I spent the better part of an hour – maybe even longer – trying to find a position where I could fall asleep and stay warm. It was SUCH A STRUGGLE. Meanwhile, Mike is lying there in his bag next to me – looking perfectly content. What a boss.
Fatigue eventually won, and I finally dozed off.
We emerged from our tent the next morning to meet the frigid dawn, and a flurry of backpackers eating breakfast, filtering water, brushing teeth, and preparing for their hike. Instead of turning back to hike to their starting point the day before, they intended to do another 12 miles to end up at Johnson Shut Ins. Mike and I only had about half that distance to cover to get back to the truck, so we hung back and packed up our camp at a more relaxed pace.
It’s usually true that the trip back to where you started seems faster and easier than the initial trek. Our hike back was no exception. And it gave me some time to reflect on the past twenty-four hours.
There are so many expectations we have in life, and ideas of how we think the future should pan out. And yet, more often than not, not getting what you hope for can lead you to a place and position that is SO MUCH BETTER.
I had my own ideas of how my first night out on a trail should go – and it did NOT involve sharing a camp with 20 other people. I wanted to be alone. I wanted it to be quiet. I begged and pleaded in every step that the camp would be empty so we could relax.
And yet, once I opened my mind to take in my new situation, I discovered a wealth of knowledge – of encouragement – of acceptance. I learned that there are so many other people out there who love to be outside just as much as I do – and that they have so much more experience doing it. And, instead of having to fumble through a primitive camp set up after an arduous day of hiking, we had a lovely group of people to support us.
I can’t help but remember how many years I begged and pleaded with God to save my marriage. For ten years, my daily prayer was for Him to heal it. To allow us to break a generational cycle and to be happy. Over and over again. I remember feeling so betrayed when over and over, the answer was “no.” I remember how long I fought against that answer and tried to force it to be different. And then how painful it was when I finally accepted it and started to walk the path to my own healing instead.
At the time, it seemed hopeless. It seemed so wrong… so shameful. But, I look around now – only three years later – and I am blown away. I could have never in a million years dreamed up the life that I have now. The peace I have. Financial stability. Love from a man that I don’t deserve. A community. Family. All because God chose not to meet my expectations.
Sometimes we beg for what we need… and God, being the loving father that he always has been, gently lifts us from the place under the table where we’ve been scrounging for scraps, and invites us to a feast more extravagant than we could ever imagine.
Friends, wherever you are.. I urge you to keep begging and pleading for what you need… and then forge ahead. Don’t sit in it. Keep moving forward. You will find the path and the strength to carry on. And I hope it’s SO much more than you asked for.