Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Descending in to the Dark Woods

I was taking one of my favorite hikes this past weekend and made some interesting observations about the course of the journey. This particular hike is an 'up and back' hike to a small summit. 1200 feet of elevation gain. It's five miles round trip. It is amazing to me the diversity that is encountered on this little hike. I couldn't help but notice that there was a life metaphor in the journey itself, the various segments of the trail and how the transitions between segments occurred.

The first part of the trail is an exposed hillside full of switchbacks. On a sunny day like today it can be quite warm. No shade is available and the climb is a bit steep. In fact, this section is probably the most difficult part of the entire hike. It can sometimes be unpleasant because some people who hike with their dogs, allow them to use the trail as their doggy outhouse, and fail to pick up after them. Exposed as it is to the hot sun, that can make for a rather smelly climb. (Here is where I will ask pet owners to please catch a clue. No one enjoys smelling your doggie's discards! Please pick it up!!)

I sometimes wonder, as a regular on the trail, how many people do that initial climb, smelly and physically challenging as it is and conclude that they aren't up to the hike and turn back. That would be a real shame since it is truly the most difficult part of the hike, and the only part that EVER smells bad.

After that initial climb, there are periods of gentle climbing, some slight downhill sections and some flat segments. It's a nice blend. Occasionally you encounter a bit of a steep climb once again.

I'm most intrigued today by the section of forest that you enter quite suddenly, and the light level reduces drastically. The temperature drops noticeably and it is quite dimly lit, even on a bright, sunny day. You feel as though you have been transported to another world. The earthy smell of the forest floor, masses of sword ferns and groves of towering evergreen trees surround and engulf you as you walk. It is important to keep your eyes on the trail, because in the low light conditions it is easy to trip on a root or rock as you move along.

As I was in the deep woods part of my hike, I made note of the reduced light, as I always do. On this particular hike, however, it was when I made a bit of a climb and suddenly burst out of the deep woods that I started thinking about the symbolism of this part of the hike.

I had to work really hard at the beginning of the hike, and almost immediately, I was plunged into the cold and deep woods. Metaphorically, it was cold, dark and although I knew it was a beautiful, sunny day, that was hard to see from where I was walking. The deep woods represents to me a difficult time in one's life. A time when it is difficult to see the outer reality, because of an engulfing, all encompassing darkness. Yet, when you are there, you must keep moving if you want to come out on the other side. If you simply sit down in the deep woods, you just might freeze or starve to death. The light is not going to come to you. You must go to the light.

Bursting into the light happened quite suddenly. I didn't even realize that the change was happening. I was quite focused on the trail, and did notice the the climb had gotten steeper. My job was to safely navigate the ascent. Then all of a sudden I realized that I was emerging into the bright sunlight once again. This time, filtered by the trees, but definitely lighter, warmer and very inviting.

It reminded me that if we just keep moving through the dark times, putting one foot in front of the other, we eventually will come out into the light once again. Our job is to keep moving.

Even after I got into the light, there were still some difficult climbs ahead, mixed in with more gentle parts of the path. My heart rate would soar as I would make the steep climbs. Then my heart rate would recover as I took a water break, or walked a flatter or less challenging part of the trail. This reminded me that no challenge lasts forever and it is perfectly OK to stop and catch one's breath occasionally when taking on a challenge.

After the darkness comes the dawn. There is often an 'entry fee' (just like the initial hot, stinky, climb on this hike) to be paid in order to go where we want to go. Most things worth having or doing require effort, persistence and willingness to keep moving, even when it's hard... or hot... or stinky... or dark and scary.

The reward is the view from the top of our achievement! It's well worth the effort!

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