On Tuesday, my husband and I returned from a short but worthwhile trip in the backcountry near Breckenridge, CO. We skied in to a small cabin that is maintained by the 10th Mountain Division Huts here in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. For 24 hours, we were "out of service," only using our phones to take pictures and occasionally listen to music. The place we stayed, Ken's Cabin, was named after a young doctor and avid skier who died in an avalanche. It is a rustic, one-bedroom log cabin with a wood-burning stove and very basic amenities.
Adventures like this always give me time to think and therefore, I learn about myself. I want to share some of those lessons with you.
The Journey as a Metaphor
From the comfort of my home and safely tucked behind my computer screen, 6.2 miles didn't seem so bad. Sure, it's uphill. Sure, there might be some weather. Sure, it's our first all-terrain outing of the season. Sure, we'll be carrying backpacks with sleeping bags, clothes and food. Let's do this!
Fast forward to the actual day, the blowing snow, the cold hands and feet and untrained muscles, the lower oxygen of being at high altitude and the reality of our undertaking soon differentiated itself from the fantasy. The first 3 miles were pleasant enough. We were mostly shielded by trees and the mountain from the wind we could hear howling above. Visibility was limited, so we saw no grand vistas, but it was still beautiful, with the snow-covered rocks, trees and path. We saw a few other skiers, snow-shoers and dogs, but it was mostly just the two of us, alternatively chatting and just being in the zone with the repetitive motion of gliding one ski in front of the other.
At about 3 miles, what we thought was halfway, I started to tire, sore in the shoulders and low back from the weight of the backpack, and running low on energy from the output of the skiing up a long and gradual hill. We stopped at an old and scenic water tank, ate a snack bar, took off our packs for a bit, and braced ourselves for the second half of the journey.
The break reenergized me for a short time, but as we climbed higher, I got more easily winded. The whole trip is done above 10,000 feet, topping out at 11,500 feet. While I know I am in fairly decent shape, I struggled. We hadn't really trained for this, and 6 miles is no short distance, especially considering the conditions (and the fact that it ended up being closer to 7 miles, but that's another story). I wanted to stop many times. I wanted to eat all the snacks. I wanted to take off my pack. At one point, I even imagined laying down and taking a little nap.
I knew I could do the trek, but my mind was trying to convince me that I couldn't, or at the very least, that I deserved to indulge in some rest and snacks. But like any worthy goal in life, stopping only ensures that you will stay in one place. My goal was to reach the cabin, hopefully still in daylight, and to do so, I had to continue forward progress. I knew I had enough fuel. I knew that napping wasn't really an option, but I still had a strong, almost overwhelming urge to give in to those desires, to give myself a break. Instead, I kept moving...sometimes extremely slowly, but always putting one ski in front of the other, push and glide, push and glide, push and glide, to make forward progress. It was a good reminder that action is always better than inaction.
Around mile 5, we left the shelter of the trees to ski across a bare and windswept slope. I don't like wind. In my opinion, it makes any weather condition worse, and this was no exception. As the wind whipped up snow, chilling my nose and obscuring my vision, I started to curse it. What a fun-ruining jerk the wind is. Why couldn't it be calm and clear? Why did the wind have to come in and make the journey that much more difficult? Stupid, useless, annoying wind.
Let me pause here for a moment to point out an important fact. Wind is a circumstance beyond my control. I cannot change the wind. No amount of cursing or whining can force submission. What do I have control over? My thoughts. I only have control over my thoughts about the wind, and those thoughts lead to my feelings, and those feelings lead to my actions.
At one point, the wind died down and it was still for a moment. Then, suddenly, it whipped up again, grabbing the snow and whirling it into what looked like- at least briefly- a herd of galloping white horses. The wind shifted again, and I saw a cresting wave. It whipped again into a snow dragon. I noticed little wind funnels forming around me. It was quite beautiful and mysterious. Mesmerized by this wind art, I suddenly didn't hate it. In fact, I felt it circle back around and give me a little push, something I probably wouldn't have noticed had I been busy cursing it. AND, as an added bonus, it made the trip feel that much more hard core, like something to be overcome. Once we finally made it to the cabin, the howling of the wind added to the ambience and increased our appreciation for the cozy little shelter. And when the next morning dawned sunny and fairly calm, we were more grateful because of the contrast. The moral of the story is this: You cannot change the wind (and you can substitute just about any circumstance here...the behavior of other people, the weather, politicians, etc), but you can change how you think about the wind, and you can always, always learn something from the wind.
The Power of Unplugging
We never get to unplug. Even 6 miles into the backcountry, I had intermittent service. I switched my phone to airplane mode just so that I didn't get text alerts or feel the urge to check my e-mail. During the long trek up to the cabin, I caught myself wishing I'd brought earphones so that I could put on music or a podcast. My mind was resistant to just being alone with itself. However, once I accepted the stillness, I consciously started to track my thoughts. I was able to go deep into some ideas that I'd only shallowly considered. We so rarely do that. We live in a world of distractions, and the constant interruptions hinder our ability to process situations and truly hear what's going on.
This constant distraction and reliance on technology are major reasons why we don't hear our inner voice until our habits are deeply imbedded. We don't even realize we have a pattern of thinking because the external stimulation monopolizes our brain power. Without constant interference, you can really start to listen to yourself and increase the awareness of your thought patterns, and awareness is the first step to making positive change. I encourage you to be deliberate in finding some unplugged time. Take your walks without your phone or music player. Drink your first cup of coffee without the television or radio playing in the background. Start the practice of "Screen-Free Sundays." If possible, spend an afternoon, a day, a week in nature without interruption. Hear your inner voice...really hear it. Get to know yourself...unplugged. Disconnect to reconnect...to your surroundings, to your loved ones, and mostly, to yourself.
Back to Basics
There is power, too, in getting back to basics. Once at the cabin, we had to start a fire for warmth. We had to gather, melt, and boil snow for drinking and cooking. We had to chop wood, sweep the snow out of the doorway, and shovel paths to the wood shed and bathroom. Going to the bathroom entailed putting on a coat, hat and boots, walking a snowy path to the outhouse, and sitting on a cold (very cold) toilet seat.
We are fortunate to live in a time when surviving is fairly easy for most. If you are reading this, you likely have food, shelter, and the basic comforts. Spending time on survival tasks is enlightening when we are used to a world of excess. And again, without technology, my husband and I spent our time reading, writing, talking, and looking at the view. I took a nap in front of the fire. It was glorious (and well-earned, I might add). This return to simplicity fed my soul and really reminded me of what's important.
Don't get me wrong, I was happy to get home to running water, an automatic thermostat, and an indoor bathroom. The added bonus of the trip is a greater appreciation for what I often take for granted. The trip was not easy or comfortable. It was hard on my body, but refreshing for my soul. And when I found myself feeling discouraged, I only had to look at the view, take a few deep breaths, and keep moving forward.