Transcending On The Trail
There are certain hikes that change me. Not just for the time I’m on the trail. Or for the days and weeks afterwards, when the thrill is still fresh. Those hikes are great, and I love chasing that feeling.
But on rare and delicate occasions, there are hikes that change my entire sense of being.
There are trails that I find myself walking endlessly in my mind; returning to whenever the modern world becomes too much.
And there are adventures that bring all the unsightly parts of me, the parts I try to repress and ignore, to the surface. Not in a sadistic way, but so that those parts can be reckoned with more and more with each step forward into the landscape that reminds me of how small, insignificant, and imperfect I am.
From the 3am wake-up call, to watching twilight meld over the silhouettes of rolling Montana plains, to the nerves of excitement at the trailhead, my hike to Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park became that hike, that trail, that adventure.
The one that defines a piece of me I’ll never lose.
For me, every walk in the woods is like entering into a soft, peaceful world that allows me to unwind. Whether the forest in my backyard growing up or the first steps on this adventure, the mental unraveling is always immediate, expected, and an absolute delight.
And sure, strolling through a pristine wilderness and taking in a gorgeous glacial lake is nice. But they’re not moments that make you think:
“Oh man, this shit is going to wreck my sense of self.”
That comes later, spontaneously, always without notice.
Maybe it’s the scenery.
Maybe it’s the endless plodding along.
Maybe it’s the uninterrupted time with my friends.
Maybe it’s the complete disconnection from the devices that take me away from the moment, actually allowing me to experience where I am now that they’re gone.
I don’t know.
But at a certain point on certain adventures, time starts to lose meaning. The rhythm of my breath aligns with the rhythms of nature. I actually feel my feet on the ground, moving with the mountain. A mountain that, by the way, doesn’t give a shit about me and my goals.
I’m a firm believer that humans don’t conquer nature. When it comes to Man vs. Nature, there is no, to quote Simpsons legend Troy McClure, “path to victory”.
Rather, we move with nature based on what it allows us at a given time. If it truly didn’t want us there, we wouldn’t survive. Plain and simple.
But this morning, at this time, we were invited in. With that perspective, there’s a sense of gratitude that comes with each passing pine tree, each refreshing breeze, each magnificent vista that we get to gaze upon as we trudge ever-forward.
Every couple of miles we were reminded of our “guest” status in this landscape. And that, at any time, whatever hubris I had as a human being could be immediately stripped away with a reminder of nature’s power.
Those moments came when a massive bull moose began grazing in the field below us. When the trail required us to walk under a waterfall on narrow, slippery footing. And when a sound in the bushes would stop all of our hearts as we silently whispered to each other:
It’s that mix of excitement, novelty, grandeur, and…yes…fear, that makes adventures like these so special. These are feelings I don’t necessarily get while trying to find parking at Costco on a Sunday morning. Or when I get cut off for the fifth time on my commute to work. Or when I look up at the night sky but instead am met by a blinding shield of LED lights preventing me from seeing and considering what else is out there.
Just look down. Don’t question. Don’t acknowledge. Don’t dream. Just look down, follow along, produce and consume. Produce and consume. Produce and consume. That is why you are here.
I can now pinpoint the exact moment that notion, that we exist solely to conquer, or contribute to an economy, or to consume endlessly, was shattered irreparably in my mind.
Post-moose, post-waterfall, well past the bear-y area, our minds became at ease. There were no real dangers ahead of us. Just endless splendor, in all directions, as we liked to joke.
“How’s the splendor in that direction, Troy?”
“Ah, you know. Splendid. Is your splendor splendid Michael?”
“Indeed. Much splendor in this direction.”
I let Michael and Troy hike ahead so I could get a shot of their minuscule bodies pressed against the massive and imposing landscape. I don’t think I realized it at the time, but seeing them in that position set my mind up for what was about to happen when I reached that point. I had seen the enormity of it all, and the insignificance of my being, all within the tiny digital lens of my oldest (and therefore most disposable if the hike went wrong) camera.
As I walked to catch up, in no real hurry, the trail turned around a protruding bend, leaving a massive drop just a few feet to my left. But that drop rolled down into a majestic meadow, which flowed into a pine forest, which bordered the bluest lake I had ever seen, laying at the bottom of a naturally-carved mug walled off by jagged, primordial peaks and snow caps rising almost infinitely into the clear blue sky.
In that moment I lost all sense of self. I lost feeling of my body.
I forgot who I was.
Up until that moment I was feeling a lot of things. Hungry, for one. But also sweaty, hot, fatigued, determined to push forward to the glacier.
But in that precise moment, nothing that I felt was grounded in my body.
I remember the cool breeze ripping through the valley below. I remember the enormity of the space in the landscape. The heat of the sun and the cool of a lake I wasn’t even in. The grounded security of the mountain I found myself on.
None of these feelings, though, were in relation to my body. It was as if my body had vaporized, and I was just being in the space as it was. Formless, endless, without identity.
I honestly can’t tell you how hot, tired, hungry, joyful, happy, or really anything I was in that moment.
Because the I that was feeling that moment wasn’t experiencing it through the body.
It experienced it through its truest essence.
Grinnell Glacier, or what’s left of it, is imposing. Its melting corpse lies below the dramatic Continental Divide, creating a cathedral of awe that we soaked in for a bit in order to process what had just happened.
As I looked up at the wall before me, I spontaneously burst into tears. That had never happened to me before in nature, even though I have always deeply loved it. Something about this scene, and what it took to get there, overtook me. I had felt the enormity of the landscape, the world, the universe if you will, and there was no going back.
Call it joy, fulfillment, ecstasy, whatever you want. I honestly don’t know. But I didn’t feel normal, like my old self. I didn’t feel anxious. I didn’t feel stressed. I wasn’t worried about anything in the past or the future. I just felt the enormity of the moment. Right there. In a glacial lake surrounded by endless splendor.
Michael and Troy gave me some ribbing about my thoughts on conquering mountains (“I fucking conquered that mountain, dude” is an exact quote from both of them at separate times in the days afterwards). But a feeling of “conquer” never came over me.
Not at the glacier. Not as we triumphantly returned back from where we came. And not as I dipped into the icy glacial lake near the trailhead.
As my body chilled and slowly froze in the crystal water, I didn’t feel a sense of accomplishment over what I had just done. This wasn’t something I was going to add to my resumé, analyze for optimized stats, or post about on Instagram with some inspirational caption for clout.
Instead, as I floated in the lake at the bottom of the trail, I lost feeling of my body once more. And no, not because of the cold (although, logically, that probably played a role). But because I was conquered by the mountain.
The I that felt like the center of the universe.
The I that obsessed over everything being perfect.
The I that felt like adventure was a game to be won; a pursuit of the ego for the approval of other egos.
The I that worried about things past and future.
That I, that impenetrable I that had haunted me throughout my entire existence, was conquered in full by the mountain.
Left to die somewhere around that bend. Its dusty remains washed away in the chill of the lake.
And I am better for it.