Journal of a Slow
I See You
There was something out there! I was sure of it this time. I had experienced similar feelings before and had dismissed them as the fruits of an overactive imagination, but now I was certain. It was out there, somewhere among the trees, and it was watching me!
I stopped hiking and slowly looked around me. It was an ordinary enough section of the Appalachian Trail that I was on - a 2,000-mile long footpath from Georgia to Maine along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains. These are old mountains, worn down over eons of geological time, and more frequently than not covered with forest. Such was the case for this particular section. I was surrounded by trees in what hikers have referred to as the "Long Green Tunnel" The silent trunks surrounded me on all sides, the narrow trail, only 18" wide, meandered among them, always it seemed going up - as now - or down, never flat, marked by occasional reassuring 6X2" white blazes on the trees to lead me north, always north, to Maine and Katahdin, the final mountain and the northern terminus of the hike.
I readjusted my backpack and considered my situation. No need to panic, I reassured myself. I was under no direct threat; I had time to consider my options before deciding on a course of action. I looked around again. Nothing to see, just silent trees on every side.
I tried to shake off the feeling. It made no sense. It must have been brought on by a long and exhausting climb. I was tired. It was late afternoon and I was hungry and thirsty. The next shelter was still miles away on the other side of the tree-topped summit of this mountain. I was alone and had not seen any other hikers all day long, nor had there been any at he shelter last night. "Think it through" I told myself, there must be some rational explanation for this feeling. It must be a combination of exhaustion, loneliness, hunger and thirst that was triggering some primitive emotional fear in the deepest instinctive parts of my sub consciousness. I would not succumb to it. I was a rational logical human being. I was a scientist, a doctor and a trained trauma surgeon. I needed to be rational and not emotional. I reached a diagnosis. This feeling was due to a combination of low blood sugar, elevated endorphins, and a high level of lactic acid from my climb, circulating in my blood stream. I just needed to rest, eat and drink some water.
I swung off my pack, propped it against a nearby tree, placed my hiking poles next to it and sat down on a convenient moss-covered trunk, and rummaged through my fanny-pack for my water bottle and a snack bar. It was almost time for my afternoon break anyway.
A strange sort of silence fell over the forest as I rested. The wind died away, the birds stopped singing, the leaves no longer rustled. It was as if the entire forest and all of its inhabitants were waiting for me to do something. Even the mountains themselves were holding their breath. The feeling of the silent watcher among the trees grew even stronger. Now I was convinced that, not alone was there something out there, but that it was aware of me. It was watching me. It was expecting me to do something!
"Now you are getting realy stupid," I told myself. "You need to get your imagination under control or you will end up scaring yourself to death" I reminded myself that one of the reasons that I had undertaken this odyssey was to adjust my own way of looking at the world. Now that I had retired, I no longer had to be the action-oriented, decision-focused, do-it-now trauma surgeon - forced by necessity to make life or death decisions quickly, often without the time to get all of the necessary information, before embarking on a particular course of action. I did not have to continue the high-anxiety, adrenaline-driven thought processes, now that I had retired and left that life behind. So there was no need to revert to that old way of thing and to rush my decision now.
I reminded myself that I had already made considerable progress in this regard. I had already begun to understand that this hike was not about getting to the summit of Katahdin in Maine.
The reasons that people choose to undertake this journey are many and varied - as many and as varied as the people themselves, I suspect. Like most I had started out with the fairly simple goal of seeing if I was physically and emotionally capable of hiking the entire trail. I had learnt some hard lesions early on, after starting "Too Far, Too Fast, Too Soon" I had slowed my pace by reducing the number of miles per day, lightened my pack weight and was now taking my time. I now knew that I could finish this particular journey. It might take me a long time, but I would be able to finish it.
Once I realized that I would indeed in time finish, I faced a difficult decision. If I had started the hike in order to find out if I could finish it, and if I now knew that I could finish it, why was I still hiking? This was no vacation. Hiking this trail is hard work. You get up every day and you go to work - hiking! Up and down, rough trails, rocks, mud, rain, bugs, sun, cold, heat, fog, mist, snow, floods, hunger, thirst, pain, fear - why continue to punish yourself? Long distance hikers have a name for this feeling of "hitting the wall" they call it "The Virginia Blues"
Almost a quarter of the trail is in Virginia and it seems to take forever to get across that section. By the time they arrive in Virginia, hikers are sure of their prowess and of their ability to finish the entire trail - provide that they do not get seriously injured. But the monotony of the trail, the time it is taking, the feeling of "going to work every day" all conspire to provoke the question of "Why am I REALY doing this?" The Virginia Blues set in and many a hikers falls prey to them and leaves the trail.
I had survived The Blues, because I had discovered the true secret of the long distance hiker. It is not the destination that is the reward - it is the journey itself! I think that all long distance hikers come to this conclusion, or something akin to it. For me the journey had caused me - forced me? - to reexamine my previous lifestyle and to start to think about how I needed to change my - now retired - self.
Many long distance hikers seem - like me - to be at some crux-point in their lives. High-school students before they start college, college students before they start work, hikers affected by life changing events - the death of a loved one, job loss, retirement, divorce, all seem to find that time alone on this trail helps to resort their priorities. Even though some may hike with companions, every long distance hiker is ultimately alone with their own thoughts.
In my own case I wanted to discover why I worried about things so much. Would there be water at the next shelter? Would I make it there before dark? What would happen if I got lost? What would happen if I fell and broke my leg? Or my neck and was paralyzed? Or went suddenly blind? These thought are not conduceive to a hike that is in harmony with my surroundings,
I had already found that it was my former life style that caused me to worry about things so much. My worry was caused by anxiety and my anxiety was in turn caused by fear. Fear that my patient would die. Fear that I would not have the skills, or the time, or the knowledge to act correctly. These are good emotions for a surgeon to have. You want your surgeon to worry about you, to envision every possible thing that could go wrong and to have a plan to prevent it, or correct it should it occur. These emotions work well when confronted with a young man dieing from multiple gunshot wounds, for they lean to action and to life saving interventions, but are not good if they persist in my retirement life. I had resolved not to let fear, anxiety or worry rule my life now. I had already developed a way to control my fears and not to persistently return to examine them like repeatedly tearing a scab from a half-healed wound.
Whenever I became fearful, or worried, or anxious, I visualized myself as examining the fear as if it were an interesting pebble that I had found on the trail. I would examine it from all points of view. Then I would make a decision as to what to do. I would act on that decision. I would then place the "worry-stone" in an imaginary bag - I thought of it as being made of purple velvet - pull the drawstring closed, place the bag in my back pocket and not open it again to let the fear out, unless circumstances had changed enough to warrant a reexamination of the situation.
If I was tempted to reopen the bag and take the worry out, I envisioned that I was being approached by a negative doppelganger of myself - I called it "The Other" - who was trying to get me back into my old negative way of thinking. So I would tell The Other to go take a hike! I decided to apply this newfound skill to my present situation.
I looked around again. Nothing had changed. The trees still stood in silent rows. The afternoon remained still. No wind blew. No birds sang. The mountains still waited. I carefully withdrew this particular stone from my bag and examined it again and waited for the anxiety, worry and fear to come. I waited for The Other.
Nothing happened! There was no anxiety, no worry, no fear, no Other. The sense that there was something out there was still overpowering, but it was not associated with any worry, anxiety or fear - indeed I now realized that it never had been. Whatever was out there presented no threat to me. I did not fear it.
OK! This was better. I reviewed what I now knew. There was something out there. It knew that I was here and that it was watching me. It did not appear to be a threat to me. I did not fear it. It seemed to want me to do something. So what was it? What did it want me to do? I still did not know.
This was ridiculous. I had to put a stop to this. Without thinking much more about it, I sprang to my feet and shouted out, as loud as I could, "I see you out there!"
I am not sure what I thought would happen in response to this challenge. Did I think that some hidden being would ruefully emerge from its hiding place among the trees and somehow apologize for playing Peeping Tom? Did I think that nothing would happen and, reassured, I could now return my worry-stone to its bag and continue my hike with a clear and untroubled mind? What I certainly did not think would happen was in fact what did happen. I got a reply!
Not in words. There was no disembodied voice speaking to me. The reply leapt fully formed and instantaneously into my mind. I knew that it was a reply with the same feeling of clarity and conviction that I knew that there was something out there to begin with. It is hard to even express it in words. We use words to express our ideas but this was as if the idea - the end result of a conversation - sprang fully formed into my mind.
Trying to reduce it to words is difficult for me even now. The best way that I can communicate it back in words is to say that the answer was "Yes, I am here. Yes, I am watching you. Yes, I have received your message" The most accurate and concise expression of the message is in the words of someone, far better than I in expressing this idea. "I see you, looking at me, looking at you"
Thinking about it again now, I understand that the fact that I received a response at all conveyed all the rest of these ideas. The fact that there was a response meant that something did exist, it was able to communicate with me, and that it knew that I was trying to communicate with it.
To say that I was shocked would be the greatest understatement of my life. But no sooner had I comprehended the message than I felt a deep sense of satisfaction. The feelings that you get when a major piece of the puzzle falls into place, with all of the perfection and harmony of just the right, indeed the perfect, solution. The absolute conviction that this was the correct interpretation. It just felt right!
I don't know how long I spent standing there in the forest considering the full implications of the answer, before I gradually began to become aware of my surroundings once again. A soft breeze had sprung up, there were birds singing, the branches and the leaves on the trees were rustling as if they too were telling me that yes, you got it right, you understand the message.
For what I understood was that my worry, anxiety and fear sprang from doubt. Doubt about the future, about my own abilities, doubt about past decisions. With the clearest of understandings I saw that doubt can only be overcome by hope, and that hope comes from something that we cannot prove or guarantee - it comes from faith. It is belief without proof. And that - with the greatest certainty and all of the harmony of the final notes of a symphony - faith is a gift. You cannot earn faith - it is given to you. The final link in the chain is how do you get faith? You get faith by asking for it. You call out in the middle of a forest that you accept that something is out there. The fact that you ask, that you call out, already means that you believe. Why else would you call out? Belief overcomes doubt, it overcomes anxiety, it overcomes fear. All you have to do is to ask for it.
I carefully placed the worry-stone back into the purple velvet bag, pulled the drawstring tight and carefully placed the bag at the foot of the tree, shouldered my pack, picked up my hiking poles, and walked away.
Journal of a Slow