This post is part of the Write On Project. Topic: Exhaustion.
We woke up in the morning to the forecast of a beautiful, sunny 85 degree day. It didn’t feel that warm to us though, as there was a nice breeze blowing and we were excited for the hike we had planned. Plus we had been sleeping in a tent and the temperature had been surprisingly cool overnight. After a quick breakfast of eggs, oatmeal and coffee that we had cooked up on our camp stove, we packed some gear, threw on shorts and t-shirts, hats to protect us from the sun, heavy socks and hiking boots. We lathered up in sunscreen and most importantly packed lots of water, in canteens and water bottles, every container we could fill and comfortably carry. The rangers had told us to be sure we were carrying plenty of water.
We were young and invincible.
We drove to the trailhead, but the rest of the day would be on foot and we knew we would start on a downward slope. The initial hike down the trail was effortless with gravity on our side. Mostly we walked, talking and enjoying the views. Red rocky cliffs and deep valleys surrounded us as well as cacti and other strange desert plants that we had never seen before. We encountered a few live creatures, mostly lizards warming themselves on the rocks and a few mules with weary travelers on board. Occasionally we ran down the trail, nothing restraining us. The path was mostly clear and straight and easily navigable but sometimes it became rocky and more difficult to maneuver. We knew our destination though, how far we had planned to hike, and nothing would stop us from getting there.
We were carefree and alive.
Several hours later we arrived at our planned stopping point and settled in for lunch. We were still full of motivation and energy, but the heat and sun was just beginning to reach its peak. We unpacked the sandwiches, fruit and energy bars we had carried with us and sat there in a peaceful, shady spot, eating and chatting and admiring the beautiful scenery around us. The stunning views, which we could only have imagined before we arrived here, gave us a feeling of profound spirituality even though neither one of us was terribly religious. It made us understand that the world was an amazing place and we had every intention of jumping right in with both feet. After about an hour had passed, it was time to begin the trek back. We knew the return trip would be more strenuous and difficult and we wanted to be back to camp before dusk. We packed up and started heading back to where we had began our adventure.
We were cautious and responsible.
We approached the uphill trail with as much stamina and determination as we had tackled the downhill. But it all quickly started to catch up with us, the steep climb, the mid-day heat, the dirt and dust, all quickly changing our perspective. Our legs burned as our muscles struggled to power us up the trail. We poured cool water down our dry throats more frequently. We stopped to catch our breath more frequently. We wondered when we would finally get to take a break and sit still for a moment and to rest our tired bodies. What started as an enjoyable, carefree hike was becoming burdensome and difficult. We were no longer interested in the spectacular scenery, no longer treasuring each other’s company, no longer enjoying each passing minute. Like horses with blinders on, we were only focused on the task at hand, getting back to the top of this trail without collapsing and while still being in one piece.
We were burned out and exhausted.
The year was 1988 and my wife and I were spending a college spring break vacationing in Arizona and hiking in the Grand Canyon. I liken this trek into the canyon to the lives that so many of us struggle with today. As children and as teenagers and even as young adults and into early parenthood, we are on that simple, carefree adventure down the trail. It’s a mostly comfortable trek, sometimes the path is straight and easy to navigate and sometimes the path is difficult but we are energized to blaze our particular trails with focus and passion and aspiration. We are able to see beauty and potential and spirituality in everything that surrounds us because the responsibilities of life have not yet overcome us. We don’t need to stop and smell the roses because they are always right there in front of us.
We are young and invincible and carefree and alive.
For so many of us, however, there comes a time when our lives turn a corner and we begin the difficult trek uphill. Work and raising kids and mortgages and financial obligations and illnesses and deaths and so many other factors hit us like the heat and the sun and the burning, fatigued muscles that plagued my wife and me on our trip back to the edge of the canyon. We lose focus on what we should be experiencing while on our hikes; the love of family and friendships and the beauty of life and nature and living as if every day was our last; and instead begin to fixate solely on getting to the end of our particular trail, whether that is putting our kids through college, or our retirement… or on so many occasions, just getting through the workday, or getting the kids to and from daycare, or trying to work from home when a child is sick. It’s different milestones and destinations and obligations for all of us, and yes…
We become cautious and responsible and burned out and ultimately… exhausted.
My wife and I, of course, made it back to the beginning of the trail that day and looking back now, it doesn’t seem nearly as difficult as it felt on that day, and I am sure that it wasn’t. Stressful moments have a way of enveloping us and masking the reality of the bigger picture, yet time has a way of editing our memories and helping us remember the positive aspects of an experience while fading the difficult parts. I suspect there will be a time down the road when I will look back on the challenging times I’ve experienced in my life and realize that they weren’t quite as bad as they seemed when I was living them. I also understand that there have been moments in the past and there will be moments in the future when my focus on the path that I am traveling on will wane and become distorted. It’s during those times that I must force myself to stop, maybe step aside and let some others pass or help me pick up the slack, and find ways to re-energize… to do whatever it takes to feel young and invincible and carefree and alive again. Yes, life can be exhausting… sometimes so exhausting that you just want to walk away from it all… but it can also be so rewarding… if we only make an effort to find ways to ensure that happens. We’ll all eventually find the end of the trail. I, for one, as age continues to creep up on me, am in no hurry to get there.