Sunday, March 23, 2014

Laugh Louder the Harder It Rains

     Four years ago today, my wife and I began a journey, a long walk north that has influenced us every day since. Here's to long walks, the insights they inspire, and the people and places they allow us to experience.  Looking back through journal entries from our time on the Appalachian Trail, here is one of my favorites . . .

     My feet hurt. My knee hurts. They do not simply ache.  They are not sore or stiff. They hurt. My feet are calloused and blistered. My heels are bruised and tender to the touch. Where the nail of my right pinkie-toe used to be there is now … well, I don’t really know what that is. My knee is swollen; I touch it with my index finger and can feel the fluid that has built up around my knee cap. One hundred and eight days, 12 states, and more than 1,600 miles of walking have taken their toll. I gently massage my feet and knees after another long day on the trail, mainly out of obligation, feeling guilty for what I have been putting them through. Sometimes I imagine them looking up at me and yelling obscenities, asking me what in the world I am thinking.
     As my mind drifts, I remember a story of a woman. She was also attempting to thru-hike the A.T., and, as every thru-hiker is at one point or another, she was asked the question, “Why are you out here?” Her reason was somewhat shocking. Shortly before starting her hike, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Her doctor had given her months, a year at most, to live. She said she wanted to be on the trail because every day that she was in the wilderness, every time she struggled to make it up a mountain, every moment of pain, every step, was another moment that she knew she was alive. I have found that I understand her answer a little more each day. It is when I am pushing up the last few feet of a steep climb — sweat completely saturating my shirt and pouring down my face — and just as I reach the
summit, I am greeted by a gentle breeze that manages to send a chill down the length of my spine. It is when I am bending down over the coldest, clearest spring I have ever seen, cupping my hands, and tasting its refreshing purity. It is standing atop an exposed ridge, trying to comprehend the magnificence of the sunset that is on display before me, and all I can do is throw my arms out wide and scream. It is waking up to the beautiful songs of birds and falling asleep to the soothing hoot of an owl. It is when it rains so hard that all there is to do is laugh. It is getting to wake up on the morning of our fifth anniversary and look at my wife asleep next to me. We are in our tent, on the Appalachian Trail, living out a dream that was just some crazy idea we began talking about when we were engaged. These are the moments that remind me that I am alive, the moments that remind me that I am blessed.
     A friend of mine once shared with me his analogy for life. He explained  to me this idea of how life is like a big sponge that is totally saturated, and that the harder we squeeze, the more life pours out onto us. I have thought about that image for a while now. Often times I have envisioned myself squeezing every last drop of life out of that sponge, squeezing so hard that it even begins to hurt. I look back down at my feet, realizing I have a new understanding of my friend’s analogy. Maybe they are not yelling obscenities at me after all. They are simply reminding me that I am alive. Maybe life is less about being comfortable and more about learning to thrive in the uncomfortable. Maybe sometimes we need to embrace the struggle instead of trying to find an easier way. As I lay back and slowly begin to drift to sleep, I think about the experience, the moments, and the adventure that still lies ahead. Such a gift life is. I hope I will always remember this truth. I hope I will always remember to live life ‘til it hurts and to laugh louder the harder it rains.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Fragile Beauty

     The flames from the fire dance back and forth with the slightest ebb and flow of the night air. It’s not even a breeze per say, but more so as if the desert is breathing, taking in and then exhaling long deliberate breaths as it slowly falls asleep.  The juniper and sagebrush crackle as they burn, their heat warming our outstretched hands.  It is not a cold night, but the crispness in the air is distinct, and the warmth of the fire softens its bite.  We stare at the fire, often for long periods of time without saying a word.  Its movement is so captivating, making me wonder if flames are what first taught man to dance.  
     There is no moon tonight.  From this high sandstone outcropping, where hours ago the vast desert was laid out before us, now there are only vague hints of the mesas and canyons that lie below.   The stars, so plentiful and brilliant, reveal the line of the horizon and the subtle features of the landscape that surrounds us.  Some of us begin to lye on our backs, relinquishing the warmth on our faces to instead gaze upon the grand display above.  Cassiopeia, The Pleiades, Orion . . . those and many more shine their age-old light down on us.  It is a humbling and inspiring thing to look and to realize that this light has traveled for hundreds or even thousands of years simply to meet me right here, in this moment.  As we look up at the endless array, I notice a student reach up with her arm.  Still lying on her back, she stretches out as far as she can, her fingers grasping into the night air towards the stars above.  After a moment she stops, letting her arm fall and rest again at her side.  I hear her take a deep breath, and then she says to me, “Bryant, I’m so glad no one can ever touch the stars.  That way they can never get messed up.”
     Beauty is such a fragile thing.  I have been blessed over the years with the opportunity to spend time in the wilderness with many students like this young girl, and whether male or female, early teens or late 20s, they have all taught me about the fragility within us. The heroine addicts and the meth heads, the girl who sells herself, the alcoholic, the ones who make themselves throw up, and the ones who cut; I’ve sat around a campfire and slept under the stars with them all.  Those same dancing flames have become blurred as my eyes well up with tears from stories shared.  I have spent many nights laying awake in my sleeping bag, trying to process the things I had heard.  Raped, bullied, abandoned, or molested, as the stories unfold and the brokenness begins to reveal itself, the behaviors begin to make more sense.  Anything to numb the pain.  Anything to fill the void.  Anything to make them forget. 
     I have no answer tonight. No wise response to this depth of insight from a 15 year old.  I am an ill-equipped instructor.  It is a humbling feeling.  Nothing I can say will make things right.  But out of that humility and inadequacy has come a realization.  People who are hurting often do not need answers.  People who are broken often do not need advice.  They need someone to feel the pain with them.  They need someone to sit around a fire and listen.  There is a time for saying and doing, but there is such deep value in simply being for someone.
     The chill in the air has become more pronounced now.   As I sit up, I notice our fire of flames is now but a pile of coals.  They still warm my hands when I bring them close, but looking at the coals is not nearly as entrancing as the movement of the flames.  I stand and take a look around at the huge expanse of darkness and silence.  The peace out here is something I shall never grow tired of.  “You’re just as beautiful as those stars.” I say.  “And nothing anyone can do or say can change that.  People can wrong us, they can hurt us really deep.  But just like those stars, they can never touch our beauty.”  Beauty, as fragile as it is, cannot be taken away or lost.  Often we simply need to be reminded that it is still there.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014


     Clouds begin to appear, ever so slightly revealing themselves just beyond the next ridge line. In what was once an ocean blue sky stretching out to every horizon, clouds like puffs of cotton the color of charcoal are seemingly stacking atop each other with each passing minute. It is as if they have climbed up the backside of this mountain, now anticipating our meeting at the upcoming high mountain pass. The surrounding peaks are slowly becoming swallowed like boulders in a swollen desert stream, inundated by the rushing flood of dark churning clouds. As look up, my head unconsciously turns with my wandering, widening eyes and I realize this flood, this storm, has now encompassed me as well. In the fine line that exists between paralyzing fear and overwhelming awe, I find myself . . . exposed.                
     It is a place I have found myself many times before, and oddly enough it is a place that I long to find myself again and again. As someone who has spent the last 10 years working as a river guide, I have found that there are many parallels between the river and the trail, but none more special to me than those moments of exposure. Whether it be in the midst of chaotic whitewater or the humbling power of a storm, there is a certain sacredness in realizing you are in the midst of uncontrollable grandeur. Some of the most impressive, unnerving, and awe inspiring storms I have ever experienced happened while thru hiking the Colorado Trail with my wife last summer. Lighting bolts darted back and forth across the sky. Hail pelted us along treeless ridges, one day in particular assaulting us on four separate occasions. Rain fell in sheets, completely soaking us through multiple times. For the first time I can remember, thunder pounded so close and with such force that I felt it inside me, like my heart was the epicenter of this deep, echoing boom that was making its way to my fingertips and toes.
Immediately following some particularly impressive displays, Laura and I would eerily turn towards each other, eyebrows raised and eyes wide and round as if looking through a magnifying glass. We would not say a word.     
     While in the Weminuche Wilderness, making our way across an open, high stretch of trail, we found ourselves once again in the midst of the madness. It was just before making the steep drop into the Elk Creek drainage. Thunder bounced off towering rock walls, and the wind made the rain and hail fall horizontally. It was intense. Lightning began flashing all around us, to the point that it became impossible to tell which direction the storm was coming from or where it was going. We kept going back and forth as to what our next step should be. Do we hunker down and wait it out, or make a push for the Elk Creek descent and find some cover? No matter what we decided, what we did know is that there would be no spectating here. This would be felt.
     Finally there was a lull, just enough of a break to make a dash down into Elk Creek. The worst of the storm had passed, and as we made our way down the steep, winding switchbacks, we began to realize the rain had left us a gift in its wake. The sheer, vertical rock walls that line the sides of the drainage were now the birthplace of waterfalls. Every few steps seemed to reveal another one, thin streaks of water tumbling down barren cliffs. The following few miles became some of the most memorable of the entire hike.
     There is a deep truth in these moments of chaos and terror, in the awe and humility. So often life can be insulated and predictable. Whether physically, mentally, or emotionally, it is always easier to hold back. In the “real world,” we do not have to put ourselves out there. But in holding back, we miss out on a chance to learn a little more about ourselves. A large part of my passion for the rivers and wild places of this world is rooted in the fact that nature exposes me. In the torrent of storms and raging rapids, there is no place to hide. There is the element of risk. Not the vain risk that is taken solely for the sought after reward, but the humble risk of seeing what we are made of for our own sake. The humble risk of being ok with not having complete control. It is the humble, seemingly nonsensical risk of putting “life” on hold to walk 500 miles through the mountains. It is the risk of finding yourself in that fine line between paralyzing fear and overwhelming awe and realizing . . . this is sacred.