Last week I was in Colorado to visit a friend before participating in the National Service Summit sponsored by the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute. I hung out at my friend’s place outside Breckenridge in the midst of the magnificent beauty of the Colorado Rockies and the tranquil sounds of the Blue River. Taking many hikes, I was struck by the lessons of the mountains and how they apply to life and politics.
It was on one soulful hike, with my buddy and his Australian shepherd Gracie, into McCullough Gulch that I realized there are some valuable “rules” to keep in mind as one ventures into the woods or up the side of an incredible mountain. In fact, I have come up with seven points to remember or to use as guideposts on these types of adventures (or really on any type of adventure in the world, large or small).
1. It is always important on a hike into the wilderness to have some idea of where you want to go. You need to have some goal, vision or dream you want to achieve on the walk whether it is all the way up to the top of a mountain or to a pristine lake filled with snow melt up at 12,000 feet. You don’t need to necessarily have a complete picture of your destination in mind or mapped out, and it is actually sometimes better that you don’t because you leave open the possibility to be thrilled by the unknown. You need a good sense of where you want to go or what your goal is, and then let the details of the destination emerge along the way. A solid enough vision that you can return to when you are tired or lost, but leaving enough mystery so you can discover life as it unfolds.
2. Having a companion or two along the way may not be a necessity or may even be embarrassing as you trip or fall or make a mistake on the hike, but it sure can be helpful and actually deepens the walk and adds to the joy of the adventure. You can talk as you walk, about what you see or hear on the path, or just be quiet and feel the power of the silence between people as they head in the same direction. A companion can sometimes see things you missed, like an abandoned 19th century cabin, or the mountain stream from snowmelt hidden in the woods, or wildlife hustling amongst the pines. And when we struggle to keep going up the hills, a companion can give us the encouragement we might need or remind us of our goal.
3. As we make our way through the woods and up the side of the mountain, sometimes we have to go down in order to go up. Sometimes the best way up makes us circle back to where it seems we already have been and seemingly going back over territory we have already traversed. Many times straight up a mountain isn’t the best route, but going up sideways and back down a trail may lead you to discover a better path up. Going down or retracing your way may actually be the best way up the mountain.
4. As you take this walk into the gulch, it’s good to remember to rest at moments along the way, to not force yourself to the breaking point and total exhaustion. It is crucial to pause on the trail, take time for a break, let your heart rate come down a bit to calmer levels, and get some nourishment or water to resuscitate body and spirit. Many times the best way to complete your goal isn’t rushing up the side of the mountain or putting yourself on a stopwatch. It is taking the time to take care of yourself and replenish so you can make it all the way and not turn back because you are too tired. And interestingly, it is in the pauses that many times you can see the beauty you might have missed.
5. And on hikes, strangers may pass on the trail that may have insights on things to see or a different way to get up the mountain or a special spot that they think you might find beautiful. Be open to whoever comes along and listen to these strangers on the trail; then you can decide for yourself if you want to follow their advice or if what they are saying fits with your vision. Openness to the opinions of a stranger doesn’t mean you have to blindly follow what they say, you can decide that, but not being open to other folks on the trail might mean you don’t learn as much as you could or see possibilities you hadn’t imagined.
6. As I watched Gracie play in the snow up near the top and slide down on her paws with great delight, I was reminded that we must not forget to play as we climb the mountain with purpose and dedication. Yes, we want to complete our goal, but we must not be so determined that we miss the play and joy along the way. Take time for fun and laughter on the trail, and just enjoy the moment. Play will actually give you more energy for the climb ahead. You can be serious about your hike, but you don’t have to take yourself so seriously that you miss awesome moments of playful abandon.
7. And, yes, this is an earthly climb, and a physical walk on the hillside, but don’t forget to feel the divine in what you are doing, and see the divine in all that is on the trail. Yes, we can complete the hike without observing the interconnection of all things, or seeing the divine presence in our companions, the animals, strangers and the wilderness, but it makes for a less memorable walk and it won’t touch your heart and soul as deeply. Seeing the divine in this walk will actually allow you treasure more everything you have taken in, and give you greater ability to climb greater mountains tomorrow. And it will give you the capacity to help more people as you make your way back down the mountain. Something I definitely thought of at the Service Summit in the days ahead.
As you obviously can tell, all these revelations on my hike apply to life in general and in politics. Whether you are building on intimate relationships in your life or are a political leader trying to move the country forward, we can keep these things in mind. Hold a vision, but be open. Partners are imperative. Down at times may be up. Rest, don’t rush, and recoup. Be open to strangers. Play along the way. And let the divine unfold every way.
And then when you are done with your goal, breathe in what you have done and seen, relax, discuss what you learned, laugh about the mistakes, reconnect to your heart and soul, and be open to the next day’s hike as a thrill instead of a struggle.
Or just pop a cold Coor’s Light, put your feet up and toss a tennis ball to Gracie. There you have it.