*Check out my interview with Jeni Stewart on the Carve Magazine blog!*
The past two weekends, my finance’ and I have gone to Mt. Rainier National Park, a two and a half hour drive southeast from where we live in Seattle.
The first weekend we saw crystal-clear Mowich Lake, the spectacular Spray Falls, and wildflowers blooming in Spray Park. Last weekend, we went to the northeast entrance and saw stunning views of The Mountain and the aptly named Frozen Lake.
On our second trip, Paul and I had plans to hike the Burroughs Mountain trail, but instead we consulted the map and decided to take the Wonderland Trail from White River Campground to Frozen Lake. It seemed like a good idea on the map, and we even had plans to continue on after Frozen Lake if we weren’t tired.
So we started hiking uphill through the mossy forest of cedars and Douglas firs. We were the only people on the trail, which surprised us since the parking lots had been jam-packed. But we enjoyed the solitude and the chipmunk sitings as we huffed and puffed our way up one steep switchback after another.
Soon, it became apparent why we were alone on the trail: it was really freaking hard. For two miles did nothing but climb; my thighs and lungs started to protest.
“Let’s take a break for a minute,” I said, pointing to a log. But no sooner had we sat down and pulled out our snacks, the bugs began to attack, trying to drink our salty sweat and dive into the whites of our eyes.
“Do you think you can walk and eat at the same time?” Paul asked. “I’m getting bitten up.” So we continued on without a rest.
“I really hope we get to something soon,” I said between heaving breathing. “A lake, or a view of the mountain, or something.” The old growth forest was nice, but at this point it wasn’t doing much to motivate me up the steep grade.
“I think we’re getting close to something,” Paul said. This was the third or fourth time he’d said this.
But this time, he was right! We came around a bend, and suddenly, there was the mountain, looming beyond the trees. Paul and I stopped for a moment to admire her, but then the bugs found us, and we continued on.
Earlier, on the way to the park, I had been reading out loud from Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions. We were on the chapter about Hinduism, and I was reading about yogis. (Real ones, mind you, not cougar moms toning their abs.)
One of the eight steps to raja yoga, or the art of finding god through psychophysical exercise, is “mastery of respiration.” When a yogi does a cycle of sixteen counts inhaling, sixty-four counts holding, and thirty-two counts exhaling, I read, “there is a stretch during which animation is reduced to the point that the mind seems disembodied. These are cherished moments for the task at hand.”
“Well, yeah,” I joked, “because of lack of oxygen to the brain.”
But it reminded me of something one of my yoga teachers had said recently: “After you breathe out, stop for a moment,” she instructed. “Don’t be in such a rush to inhale.”
I’m always in such a rush to do the next thing, even when I’m breathing. I never stop for a rest between activities. And as it turns out, it’s nice to pause after an exhale; it makes you appreciate the inhale even more.
I was not mastering my respiration at all as Paul and I climbed the dusty path towards Frozen Lake. At this point, we had hiked over four miles, with an elevation gain of about 2,500 feet. We were above the tree line now, and despite the eighty-degree temperatures, there were patches of snow alongside the trail.
“Oh my gosh, we’ve got to be almost there,” I huffed. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it to Frozen Lake, even though some hikers coming down had told us it wasn’t too much further.
“At least it’s going to be smooth sailing going back,” I said. “I can’t wait to go downhill.”
We climbed one last hill, and then we were there: Frozen Lake. We sat on a rock, eating apple slices and drinking warm water from our plastic bottles. It was one of the first times during our hike that we’d actually been able to stop and rest. Every other attempt had been thwarted by bugs or blazing sun.
On another rock, a group of hikers cracked open cold beers, and I thought about how good that would taste, and how the alcohol would soften my aching thigh muscles. I looked forward to stopping somewhere on the way home and ordering a beer. Then I reminded myself to appreciate the present moment and stop being in such a rush to move on to the next thing.
“It’s getting late,” Paul said. “We should head back.” As much as I thought we should continue appreciating the place we’d worked so hard to get to, he was right. We had 4.5 miles to hike, followed by a two and a half hour drive. And it was already late in the day. So I took one last picture, and we started down the trail.
I used to think that when I finished writing a novel, I would stop to relax and congratulate myself — maybe take a little writing break, but instead I find that every time I finish a novel (because I’ve written several at this point), the next day is nothing special. I move on to the next thing: writing another novel, or revising an old one. Sometimes I’ll even think things like, “I can’t wait until I finish this novel because then I can start on my next idea.”
I rarely take the time to pause between exhale and inhale — literally and figuratively. And I don’t always remember to enjoy the present moment, because I’m already thinking about the next place I want to go.
As Paul and I hiked back down to White River Campground, the going was pleasant… at first. After a couple of miles, though, the bugs found us again, and descending got to be nearly as hard on our legs as the ascent had been.
“I can’t wait to get to the car and sit down,” Paul said.
“I can’t wait to take my boots off.” My feet were throbbing. I reminded myself to appreciate the present moment. “I mean, I’m enjoying the present moment and this hike,” I amended, “but I’m also going to really enjoy the moment I take my boots off.”
We finally arrived in the parking lot and sat down thankfully in the car. I groaned with pleasure as I removed each dusty boot and peeled each sweaty sock from my swollen feet. Maybe I don’t always take the time to pause, but at that moment, I was thinking of nothing else but how delightful it felt for my toes to be wriggling free in the (somewhat) cool air.
It’s not always easy to do nothing. Nagging thoughts begin to swarm like bugs, and the heat of the day urges you to hurry up and go on to next thing, and then the next.
But sometimes, when the trail has been hard, and it’s the end of the day, you can finally pause and find a restorative stillness in yourself. It’s something I have to remind myself every day: living a good life doesn’t mean I must always be moving. Taking breaks is important, too, and so is appreciating the heights I’ve reached, even if they aren’t as far as I thought I’d go. Besides, the best views of The Mountain are usually found when you’re standing still.
The light of a lamp does not flicker in a windless place. — (Bhagavad-Gita VI:34)