When we were still teachers in Virginia more than a decade ago, it was a rare summer that my partner, Gene, and I didn’t visit one of our wondrous national parks in the United States. In another life I’d seen much of the world in the Foreign Service, yet had known little of my own country.
But Gene had, and he was determined to share with me the wealth of his experiences. He has loved and appreciated the diversity of many of them, from the Adirondacks to Capital Reef to Yosemite. And the sheer beauty of them is enough to take your breath away.
One hot July in 2007, we traveled almost as far away from Virginia as you can get on the North American continent. We flew to Vancouver, British Columbia, to see the northern Rockies. On the highway to Whistler, where the Winter Olympics were held one year, Gene shouted suddenly, “Stop the car! I want to show you a beautiful lake. Drop dead gorgeous, jes like you,” planting a wet kiss on my cheek.
Well, he was a charmer. That’s one reason I fell for him. But I was the sensible one. Mix dreamer with practical and sometimes you just get vinegar…
Gene felt we needed to get far away that summer. A difficult personal challenge was proving to be too much for me to handle. I thought if I could knead the pain out of me by climbing a mountain, I might start to feel better. But I wasn’t twenty-five anymore. The physical challenge facing me now would be considerable. And the spiritual one, even greater.
Fifteen switchbacks: I counted ‘em. It was a long hike. The trail seemed to go for a mile before it mercifully turned the other way. Is that fifteen miles? Or does it just seem like that? We were backpacking on an elevated trail. And we had full loads. There’s only one way to go, and that’s up.
After a while I started fantasizing about being airlifted to our destination: powerful fairies swooping down and grabbing us by the shoulders, bypassing the trail and slicing straight up through the thickly stacked trees, gently placing our grateful bodies down at the campsite and returning to the air without so much as a thank you or a tip. Then I tripped over a rock and awoke from my reverie.
“Gene, for Chrissake, we didn’t plan this at all! We should have gone shopping first and gotten enough food to sustain us. How are we gonna live on so little protein?” I yelled, already anticipating disaster. My gnawing hunger brought out the worst in me, and my recovery was going to be sorely tested.
“Darlin’, when you see the turquoise lake at the top, you won’t care,” he assured me.
“Yes I will,” I whined, “Oh, yes I will…”
Every day when we wake up, life happens to us. We can’t escape from what comes. How we face it, the choices we make, with or without a problem to wrestle with, is a test of our mettle. I’m like everyone else: I have strengths and weaknesses. On this particular hike, out of the many we have taken, I failed to meet our difficulties with any grace. But, as with most of the failures littering my deck overlooking the water, this one in the Canadian Rockies contained a gem of wisdom to add to the many others I’ve collected over the years. It’s a highly recurrent one.
About halfway up, tired, sweaty, and irritable, we decided to lighten our loads by eating our hamburgers. That was a grave error in judgment, cutting down on our food supply so early in the trip. We would dream of eating those hamburgers two days later when we were running out of food and the stamina to keep hiking.
Another mistake was impulsively starting the hike at two o’clock in the afternoon. The only thing that might have saved us in that regard was the lingering light at that latitude in the summer months. But we would be cursed again, this time by the weather; we would not experience any evening lightness.
Gene and I soldiered on. We were both too proud to turn around and go back down. I kept thinking of that turquoise lake, and Gene kept belting out arias from Samuel Ramey in “Mefistofele.” Not a good choice, but I guess we were wrestling with the devil in some ways. My own dark side was coming out in glossy technicolor.
Five hours later, the sky grew dark and we knew what was coming. We got caught in a drenching downpour. If I’d adopted a better attitude, I’d have been grateful for the free air conditioning about to cool us off. We were near the end of the trail and came upon the lake Gene had been talking about. He marveled at it through the trees and pointed it out to me. But I didn’t care. My stomach was already growling. And I was soaked. I was in no mood for silver linings.
As we arrived at the campsite and prepared to pitch our tent, we were presented with one: the rain had let up just in time to appreciate our elevated spot overlooking Lake Garibaldi and Sphinx Glacier. A gorgeous spot that Gene photographed multiple times. It’s still one of his favorite photographs. But I was not yet able to distinguish between happiness and joy.
So began three days of wilderness camping and hiking on a subsistence level diet. It was necessary to ration all our food. Ration our food? On a demanding hike in the Canadian Rockies? That’s the one thing we should have had enough of. Primitive camping carries with it enough discomforts without adding that to the list. Gene has always added to his own backpack the weight of extra food so we’d never run short.
This was not the first nor would it be the last time we were swept away and allowed good judgment to take a back seat.
The next day we walked around that lake, eating half a sandwich each for lunch. I learned to eat slowly, savoring every morsel, which is how I should eat anyway. I never appreciated gorp so much. Dinner was half rations again and sleep was fitful. I was hungry.
We tackled the real focus of our trip on our second day at the campsite: a demanding trek up to the base of the Black Tusk, a volcanic neck on the shoulder of Mt. Garibaldi. We made it, trudged all the way up to the snow line. Took congratulatory pictures. Then we went back down with little to look forward to but half a sandwich.
The thing about hunger is, like pain, it’s a nasty distraction. Loading up on plenty of filling food every day, like most intelligent hikers, I should have been enjoying the breathtaking views. Instead, I was guzzling water to quell my hunger pangs—and dreaming about food.
The third morning, humbled for a couple of seasoned backpackers, we asked people for any extra food as they were packing out. They gave us apples and more gorp. And sorry looks.
Flying down those same fifteen switchbacks the next day, we jumped into the car and barreled down the road to a Chinese restaurant in Squamish. Spring rolls the width of thermoses, chicken and this, noodles and that, we gobbled up each dish like it was our last meal. Food had never tasted so good.
I’m certain I’ve never experienced true hunger or anything close to starvation. But food for the soul, that was what I was missing those three days. Had I been more willing to recognize silver linings in the midst of difficulties, I’d have ignored the discomfort and focused on the stunning landscape surrounding me. That would have been a deliberate and preferable choice.
Happiness involves many good feelings and happenings: nice weather, friendly people, a delicious meal. But I have found in my experience that it’s necessary to dig down much deeper to access the channels to joy.
On this Canadian hike the gem of wisdom most shimmering to me was that despite the outward and transitory nature of many things, both pleasant and otherwise, the joy that comes from gratitude at having persevered through any difficulty is most profound—and the most salient lesson of all.