When we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey.” —Wendell Berry

THE LIGHT IN THE FOREST

I know we all have stories of how we met tough experiences head on. This is one of mine.

Shock and dismay took over as I watched underwear, lotions, extra shorts, and tops yanked from my brand new backpack and thrown into the back seat of my car. My friend Scott said that he was determined to “lighten my load.”

“What load?” I wondered. I thought he was talking of my inner self, hoping this journey would discard some of the heavy sorrow I was feeling. But I did not think of the sorrow as weight; it was an emptiness. I felt hollow and uncertain of who I was, and frankly, what I contributed to my world.

I had instead crammed that vacuum full of clothes and supplies, feeling comfort in my ability to pack for a 48-hour hike. Now Scott was letting me know that I wasn’t competent in that arena either.

Already feeling defeated, I took off my flip flops, put on thick socks, and stepped in to my hiking boots, which felt confining and heavy. But I had planned this trip down to the tiniest detail. I read up on hiking, I reviewed the trail maps, I scoured the internet to learn what to wear. I was ready to walk those trails—ready to take on the dreaded port-a-potties that I knew would be waiting for me in the thick trees of the Jefferson Wilderness.

 

The heaviness of my helplessness settled into my solar plexus and I plodded forward with a bowed head.

But I soon realized that I wasn’t prepared at all. There were no paths. Instead I found myself walking through underbrush. Vines reached for my well-covered ankles and pulled me sideways, and logs lay helter skelter on the ground, long and thick. Each obstacle weakened my desire to move forward.

When we came across a log masquerading as a bridge that was situated twenty feet over a creek, the last ounce of my wilderness ambition vanished. While I stood frozen with uncertainty, Scott hopped up on the log and walked steadily across.

I evaluated the situation with an internal scream, knowing that I did not have the balance to navigate that bridge upright. Scott advised I sit and scoot. The internal scream became a plaintive wail. Whether I tried to scoot or high-wire walk like the Wallendas, I risked injury.

When Scott looked back, I was gone. I was down the slope and tromping through the creek with a determination born of unwavering survival. As I slogged through the thick underbrush, negotiated my way around stumps, and tried to keep up with my agile hiking partner, I felt my confidence and my belief in myself reach an all-time low. Was I too old now to try new experiences? Was I too addled to understand the small pink flags perched on limbs which seemed to have great meaning to Scott and none to me? I was lost in the wilderness, literally and figuratively.

I finally admitted to Scott that I was unable to manage the wild and unruly landscape and haul the backpack too. The physical weight was too much for me to handle on top of all the other thoughts weighing me down. He took it from me and carried it along with his own as we continued to traipse upward to an unknown destination. My interior wail had reached full victim status. I was completely disappointed in myself. The control that had originally filled me with false pride had disintegrated into sniveling helplessness and shame. I was not Scott’s equal, in fact, I’d become an albatross.

The heaviness of my helplessness settled into my solar plexus and I plodded forward with my head bowed.

Right then and there, I vowed to find my light.

Eventually, I learned that those little pink flags marked a way to a high clearing, the destination that Scott had selected for my initiation into wilderness walking. The tangle of forest debris was gone, and a beautiful lake glistened in the sunlight. And though the openness of the clearing was welcome, I still felt weighed down by the difficulty of the hike. I looked up at Mount Jefferson in the distance, having little to no snow on this September day, and thought that she was a bare and exposed as I felt.

We walked by the water and Scott pointed out animal tracks: deer, bear, smaller creatures, all sharing space with us. A stand of large boulders took the place of my anticipated porta-potty, and I dubbed it my “boudoir.” Scott cooked a lovely meal using equipment that he brought in as part of his own backpack container.

After realizing my anticipated porta-potties were nothing more than a stack of large boulders, Scott and I rested over a lovely meal and performed some Native American rituals. I shared my sorrow with him about the burden I felt I caused him due to my inept physicality. He allowed me to express my feelings. He did not argue nor did he agree. The journey was all mine.

I settled into a sleeping bag (also hauled in by Scott) and lay on my back, staring at the dark sky above me. At first the never-ending blackness seemed to mirror the void I felt inside. But the deep obsidian sky wasn’t a void at all; it was a repository of stars that pulsated with an orchestra of bright splendor.

Those brightly lit orbs opened me. My body seemed to reach out to the majesty of that sky. I prayed my shame upward. As I vibrated with the Source, I heard myself become clear: I had their power.

Right then and there, I vowed to find my light.

The next day I looked at Mount Jefferson and found her beautiful in her exposed state. I took my backpack and strapped it on. I marched down the slope and found my way over the logs and through the underbrush with a determination that was fueled from a new internal generator. We reached Pappy, my Honda, in no time and I went home.

“Did you lose weight?” My husband said when I walked through the door. Of course I hadn’t lost physical weight, but I looked him in the eye and said, “Yes, a lot.”