I recently celebrated my 15th year at MAOPS with a brief sabbatical to pursue a personal challenge I have been planning for years – hiking the Colorado Trail from Denver to Durango. This 500-mile trail traverses the heart of the Colorado Rockies through some of the state’s most remote and beautiful wilderness areas. It was a physical and mental challenge that I am happy to report I successfully completed. I spent most of my time on the trail reflecting on my personal wellness, including how I could improve personally to be the best version of myself in the last third of my life. I met many interesting people from all over the world, all with the same basic goal of challenging themselves physically and mentally and refreshing their minds away from the hustle and bustle of the “real” world.
MAOPS has focused heavily on wellness for the last six years, and this hike allowed me to practice much of what I have learned. In the next few issues of the Prognosis, I will share some of my adventure with you and some of the lessons and reminders life on the trail provided that are relevant to all of us.
A 500-mile hike seems daunting to most, and it did to me as well. That’s why I chose to do it–because I wasn’t sure I could. Many have asked me, “What was the hardest part of the journey?” While the entire hike was physically and mentally challenging (grueling at times), one part sticks out. When you think of a 500-mile hike in Colorado, what probably comes to mind is the mountains. While the steep climbs and descents are certainly challenging, the hardest part for me was actually one of the flattest. It was a 101-mile section right in the middle of the hike. It was not only tough but provided me with the most important lesson from the trail.
After spending days in the beautiful Collegiate Peaks Wilderness with expansive views and the highest concentration of 14,000-foot peaks in the lower 48 states, I entered the “high desert” area of South-Central Colorado. Long stretches without the typical beautiful mountain views and with little water were the order of the day. Couple this with the fact that the trail was relentlessly rocky with deceptively challenging “small” ups and downs; one can imagine the physical and mental drain this could have. Over five days of hiking alone, I had to not only entertain but motivate myself. While many hikers chose to listen to music or books on tape during their hike, I chose not to. I was entertained by focusing on the scenery, the sounds of nature, and the little voices in my head. The problem was that this section did not have the scenery I expected, and the most common animals I saw were sheep and cattle, so the voices in my head predominated.
San Luis Peak at Sunrise
On the fourth day in this section, I hiked a hard 16 miles through the LaGarita Wilderness, which is considered the most remote wilderness in Colorado. Fortunately, I knew that the mountain views and high altitude hiking I most enjoyed would soon begin again. I had about three more miles to go before camping for the night when I reached the saddle for San Luis Peak, a 14,000-foot peak considered Colorado’s most remote and least visited 14’er. Prior to starting the trip, I had made a ”bucket list” of things I wanted to accomplish on the hike – climbing San Luis Peak was top of the list.
The problem was, I was tired, sore, hungry, and emotionally drained. I was ready to eat and go to bed, and it was only 3 PM! The voices in my head were telling me to skip the peak. It is always recommended that hikers scale the high peaks early in the day so they can be down before afternoon lightning and thunderstorms. Dark clouds surrounded me, but no thunder or lightning was evident. I knew I would disappoint myself if I didn’t climb the peak, but I simply didn’t feel like going up a very steep 2,000 feet of loose rock after already putting in 16 miles…and those darn voices were advising me to quit! The voices used every argument they could muster to justify not going up: the clouds looked ominous (they didn’t really), I could injure myself on the rough terrain, ruining the rest of the hike (it was all rough), I’d have to finish the hike in the dark (I had a headlamp), etc. I finally decided to ignore the voices. I had to try, or I would always have regrets, so I started up the mountain.
Cairns on the Colorado Trail
When a trail gets rocky and hard to follow, stacks of rocks are built along the path to “point the way.” These are called cairns. San Luis Peak had a nice set of cairns all the way to the top, spaced about a quarter mile apart. Feeling exhausted and positive I would not make it to the top, I decided to set my goal to reach the first cairn I could see up the mountain, then assess my status (including the weather) and decide about moving forward or not. I could at least say I had tried, right? Fully expecting to quit before the summit, I made it to the first cairn feeling pretty good. I set my sights on the next cairn and trudged on. As I progressed up the mountain, the air got thinner, and “Bad Brian” started making excuses again. I ignored the voice in my head and trudged to the next cairn, and then next, and then the next. I made it my goal to show “Bad Brian” who was in charge! As I got closer to the summit, I realized I was at a point where there was no possible way I was turning around without touching the summit. “Bad Brian” shut up, and “Good Brian” took over – “Why do all that work just to quit so close to the finish line?”, “Your kids are going to love the picture of you at the top!”, “This is easy!” Miraculously, not only did my attitude improve, but I felt physically stronger, even refreshed and invigorated!
I reached the top of San Luis Peak one cairn at a time! The views were incredible, and the adrenaline rush I got from pushing myself and achieving my goal was incredibly intense! But most of all, I was proud of myself for successfully making the mental adjustments necessary to be successful. Regardless of the “shape we are in” physically, our bodies can do amazing things – if our minds let it. I believe that is the hardest hurdle to overcome any time we are challenged. After spending some time enjoying the views, I made my way down the mountain and the three miles to camp – a total of 22 miles for the day.
How do the lessons I learned on San Luis Peak apply to you? We all face challenges in life – whether self-imposed or out of our control. We will always have those voices (both internally and externally) telling us why we will fail, why we should quit, why we are unqualified, etc. But if we approach these challenges “one cairn at a time,” it makes overcoming them so much easier. When I stood at the bottom of the mountain and looked all the way to the top, it seemed insurmountable. “Bad Brian” tried to convince “Good Brian” that it wasn’t doable. But when I finally came to my senses and trusted “Good Brian,” it became much easier. By breaking the hike up into smaller pieces (cairns), I was able to reach and celebrate multiple smaller goals along the way to the ultimate goal – the summit.
I also realized that while the feeling from the top was one of accomplishment, I found myself disappointed for even considering not doing it. I was mad at myself for hearing “Bad Brian.” However, I realized I shouldn’t feel bad as I had achieved another victory along the way – I had successfully overcome the negative voice making excuses and telling me to quit. When things get hard, we will always experience negative voices. Having prior experiences where we have overcome adversity provides practice, so when we experience difficult situations again, we have some tools to work with. I faced many more difficult days on the remainder of the hike, but I can honestly say I never again thought about stopping. I simply used the one-cairn-at-a-time approach until I reached my goal.
Whatever challenges you are presented with (or you present yourself with!), consider the “one-cairn-at-a-time” approach. Whether it be a financial, personal health, personal improvement, or other goal, look at the big picture, then break it down into more easily achievable pieces. Celebrate the small achievements along the way, and really throw a party when you reach your ultimate goal! The approach works and can turn a seemingly impossible task into one that is achievable. It takes patience (something many of us need to work on, too!), but that’s part of the fun – and it is fun when you see your plan coming together one cairn at a time!
If you enjoyed this piece, look for next month’s issue of the Prognosis in your email on November 1. I’ll be talking about what the trail taught me about ”Embracing the Suck!”