Read an Excerpt
Gifts from the MountainSimple Truths for Life's Complexities
By Eileen McDargh
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Eileen McDargh
All right reserved.
beat hasty starts.
Backpacks have to settle.
You adjust here, tighten there, shift weight down,
shift weight up. It's a trial and error method as all
the while you maintain a steady, even pace.
No speed. Just walking, feeling, assessing.
Recall getting a new job, working for a new manager,
becoming a parent, or starting a relationship.
Too often mistakes are made at the outset because
we did not take time to walk steady, to feel, to assess,
to adjust here, to tighten there and loosen here.
Ignore the small pains, the momentary twinges
at your peril. They get bigger over time.
Honest adjustments are easiest in the beginning.
Pay attention. Easy does it.
Acclimate at a higher level
before you begin the next part
of the climb.
We're not only creatures of habit, but our physical bodies
attempt to adjust to altitude and temperature. Even driving
to a higher elevation can bring dull headaches and
stomach discomfort. Add strenuous exercise to the mix
and you can get an unpleasant case of altitude sickness.
Go slow, drink water, stay at the new level and listen to your
body. See how it feels. Sometimes bodies don't adjust and
you're smart to head back down.
Have you ever aspired to go "higher" in life and then,
after you worked so hard to achieve it, found that it
did not sit well? Before you buy the bigger house,
go for the advancement, seek the huge new client,
mentally try it on. Better still, see if you can
"sample the altitude". You can spend time in another
department, maybe even shadow the president
to see if you're a fit for that role. Before you buy the larger
house, walk the neighborhood, talk to the neighbors.
Try it on. Ask the huge client for a project assignment and
learn what it will take from you AND from them.
If it feels right, go forward. If not, there's wisdom in turning
around or staying where you are.
Switchbacks are necessary
to reach the top.
Mountain switchbacks—those S-shaped trails
that bring a backpacker slowly to the pass—can be wearisome.
Dust rises and walking far right to turn around and
trudge far left seems long and tedious.
Surely scrambling hand-over-hand is quicker.
Maybe yes. But more often it's dangerous and
can land you in a place where you cannot move. Shortcuts
do not often produce the result you expect.
There's a price to pay for not working the plan and planning
the work. We don't have to jump to "the top" now. Earn it:
effort repeated, over and over.
Pack out your garbage.
And while you're at it, don't forget the garbage
you might be tempted to leave when you pack out
of a job, a marriage, a relationship, a neighborhood.
Don't leave behind hurtful words,
discounted colleagues, spiteful after-the-fact stories,
trashed property or people.
Leave well. Someone will enter the spot you have left.
May there be no garbage left behind. Besides,
who knows? You might return someday.
Watch for "ducks"
and leave some behind.
Small pillars of rock, piled carefully by human hands,
are "ducks" and a backpacker's clue as to where
the trail turns. When a trail seems to offer too many
routes or disappears altogether, we look for these piles
ahead of us. Most of the time we learn our way
from the people who went before us.
If you blaze a new path, let others know
how you traversed the "mountain." The "ducks"
will get them started. Share your wisdom.
Sometimes, it's easier
without a pack.
We don't always need to carry the weight
of possessions with us. Exploring new territory,
the next ridgeline, a mountain stream, is easiest
when we are unencumbered.
Emotions can weigh as much as possessions.
Anger, jealousy, and fear can hold us back.
As we forge new relationships, life directions
or professional challenges, ditch this pack.
What are you carrying that you don't really need?
Alpine flowers bloom
where you least expect them.
Above the tree line, bitter Arctic winds scour
granite escarpments. The uppermost reaches of the
Sierra lie buried for months under ice and snow.
Yet for the few months of summer warmth, tiny blossoms
burst forth from a grayscape of unforgiving rock
to relish their moments in the sun.
The human heart blooms where you least expect it:
Winds of destruction, disease, war, poverty, divorce,
and death can blast humanscape and yet,
beneath it all, are moments of joy, love, kindness,
and great beauty. As Camus wrote,
"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that
there was in me an invincible summer."
You can't tell how far it is
until you begin.
Distance is deceiving.
What seemed so far is sometimes an easy jaunt.
On the other hand, the pass with ant-sized people
trudging across a high path looks easy until we discover
the treacherous curves of hidden boulders and switchbacks
buried beneath a slick, heart-sickening wall of snow.
After hours of fright, we emerge at the top.
The inner mountain valley lies green and welcoming.
You never know how far—or how hard—
until you begin. The commitment IS to begin.
Celebrate how far you've come.
Step after step. Past the manzanita bushes
and up through the aspen groves. Higher and higher.
The next thought is to find camp, and figure
what's for dinner.
Tired. So tired. And also proud.
We look at the map. How much distance?
How much elevation? And that difficult boulder field!
We made it—to tonight—to sleep.
How often do we fail to stop and celebrate
how far we've come? Turn around and celebrate.
P.S. If you've forgotten how far you've come,
ask your mother.
Pause and rest but don't stop.
Take the pack off. Enjoy the surroundings.
But mark your calendar for when you'll start back
up the trail. Get too comfortable and the weather
closes in. You could be stuck. Hanging out at
base camp is fun but it won't get you
over the summit.
Get your bearings
or you might end up someplace
you don't want to be.
There's nothing like heading down a trail
only to find, far later, that you've taken the wrong turn.
Once you're on a roll, it takes discipline to check
the compass and map. It's much easier (so it seems)
to forge ahead. Ask "Is this where I intended to go?"
Your gut speaks louder than your head.
Nothing will break your heart faster
than discovering you climbed
the wrong "mountain."
lets you see more.
A day hike in spring, unfettered by the chatter of anyone
around me, brings a variable feast when I stop and sit.
Alone. Quiet. I climb through a field of pale blue larkspur,
past violet thistle heads, and yellow/orange poppies
to sink into thick, soft, foot-high grass.
Dozens of ladybugs climb stalks of waving green.
The earth plays the music of mourning doves supported by
crickets fiddling and mockingbirds whistling,
while the hum of tire music rises
from the road far below.
Meadow grasses bend before the morning breeze
making wave-like swells of pale green, white green,
spring green across the fields. And to think
I could have missed this banquet of beauty!
Our fast-paced, noise-choked world seems
to give us little space to be alone.
Take yourself away—and sit in solitude.
The table is ready for the feasting.
Every ounce counts.
Hike enough and you trim the weight
of what you carry. You learn that pita bread
weighs less than squaw bread; dried apples weigh less than
trail mix; ramen and dried vegetables weigh even less
than some freeze-dried entrees. You discover
you can share a tube of toothpaste. Ditto deodorant,
sunscreen, and bug repellent.
How often do we encumber our civilized life with things
we WANT instead of things we truly need?
Choose what you carry carefully.
I never saw a hearse with a U-haul behind.
Little things trip you up.
Boulders I can see;
it's the hidden root or the tiny stone on a
rocky trail I miss. Life is all in the details.
It's the careless gesture that invites or pushes away.
It's the forgotten thank-you note rather than
the big gift that is remembered.
Big things take care of themselves.
It's the pebble in the boot that causes the pain.
The flexible survive.
The yielding win the day.
Hike the Sierra and the force of nature throws itself
into your face at every turn. Granite slabs sprawl
like sleeping giants, their sides offering evidence of
the high mountain place from which they fell.
Towering trees thrust lightning-scarred arms
into the heavens.
How instructive then to find gentle alpine grass,
wee clover flowers and fragile columbine at elevations
hardest hit by severe storms and winter winds.
Surely there's a lesson here for all of us.
Walk too fast
and you'll miss the beauty.
Head down, intent upon
making it to the next marker, you miss
the spider's web cased in frost,
the ouzel bird walking on the river bottom,
the wild onions growing creekside,
the shooting star finger-painting the night sky,
the tiny tiger lily behind a rotted log,
the hummingbird on a high altitude bombing run.
In our hurry-up, instant-demand world, we miss
the dew on the spider web festooned across the walkway,
the children playing ball in their yard,
the mushrooms riding a sea of grass after days of rain,
the garden flower gracing a desk,
the burst of sun spraying the ocean.
One day, we'll lift our arms to heaven
and beg for just one more minute.
Stop and take it. NOW.
Sometimes it's better
not to know how hard the trail
or how far you have to go.
Optimism sets the pack on our back.
Adventure sets our foot on the path.
If we had been forewarned, our "logical" self
would have talked us out of the running.
We would never open the business, have the child,
write the book, or audition for the play.
We'd stay safe, comfortable, and comforted
in the knowledge that we "didn't bite off
more than we could chew."
Oh what delicious experiences we might miss!
Stop when you're tired.
Accidents happen when you push
beyond endurance. Mistakes arise when brains
are clouded by fatigue or pain. The law of diminished
return prevails: the quality of our efforts
becomes less and less.
Listen when your body speaks.
Put up the string hammock between the trees
There's always tomorrow.
And if tomorrow doesn't come,
you'll have had a better today.
are only a nuisance.
Depending upon the amount of rain and
the elevations, we KNOW we'll have these whining,
buzzing, biting critters. So we're prepared:
heavy-duty repellent, mosquito netting for the head,
and a mosquito dance when it gets really annoying.
(The "dance" is a hopping variation-on-a-theme
created one summer when there had been
a lot of rain!)
Get used to them.
We'll always have the equivalent
of mosquitoes in our lives:
the always whining colleague,
the nit-picking relative,
the neighbor with the irritating habit.
Protect yourself and ignore the whine.
It's a nuisance but it's not going to stop you.
Feel the fear
and do it anyway.
Bathed in the umber glow of sunset, my body sinks
wearily into the sleeping bag. Exhausted, my mind replays
the day's journey marked by multiple scrambles
through boulder fields in a vain effort to find the trail.
Crossing the snowfield with its vertical slope
sliding ominously into a frozen lake had taken a toll.
Bill lost his footing and for a brief time,
I imagined him hurling into frigid waters,
held down by an 80-pound pack.
I inched back to help him, my legs quivering in cold
and the awkward angle of side stepping so as to
maintain balance against the snow-covered slope.
We crawled to safety after passing under an ice ledge
with a crack that threatened to widen any minute.
Suddenly, I sit up—wide awake.
I am terrified of falling, of dealing with icy surfaces.
And yet, I did it!
What could each of us do at home, in work,
if we stepped into the fear?
Observe nature's pattern.
Different trees grow
at different elevations.
And so do we.
Some of us belong with the giant redwoods
and the sequoias, breathing in the heady air,
towering above the landscape.
Others are like aspens, spreading roots and
creating a community of shimmering likeness.
Some are the prickly cactus variety,
singular in our place, holding moisture in,
yet blooming in the kindness of spring rains.
Nature always know best.
As my fellow writer Jim Cathcart says,
"Nurture your nature."
Look for ways
to make the trip enjoyable.
It doesn't have to be difficult all the time.
Plan a few days at base camp
to relax and fish.
Explore. Sing songs at night.
Bring a constellation
sky map for tracking the night sky.
Life is a trip.
Bring your version of fun into
your home, your office.
Try impromptu gatherings,
spur-of-the moment picnics,
candlelight for no reason,
a frivolous purchase that makes
your heart sing. Balance the effort with
joy and celebration.
Your fellow travelers will thank you.
Encourage those on the way up.
You saw it in the distance: the lower dip
in the mountain ridge that heralded Kearsage Pass
and your opening into the next basin. Once you've hit
the pass, you remember how you felt climbing up.
You see the pain and weariness in the hikers
trudging in your footsteps.
You remember what it was like as
a new employee, a struggling parent,
and just-promoted manager.
A word of encouragement can go a long way ...
maybe all the way ... to the top.
Downhill is more dangerous
What a relief, heading merrily down the trail.
My feet move faster on a down slope.
I gaze in the distance. I hum a tune. I crash,
my boots skidding on scree.
The tiny rocks-on-rocks act like ball bearings,
carrying my body along an uncharted path
bound for the oblivion of a steep ravine.
Thankfully, I stop myself by grasping
a sturdy shrub.
Cockiness takes over when it becomes easy.
Watch for the downhill.
If the sky falls,
there's another one behind it.
At 11,000 feet, Muriel Lakes is hit with
a two-hour hail and lightning storm the likes
of which I have never seen. Thunder bounces across
the granite rocks and lightning stitches
the early evening sky, connecting heaven and earth.
I am alone and terrified, huddling in a plastic tube tent,
wincing each time ice pellets hit my hand or head.
The world is a downpour of frozen rain and noise.
Finally, the ice and light show slides down the valley.
The night sky turns into a jumble of stars with
a slivered moon pierced by the sharpest mountain.
How good to remember: this too shall pass.
Watch for wild onions.
Until I joined my husband's backpacking treks,
he never realized that wild onions were there for the
taking. Added to noodle soup, the tang of spring-fed
tubers brings life to an otherwise ordinary dish.
We've all got "wild onions"
that can add zest to the journey:
wild moments of wild abandon.
You just have to know where they are
and how to use them.
If you keep your head inside a tent,
you'll miss the stars.
There's safety in your shelter.
But there's also utter darkness.
Stick your head out. Better still,
take your body with you and watch the stars twirl
across the galaxy. Create moonbeam dreams and
sing to the bat that silently, swiftly swoops in the gray night.
You will find another world of wonder
if you leave your tent.
You can be the bold human who knows
that embracing the night creates an even brighter dawn.
Take courage. You can always go back inside.
Don't keep looking for the pass.
Just go one step at a time.
The switchbacks lay beneath a few feet of snow.
A rope hoist lowered by two of our more intrepid
team members had us shinnying up the ice wall.
Far in the distance, across a snowfield,
I saw the small figures of trekkers making their
cautious way across the face of the cliff to the pass.
My heart sank. How could I ever make it?
One step at a time.
That's how each of us achieves our goals.
Concentrate on what is immediately in front of you—
not how far you have to go.
The careful steps NOW make the pass
come quicker—and safer.
Expect the unexpected
and deal with it.
It is how it is. Sharp wind. Freezing rain.
Blistering sun. Hard ground. Impassable creeks.
An inedible whole-wheat, dehydrated mess of garlic pasta.
All unpleasant. Unexpected.
But then sometimes the unexpected is
nothing short of a miracle: the moon orb that blazes
after a ferocious hour of hail; the blade of grass
encased in a jewel of ice; the discovery of mountain trout
in a remote lake. It is how it is.
It's worth the unpleasant unexpected to
appreciate the unexpected miracles.
Excerpted from Gifts from the Mountain by Eileen McDargh Copyright © 2007 by Eileen McDargh. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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