Four and a half hours seems like a long time to a kid. Especially when those hours are spent crammed in the back seat of the car with your brother. Growing up, my parents didn’t really take us on “vacations,” per se; they were more just trips back to Pittsburgh to see family and hang out for a few days before heading right back home to work. I tend to remember my parents talking about trips to Pittsburgh in terms of, “when we get there.” And then when we’d drive back to Virginia, it was, “when we get there.” And then we’d get home, and the trip would be over, and we’d have to get to bed, get to work/school the next morning, get home for dinner that night…get there, ad nauseum.
Standing in the middle of the Appalachian Trail this past weekend, I couldn’t help but think of that kid. Rachel and I had driven about four hours down to the Roanoke area to hike the Triple Crown of Virginia’s vistas: McAfee’s Knob, Tinker Cliffs, and Dragon’s Tooth, three amazing spots seemingly stacked right on top of each other. As much as we love hiking and being outdoors, we’d never explored that area and decided to make the trek, so to speak. We had an amazing weekend together.
And of course, the amazingness was served up with a side of hard-earned lessons (freeze-dried for portability).
When you’re hiking up the side of a mountain with a full pack on your back and nothing in front of you but more trail, it can be hard to know just why you’re there. Through all of the huffing and puffing, you can start to ponder, “What was I thinking? Isn’t this supposed to be a fun weekend? When will I get there?” And when you suddenly realize that you are really close to seeing that next vista, you get a second wind halfway up. But what happens when there are no vistas? What finally happens when you reach your destination?
Well, you’ll be there, and the journey will be over.
I realized that my whole life, I had been taught that getting there was the objective. That the journey didn’t matter at all, so long as you got there, and got there on time (or early, that was even better). The journey was supposed to merely be an obstacle to overcome, an annoyance in the way of getting there. But this weekend, I really had to stop for a moment and remind myself understand for myself why I was out there in the woods in the first place.
Sure, I wanted to see the amazing previously enumerated rock formations, but this weekend was really about connection. It was about connecting with myself and with the places, but moreso about connecting with Rachel and making memories with her. And doing that meant that there had to be more than just stopping for the views on a couple of rocks.
I often tell Rachel that I don’t want to take the time we have together for granted. But standing there on the trail, I had to laugh at myself. What had I been doing but exactly that? By focusing on a waypoint, an objective we’d inevitably reach, I was ignoring our journey together. As Alan Watts once said, “the whole point of the dancing is the dance…If we thought of life by analogy with a journey, with a pilgrimage, which had a serious purpose at that end, and the point was to get to that thing at that end. Success, or whatever it is, or maybe heaven after you’re dead. But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing, and you were supposed to sing or to dance while the music was being played.” And at some point, I need to surrender myself to the fact that the journey is all there is. When we reach a waypoint in our lives, things don’t stop; they keep right on truckin’.
And when we reach the end? Well, let’s just say I really want to have enjoyed the journey.