“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” —Edmund Hillary
I did not go on my first hike until my mid-30s. I could blame it on the fact that I grew up on the Great Plains of South Dakota and North Dakota. But mostly, to be honest, I just wasn’t interested. Having never gone, I didn’t see the value and always declined when asked.
I went on my first hike a few years back while living in Vermont. At the urging of my wife, and with my two young kids, we walked a beautiful forest trail on a cool August morning. I carried a small backpack with water and snacks. When we reached the top, we ate lunch together overlooking a perfectly still pond and a scenic Vermont landscape.
And I fell in love with climbing mountains.
A few weeks ago, my 11-year old son, my 61-year old dad, and I hiked Camelback Mountain in Phoenix. Last weekend, I hiked down the Grand Canyon with my son along the South Kaibab Trail. And later this week, my wife and daughter will join us to walk Waterfall Trail in the White Tank Mountains. (There are definitely some benefits of living in Phoenix during the winter).
Now, just to be clear, by no stretch of the imagination would I classify myself as an expert hiker. Most of our hikes last 2 hours. And I have no plans to climb Mount Kilimanjaro or walk the Appalachian Trail. But waking early on a Saturday morning to walk 3-5 miles along a forest trail with lunch in your backpack is a journey I’d recommend for anyone.
It is a healthy physical exercise that creates wonderful memories. It provides opportunity to slow down and disconnect. And given the chance, hiking teaches us important truths about life.
Life Lessons Learned Climbing Mountains:
Many have gone before. Every time I hike, I find myself grateful for those who have gone before and have smoothed a trail for me. And I am reminded, in life, we all stand on the hard work of those who have walked before us.
Many will come after. I am not the last to walk this trail, climb this mountain, or witness these views. While I am thankful for the work of those who have gone before, I also sense an important obligation to those who will come after—to leave the trail, the mountain, and the earth in better condition than I found it.
Not all paths have been traveled. Just for fun, I try to build a rock sculpture somewhere during each hike. I look for unusual places where the balancing rocks will remain undisturbed but still noticed by observant hikers in the future. To accomplish that, I always pick a spot just off the beaten path. Each time, I am reminded there are always new paths to be found in life and new discovers to be made.
Sometimes quiet is the best noise. I love the stillness and calm of an empty trail. It reminds me how much I love hearing no noise at all.
You can travel farther and accomplish more than you think. Uphill trails only leave two choices: reach the top or turn around. Reaching the top only requires the perseverance to keep putting one foot in front of the other. When life gets tough, I try to remember all we can do is put one foot in front of the other and just keep going.
Healthy fuel is important. Hiking spurs intentionality in the food and drink I choose to consume. I eat a healthy breakfast. I bring water, thoughtful snacks, and a light lunch if necessary. I choose healthy fuel so my body will function properly during the hike. Plus, there’s something that just doesn’t feel right about eating artificial foods while being present in the natural world.
Pack light. The weight of physical possessions is clearly felt when they are piled on your back. Wise travelers carry only what is needed for the journey. May it be true of me while packing—and in living.
Choose your steps carefully. While hiking, each step is clearly chosen. I focus intently where my next foot is going to land—sometimes even calculating 2-3 steps in advance. This intentionality helps me avoid unnecessary harm. And I hope the decisions I make with my life’s direction will be made with the same precision and care.
Age is only a number. I’ve seen hikers under the age of 7 and I’ve seen hikers over the age of 70. I am learning more and more that age only represents the number of years you have been alive. It does not serve as a litmus test for opportunity. Those who decide early in life to care for their bodies and not allow age to limit their potential will not be handicapped by it.
If you can climb a mountain, you can do anything. While not technically true, the mantra still goes through my head constantly during a hike. Reaching the top of a mountain (any mountain) is an impressive physical, mental, and emotional accomplishment. And it is motivating. It reminds me I can accomplish important things with my life if I dream big and put in the work.
Go climb a mountain. You’ll love it.
Great post. Once hiking gets into your blood it is a drug. I’m 59 and have been hiking since my teen years. Mainly the Smokies & Yosemite. I will never give up hiking. For the ultimate experience try hiking to the top of Half Dome in Yosemite ! Zion and Grand Canyon also fabulous !
Linda Sand says
If you get to the point where you want to climb something that will fully challenge you, drive down to Picacho Peak. Bring work gloves for the cables you will use to help in your climb.
Great post, Joshua! About 8 years ago my family fell in love with hiking while we were visiting Yellowstone NP. Every year since then we have traveled west from our home in Michigan to a national park in the mountains. I’ve come to love living out of a backpack for those two weeks! My desire for simplicity has spread from vacations into daily life, as well, and my priorities at home have shifted from having and collecting to doing and experiencing!
I’m inspired by your family’s minimalist journey and I appreciate your encouragement to be intentional about living simply and responsibly. Thank you!
P.S. It was especially fun to read this article because I just got home from Phoenix yesterday, where my daughter and I went to hike during her spring break, including the South Kaibab trail! It was breathtaking!
I love to get to the top of a mountain! I have done Elbert twice. Elbert is the tallest mountain (14,439) in Colorado, the 2nd highest in the lower 48. It’s nine miles round trip and sure offered many life lessons!
Better hurry up because many once pristine areas are falling to industrial and corporate interests. You mention North and South Dakota and the Badlands which are now being devastated by oil drilling and natural gas fracking.
This scenario is playing out in and near many national parks and major freshwater resources that can not be recovered is tainted. Take action and be a part of the solution.
Tom – a concerned father.
I read and enjoy your blog often but have never commented until now. I just loved this post! The life lessons were all great but I especially liked the first two: be thankful for those who have come before you and be conscious and considerate of those who come after you. I have only every really climbed one (not very big) mountain, but the experience was exhilarating. I hope to do it again soon. Thanks for the inspiring words!
Karen T. says
I agree – the list of life lessons was very inspiring! For me also, it was the first two that really resonated. Thanks for a great post.
It’s also one on my bucket lists, to climb a mountain. That will be a fulfillment.
Sandra Pawula says
I used to love to hike, but that was many years ago. I’m going to keep this in mind because there’s a lovely “mountain” (really a hill) in our area that would be perfect for an early morning hike. And, there are so many trails at Volcanos National Park. Thanks for the inspiration.
Alina (orgali.ca) says
Great post! Thank you so much for this reminder. Being in the middle of nature, enjoying the quiet around us, relaxing…
We like to walk on new trails all the time. Not very difficult ones as our kids are still young and we end up carrying them on our way back. We are lucky that we live one hour away from the mountains. Maybe we will venture on climbing some mountains in a few years down the road.
Thank you for your great website.
Julie Buchanan says
Love this post! I often think of how mountains in our lives are really just opportunities. In fact, I recently wrote a blog post on my blog You’ll Soon Be Flying titled, “The Blind Man With The Magnifying Glass” using the imagery of being alone on a mountain looking down at the valley below to discuss the topic of being judgmental. Thank you for another positive read. ~Best Julie