Making your way through obstacles, struggles, and change is tough work. Especially when your obstacles blindside you. Ajax, my daughter, and I explored the Whittaker Wilderness and environs on Cougar Mountain. And the best tip I can supply from that trip is to expect the unexpected.
Previous Blog Posts
Such an idea is not new to this blog. I wrote about setting intentions on Mt. Washington in May. What if we set an intention to handle unexpected events with ease, grace, and humor? Last fall I reflected on the beauty of hiking Granite Mountain in the shoulder season, not expecting the gorgeous fall foliage. The unexpected can be positive…and negative.
Almost two years ago I discussed how to turn disappointment into gratitude at Blanca Lake when we arrived in fog, only to have it lift shortly before we left. One of the reasons I continue to venture to the mountains is I recognize Mother Nature has a lot to teach me. So what would Cougar Mountain reveal?
Expect the Unexpected #1: Early Fatigue
Last Wednesday, the three of us headed for Exit 15 and the Whittaker Wilderness to do a 7.5-mile loop up Whittaker Peak to Shy Bear Pass to Doughty Falls. We headed up the trail at 8:25 a.m. I’d put a lot of thought into this choice. My desires were to prevent any of us from getting overheated, avoid sitting in traffic during road construction or rush hour, and enjoy a new trail without a lot of crowds. While we accomplished all three, we each faced our own obstacles.
The first unexpected obstacle was one my daughter faced. I could tell within ten minutes that she was having an off day. We stopped after ten minutes for a rest. Ten minutes later, while I was barely feeling warmed up, she dragged herself to a boulder and sat, dejected. The “go forever” solo hiker voice inside me reared its ugly head but I successfully squelched it. After all, we were doing something together as a mom and daughter. It was a gorgeous day and we had until early afternoon.
After thirty minutes, and our third break, I resorted to diversion tactics including cracking jokes. Then I tried becoming a sleuth. Had she eaten breakfast? Were her feet feeling okay? It turns out she’d really been looking forward to having another person join us. But both people we’d invited had other plans. So part of the problem was disappointment. And perhaps the fact that there was no lake on this hike had her unmotivated.
On the fly, I told her we wouldn’t go all the way up to the Whittaker Peak summit, we’d just do the flatter loop. Even that news didn’t motivate her. When I finally asked if she wanted to go back to the car, she said yes, but she didn’t want to feel like a loser.
“We all have off days. Just because someone turns around doesn’t make them a loser,” I told her. But she gets her stubbornness from her independent parents. She refused to budge. I offered to carry her pack to see if that helped. We finally got moving again.
Fortunately, we raised a resilient teen. Once we’d completed most of the gain her oomph and enthusiasm returned. She just doesn’t like steep uphills; I get that. We meandered past Shy Bear Pass and over boardwalks at Shy Bear Marsh, finally reaching Doughty Falls around 10:45 a.m.
“More like Doughty Trickle,” I quipped. She preferred “Doughty Leak.” Who am I to argue? This time of year ferns drape the rocks but nothing more indicates a waterfall except lush green and a drop-off. Still, it was our farthest destination, so we stopped for a snack.
Expect the Unexpected 2: Ajax’s Mallady
About half a mile later, Ajax acted as though he’d gotten stung, stabbed, or bitten. He pawed at his face and then immediately rolled around in the dirt. Was he trying to deaden the pain or get rid of something in his face? When he stood up, it looked like he’d done something to his left front paw. He took a few steps and then plopped down and refused to go.
My daughter checked out his paw to see if he had anything embedded in it. Would we have to carry him? I was already carrying both our packs and wasn’t sure I could carry the dog, too, even using his suitcase harness. The only option we had left was to let him rest and see if he could walk out on his own.
Tricks to Try
Something similar with Ajax had happened twice before: once on a hike of Mailbox Peak, when he started limping for no apparent reason, and the other during a winter hike on Big Tree Ridge. Both times he recovered with rest. Little Man can’t talk, but he is a good communicator. I knelt to give him a paw massage, and after we let him rest for fifteen minutes, my daughter commented that he looked dead.
I had one last trick up my sleeve. Cheese. His favorite treat. I tore off tiny bites and handed them to him. That perked him right up. He didn’t stand, but he did look interested. At that moment I knew, somehow, he was going to be okay. After five bites and some water, I repacked my bag and he stood up. He took a few tentative steps with a faint limp. But after that, he seemed fine. Crisis averted.
Expect the Unexpected #3: Emotional Tidal Wave
My own obstacle followed shortly thereafter. We rounded the corner where the paths leading to Whittaker Peak and Gombu Wilderness Cliffs diverge. A woman was supervising a large number of children clambering around a mossy boulder. They had a large off-leash and highly energetic Swissy with them who wanted to play with Ajax.
I politely told the child closest to the dog that my dog just injured his paw and would she please call off her dog. The woman uttered something like, “Thank you for asking politely, calmly, and respectfully.” I nodded as we walked by. I remember thinking, “She must be modeling kind behavior for her kids.” As Ajax and my daughter disappeared ahead of me, something snapped.
Seeing my best canine friend lying on the dirt, perhaps injured – could I have prevented it? – and having my daughter use the word “dead” triggered a wave of anticipatory grief. Eleven years ago we lost our first dog to lung cancer. Hearing the woman use the word “calm” for me, when I felt anything but, did something more. Add to that my daughter calling the trail “boring” and my fears that she was no longer enjoying hiking with me and I lost it.
A tidal wave of emotions rushed through me. Shame. Guilt. Grief. Sadness. Frustration. Longing. The slightest thing can unleash a torrent out of nowhere. Traumatic experiences like euthanizing a beloved pet can do that. I know if and when I lose Ajax it will be the worst pain I can possibly imagine. Nothing can prepare us for that.
But not yet. Thank the powers that be, not yet.
Fortunately, my daughter was ahead of me. I knew I needed to let the tears out and then get my act together. I took several deep box breaths to help move past the hurt. But not before she noticed me rubbing my head.
“Are you okay?” she asked. I nodded.
“Did you get stung?”
“Only in the proverbial sense.” I assured her I was fine, just dealing with emotional demons. And the rest of the hike unfolded uneventfully.
Perhaps the biggest takeaways from this experience of unexpected events are twofold: that we have the knowledge we need deep inside us. Our job is to listen, to tap into it, and to trust it. And Mother Nature teaches us what we need to know when She knows we can handle it.
My job is to amass as many tools as I can so I don’t get blindsided by grief the next time it comes. I know it’s coming. And I am preparing. But I won’t let that detract from today’s happiness. Over the past two years, I have shared a number of techniques and tips around embracing change and getting unstuck. Knowing what to do, however, doesn’t necessarily make it any easier.
Two posts ago I asked readers to share their “close calls.” This week please share any surprising obstacles that caught you off guard for which you felt under-prepared. What resources do you draw on to get through tough situations? How do you remain calm when you feel the world is collapsing around you?