My Teacher on the Mountain

Today I hiked with my family to the summit of Mount Osceola in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. As we were coming off the mountain, a fit young man in his twenties stopped me to ask how far it was to the top. When I told him at least half an hour he became agitated and loudly exclaimed, “Another half-hour to the top, why is hiking so hard?”

This young man while strong in his stride was clearly distressed; his outburst suggested he lacked normal social control. I felt no judgment about his behavior, and so I stopped to engage him in conversation. “You’ll really enjoy the view from the top I said encouragingly.”

He responded, again loudly: “I enjoy a glass of lemonade, not the view from the top.”

“Why are you hiking today?” I inquired gently.

“I’m on vacation with my parents and they are making me hike.”

“Well,” I said, “give the hike a chance, I think you will enjoy the view.”

His volume became even louder: “I’ve hiked this mountain before; I can stay home and look at the photos.”

A few other hikers passed us and kept moving; the young man’s parents were not in sight. I responded in an upbeat tone, “Well, if you give this hike a chance today, without thinking about anything that has happened in the past, I think you can have a good time.” We continued to talk for another few minutes, but my encouragement seemed to have little effect on his decision to be unhappy.

Finally, I wished him well and resumed my descent. Clearly, today the young man had little capacity to separate himself from the distressing and noisy thoughts in his head.

I began to reflect on the encounter. The day was hot for hiking; my family had gotten up early in the morning to start our hike in the relatively cool part of the day. As often happens, when the alarm clock rings on a Sunday to wake me for an early hike, there is a voice in my head, the voice of my ego, that says something like: “This is crazy? Why get up? I’m tired; I need more rest. Whose idea was it to hike anyway? I should go back to sleep.”

I can honestly report that I have never once seriously considered my ego’s advice about hiking. Yet, I often consider and ruminate over its bad advice about many other things. Indeed, when I am ruminating or considering my ego’s bad advice I can be as loud and inappropriate as the distressed young hiker.

The trail up Mount Osceola is a bit unusual. Many trails in the Whites start off mellow and then become steep and rough. The Mount Osceola Trail starts with a section of jagged rocks. So, for the final mile of the descent, just when you’re tired, hot, and ready to be finished, you have to pick your way over jagged rocks at every step. I’m never much liked that section of the hike.

Today, when I got to that rough section, I smiled. I realized I had passed a teacher earlier in the hike. The young man was helping me to remember that today, like him, I had another option. When my mental complaints about these jagged rocks began, I did not have to grip on to those thoughts.

And so today, thanks to my teacher, that jagged section of the trail down Mount Osceola was the easiest it’s ever been for me. The lesson was universal: Lost in our thinking, we complain about what should be but isn’t; things go easier when we enjoy what is.

The view from the summit of Mt. Osceola

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