One 6-Mile Hike Taught Me This About Pursuing Goals
Updated: Jun 25, 2021
Sometimes putting one foot in front of the other is all you can do. When a task feels like a road that leads on into eternity with no finish line or measure of completion, it’s hard to stick with it. Sometimes our goals, like reaching the tops of mountains, feel so impossible, so arduous, that what we do today doesn’t matter in the overall picture.
But it’s not like that at all.
I often put the cart before the horse. I have jumped the gun many times. Insert a cliche, but the bottom line is that I’m impatient, mostly with myself and about what I think I can do in my lifetime. I don’t usually finish something I start because it feels like an insurmountable load of work ahead of me, impossible to overcome, and every step I take is so small it feels like I didn’t take any step at all.
Hiking can help put things into perspective, scrub clean the glass window we look through to see with clarity what’s ahead of us. I was on one three day trek in the Weminuche Wilderness Area along the Continental Divide Trail in Colorado. I was really looking forward to it, but I stupidly wore the wrong shoes. I hadn’t had the time to replace my old hiking boots before the trip, so I was wearing some old worn out running shoes with zero tread and even less ankle support.
The first day was a six mile hike to the first campsite in a meadow empty of all other hikers and backpackers, and by the end of the day I noticed a nagging pain in my right foot, along the top in what I now know is my extensor tendon. I had a pack for the three day journey including a tent that wasn’t exactly the most lightweight backcountry tent. The rest of me felt fine, but my right foot had carried the weight of the whole day, taking on the burden like a martyr. I tried to ignore it and figured, like many ailments in my aging late-twenties body, it would just go away. But I woke up the next morning with my foot hurting so bad I could barely walk without my pack. Walking with my pack seemed impossible. I should have known better than to wear such terrible shoes for something more than a short jaunt in the woods. Every rock and root I stepped on was felt fully in my soles, adding to the pressure and the strain.
My friend and I decided to stay where we were and relax, do some hiking without our packs, and let the rest of our group go on to the next site for the night. We would all meet back at the trailhead the next day. My friend and I would hike the six miles back, and the others would do ten miles back. But my foot did not feel better later that day. It felt worse, and I was in denial about the trek back. I went to sleep that night reassuring myself that I’d wake up and my foot would magically be fine, as if these kinds of injuries don’t take weeks of rest to heal. The next morning I woke to a rumble in the earth like a thousand drums shaking the meadow. I looked outside to see a herd of elk with newborn foals in tow stampeding on the other side of the creek. I woke my friend, and then I noticed that the elk closest to our tent was no elk at all. It was a black bear.
All this made me forget about my injury from the other day until the bear and the elk cleared away along with the early morning dew, and the sun shone over the peaks. Then I stepped out of the tent. I was greeted with a swift reminder that I couldn’t stand on my right foot. I had to hobble around to get the coffee and breakfast going by the fire, precariously balancing on one foot as I poured out hot water. Like that hot water, my foot hurt upon touch. I had no idea how I was going to make it the six miles back to the car, long stretches of which were uphill. It seemed like my foot might just snap right off. My friend wasn’t in the highest of spirits, either. She’d been throwing up, and we were both struggling with the hike we had ahead of us. We put on our packs and left a few things along the trail for our friends to pick up so we could lighten our own load. But that didn’t help my foot in the slightest.
The first stretch of the journey back was all uphill. It was rocky and mostly above the treeline before a slight leveling and then a descent before ascending again. I figured it would be one of those things where I get a mile or two in and I can’t feel the pain anymore. That wasn’t the case at all. It was excruciating, and all I could do was continue to limp forward, determined to make it out of the wilderness even if it took me twenty years. Every step on my right foot came with a bolt of searing pain. But I kept on going, along this never ending trail ever upward.
I didn’t stop to take any breaks. I knew that if I did, I might not get going again. We went up into the field of scree along high ridges, and down into the trees of the forest, and then back up again. We passed few hikers, and we were mostly alone, panting and dry heaving our way back to the car. We started to get closer, even though I was taking the tiniest of baby steps, and it got me thinking about all my goals in life, the things I set out to achieve that seemed impossible to reach. The books I wanted to write. The blog I wanted to start. The new skills I wanted to learn and master. Things I wanted to do, but didn’t do.
Tiny steps mean something, no matter how small and no matter how much they hurt. Those tiny steps winding through the mountains did eventually get me where I needed to go. (No, I’m not still out there, to my own surprise). We reached the final stretch. We could see the cell tower reaching above the parking lot where our car hopefully still sat. That final curve around the mountainside was long and endless, and it wasn’t getting any closer. I kept moving, and the mountain kept moving farther and farther away. I knew that if I stopped, I wouldn’t start again, so I just kept going even though I felt like I was on a conveyor belt going backwards. But after pushing on and trusting in my own small steps, I did eventually make it.
It took about four weeks for my foot to heal. I thought I would never be able to hike again. A year later, it still hurts sometimes, a reminder of that impossible trek. But since that hike, I’ve continued to take small steps that seem really meaningless, and sometimes hurt more than I think I can endure, but those tiny little steps are all getting me somewhere. Even if it takes a thousand years.