A challenging hike (for me, that day!) to a pristine alpine meadow teaches me the power of presence, trust, and reveals my inner resilience.
The whole day was in front of us, and we decided to take a hike that I hadn’t been on in over 20 years. I barely even remembered it; just where the trailhead was and that we had to ascend and cross over the ridge to the east. Everyone told us that it was just 2 miles, and not very far. My memory suggested it was longer. But I believed them instead of myself.
The call of Mount Shasta’s South Gate Meadows (what I remembered as Squaw Meadow) was enticing for all of us. A lush, Japanese garden-like paradise, with abundant wildflowers and a stunning cascade above it. We had to see it!
I had gotten in the habit of carrying the load for the 3 of us. My husband used to have a sensitive low back, and my daughter was too young for many years to be able to carry much. So I hefted our 3 water bottles, lunches, and snacks (plus her epi-pen for emergencies) myself.
Ascending the First Hill
We were at 7,800 feet to begin. Since we had only been in the Mount Shasta area for a day and a half, we weren’t quite acclimated to the elevation yet. Not to mention that the city level was only a little over 3,500 feet. Quite different hiking up at nearly 8,000.
So, you can guess, that shortly after we started up the rocky incline to the ridge above the treeline, I realized pretty quick that I would have to go slow. And rest a lot. I had about 20 extra pounds on my back. I felt like my 9th trimeseter of pregnancy; I had to request 2 stops in just the first 20 minutes. My mind began its story – this is gonna be hard. I’m already tired – how will I make it? Why am I out of breath?
But we finally made it to the peak, where we stopped for a photo op at the Mount Shasta Wilderness sign. Yay – we were heading into the wild! And I was heading into the wild of my mind.
Down Into the First Valley
Looking down the trail lifted my spirits. Downhill, hurrah! Now my mind played the easy stories, hopeful that it would be downhill the rest of the time. A small oasis appeared in the midst of the volcanic rock landscape. A little preview of the meadow to come; water trickling out of a fissure and allowing heather and little white flowers to abound for about 20 yards down the trail.
As we departed the mini-meadow, the land of puff-balls emerged. Remember the wild, swirly “hair” of the Truffula trees in The Lorax by Dr. Seuss? Or perhaps the crazy hair of Thing 1 and Thing 2 in The Cat in the Hat? Well, these little white puff-balls looked just like tiny Truffula trees, dotting the landscape. I called it puff-ball city. We were quite enamored with them and terribly tempted to pick one to take home – but didn’t.
As we passed by this alien-looking landscape, we ascended a small hill, up to where some trees were eeking out an existence. I was thankful for a rest in some shade, while my daughter happily climbed into their branches. There was another long descent ahead of us into a valley, around the bend of a large outcropping with a sheer cliff-face dotted with a few trees that somehow clung to their lives.
I was briefly delighted at the descent, until the thought crossed my mind; the return trip. We are going down, and down, and down. At the end of the day, how will I fare on the return ascent? I began to feel dejected. But I remembered to return to the present moment. Enjoy the view. Count puff-balls. Appreciate the little pink flowers that occasionally shared the barren landscape with the mini-Truffula trees. And trust the process, of course!
Another Incline Bites the Dust
After meandering down around the butte, we reached a steady climb into an area forested with pine, fir, and perhaps spruce (how do you tell the difference, anyway?). I was back to huffing and puffing.
My ego had to sit on the sidelines as I asked for another break. The thoughts rolled in: how much further? The marker sign we saw a ways back said only half a mile more – it can’t be! We descended for at least a quarter mile, and now we’ve been ascending for more than that. Pairs and small groups of millenials, even some with children, would charge past us, while I was the slow caboose about 20 paces behind my husband and daughter.
My mind wanted to compare myself, to feel sub-par as everyone else seemed to be just fine with this hike. I enjoyed it, but my body was protesting. Again and again, I reminded myself to return to the present moment. I have what I need within me to make it to the meadow. Stay here and now, I’d tell myself. One step, then the next; one breath, and another.
At long last, we leveled off and began to descend slightly. Were my ears correct? The sound of running water, indeed, was up ahead. We stepped over a small stream cut into the earth around more pines and continued on the trail around the south side of a slope. The meadow stretched out ahead of us. No more incline – for now!
The Magic of South Gate Meadow
Ambling down into the base of South Gate Meadow, we were greeted by lush green grasses and leaves unfolding from yellow arnica flowers, delicate white blooms, and the last of pink heather. Fiery patches of Indian Paintbrush set the meadow ablaze here and there, and if you looked carefully, you’d also find tiny blue flowers as well.
Tiny waterfall after tiny waterfall emerged as we walked up the narrow trail, careful not to step on the precious meadow foliage. We knew that it took a long time for it to become this lush, and trampling by humans sets a meadow back years. Exhausted, I was relieved to sit down on some large rocks under the shade of a fir (?) tree, and release the pack from my back. We broke out the lunches and ate heartily by the sound of the trickling stream. We had earned it!
My daughter and I meandered around the meadow, marveling at the abundance of life growing on this harsh mountainside. Bright orange and brown Painted Lady butterflies and bumblebees occasionally visited us as we paused to listen to the sound of the stream or to touch our fingertips into the ice-cold water. My husband was happy to meditate back at the rock, while we ventured further up the slope.
The forest ranger told us that if we followed the stream on the right hand side up above the meadow, we’d discover the cascade out of which it was born. Should we go? I was already tired, and well aware that the majority of our return hike was uphill. Would I have enough energy? But here was an opportunity I didn’t know if we would have again for some time. I trusted that somehow, my body would carry me. I put aside my thoughts and focused on this presence; being here in this moment. The Divine would provide the energy, and my job was not to waste it in unnecessary thought.
Sure enough, climbing higher to the upper reaches of the greenery, a stunning array of tiny waterfalls spilled down the rocks. We hiked higher and higher, up through muddy terrain on a steep ascent, attempting to reach the source from which the water emerged from the mountain.
My energy was sapped. Although we had refueled and rested, and I had left my pack back with my husband on the rock, my heart raced and I struggled to breathe through my nose. Just when it seemed that we had finally reached the top, we looked ahead of the illusionary summit to see that the cascades continued indefinitely up the mountain in the distance. It was time to stop.
My daughter and I reveled in the beauty of this vista, looking down upon the meadow and off into the valleys below, a seemingly unending sea of forests. She sat on a large rock in the middle of the stream, radiant in the majesty of the scene.
I,however, found myself flipping back and forth between presence with the rushing sound of the waters and my monkey mind, worrying about getting down this muddy slope and the return trip. As I brought myself back again to this moment, I saw my husband lugging the backpack over his right shoulder to catch up with us. We all enjoyed some time in this magical place.
A Return in 1st Gear
Carefully making my way back down to the meadow (while almost sinking one foot completely into a mudhole!), we prepared for our return trip. My husband’s back already was bothering him from carrying the pack up the cascade. So I hefted the backpack again and we headed back up the trail.
It only took about 10 minutes and a few rest stops for me to acknowledge that I didn’t have the energy to carry our gear myself. But I worried about my 14 year old daughter. The pack was a bit too large for her – would it hurt her back? Would she find it too heavy? She had spent a week last summer backpacking, and she happily put it on her back and took off ahead. Relieved, I ambled along as we crossed the mountainside to the first part of the long ascent.
I dragged myself at times. Really, Connie? But it just was what it was. Again and again, I reminded myself to be present, rather than think of what was ahead, or feel despair at the slowness of my progress. I had to downshift into 1st gear and keep it there to get through this hike.
My family was quite patient with me as I would beg for rests. I gave thanks to my strong heart, as it beat resoundingly in my chest. We rested under shady limbs and on rocks along the way. I’d tell myself, just up to that next crest, or just up to that large red rock, and then I can stop for a bit.
The Final Ascent, and the Emergence of Resilience
One more short downhill, past the small group of trees, and into the land of the puff-balls. The big, long uphill trail lie ahead before we crested at the ridge and could glide downhill to the parking lot. By now, my legs felt like lead. It didn’t feel that they weren’t strong enough, but that my heart and lungs couldn’t seem to replenish them fast enough.
I fell further behind. We stopped talking, as it simply wasted my energy. My daughter seemed unaffected by the weight of the pack, but I was fighting a battle without any extra at all. Fear arose about my heart – could it really take this much? Why did I feel out of shape? Was I dehydrated? By this time, my husband had drank all of his water, my daughter was nearly out, and I was sharing my last bit with them.
I moved ahead, step by step. Resting often, but carrying on. My family encouraged me to go just a little further before a break. My heart, though it seemed to race, was steady; my mind needed to catch up. I had to realize that I was more resilient than my mind wanted me to believe. I just needed to turn away from thinking and keep going. My resilience emerged and strengthened with each step. It didn’t matter if families with toddlers were passing me. I am making it up the hill however I am able.
The Top of the Ridge
After 30 minutes of slowly trudging uphill, stopping to touch puff-balls, resting by the mini-meadow, and catching a butterfly on my finger (it wouldn’t be a trip to Mount Shasta if I didn’t!), the last few steps to the top arrived. We paused at the summit, looking over the Old Ski Bowl parking lot, down the mountain and far off across the valley to Lake Siskyou. I was grateful.
I didn’t skip down the mountain (although my husband joyfully ran). I plodded along slowly, but with more lightness in my step. Still catching my breath, I plopped down into the car seat and heaved a sigh.
The memory of the pristine meadow was deeply imprinted in us. And perhaps moreso, for me, was the memory of the hike itself. Not only the vistas, but the challenges with my body and mind. I was able to keep the mental drama at a minimum, and go past what I thought I could do. It didn’t matter how slowly I moved or how fast my heart raced. It didn’t matter why I seemed to struggle. I made it.
On some level, I not only needed that meadow, but I needed that challenge. By staying present, having faith, and persisting, I discovered my resilience.
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