As we pulled into the parking area for the last hike of our vacation, most cars were leaving. It was 75 degrees at 8am and the day would only get hotter — Julie and I love the heat but it can be dangerous hiking in the desert in midday. We’re experienced and carry enough water or at least we think so. When we get back to the car with the last drops, in the the last bottle, it makes us think we cut it a little close.
There is a difference between taking a risk and being risky. Being risky would be attempting a hike like this without the proper preparation, without knowing and respecting our own abilities. I see so many examples of bad preparation in daily life that it makes me wonder why people don’t approach such difficult and dangerous feats such as retirement planning with as much care as they would a hike in the desert.
The temperature was expected to reach 90 degrees but we’ve hiked on hotter days. The trail would be in direct sunlight the entire way there and back. The first mile would only get us as far as a picnic area used by people walking their dogs or looking for a spectacular lunch spot without much hiking effort. Once past the picnic area we head down into a wash — a dry, sandy riverbed that, during rains, can fill with water running off the mountains. After a mile or so in the wash we reach the beginning of the trail that will take us up, and up, and up, and over, until we reach an oasis.
This early part of the hike seems quite easy and can lull an inexperienced hiker into a false sense of confidence that may lead to disaster later if they push beyond their ability. People have needed to be rescued from this area because they ran out of water, misjudged the difficulty, overestimated their ability or all of the above. Life seems easy sometimes too and similarly lulls many people into feeling they can afford more than they really can or that they have more time than they actually have.
As the trail heads up we are at 117 feet above sea level and will climb to 2,331 feet in about 2.5 miles, a steep climb. The steepest parts are at the beginning with lots of switchbacks, winding sections of trail meant to alleviate the need to climb straight up. We stop often to admire the scenery, catch our breath, and drink water or Gatorade. When we begin moving again the familiar crunch, crunch, crunch of sand and rock beneath our feet is one of the only sounds we hear.
As we begin our adult lives, our careers, it sometimes seems like a slow climb to nowhere, twisting and turning from one job, one responsibility to another. It’s not a race but some of us linger a bit too long in one place as the sun sucks us dry. We can feel alone sometimes, the sound of our effort the only sound we hear.
On our entire hike we only see five people, all going in the opposite direction back to their cars to get out of the heat, we continue on.
Persistence and perseverance may be good traits to have as we fight heat and fatigue, challenging ourselves, but we may be setting ourselves up for disaster. Knowing the difference between persistence and foolishness can mean the difference between life and death. In life, persistence and perseverance are also useful traits but maybe they keep you in a bad situation longer than you need to be, or blind you to a better option. Sometimes it’s not only acceptable but smart to stop, turn around and even quit.
Looking up, the landscape seems quite stark and barren but there is a surprising amount of greenery interspersed in the brown rocks. Cacti are blooming and the bright purple and yellow pops out at you, the red tips of the blooming ocotillo are another sign of survival in this harsh environment. Yellow flowers on the creosote bush brighten the brown tones of dirt and dust. The aroma as you pass the creosote bush is delightful invoking memories of camp fires and BBQ.
The desert is full of life as plants and animals uniquely suited to the extremes of heat and dryness not only survive but thrive. What one person views as an impossible situation, a mountain of debt they can’t emerge from, a marriage they can’t stay in, a job they can’t stand, others see or search for opportunity. Willing to give up enough lifestyle some among us will get out from under the debt, with enough confidence in themselves some will leave the bad marriage, with determination and drive some will find a new job or new career. In the desert that their life has become they find a way to survive and then they can thrive.
THE DESTINATION IS NOT THE END
Finally our destination emerges in the distance as we round one last peak and see the palm trees in the oasis. Though we can see it, there is still more hiking to be done. The reward will be shade from the sun and a cool place to eat our lunch. The goal, however, is not the end of the journey as we have to turn around and make our way back to our car. The time we spend in the oasis is a pleasure but there is still work to be done. We have managed our resources accordingly and didn’t drink more than half of our water supply and conserved enough energy for the return trip.
Too many people think of a goal as an end when it’s really only the middle. The goal of a new job or promotion is followed by more work, the goal of getting out of debt is of no use if you simply fall back into the old habits that got you into the debt to begin with. Once a goal is reached a new one is set — that’s called progress. I learn something new about progress on each hike, that the journey itself is rewarding, that there’s always something beautiful, colorful, and inspiring if you just look for it, that a reprieve is usually temporary and that struggle is a part of the trip, and that goals are simply steps along the route to success.