Have you ever been on a hike that makes you question whether or not you actually like hiking, or what’s so great about summits? As part of my recent mini-sabbatical, I was determined to do things that fill me with delight. Hiking is generally one of those things.
I perused the internet for the perfect trail–something close to the train, well marked and safe for a female hiking alone, and doable. That’s when I found it.
The trailhead was just a mile from the train station. The reviews were good. It was classified as “moderate.” Challenging enough to feel like I conquered something, but not so challenging that I would lose all self-respect in the process or have to go all 127 Hours.
Tuesday morning dawned and I packed up to head to the train. I had my full water bottle and snacks on snacks on snacks. After lacing up my hiking boots, I grabbed a coffee and breakfast on my way to 125th St. where I would pick up the Poughkeepsie-bound Metro North train.
I gazed out the window and listened to my audiobook as the train sped along the Hudson. After disembarking the train, I made my way to the trailhead. My breakfast hadn’t satiated my hunger as much as I might have hoped, so I sat down to eat a banana and take a look at the map.
I decided on the full loop, which would take me to the summit of Bull Hill and through some nice scenic spots. The sign said it should take 3-4 hours. We’ll see about that, I scoffed. I took my first steps of the 6+ mile hike, ready to show this mountain who was boss.
I made it all of twenty minutes before realizing the mountain was, in fact, boss. It is good for a trail to be well marked. But there is such a thing as too much information. I passed a sign stating that I’d reach the summit in 1.8 miles. Not too bad, I thought, like a derp. Ten minutes later, I passed another sign. Surely I was making record time and was ready to feel a jolt of adrenaline as I checked to see how far I’d made it.
Summit: 1.7 miles.
Heaving and overheating, I sat on a rock and started to slip into despair. Problem 1: I was dressed in long leggings and a regular t-shirt with a flannel tied around my waist. But between the sun and the trail, I was far too warm. Problem 2: I hadn’t eaten enough food. Problem 3: The trail was made up of a series of steep piles of rocks that, with every step, reminded me that I grew up at the beach.
Nevertheless, the 3-4 hour time estimate haunted me every time I stopped to rest. I thought about turning around a few times, as well as the pros and cons of curling up on a rock to take a nap and the merits of staying partway up the mountain for the rest of my life. Looking around at the various rocks, I thought, This is where I live now.
As I am sitting here writing this story, you’ve likely figured out that I made it back in one piece. There were several motivating factors that got me to the top of the mountain. The biggest one was the frogs. I heard them from 100 yards off and one thought crossed my mind. Oh, it’s frog mating season. Perfect. I came upon one of the few flat areas on the whole trail to find a small pool of stagnant water filled with frogs making aggressive mating calls. I decided right then and there that once I passed through that mini-valley, I was all-in. After that, turning back would mean once more walking through this froggy playboy mansion.
The trail took me across a series of rocks in the creek where the frogs were *ahem* doing their thing. Suppressing images of eighty frogs leaping out of the water at me, covered in spawn, I loudly declared my intentions to cross the creek. I said, “Hello frogs, I’m going to cross this little area, don’t mind me, keep doing you, also you’re disgusting and I hate you and if you jump at me, I will end you.”
To be clear, I think frogs are always disgusting and I always hate them. Not just when they’re mating. I don’t hold that against them. Mating is their biological imperative.
The horrible idea of frog mating calls being the soundtrack of my death drove me up that mountain, as well as my own need to beat the time estimate. I wish it was something more profound, but here we are. When I did finally reach the top, I sat for a long time considering the path I’d just trod. And my own mortality.
You might have heard me mention this a time or two, but I am insanely, neurotically competitive. There are situations in which that is beneficial. There are situations, like this one, in which it makes everything 50x more difficult than it needs to be.
This was an adventure I was doing for fun and leisure. I had absolutely nowhere to be and plenty of daylight left. But the estimated time on the sign felt like a personal challenge, a gauntlet tossed across my path that I was destined to beat. Sure, it may take others 3-4 hours. But not me. I’d show them.
Who exactly was I trying to show? And what was I trying to show them? I saw five humans and possibly eight hundred frogs on the entire loop. What exactly was I trying to prove?
Mayhaps you aren’t as competitive as I am. But it’s possible that you also walk around with a similar need to prove something. If you’re also single, maybe you want to be perceived as independent, desirable, or content. Mayhaps, like me, it’s difficult to just be how you are–you want to be better, or at least different. Even when nobody’s paying attention.
As I was hiking up the endless mountain, I thought about the people in the Bible who climbed mountains. Mainly Moses in Exodus, then Jesus, Peter, James, and John in Matthew 17. They went up for specific divine appointments. Did they hurry? Did God make the trek easier for them or were their lungs as reluctant as mine? Did they take their time? How would they react to a hoard of mating frogs? They probably weren’t swearing as much as I was, but maybe they also felt like their calves and glutes would fall off at any moment. One thing I know about Jesus–he walked around in the world like he had nothing to prove. So perhaps he was kind to himself and his bros as they made their way up that “high mountain” (Matt 17:1, NIV).
I think Jesus was able to operate like he had nothing to prove because, quite simply, he didn’t. That’s something I think about a lot in the aftermath of an experience like Bull Hill. How much bandwidth would I save and how much more present would I be if I weren’t consumed by a disproportionate need to prove myself?
In the end, I finished the loop in three and a half hours. So maybe for now, having nothing to prove looks like being content with that.