This time last year, I was backpacking the Israel National Trail, a ~ 700 mile hiking trail that stretches from Israel’s northern border with Lebanon to its southern border with the Red Sea (it’s like the Pacific Crest Trail of the Middle East…with a few more camels and a lot more hummus).
It took me 52 days to complete the trail from tip to tail. Each day, I’d hike 15 to 25 miles in the autumn heat, sweat a sh*t ton, drink > 6L of water, consume an unbelievable number of calories, and try my very best not to get sunburned.
Along the way, I made incredible friends, traipsed through stunning landscapes, and marveled at the strength of my human body. Hiking the trail was fun, and a huge privilege…it was also just as grimy, exhausting, and hard (like, really hard) as it sounds.
I’ve thought a lot about “the trail” in the year since completing it. Like most of life’s intense and impactful experiences, I’m still metaphorically “unpacking my backpack” from it all these months later. Especially mid-pandemic, I’ve found myself recalling specific days from the trail more frequently and with a new clarity. Many of these memories parallel, metaphorically, the challenges we face mid-pandemic. And so I draw from them a sense of strength and wisdom that supports me in our new reality.
There’s one specific, taxing, beautiful “trail” day I think about most frequently: Day 46. We (my Israeli hiking partner, Eran, and I) were deep in Israel’s Negev desert. We hadn’t had hit a village rest stop in days, which meant we were exceptionally stinky, down to our final food rations (crushed up chips for breakfast, anyone?), thoroughly depleted of energy after six weeks non-stop on the trail, and hadn’t seen any other humans for…a while. (The great expanse of the desert was certainly not quarantine, but we were isolated with each other. And, this far into 2020, we all know how that can be! 😉
On the morning of Day 46, we packed up camp before dawn to beat the heat and hiked south through a wide canyon. These morning hours were always my favorite…the desert breeze felt cool and dry, the little birdies were chirping in acacia trees, my morning coffee was hitting my system, and a full day of adventure was ahead. As we hiked, I pulled out my phone to document the moment, and flipped the camera to selfie mode…ouch, I thought, I look exceptionally exhausted.
As the sun continued to rise, hundreds of flies began to swarm around us. I’m not sure if it was the pungent smell of our stinkiness or food, or just genuine interest, but they would. not. let. up. We hiked for miles on end with hoards of them in our faces and on our backpacks — not dangerous, but relentlessly annoying. I took lots of deep breaths, channelled all my yoga-namaste-breath-thru-it mindfulness, and “accepted the suck.” This is minor, I reminded myself, and I am fine.
Eventually the canyon narrowed. As we climbed up it, we discovered deep, seasonal water pools. “Let’s just boulder up along the canyon walls and climb around them,” Eran suggested. Uh…couldn’t we just wade through them? I felt a bolt of anxiety – intensified by my exhaustion – shoot through me. Falling in would be inconvenient at best and dangerous at worst.
I tossed a rock in the water to judge depth and struggled to hear it land. Fine, bouldering it is. I followed Eran’s lead, my palms sweaty on the rocks, gravity pulling my heavy backpack and me away from the wall as I clung towards it. Mind over matter.
An hour later, we had made our way out of the canyon and up to the exposed desert plain above. I took out my phone to take a picture of the plain and it was on selfie mode still…I look both relieved and pissed.
By this time it was midday. Normally, at lunch, we would find shade to stop, eat, and nap. But getting through the canyon took longer than expected, and we needed to get to our endpoint by darkness that evening. So we overrode our bodies’ request for rest, and hiked on in the oppressive heat. It felt like Mars.
I ate what was left of my mushy trail mix, and tried to move a little faster in front of Eran to create some space. I was feeling expended, and thus beginning to be overwhelmed by the small things. And as we all know by now, a preventative buffer on hard days = a good idea.
After a few hours, the trail began to slope downwards. We reached a second canyon. I hadn’t noticed this on the map, and my chest tightened. Really, again? There’s better not be water.
Of course, there was water. This time with a series of ladders and ropes previous hikers had attached to the rock to “ease” the scrambling.
Eran went first. I peered over the edge. “Wait,” I called down to him, “but I won’t be able to see the rest of the ladder until I climb over the ledge! I’m not sure how to feel about this…”
He called back up at me, “Well, you don’t have to know how to feel about it. But you do have to come down here for us to get out of the canyon.”
I stalled to take a picture, “ugghhhh…this is really uncomfortable. I want to know what it’s all going to look like before I do it.”
With all the tough love in the world he responded, “Unfortunately, that’s not an option, Cass.”
I stood there at the top, fully depleted. From sun, from miles, from sub-par-nourishment, and from the past 45 days of hiking. Every day of the trail had held enormous challenge of one kind or another – physical, mental, logistical, emotional…but for some reason, the six weeks of hiking prior felt like it crescendoed there. On Day 46. In that moment.
At my wits end, I silently protested: I know discomfort breeds growth. But can’t I be done growing for today? Like, isn’t this enough growth for now?
Eran called up to me again. I sighed, what’s one more thing at this point? I overrode my thoughts, and got my butt down the ladder.
The “best” part, of course, was that after a few more of these ladders, we came to a truly impassable pool. We actually tried to send our packs across it on a rope, which snapped. Then we attempted to swim across it with the packs over our heads, but it was too wide. We realized we’d have to retrace our way up the ladders, of the canyon, and find a different route.
I looked at our water bottles. Near empty. I looked at the sky. Near sunset. We wouldn’t get to our endpoint (where we had bottles of water cached for us) before dark. We’d need to stop for the night miles before that, which meant we’d need to filter this water. I shook my head, realizing the irony of the situation: this water had slowed us down and challenged us all day, and now it was going to provide us sustenance through the night. We filled our bottles with the murky, silty green water, dropped in chlorine tablets, climbed back up the ladders, and returned to the desert plain.
As we navigated the alternative route, the sun sunk behind the Jordanian mountains in the distance. We played with the acoustics of the canyon – calling back and forth to each other to hear our voices echo. And as the sky became lavender, I felt a wave of relief wash over me. Suddenly, I was crying and beaming. Sunscreen and sweat ran down my cheeks.
“Wait, I gotta stop and snap-shot this moment,” I said to Eran. I paused, pulled out my phone, and took a selfie. My face, tanned by weeks in the desert sun. My hair, oily and matted in a bun atop my head. My backpack, grimy and heavy on my shoulders.
I snapped the photo, and we continued down the trail as I cried silently. At the time, I couldn’t fully process why those tears kept coming. Was it relief? Exhaustion? A mix of everything?
It wasn’t until many months later, in fact, as I was sitting at home mid-way into the pandemic, that I realized those tears were signs of growing pains. They were tears of expansion and adaptation and stretching beyond limits day after day after day. They were the break after the crescendo. They were evidence that I had leveled up, that I could tolerate and process more than I used to be able to.
Sitting here now, a year later and eight months into the pandemic, I see all the parallels and metaphors Day 46 and our present. I try to remind myself that these current moments ache so much and so often because I’m being forced to grow at a rapid rate. Moment after moment. Day after day. Without a break. Even (especially) when I don’t want to, even (especially) when I feel like there. can’t. possibly. be. more.
I remind myself that I’m in it. That the epiphanies and connections and silver linings and hindsight will not come until much later. But for now, here I am.
So I’m begging you, gently and persistently, to join me in reminding yourself, too, that this feeling? This is what growing feels like.