We stared at the “pond,” more like a puddle, with its dark green glow. In this heat, that puddle was perfect breeding ground for algae and who knows what else. We weren’t even sure how many miles in we were at that point, but it was the first water source we’d seen, and we were pretty it was our only option. It was over 100 degrees, and we’d been hiking in the direct sun all afternoon. Water filtration systems typically don’t even blink at sights like the thick green slime before us. Too bad we’d left ours in the car.
Five of us had jumped into a Volkswagen Beatle and driven all night from Western Washington to Zion National Park. This was back when you could show up with no reservation and still get a backcountry permit. This was my second time backpacking. In my book, that meant I knew everything. By the end of that one-night trip, we’d made every mistake in the book.
Many of our mistakes were preventable. We could have remembered our water filter. We could have brought a map. We could have done our research and not trusted the evil soul who told us at the end of the trail a shuttle comes by every 30 minutes and would take us back to our campsite (yeah…there was no shuttle and we ended up 18.5 miles away from our base-camp). We could have not worn cotton everything. Oh, the things we could have done to avoid disaster could be listed forever.
The entirety of our trip could have been drastically improved with ANY additional amount of planning and intelligence. But sometimes, whether at the fault of your own or of nature, you find yourself miles out into the wilderness, in a situation that requires you to problem solve, be creative, and institute a mental toughness that allows you not just to survive an undesirable circumstance, but still maintain a sense of enjoyment. If you spend enough time outside, eventually, something will go wrong.
When we stared at the green slimy puddle on the West Rim Train, realizing we did not have a water filter, we were silently cursing ourselves. And then we were audibly cursing ourselves. And then we grabbed a clean sock, strained the water through the sock, and boiled it until it was safe to drink. It wasn’t ideal that we had scalding hot water on a 100+ degree day, but we were able to bring ourselves back around and laugh about it. We had means to acquire clean water, and that the most crucial thing in that moment. Something had gone wrong, and we needed to do something about it.
Sometimes, things happen that are completely outside of our control. Weather can be unpredictable. Nature can be a force that will not be reckoned with. Injuries are sometimes inevitable. Regardless of any amount of training and preparation, it is ultimately impossible to completely prevent disaster.
I should probably be writing a post on, “how not to make all the mistakes I made,” especially after confessing our endless blunders. You can find posts like that anywhere. I want to talk about attitude and mental states, and how regardless of the circumstances, that is what truly makes or breaks your trip. And sometimes, that can be the difference between survival or otherwise.
Mindset is Everything
Our mind possesses power that not even science, amidst its craziest advances, can truly understand. Placebo pills sometimes work far greater miracles than the prescription drug itself. Our attitude and our mindset can be the determining factors of our outcome.
Have you ever reached the point where you were physically unable to take one more step? I have not. I have many times in my life reached the point where I didn’t take another step, or I didn’t want to take another step. But never yet have I reached the point where I couldn’t. How many steps can I take? What levels of perseverance do I actually possess?
What do we do when things go wrong? What should we do when things go wrong?
Nothing about our trip to Zion National Park would be considered a dream trip or even a trip that went moderately well. What didn’t go wrong because of our own stupidity went wrong anyway. Did I mention we blew the turbo in our diesel engine and got stranded in St George Utah, eventually ended up flying home from Las Vegas, and left the car in Utah?
Yeah…the entire trip was a nightmare, from start to finish. But when I look back on that trip, it is still one of my favorite adventures to date. The amount I learned, the amount we overcame (even if the obstacles were created unnecessarily by ourselves), and the way we came together as a team is something I will always cherish.
No matter what came our way, we stayed positive, problem solved, readjusted our plans, and kept moving forward.
That trip created so many parallels for life. That wasn’t the only time I felt stranded. It wasn’t the only time it felt like my lifeline/water source was being torn from my grasp. It wasn’t the only time I felt like I was at the end of a trail, in the middle of nowhere, and I had absolutely no idea how to get where I needed to go.
When Things Go Wrong Off the Trail
I’m sure I don’t have to tell you this, but life doesn’t always go according to plan. Things happen, and we can very unexpectedly find our entire world upside down. Our mindset can make or break us in those moments. We can choose to be defeated, or we can choose to keep fighting.
Just the same as on the West Rim trail, when my husband and I found ourselves amidst the most tragic moments in our life, we were faced with choice after choice after choice, and suddenly how we encountered each choice was going to determine an outcome that was going to be permanently imprinted on our hearts.
Our time on the trail could never have come even remotely close to preparing us with losing our daughter. However, the problem-solving, positive mindset we had on the trail constantly transferred over to how we approached every day in our new reality.
On the trail, when things go wrong, you have to remain positive. I remember very vividly a conversation my husband and I had shortly after our daughter’s terminal diagnosis. We talked about fighting for gratitude. We promised each other that no matter how bad things got, we would always remember to find something to be grateful for. No matter how broken we found ourselves, we kept that promise to each other. We never stopped being grateful, in the midst of the most tragic time in our life. Being able to have a mindset of gratitude during that time was imperative for our survival. Actually, it still is.
On the trail, when things go wrong, giving up can have life or death consequences. In the moments of utter despair off the trail, giving up is equally detrimental to your chance of survival. We had to approach each day with a completely solidified mindset that no matter what happened, we would not give up. We wouldn’t give up on ourselves or each other.
On the trail, when things go wrong, you have to come together as a team. It can be so easy to instantly be at each other’s throats. Suddenly, the way someone breathes can be the most annoying thing you’ve ever experienced. If you dwell on your differences rather than your common goal, you will destroy yourselves. My husband and I had 19 weeks and 5 days with our little girl between diagnosis and goodbye. We had a common goal – celebrate every single moment we had together. And that is exactly what we did. We celebrated every moment. And suddenly we were so unified in that common goal that nothing else mattered.
Stay Focused on What Really Matters
On the trail, when things go wrong, you’re going to be frustrated; you can’t let that frustration control you. There were many points on that trip in Zion where all of us were beyond frustrated. At ourselves, each other, and the circumstances. And we put aside the frustrations and kept moving forward. We kept problem solving, and miraculously, eventually we made it home. In the midst of knowing we were about to say goodbye to our daughter, my husband and I time and time again faced the most frustrating circumstances in which we were rendered completely helpless. If we had focused on the frustrations themselves (that were completely out of our control), we would have missed out on all of the joy we were able to see and experience in a circumstance that should have been joyless.
On the trail, when things go wrong, how you handle it will determine your outcome in more ways that you can ever know. We should probably still be stranded in Utah. The same is equally true off the trail. Losing our daughter should have destroyed us. The helplessness should have completely overcome us. We should be in bed, refusing to accept our existence. But we are still fighting. We still see and experience joy, we are overwhelmed with gratitude, and we will never give up. Losing our little girl wrecked us. But it did not destroy us.
She wrecked our hearts in the most beautiful way.
When things go wrong, on the trail or off, we have a choice. We can choose to fight or we can choose to be defeated. And the more we choose to fight, the more automatic that response becomes.
You Always Have a Choice
You may not be able to completely choose your circumstances, but you always have a choice in how you react to your circumstances. No matter what you are going through, from being lost in the woods, to staring at a green, slimy water source, to hearing the terrifying words no one should ever have to hear, I hope you choose to fight.
If you liked this article, make sure to check out other Mountain Moments.