One rainy morning recently I received a wordless lesson in equanimity when a few long-distance backpackers showed me what it looks like to handle a challenge with composure. Here’s how they turned a negative into a positive and how you can do the same with the rain that falls in your life.
Miles to Go…
It was a Tuesday morning in June, and I was looking at another 22-mile day of backpacking on the Appalachian Trail.
Each year a couple thousand long distance backpackers hike this 2,000 mile trail; about 650 actually make the full distance from Georgia to Maine. Those who are trying to go the whole way are called thru-hikers. By the time they make it to where I was in Pennsylvania, they have already hiked over 1,000 miles and generally know what they are doing.
It was day three of my trip, and I was up for the challenge. But unlike the sunny skies of yesterday, this day the world was grey, clouds were forming, and there was an ominous rumbling to the west.
Heading down the trail just after dawn, I had five or six miles behind me when the wind began to freshen, the sky grew darker, and the rumbling closed in.
A mile ahead, there was an open-sided Adirondack shelter along a stream. I quickened my pace thinking I could get there and hole up before the storm hit.
The smooth, pine needle-coated trail made the downhill walking relatively easy. I hit the stream, paused to refill on water and then walked up towards the shelter. The sky was getting angrier; a heavy rain was coming, it was only a matter of minutes.
In the front of the shelter, I could see several hikers milling around. One in particular caught my eye. He was dressed in a tan rain suit, tops and bottoms. No rain had yet fallen, but his hood was already up. It struck me that he was wearing a kind of suit of armor against the rain. And he wasn’t going anywhere, just hanging around the shelter, presumably waiting for the rain to pass.
Suddenly, regardless of the weather, I didn’t want to stop, didn’t want to end up milling around waiting for the rain to stop. Plus there was a lot of ground to cover. I thought I would hike on and just deal with the rain when it came.
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
and miles to go before I sleep.”
– Robert Frost
Down Came the Rain…
That moment wasn’t far away. As the trail climbed steadily uphill from the shelter, you could hear the rapid approach of the rain, sounding like the rushing sound of a waterfall or a freight train as it collided into the trees and brush. It was a white wall of water coming closer and closer.
It was time to pause and get the rain jacket on. At first pleased with myself that I was smart enough to be carrying one, that quickly turned to annoyance for leaving it at the bottom of the backpack. As the rain began pelting me with fat, cool drops, I was pulling things out of the pack in order to dig down to the jacket.
“Rookie mistake,” I kept telling myself; “Rookie mistake.”
I finally got it on as the worst of the rain hit. Tossing the backpack back on, I continued on up the trail, determined to at least keep moving.
But I began to think about what I had seen at the shelter, and what I was doing, walking with my jacket on and starting to heat up on the inside from the steady climb. Soon my jacket would be as wet with sweat on the inside as it was with rain on the outside.
I wondered what it was that successful thru-hikers did when the rain came.
It wasn’t long before I found out.
Soon, around the corner came two hikers, striding confidently through the downpour. Backpacks, walking poles, big bushy trail beards. But no hats, no hoods, no jackets. Just T-shirts and shorts and shoes, walking in the rain. We exchanged cheery good mornings and continued on.
My thought: OK, so some thru-hikers keep going despite the rain, and instead of bothering with the jacket and trying not to get wet, they embrace the rain as a way to keep cool and maybe clean their clothing at the same time. Seems pretty smart.
Another mile or so down the trail, I came across two more thru-hikers. No hat, no hood, and this time, no shirt. Their smile was even brighter as they passed by.
My thought: These guys are using the rain to take a shower; brilliant!
After a few more minutes of walking, another duo of thru hikers approached, two girls. No hat or hood, they wore normal hiking clothing, and were carrying small folding umbrellas opened over their heads. Their smiles and greetings were the brightest of them all.
My thought: That’s something I never would have thought of – an umbrella on the trail. But they are relatively dry, smiling, and moving confidently forward. That’s pretty cool.
If you are a hiker, it’s going to rain. You can’t prevent it.
You can choose how you deal with it, though.
You can put up all your defenses like donning a full rain suit and hunkering down in a shelter to wait it out. Sometimes you might have to.
But armor is hot, and heavy, and limiting.
And holing up means you don’t get anywhere. You become passive. You allow yourself to become a victim of the storm. You allow something else to dictate the terms of your life.
I think the better idea is to avoid the shelter. Or, if you are already in one, the minute you can leave it and start moving forward again, do so.
Take the rain with equanimity, find a way to live with it, embrace it, and keep moving.
Soon after the girls with the umbrellas passed out of view around a bend in the trail, I stopped, took off my rain coat, and stuffed it back into the backpack.
With a smile on my face and the cool rain beginning to clean my smelly hiking shirt, I set off again down the trail.
Shelter: By Mwanner – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4540608