We sprinted up the switchbacked trail, pausing occasionally to measure how far we’d come, to rest our already used-up legs, to fill our lungs with as much oxygen as the mountain air would give. In previous years, I would have decided that it wasn’t worth it. Not the rush. Not the climb. Not even the destination. But over a lifetime, I’d come to embrace hiking, to believe that forest trails led to worthwhile places, to want to finish what we’d started. So we pressed on, putting one foot in front of the other, making painfully slow progress toward the solitude of one of Yellowstone’s backcountry thermal areas.
We’d tried this trail eighteen years before, on our first trip to the mountains together, just a couple of years into our marriage. We’d left our little red Plymouth Sundance in the pullout and approached the trail. Well, we walked to where the trail was supposed to be, just beyond the sign nestled in the pines, but no inviting packed-dirt path beckoned us deeper into the woods. The only indication that we were near the trail was a slender opening through the trees and a line of footprints in the snow.
That was May. After eight years away from Yellowstone, I’d forgotten about winter’s lingering ways. We’d set off into the snow in jeans and tennis shoes. One hundred yards later, soaked from the knees down, we turned back.
Now we were trying the trail to Monument Geyser Basin again. In September. On a dry trail. In hiking boots.
The intervening years had taught us some things.
The trail was short. Just a mile. Still, the steady string of switchbacks which climbed over 500 feet in that short distance earned it a classification of strenuous.
Under clear skies and over an open trail, this could have been a pleasant, though thigh-burning, hike but we’d chosen to squeeze it in between an already finished long trek and an appointment for a tour at the Old Faithful Inn.
In other words, we had to be quick. We had to hurry. Hurry and strenuous make a bad match. Hurry and hiking are poor companions. We knew this, but in our desire to get to Monument, we ignored it. So we raced up the trail, intent only on getting there in time to get back down again in time to make our appointment.
The trail ended at an opening in the trees, a doorway into a barren landscape of haunting shapes and the familiar scent of sulfur suspended in the air.
I perused the ghostly scene with its grey silhouettes and its gurgles and felt a strange disappointment settle over me. After all of that effort, I was expecting something different, something more. Something more spectacular. Something more worth the climb.
We’d pushed to get to this place. We’d rushed. We’d risked. And here I stood, dissatisfied.
I knew the problem wasn’t the geyser basin. It was me. In my rush I’d burst through the opening in the trees as a consumer expecting to be entertained rather than as a visitor willing to be surprised by creation’s hospitality.
With the hour of our impending meeting with the Old Faithful Inn bellman driving us on, we didn’t linger long.
On our descent, we noticed another opening in the trees, one we’d missed on our way up. Even in our hurry, we turned toward it rather than following the trail to the car. Stepping through the trees we found ourselves above a wide meadow. A bison herd, brown dots scattered among the tattered grasses of fall, grazed near the Gibbon River. Standing above the river and the road which followed its course, we let our rush, our race with time slip away and I found rest for my disquieted mind and a reminder for my soul that it is possible–and good–to be still.
Monument was our destination. It drew us up the mountain, reminded me again that we miss out when we hurry, and then it offered the gracious hospitality of rest along the road, even though I showed up as an ill-mannered guest. That was its gift. Someday I’d like to return to Monument with a less entitled eye, to see it for what it is, a quiet marvel that God declared to be good. But for now, I’m grateful for the time on the trail, for what I learned, and the rest along the way.
And you? What unexpected discoveries have you made when you’ve paused along the way?
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