It was our third backpacking trip on the Pacific Crest Trail and I remember the knee pain well. At first it was just a twinge. I didn’t think much of it and I for sure didn’t realize the pickle I was in until a full day later. It was sometime later that I learned the valuable life lesson of stepping back from the big-picture and taking one step at a time. But more about that later.
It was about six years ago while on a 100 mile backpacking trip along the Oregon portion of the Pacific Crest Trail. The idea was for my friend Eric and I to start where we finished our previous backpacking trip; a few miles north of Mt. Jefferson. We would backpack up and around the side of Mt. Hood and finish with a long hike down Eagle Creek. The first day turned out to be rather boring. As expected some parts of the Pacific Crest Trail are more interesting to backpack than others; this was one of the less interesting sections.
The second day saw us reach Little Crater Lake. We paused around this tiny but brilliant blue lake and I soaked my feet which were pretty sore by this point. That was not a surprise. I have high arches and a special knack for heel blisters. By this time I had learned to live with them. I thought I knew what pain was and how to handle it but by the end of the next day I would learn otherwise.
On the afternoon of the third day we made a long descent of several miles into the area known as the Barlow Pass; most famous as Oregon’s first toll road used by settlers coming over the Oregon Trail. Somewhere along this descent I noticed the slightest of twinges in my left knee. This was new for me and I didn’t think much of it other than, “oh well, it will go away once we reach the bottom.” And for the most part it did go away. It was, at that point, the least of my worries. The bigger worry was that there was no water at the first two water sources we expected. Most of our water was gone and we had one more chance; a small spring two miles ahead that the backpacking guide book said was “unreliable.” Fortunately the tiny three foot spring had plenty of water.
The next morning we woke with at start as Eric sat up to the smell of smoke. Fire danger was high and when we looked outside the tent you could see a haze of smoke throughout the forest. Did I tell you we were in a wilderness area; miles from any roads and during August? Our first thought was forest fire. We never packed up camp so fast as that morning. We figured our best bet was to head the six miles uphill to Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood. I realized my knee was still stiff and sore but the thought of being toasted in the woods like a marshmallow made it a non-issue. We found out later the smoke was from almost 50 miles away.
After a break at the Lodge we threw our backpacks on and continued around Mt. Hood. It was a difficult trail with lots of up and down sections. It was a bit like hiking up and down sand dunes all day. We finished by wandering across the wide but mostly dry Sandy River looking for the trail on the other side. Eventually we found a perfect campsite and for the first time I realized just how bad my knee was feeling. I found a pool of water, soaked it and downed several ibuprofen pills before cooking dinner.
By the next morning I was looking for a walking stick of some sort as now every step felt like someone was shoving a knife under my knee cap. I had never felt pain like this before and found myself wincing in anticipation before my foot hit the ground. And this is when I got myself in trouble.
I did the numbers. You see, I’ve always had a way with numbers. I can almost visualize them the way that some people do when they spell a word. It took about 15 seconds and went something like this:
- My stride is about five feet for each two steps
- That means I will feel the knife once every five feet
- There are 5,280 feet in a mile
- This is about 1,050 knives in the knee per mile
- I have 30 more miles until the end of the trail.
- Over 31,000 more stabbings.
- I’m not sure I can do this…
Of course I did do it, but by the time I got home I was not able to drive for 3 days; I couldn’t depress the clutch in our car. Soon after dropping my pack in the living room I waited until no one was looking and crawled up the stairs to the bedroom; it was just easier. So how was it that I walked out that last 30 miles?
By not getting overwhelmed with the “Big Picture.” I had to block that out of my mind and switch gears; focusing only on the next step. Realizing what happens in 1 mile, 5 miles or 30 miles was irrelevant. All that mattered was the next step.
It worked! Soon I found myself mocking the pain. Hah! I’m still going. Eventually I learned in many respects that pain is mind over matter. This proved useful a couple years later when I would shatter and dislocate my ankle. The people in the emergency room wanted to cut my pants off rather than pull them over the ankle. I told them NO WAY, I just bought these. They gave me the maximum dose of morphine and said it would be OK in a couple minutes. Several minutes later I told them “you know, that shot isn’t doing a thing.” Their eyes got big and they scurried off to find a doctor who could prescribe something stronger.
I’ve always been a big picture person. The big picture is good. The big picture is important. It’s important because detail is meaningless if you don’t know where you are going. This is true in business, child rearing, marriage, finances, even gardening.
But now I supplement the big picture by pulling back into the detail. On my backpacking trip I knew the trail we were on was headed in the right direction and because of that, there was comfort in being able to put that big picture away for a awhile and just focus on the detail; that next step.
This works for so many areas in life.
Not sure where you marriage is going to be 10 miles down the trail? Focus on the doing something to make the next day a positive one.
Worrying about what will happen to your kids 5 miles down the road? Focus on building them up and helping them through their next step.
Burdened under a backpack loaded with more responsibilities then it seems like you can carry? Pick a single item to focus on and then move on to the next.
Feeling like you’ve failed again? Focus on stepping back on the trail and making that first step in the right direction.
I could go on forever, but you get the idea. Check your bearings; then take life one step at a time.
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