I was on vacation, and I was having a terrible time.
Well, it wasn’t terrible. The first half was great — my sister and friend and I had gone to Arizona, and made lots of visits to the Grand Canyon and other outdoor attractions in the area. But then some shit happened, and tensions got really high… and while I was doing my best to project “okayness” to the world, I was actually sitting inside my gut, tying my intestines into knots.
I found myself alone for the second half of the trip.
Which was fine. I’d gone solo traveling before, and while the beginning of that trip was a little rough, I eventually came to like solo travel. And honestly, our excursions thus far had not included anything more than light hiking, by request of the rest of the group, which I wasn’t against — but I was maybe a little bummed that I wouldn’t get a chance to push myself.
So, willing myself to loosen the steel grip I had on my small intestines, I decided to do some hiking. I mean, it was just me, so no one would veto that idea, right? I was gonna go on a hike, damn it.
It was labelled online as a moderate trail.
And, you know, it probably was a moderate trail. But it had been so damn long since I had been hiking — like, really hiking — that I apparently had forgotten what a moderate trail was like. My body was not at a place it needed to be to make it feel moderate. Or, hey, maybe it was the heat. Yeah, we’ll go with that.
Doesn’t matter what the reason was. Suffice it to say, I started up Piestewa Point with very little worry.
The parking lot was pretty full when I arrived at the mountain. This was obviously a popular spot, and I had to park in the back lot, which was a bit of a distance away from the start of the trail leading to the summit, but had a nice, easy trail connecting me to the main attraction. I began my hike, adorned with my day pack, two bottles of water, and some lunch.
About ten minutes into my hike, I passed a sign.
“This trail rated EXTREMELY DIFFICULT,” it read. I was a little puzzled — I had done some research before coming, and all reviews of Piestewa said it was a moderate trail. Now, we’re all humans — we like to exaggerate a bit to make ourselves feel better — so I totally get the disparity between the online reviews and the signs that the park rangers put up
But this was my vacation. I wasn’t about to turn around and go home. Nope, I was bound and determined to make the second half of my trip glorious and wonderful. So I shrugged, said fuck it, and started up the mountain.
At first, the trail matched my expectations of “moderate”. But about halfway through, its difficulty began to creep upward, until about three quarters of the way up, it jumped to… well, I wouldn’t say it was exactly rock climbing, but there were several points where my hands got in on the action. I had to stop every ten to fifteen minutes to give myself a breather, and I finished my first water bottle much earlier than expected.
Luckily, there were actual benches along the way — apparently it was obvious that crazy people like me would venture along the trail. During one of my breaks, as I sat on one of these benches, a man came up the trail, followed by his two sons, around 8 and 12 years old. The kids were lagging behind. “Move your feet,” the man called out, a sternness in his voice, while the boys plodded forward, eyes to the ground, not even bothering to fake enjoyment. The man reached my resting point, and motioned toward the rest of the bench for his sons to sit. “Here, you get your cute break,” he said, and the boys immediately sat down to rest.
I thought the man’s attitude was a little much — it seemed less like he wanted his sons to enjoy the hike and more that he wanted them to finish it. But I wasn’t about to get involved. Once I had caught my breath, I resumed my climb — which at this point, was pretty much just that — and maybe twenty minutes later, I reached the top.
About eight people were already up at the top, all sitting or crouched down, trying to recuperate. It was not a huge place to rest, maybe about ten square feet before it started to slope back down. The vibe I got sitting on that mountaintop was one of relief. It’s over, was the look on everyone’s faces. I never want to move from this spot.
Some people rewarded themselves with heavy doses of water; some, with selfies. One man even offered to take a picture of a couple who struggled with their victory photo. Everyone was just so happy to not be doing anything strenuous, even if it was only for a few minutes.
The man and his two sons came into view, the kids quickly plopping onto rocks to rest. “There,” the man said. “That feels good, doesn’t it?” The boys nodded, noncommittal, and the man patted one of them on the back. “Accomplishment — it’s good for your soul, bro.”
That phrase got stuck in my head for the next couple of days.
I thought about it: I hadn’t climbed Piestewa Point for the view. I mean, the view was pretty, but it wasn’t any more beautiful than some of the views I had driven up to see earlier in the week. And if I had really wanted, I could have turned around halfway through the hike, said, “Okay, I’ve gotten my workout, I’m done.”
But that’s not why I was hiking this mountain. I was hiking the mountain because I wanted to reach the top. It was a matter of accomplishment. I may have finished off two water bottles, stripped down to my sports bra, and ended up with a soaking wet day pack… but I reached the top.
That man was trying to teach his kids a lesson. He was trying to show them that setting your mind to a task and finishing it reaps rewards. I don’t know if those two boys would understand it fully, but they had just absorbed hard work into their mindset.
Which is important.
I also keep thinking of another part of my hike, the part where I came upon a couple of friends who, wheezing and trying to catch their breath, had sat down on a rock, side by side, to catch their breath. They were talking and laughing, and snapped a selfie of themselves as I passed them by. Just as I was rounding a corner, I heard them discussing the possibility of not going any further — and laughing as they realized that was what both of them wanted — and their conversation, now focused on other topics, faded out as I continued up the trail.
They had each other’s company, and the accomplishment of the summit was not on either of their minds.
I also often fall into that category — when I’m with friends or family, I don’t care what we’re doing as long as I can spend some quality time with them. We could focus our time on an activity, or we could sit on a couch for hours and talk. When I am with others, my focus is on the company. But when I’m alone — and I feel that lately that has been more often than not — I shift to accomplishment.
Which is important, as well. Accomplishment is what gets us through the day, sometimes. In fact, sometimes when people have a lack of accomplishment in life, they feel hopeless and directionless (and, likewise, when people feel alone, they cling to accomplishment to feel fulfilled).
Destination vacations actually tend to be more about accomplishment than we’d like to admit. We set off with the goal of seeing this attraction, or exploring this city, or completing a checklist of things that will leave us feeling like we did our vacation right.
But where do we draw the line? If neither side of the coin is inherently bad, then when do we choose community over accomplishment, or vice versa?
For the man and his two sons, it was clear that the man’s sense of accomplishment lay in what he passed on to his kids — he wanted to raise them to have hopes, to strive for something, to push themselves. And for the two friends taking the selfie, their only goal was enjoying a morning together.
I think it’s a matter of judgment: to be able to look at a situation and judge for ourselves what the goal is. Are we trying to win or finish something? Or is this a community event? Soccer games, group projects, getting friends together to see a play, or buying a car — it’s strange how we can create different objectives depending on where we’re coming from. Really puts game nights into perspective, that’s for sure.
And it put my trip into perspective. Was the goal to finish the trip together, regardless of where our emotions would be at the end? Or was the goal to enjoy each other, and when we realized that enjoyment was coming to an end, go our separate ways, still to remain friends in the end?
I know that my friendship with my sister and my friend couldn’t be ruined by fried nerves or a bad day. But I’m glad we didn’t decide to test that notion. Even if it meant a different end to my vacation, I’m glad that we were able to recognize that it needed a different ending.