Trails and Trials

Wake Up (4)“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”
-Sir Edmund Hillary

“Everyone wants to live on top of the mountain, but all the happiness and growth occurs while you are climbing it.”
-Andy Rooney

“In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.”
-John Muir

Happy Tuesday, people!

Sometimes a single quote will not do.

Anyway, I hope your week is shaping up to be a good great one! Please bear with me as I am going to start off by saying something that won’t make a lick of sense until the end of the post:

I am not a butterfly.

If you’re following me on Instagram, you may have seen this post recently:

The urge was strong. So this past Saturday, my husband and I went on the first hike of the year…and it nearly killed me. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but it did.

Hiking has a way of teaching me a lot about myself.

While on this trail, I felt like I faced a hundred trials. I was not prepared for the heat or humidity…like the post said, normally we wait for the cooler months, by cooler I mean autumn. And while I had done this trail before, I had forgotten how several parts are not short-person friendly. I felt guilty because I wasn’t at home writing. I felt guilty I wasn’t with my parents. I felt guilty there were dishes in the sink. I felt guilty for pretty much everything.

In fact, the first leg of the trail was downright miserable because I permitted it to be miserable. I posted this afterward:

View this post on Instagram


Storm clouds were rolling in so we cut it to about 5-miles…but I was WHOOPED. It was the first hike of the year and I could feel it. Beautiful day at around 72 degrees (almost 20 degrees cooler than in the city!) and not too crowded. But we made it to Raven Cliff Falls, where some scenes of The Hunger Games were shot! Had a very relaxing lunch and met some nice people. It was so nice to get outside. . I got to thinking though, during the rougher moments, which for me are always the uphill stretches that the easy parts of the trail are never the ones I remember. I remember two things about my hikes: the moments that are so hard I want to give up and the moments of beauty where I’m reminded why I wanted to get out there in the first place. But I have to go through the hard stuff to get there. . So why don’t I remember the flat, even terrain from my hikes? Because those are the areas I didn’t have to push myself. Test myself. I may love those areas in the moment, but that’s not where I’m reminded of my mettle. I remember the struggles because I conquered something. . Whatever you’re facing, keep going. Climb those hills and cross your boulders. Learn what you’re made of and then appreciate the view. You’ve got this. 😘 . . #getoutside #yeahthatgreenville #movielocation #wanderlust #hikersofinstagram #hikesouthcarolina #caesarsheadstatepark #naturelover #writerslife #amwritinghistoricalfiction #amwriting #writersofinstagram #blueridgemountains #trail #hikingtrail #blueskies #wanderinginthewoods #girlboss #bossbabe

A post shared by Aila Stephens (@ailastephens) on

I’ve spent the next few days ruminating over those sentiments. For one thing, I’ve been too sore to do much else.

But those uphill moments don’t just occur on trail. They occur in every facet of life. Writing, definitely. They occur in our relationships with our friends, our coworkers, our parents, children, within our marriages, and within ourselves.

I struggled on that trail.

Not just with the inclines and descents and roots and rocks.

Not just with the heat and humidity, nor with the rain that began to fall as we neared the end. Not just with the reminders of fading youth, nor the feelings of inadequacy when someone far older than I had no trouble at all.

I struggled with being fully present in the moment and appreciating the world around me, the places I love to be the most.

It wasn’t really until I saw the waterfall that I snapped out of it. I realized I had squandered the beauty of the journey until that point, and I made a concerted effort to leave my baggage there at the waterfall overlook. (Not literally! I am a staunch advocate for Leave No Trace principals!)

It wasn’t easy. I slipped from time to time on the way back—literally, a couple of times.

But I forgave myself and wiped the slate clean.

I’ve long believed that perfection is an unattainable goal. But I’m coming to terms with the fact I’m nowhere close. Perfection and I aren’t just on different trails, so to speak, we’re in different parks on different continents in different galaxies. And there’s nothing like a physical challenge to highlight everything imperfect about ourselves.

I’m not a perfect author.
I’m not a perfect daughter.
I’m not a perfect friend.
I’m not a perfect aunt.
I’m not a perfect wife.
I’m not a perfect anything.

But what I learned on the trail…no, that’s not an accurate way of saying it. What finally began to sink in on that trail is that it isn’t about worrying about what perfection is or isn’t or who has it and who doesn’t—because, again, no one does—it’s about putting one foot in front of the other when you don’t see a reason to keep going. Maybe it includes a change of direction. Maybe you need to stop and take a rest, grab a drink of water.

It’s about progress.

It’s about facing challenges head on and doing things that make us uncomfortable for the sake of growth. It’s about sinking your teeth into what makes life worth living and being relentless in the pursuit of happiness.

It’s about forgiving ourselves our shortcomings and giving ourselves permission to change if and how we can. In some cases, it’s about giving ourselves permission to fail, so long as we’ve learned a lesson.

The next time I go out on a trail, which I hope will be very soon, I am going to start out with a concerted effort if I have to, but I am really working on not dwelling on the negative. I will stop and rest if I need to and not worry that I’ve just been passed by someone twice my age and twice my size. I’ll take more photographs and red-faced, sweaty selfies with my husband. I’ll stop sizing up my journey against everyone else’s and concentrate on my own.

I suppose this could be considered a continuation of my post The Comparison Game, but far less to do with writing and more to do with, well, living.

All of this is to say: I’m changing. I’m finding my strengths, weaknesses, and facets of myself I either thought were dormant or didn’t know existed to begin with. I’m finding myself in the gym, and in my writing, and out on the trail.

I am better than I was yesterday and I will be even better tomorrow.

The first thing that came to mind was to compare this to the metamorphosis that happens to a caterpillar in its cocoon…but I am not a butterfly. This transformation will never be complete. We are more like landscapes, don’t you think? Changed by time and weather. By the footprints, both soft and harsh, of others? We have our seasons and our beauty…I sound like a crazy person, I know.

To sum all of this up: Forgive yourself. Keep going. Keep learning. Keep navigating what makes you happy and keep striving. Enjoy the adventure that is uniquely you.

…and keep in touch! I am becoming more and more active on Instagram. I’d love to connect with you there! Have a fantastic week, my friends. ♥

“Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.”
-John Muir

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