Everything’s a Metaphor: Hiking Half Dome

For months leading up to my hike, I researched…I asked questions…I was equally as excited as I was scared to hike the Half Dome cables in Yosemite National Park. I heard about the epic views, the sense of accomplishment, the once-in-a-lifetime experience (unless, you know, you decide to hike it again. Or six times like some people I know). I also heard about the intensity of the hike, the frequent dehydration hikers face, the cables. Oh did I hear about the cables. See the pictures below if you don’t know what I’m talking about. No harness, and if your legs or arms cramp up, well, I actually don’t even want to entertain that thought.

But while I was giving luck my best and entering the permit lotteries for the past few weeks, I was mostly just getting amped (you need a permit to climb the cables, and they only give out 50 in each daily lottery). I’d been feeling the need and desire to go on a solo adventures and believed Half Dome needed to be my first one. Ten hours alone with my thoughts, challenging myself physically and mentally as I wouldn’t be getting the group support so many hikers rely on to get to the top and back. I was excited and I was ready. Then on late on a Saturday night I found out I got my permit and it became real; I’m doing this! I hopped in my car early the next morning and headed north.

This excitement followed me to the trailhead as I embarked on my long, brutal daylong hike in the still dark early morning. Words can’t do any of the exhaustion/intensity/brutality justice but I’ll try my best: You start on a somewhat steep incline and begin to think “oh, I got this…it can’t be that bad.” After about an hour you have a decision to make: add two miles and take the John Muir Trail or take the shortcut up the concrete, jagged stairs through Vernal Falls. Of course you take the shortcut, because it can’t be that much worse and it’s way shorter. Then, a quarter of the way up you doubt your decision. Your thighs wonder what they did to deserve such torture. But you make it up the falls nonetheless because you come across folks of all ages (kids and grandparents alike) and you say to yourself “if they can do this, then I definitely can.” After the intense start, you get a less intense but long (like, two hours long) steep, dirt incline. You’re sweating, but fortunately you brought five full Nalgene bottles…although your back doesn’t think this is fortunate at all. You then hit the infamous sub-dome, but you didn’t bother reading about sub-dome and thus didn’t mentally prepare for the very steep, very jagged, and very dangerous rock steps that take twice as long as they should. And then, after your legs went through already the toughest hike of your life, you still have the cables and they better not give out now. Then you get to the top, your life is changed (well, not really, but literally no words can do that sight and sense of accomplishment justice), you hike back down, drive back to San Diego, and continue on with life as usual.

Here’s the metaphor: at many points in our lives, we set out for great challenges and dreams. Often we find ourselves on the path to achieve them, but along the way we complain so much — and speak so much towards the hardships — that we neglect the here and the now of the journey only to mourn the loss of that very journey long after we attained the dream.

Experiencing the here and now is crucial to enjoying this crazy thing called life. I wanted this journey; I craved it. I couldn’t wait to hit the top and experience that sense of accomplishment. But I hated much of the hike; most of it in fact. If you’ve done Half Dome yourself you know exactly what I mean. The stairways up Vernal Falls, the steep pathways to sub dome; and then sub dome!! And then the cables, up and back! Then your hips and knees begin crying at you when returning down Vernal Falls.

Throughout it all, though, I knew that I needed to experience and enjoy the here and now. I kept telling myself “this journey will soon be over and all I will have are the memories when it’s done.” And you know what? Through the pain, I absolutely loved every moment. Because I knew that when I returned to San Diego and to work and life, I wouldn’t be seeing what I was seeing at that moment; I wouldn’t hear what I was hearing; I wouldn’t have those moments of clarity I was having.

In the there and then, I realized why the here and now is so important. I think this might be the greatest lesson I’m taking away from my trek.

Now, this insight doesn’t pertain to the unexpected challenges (like losing someone close to us, losing a job, etc). No, what I’m talking about here is when we set goals and dreams for our lives and they don’t turn out how we feel they’re supposed to: the dream job that, at the end of the day, is still a job and has it’s challenges; becoming a parent, learning the extreme difficulties of raising a kid, then finding the young ones all grown up before you know it; the high schooler who gets into her dream school, finds out just how much stress and studying will be required to keep up, then blinks her eyes and it’s already graduation and she has the real world to attend to.

Stop. Breathe. You are in an amazing moment…you are in the middle of accomplishing your dream (working in an amazing job, raising a child, going to college). You will only go through it once in your life…or, at least that specific experience. I’m not suggesting there isn’t pain or that we should neglect it and pretend it isn’t there. But if we can learn to stop and experience the here and now in these moments of challenge, I guarantee you that you will find what you need to get through the pain and back to the enjoyment of the life you’re living. When you get to the top, you can’t help but smile larger than ever, breathe in the view, and find yourself ready for the next adventure.

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