Tough Journeys Are Worth The Risk

An innocent-sounding mountain hike offers unexpected lessons in surmounting challenges.

The first thing that concerned me about the group was everyone looked exceptionally fit and healthy. That observation alone should have been sufficient warning of a potential problem in the making. But in life, at critical junctures, all too often the very obvious is, unfortunately, not that obvious.

Our beshorted, knobby-kneed, intrepid little band had gathered in the lobby of a Gatlinburg, TN, hotel with ambitions of venturing up into the Smokies. We all had arrived an hour east of Knoxville to attend a conference. The meeting brochure had announced a hike of moderate difficulty into the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, as a featured recreational event. No golf, no tennis, no theme park tour. Just a hike! Finding that idea to be both darkly humorous and wildly outrageous, I signed up immediately. It seemed compelling at the time.

My other major concern about the group was its apparent youthfulness. Its members were like a pack of playful puppies, jumping and bobbing up and down with excitement downright frisky. I wondered if it had ever occurred to them that older folks pack differently for hikes than younger folks. They were most concerned about the right shoes and gear, granola bars, and chic sunglasses. I had focused on packing my Blue Cross/Blue Shield card, glycerine tablets, and living will. Although I’m not that old yet, I am now older than 40, but who’s counting?

Off we went. If you’ve never seen East Tennessee in October, add it to your list. The fall quilt of leaves, spread over the rumpled bed of mountains, is a dazzle. You can actually witness how inadequate words like orange, red, yellow, and green are and fully appreciate words like vermilion, chartreuse, crimson, fuchsia, scarlet, and burnt sienna.

Our group quickly divided between those who view hiking and life as a destination and those of us who view hiking and life as a journey. From what I’ve learned about life, being in a hurry rarely seems to help and, usually, it doesn’t hurt to slow down and look around a bit. So, John Hooper and I were with a group that brought up the rear. After a couple of miles, we puffed to a stop next to a rounded-rock stream. We readily agreed that if this were a hike of moderate difficulty that the next step up must be the Bataan Death March.

After a bit, John waxed philosophical about the hike, his recent bypass surgery, and his nine, soon to be 10, grandchildren. He glanced ahead at the ever steepening path and concluded that seeing those grandchildren again was far more important than finishing this tortuous trial. He headed back and I didn’t blame him. It made me think about the risk, too. I considered my five children, four of whom are teenagers and I decided to press on.

To make a short story short, it was a strenuous trek. However, I did eventually reach the mountain top four miles later, although it wasn’t pretty. But the most remarkable thing about the hike occurred on the walk back down. I followed two women who were descending briskly for quite some time. Both must have been highly experienced hikers. One woman was toting an extra large backpack and what I thought was a young girl with blonde moppet hair. The youngster seemed to have given out from the exertion. I assumed she whined her way into a free trip on Mom’s back.

As I drew closer, I realized all was not what it seemed. The child was not a child at all. It was now clear that her legs were entirely useless and that her trip up and down the mountain was the result of her friends careful thought, inspiration, and commitment. They beamed as they stepped aside to let me by. She laughingly challenged: What’s your hurry? Guess you’re trying to race are you!?

As I walked on down, I wondered what I had done that day, that week, that month, that year, this life which could possibly be more important than what those three women were doing that afternoon on a mountainside in Tennessee. I wondered if I had ever cared about anything or anyone so much, whether anyone had cared for me that much.

There are certainly many difficult mountains for credit unions to climb these days. Many difficult choices to make as a credit union leader. Is what you’re doing as important as it could be? How do you know?

Where are you going? Who are you taking with you? Who are you leaving behind? Who are you carrying on your back?

January 5, 2014

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