1/9/2024   by Matt Lewellyn

A couple weeks ago, I drove down to Bernheim Forest to do some hiking for the day. Bernheim is a beautiful private forestland in the knobs of Kentucky, and they have one particular trail that was my target that day: the Millennium Trail.

It's got hills. It's got leaves. It's got mud (some, anyway). And it's almost 15 miles long.

Why do I do this? Well, this time, to determine whether I still can. I last hiked this trail over ten years ago - and even back then, sometimes I would finish, other times not.

Hiking is a way to unplug for a while. Get away from the Internet. Put the phone away. Turn off the noise, and be just a little bit more aware of Present. Listen to what's going on in your mind, pay attention to what you're thinking about (and why), and submit some things to the Lord (or try to).

Exercising the body throughout the whole day is meant to take up the brain's executive function. Plan a pace, keep the pace, decide on when to rest and how long, ration the water. On a day hike like this, I had a certain number of hours before the park closed. That actually became my drama for the day: will he get back to the truck before they close the gate? Will the water run out? Oh no, he should have brought different snacks!

Sometimes I had deep confidence that everything would work out just fine. I felt strong, able to walk mile after mile - no problem reaching the destination, right?

Well... other times, I became aware that I was feeling despair. That's an interesting sensation - surrounded by the beauty of nature, just walking along with something bothering me, and then all of a sudden, it has a name. Then I was feeling tired. Worn out. Not so confident. Not so sure I'd make it in time.

Confidence, then despair, then confidence, the cycle continued switching off. It took me far too long to figure out the pattern, though you may have guessed it already. But once I did, that pattern struck a chord within me for how life works.

You see, every single time I felt despair, I was going uphill.

We can be generally good at the big picture of life. We can figure out our needs and how to meet them. We can plan out priorities. We can hit short-term and long-term goals. We can even help other people along when they need a hand.

But then sometimes, we hit that uphill climb. And even that goes ok, at first. I mean, I hit the first several hills that day without too much difficulty. But when the hills keep coming, or when there's one really big one - that's a different story. That's when the uphill becomes all-consuming.

Why is it hard? Well, obviously, there's the physical difficulty. But that's not it - there are other things going on that drive the feeling of despair. First, we like that feeling of confidence we had. That makes us feel good about ourselves. I like to think and believe that I can just go mile after mile, come what may. We like to think we can weather any storm life throws at us, and still come out standing. Then the hill comes, and shows us that the assumptions we have about our abilities are often wrong.

Second, we like seeing the road laid out ahead of us, far off to the horizon, so we can plan. We want to choose the right job, the right place to live, the right spouse. Plan our activities, hit our goals, accomplish our dreams. But when we're facing a hill, looking straight ahead, all we see is the hill. We can't see beyond it, which makes it so much harder to plan beyond it. After a while, especially when we're tired from a long uphill climb, we can find it hard to picture what life will be beyond the hill. We get tunnel vision to the climb.

Third, effort doesn't work the way I want it to. I want to be able to move faster through the hard parts. Not slower - I don't want the difficult periods to last any longer than they absolutely have to. If I'm unemployed, I want that to be as short as possible, to get back to my "real life" where I'm gainfully employed. If I have a difficult child to parent, I want them to mature quickly, so I can get back to believing the best about my parenting skills. But instead, I'm stuck in a present I don't enjoy, and that drives the despair.

Now, this can all sound a bit emotional or even maudlin. But when life experience has exhausted us (much like a many-mile hike can), we can certainly tend to be more emotional, can't we? Ideally, we would have ourselves integrated enough, in both mind and in soul, to keep a much broader view when we hit these climbs. Not to get all tautological, but hard experiences are hard, exhaustion is exhausting, and He knows our weakness.

When the climb lasts long enough or happens often enough, the exhaustion is natural, it's real, it's raw, and pares away our rationality. Then, the Present is all that seems to matter. Put one foot in front of the other. Don't think about how far you've come, or how far you have to go. Just take the next step. Don't look up for the top - you're not there yet. Just manage the Present, and it will be done sometime.

Your outlook becomes existential. The Past is way back there, somewhere, not something that's providing value. My past successes do not get me over this hill. My past failures don't make me able to surmount the obstacle. The Future is too far ahead. I don't know what my reality will look like when I finally crest this hill. No - what's my energy level right now? How many resources (aka snacks) do I have left in the pack right now?

Many of us have hills we're climbing every day. Health issues, finances, a problem child, a dying loved one - name it. When we are all-consumed by the Present in an uphill climb, we would do well to slow down when we can, and remind ourselves of what came before and where we are headed.

Have encouraging voices around you to remind you of how God has led you. Spend some time thinking about what is yet to come. Every hill has a top, and every climb has an end. Someday, the present climb will be over. For that day, we should pray that our confidence is tempered with anticipation of the next climb.

I am grateful that he knows my weakness. And I am grateful that he scaled his hills, to open new life to us.


  • Picture by me, from Acadia National Park, in 2022


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