I attempted to take a selfie at the end of a three day trip to the Catskill Mountains in Big Indian, NY. After spending a lot of my time there, documenting the adventure, I guess I wanted some way to show that I was there, too.
It came out like this:
It’s crooked, blurry and off center.
And that’s more than okay, it’s perfect.
Two days earlier, I quietly stood in a parking lot, snapping a few pictures of campers as they did a final look over their packs. Heavy, hiking backpacks, filled with tent pieces, bulky sleeping bags, ponchos, cooking pots and pouches of freeze-dried macaroni and cheese, instant coffee, tea, and socks to wear when the pair on your feet have slogged through a marsh and need to dry by the fire.
The trip was organized as a Wilderness Experience with Thrive Outdoors, and it was two nights and three days of hiking, primitive camping, and working together as a community. A community, built from a diverse group of people, many who hadn’t ever met one another before loading up those packs into the vans. We were a motley group of children and teens – some homeschooled, some not, a few mothers hiking without their partners, Thrive leaders and instructors and a few adventurers who hadn’t ever hiked or started a fire.
And off we went, to the woods.
I carried my camera with me, capturing the joys of finally arriving at the campsite after an arduous few miles, up hill and over so, so many mossy stones. I took shots of tents being built, of kids scrambling down a cliff’s edge to filter water for drinking and filling pots for cooking. I witnessed two people start their first fires, ever. I watched mothers and daughters smile by a fire, mothers and sons, just sitting and being still. I watched brothers who are often separated by miles and state borders, goofing off, just giddy to be together, in this place.
And when the rain came and I was spent, I sat by a tree and watched as everyone came together beneath a blanket of cloudy skies, teens and kids laughing in the lean-to, the adults mingling and sharing stories, everyone engulfed in swirls of smoke from the fire.
I was tired and hungry and the misting rain had just started to chill into my bones through my layers of thermal shirts and the giant, cozy Captain America sweatshirt I’d borrowed from my husband. I wasn’t wearing my contacts and without the camera to bring me closer to people, to sharpen their edges for me, everything was soft and distant. I could hear the rushing water down the cliff beside me and I could hear the chatter and laughter of this community of people, but the tree tops all blurred overhead against the sky and I felt for the first time, alone.
I felt lost.
I am someone who needs to be busy, who needs a purpose, a camera to hide behind, a meal to cook, a house to clean, miles to run, people to host.
Stillness doesn’t come easy for me. But here, it was practically forced on me. I was too physically tired to slog out and hike on my own, in the rain. And I was introverting too hard to want to go and interject myself into any of the conversations happening just 100 feet away.
So, I sat with myself and my thoughts, without any distraction, and it was uncomfortable.
But then, I should have anticipated this moment.
When we first headed out, packs on our backs and looking up at the climb before us, Jake paused us all at the start of the trail and told us that we would be uncomfortable on the hike. We would find ourselves needing to discern between actually being in pain and needing to stop, and what’s just discomfort that we can persevere through.
I am an active person, the hike wasn’t hard for me, I hardly gave his words a second thought.
Until, I was sitting still and alone by that tree, struggling through the discomfort of self-reflection.
But, that’s the thing with Thrive Outdoors. It’s never really about the hike, or about the difficulty of starting a fire or chopping wood. It’s never really about how you will respond to the hard things, the uncomfortable things along the path in the wilderness, it’s about how you will respond to them, in your life. It’s about you, as a person.
When I finally stood up, I hung my damp sweatshirt from the rafters of the lean-to, to dry it in the warmth of the fire. I looked down at my camera, but resisted the urge to pick it up, to hide behind it. Instead, I went with Jake to gather wood for the night, on the other side of the stream and up a little hill.
As we started to gather, one of the boys from our camp saw us and climbed down the muddy cliff. He came walking out on the slippery stones in the stream, wanting to help. Jake threw branches and logs down toward him, and he struggled to get those across the stream. Jake went down to help, I began picking up the wood he’d gathered and throwing it down to him, who then carried it over to the boy.
Across the stream, up by our camp, everyone had all come away from the fire and gathered around the edge of the cliff to watch us.
And then, a beautiful thing happened. They came down, teens and adults, kids under the age of ten, each assuming a position along the way, up a dirt cliff, along the water’s edge, in the stream itself – and together, we each took turns carrying the big branches and heavy logs, and we lifted them up to the fire’s edge – one person at a time. A community.
When the last hulking branch was passed from my hands to the next, I looked up at the path of bodies, each doing their part, up the hill, in the misting rain, all faces smiling, all bodies working together, reaching out for one another – silhouettes against the gray sky – I looked down at my hip and remembered I didn’t have my camera bag.
It was the most perfect picture of the entire trip.
And the only place it’s captured, is in my heart.
We left on Monday as an excited assortment of people from different walks of life, looking for a break from the stress and anxieties of life, and we came home a bedraggled community of unshowered and exhausted bodies…who were happier for having done so.
And it didn’t matter that I didn’t actually take any pictures of myself to show that I was there, and that I didn’t leave any mark of my own in our passing through…because the experience left its mark on me, in a place deeper than a photograph can ever capture.