A friend who spent three years stationed at Fort Bliss told me the hiking in El Paso was amazing. As someone who doesn’t hike and isn’t interested in encountering rattlesnakes outside the zoo reptile exhibit, this meant nothing to me. When we arrived in El Paso, however, I was drawn to the landscape. My son Jackson was, too, and would ask me every day if we could drive up to the top and look around our new city. I took Jack to New Mexico last month to spend a couple days in a mountain town, and he has asked to return every day, even though I told him all the snow had melted. “But we can walk to the town and see the big trees!” There are a few trees in El Paso, though not in our area, but as Hubs has pointed out, the colors here are muted. I don’t know if the plant life is less green because of the scorching heat and lack of humidity, or if we are always looking at the world through a dusty haze, but he’s right. The greenery isn’t lush green, it’s greenish brown or grey. The sky isn’t blue (at least near the horizon), it’s misty and murky from swirling dust. Or orange, from A LOT of swirling dust.
I have lived in big cities all my life, and I feared the quiet and the remote. It’s that Sex and the City mentality, where the world just ends when you can no longer find a nail salon. Spending four years each in Hong Kong, Moscow, and Washington, DC, I assumed big cities were my destiny. Airports, Starbucks, malls, and trendy restaurants were the staples of normal life. And don’t get me wrong, El Paso has all of those things, but as I’ve spent time in New Mexico and driving through the desert in Texas, I find myself wishing we lived further into the desert, farther from chain restaurants and car dealerships. I have two children, and my house is loud, so I don’t need any other background noise to add to the cacophony of whining, squealing, and fart noises. No garbage trucks, sirens, or neighbor’s yapping dogs and revving engines. The noises of a city clutter my mind, while toys and old clothes smother my house.
My thought process went as follows: go alone to the mountains and de-clutter your mind. Then maybe the clutter in your home won’t bother you as much. Instantly, my mind was cluttered. Do I need special gear to hike? What is the State Park’s definition of a ‘moderate’ trail? Will I get lost? Can I go when it’s windy? Is the weather different up there? Will there be snakes? Concerns and anxiety were piling up about this excursion that would help me relax and de-stress. I eventually decided to block out my own insanity and just go. If I had the wrong gear but enjoyed the hike, I’d look for the right gear for next time. If the trail was tougher than I thought, I’d turn around. When I started, I’d activate the GPS on my phone so I could be located by medical professionals when I inevitably fell and broke my leg between two boulders a la 127 Hours. Maybe I would pack a pocket knife in case that last thing happened. And so, I went.
The Franklin Mountains run north-south through central El Paso, with Fort Bliss on one side and far west El Paso/New Mexico on the other. They have all levels of trails, and during the week there aren’t too many hikers, which would be good for my quest for peace and desire not to hold people up on the trail by stumbling over rocks too slowly.
Ignoring yourself is the first step to inner peace. Obviously, don’t ignore physical pain or deep sadness, but I desperately needed to shut out my anxiety about everything, from looking like a fool to falling into a snake pit. I spent a lot of time choosing my trail, because I wanted to challenge myself but not die a painful death being slowly consumed by wild tarantulas. I chose a longer, moderate out-and-back trail, so if it got too hard I could just turn back, but if I could handle it I’d get a substantial workout. I was going to hike Mundy’s Gap.
The first thing you should know about hiking is that it’s hard. Going to the gym does not prepare you for hiking, unless your stairmaster has no handles and is covered in jagged rocks. I’m also not in very good shape, which was supremely helpful in an uphill scramble. There had been massive rock slides that covered long stretches of the trail, and since it was my first time I had no idea how long the path had been that way, but seriously? Are they planning to push the enormous pile of debris off the path anytime soon? It’s probably been there for 10 years. But still, the answer to my first anxiety concern was: yes, you do need hiking boots. Whoops.
As I looked around carefully and picked my way across the heaps of teetering rocks, everything I saw became a life lesson. Perhaps it was the serene sound of nature (save for my ragged breath and intermittent swearing), or perhaps hiking in the mountains really did help me de-clutter and compartmentalize my daily anxiety into succinct and important ideas.
Lesson 1: Be Prepared. If you are going hiking, bring a map (oops), get the right gear so you don’t hurt yourself (damn), and bring a buddy in case of emergency (uh oh). In life, hope for the best, but mentally prepare to make changes to your plan in case things don’t work out exactly as you’d hoped. Gently massage your anxious mind and remind yourself that changed plans do not mean ruined plans. However…
Lesson 2: Not everything is a snake. Don’t go looking for a problem where there isn’t one, or you’ll ruin the experience for yourself. If there are problems, you will face them, but there is no reason to create every possible scenario in your mind and obsess about exactly which horrible thing will ruin your day. Keep your eyes on the path in front of you. Don’t scan the brush for rattlesnakes and scream every time you pass a long, twisty branch. If it’s really a snake, it’ll find you whether you scream or not.
Lesson 3: Be careful looking down. If you’re feeling accomplished and want to look back at your progress, take it with a grain of salt. Sometimes we review our journey and feel empowered by how far we’ve come. Sometimes we can still see our car in the parking lot. Try to remember that all forward movement is a success.
Lesson 4: Avoid sharp obstacles. If something in your life gets in the way of your personal success or happiness, take stock and decide if it should be a part of your routine. Maybe it’s a person who isn’t supportive, or a restaurant where you always overeat. Step around the thorny bits and proceed to level terrain. Also, don’t touch the cactus.
Lesson 5: It’s not a competition. Every person has their own issues you know nothing about. Maybe they are twice your age and about to overtake you on the flattest part of the trail, but maybe they hike every weekend and have real hiking boots instead of wearing sneakers like some kind of idiot. The purpose of your journey is your own business. If you’re there to enjoy the quiet and take some pictures, let the athletic senior citizens pass you so you won’t feel rushed.
Lesson 6: Take in the view above the haze. In this dry and dusty city, the haze obscures true colors and some pretty epic scenery. Rise above the mess and try to see things clearly without interference.
Lesson 7: Don’t underestimate the descent. Those same rocky hillsides are a completely different challenge on the way down. Idiot-shoes slipping, ankles turning, knees screaming, and heart flip-flopping, adapt to surprises and persist, persist, persist. After all, you can’t live on top of the mountain forever. There are snakes. There’s no way out but through.
Lesson 8: Sometimes it’s a snake. In some cases, retreating is the noble thing to do. Because SNAKES.
I ended up hiking almost the whole trail that day, and only turned around when the 40mph winds kicked up, but the experience has stayed with me (as well as the twinge in my knee from nearly sliding down the mountain on an avalanche of boulders). The weather is getting warmer, which pretty much guarantees a rattlesnake encounter, but I might like to go back to the mountains someday. Climbing a mountain gives me a different sense of accomplishment than burning a few calories at the gym, and the view from the top is pretty spectacular.