In the early goings of a hike in the North Carolina mountains, I looked down to find a mushroom sprouting from a root right in the middle of the path. I bent down to behold the shining surface of its little cap. And I thought: How precocious. How ancient. And how fitting.
We walked further into the deep woods. The trail was rimmed with flora of many kinds. The songs of warblers and flycatchers tumbled out of the tree canopy. There were tall beech trees and poplars, soaring hemlocks and pines of other species. Then I looked to the side of the trail and found the black trunk of a tree rimmed with a stack of bright russet fungus.
I love the revelatory nature of the woods. It always finds ways to communicate its importance. My new book Sustainable Faith outlines the fact that much of scripture draws from the deep well of nature. Its language and symbolism depends on organic symbols large and small. Many of the parables of Christ have their foundation in natural images. The Mustard Seed. The Yeast in the Dough. The Vineyard.
Creation speaks to us. We should listen.
We were walking in the woods because my wife and I both found need to do so. We’d both ridden long miles and climbed steep hills on our bikes the preceding three days. One of those climbs lasted more than eight miles up a Carolina mountainside. It was tough going when the pitch rose and the roads kept turning and rising, all the way to the top.
For three days we tested our bodies and our souls while perched on the bike saddle. I will admit the pressure of that need to perform affected me in ways that I did not expect. Anxiety washed over my mind in advance of the first two rides. I was not proud of that. Looking back, it seems odd that I even let it happen. But the anxious mind sometimes rides it own course.
To counter that fear, we should always recognize that the social pressures we face as human beings are real. They are not just imagined. The desire to keep up with the group is part of human nature. And this is also true: competition is part of life whether you want it or not.
When the competition is strong and there are expectations to be met including the realization that you may be holding up the entire group as last one up the mountain, social pressures can mount. And I let that get to me.
The strange truth is that the descents were in some cases not much more comfort. Holding your brakes as your bike soars down a slick road with the tires shuddering on the rough asphalt can be nerve-wracking as well. Having once gone down in a bike wobble incident that fractured my collarbone in three places, the memory of that crash gave me pause on some corners. Even with an entirely different bike under me, the prospect of tumbling off the road was still very much real.
Fortunately, by the third day on the roads, I truly was climbing and descending better. Plus the back muscle that had tightened up on a cold ride during the week before we left for North Carolina had finally loosened up enough that I did not feel like it might suddenly spasm during a climb. On the third day, my wife rode behind and let me lead our way up the hill. We met up with the group at a spot called Jump Off Rock where we took a group photo above a cloud-socked valley. And having conquered most of my subconscious fears, I did not feel the urge to jump off after all.
On the out and back, we cruised along in a pack of fifteen riders doing 20+ mph on a breezy, wet morning. The pack remained intact and one of our fellow riders, a curiously introspective triathlete named Tim, quietly noted upon the return, “It was nice to have everyone together.”
And I smiled at him.
Tim’s observation was a nice way of saying that while competition can be unforgiving, collaboration can be beautiful. We had no trouble keeping up with the rest of the riders on the flats. I reveled in the flow of the pace line. It was “just” those long climbs on Illinois Flatlander legs that required a few days of adjustment. Give me another two weeks in those mountains and I do believe things would improve.
Yet after three days of mountainous indoctrination, my wife and I were ready for a change of pace. So we looked at the remaining day of vacation as a chance to recover a bit and take a hike through the verdant North Carolina mountains.
As we climbed, the blooms of mountain laurel greeted us. In many places, the blossoms had fallen on the path in flowery constellations. Our shoes sunk in muck as well, and we crossed log bridges and walked through clear flowing streams.
We used Eddie Bauer hiking sticks going up the slopes. They really helped. Then we reached the spot on the trail where a massive rock face juts out over the valley. The rock was covered with running water as the rains from the night before were gushing down all sides of the mountain. We stared at the abrupt edge of the world and considered our mutual fear of heights. “Let’s stop here,” she said while gripping my bicep in her trailing hand.
A few minutes later the croaking voice of a raven reached us as it flew with rowing wingbeats across the valley from peak to peak. We sat down a few minutes to take a drink and have a nibble of Larabar. Then hiked back down to our car so that we could drive up the mountain to meet riders who might need SAG support if the rains returned.
But the rains held off to the very end of their ride. The previous day we had all gotten soaked when a rain storm made it treacherous for those still descending the mountain. For my wife and I, the ride through the rain was almost joyous because we’d shortened the 90-mile scheduled ride knowing the skies were threatening. The rest of the crew that was still on the descent when the skies opened up were coaxed into the SUV when the roads were flowing fast with mountain rain.
What we learned about ourselves through all this exploration was significant. As my wife and I were both the oldest and the slowest riders among a band of top-flight athletes on the four-day training camp, we judged ourselves too quickly against the mountains and our companions. In particular I blamed myself for not being fit enough to keep pace up the climbs. My guilt presaged my effort, and that only makes things worse.
But the real psychology of the group in context was telling. They only wanted us to have success at the level we could manage it. No one was truly judging us. Not in the least.
Of course that isn’t much comfort when you pedal up those last few meters and find everyone has departed or worse, they are literally waiting for you to finish so they can continue riding.
Too kind, I’d mutter to myself.
Yet over the course of a few days, we appreciated that brand of kindness. Thus the satisfaction of riding together on that final day with the group was both joyous and instructive. You have to meet the road where it meets you. There is no fooling yourself here or in any other part of the world.
Except: there is an exception to that rule. Because you truly can fool yourself into believing you can’t improve or grow in new ways.
That’s why that precocious little mushroom growing out of that root caught my eye. While I’m sixty years old and not the same athlete that I once was at twenty-five years old, there is still room to improve each year. Try new things. And suffer a little for the sake of growth. To rot with the rest of the world if it does not appreciate us. Keep on growing.
I realized that while climbing those mountains. There were little surges of strength that kept telling me, “You’re not done yet. You can keep going.” And I did. There are times when you have to fool yourself into thinking you’re stronger than you think. Because you are.
It’s my goal as well to shed this layer of annoying fat that has fixed itself around my belly. That is laziness in diet personified. And then pick a few races and aim my energies at those constructively. One does not need to be obsessed in order to be a success.
It just takes controlled focus. When I forget that feeling, I’ll just think of that little mushroom, and keep on going, and growing.