I can’t take another step.
I put my boot carefully into the snow. My broken ice cleats gave my feet little to no extra traction. After the five hour trek up the mountain, I was fatigued, and the pain in my right knee had worsened from a dull throb to a stabbing ache.
My friend John was ahead of me, and now out of sight. His foot prints left deep tracks in the pristine mountaintop snowfall. I stopped to take a breath and evaluate whether I could make it to the bluffs of Mount LeConte. After climbing about 4,000 feet in elevation, then stopping for lunch, my body was staging a revolt against any more physical activity. I drew in a deep breath of the thin crisp mountain air, and with my hands on my haunches, stood motionless. Looking up, I noticed a young couple making their way down the trail towards me. As they approached I posed an exasperated question.
“How much further to the overlook?”
“Oh, you are almost there,” the gentleman said with a smile, “It is so worth it. Don’t stop here.”
I lifted my leg, wincing in pain, and began the arduous process of walking up the hill in the snow with a bum knee.
It was a few months earlier when John had approached me about doing a “big” hike. (I put big in quotations because I know serious hikers who are probably laughing that I consider LeConte such a feat.) John and I are both dads of young children who love to hike when we get a chance, but getting away can be hard to do. So we finally decided to make something happen. We circled a date on the calendar, picked a trail, and began planning our trip.
We both knew we wanted to do Mount LeConte. Mainly because of the reputation it has in the South as being one of the most beautiful spots in the Smokies. But we also wanted a challenge. Mount LeConte is the 3rd highest peak in the Smokey Mountain Range, towering at 6,594 feet above sea level. I am not quite sure what we were expecting, but trekking up a mile-high mountain is not for the faint of heart. Overly ambitious, we were not going to let anything detour us from our adventure.
The morning of our hike we hit the trail just as the sun had peaked over the looming mountains. It was cold, but within minutes we were shedding layers as we warmed up from the climb. After about a mile up the trail I was already having doubts. Patches of snow turned into inches of snow, as we picked up a steady pace. It wasn’t until we passed Rainbow Falls that the scenery really began to change. The trees were coated in a glistening white snow that shimmered against the background of the brilliant blue sky. It was if we had entered a surreal winter wonderland unlike anything I had ever seen. Both John and I would stop often along the way in the middle of the trail in pure amazement of our surroundings.
But blue skies and winter wonderlands eventually took a back seat to the nagging pain of my knee. By the last mile of our ascent I was practically hobbling up the mountain at the pace of an elderly man who went out in the snow to fetch his newspaper. I was hurting, but not letting on as so, because… well, that’s just what guys do.
We eventually made it to the LeConte Lodge, where we stopped to have lunch. The Lodge is a rustic village of small cabins built in the 1920’s, and in the Spring through the Fall is one of the most popular hiking destinations in the Smokey Mountains. We had arrived in the dead of winter, so everything was closed. Sitting on the porch of one of the small cabins, we made lunch, and rested our weary bodies. While there we met a few other people who had hiked in on other trails, and talked to the groundskeeper of the lodge. That was how we learned about the overlook. Everybody told us that we had to hike just a little further up the mountain to see this unbelievable view. But, as I said in the beginning, as much as my heart wanted to see the overlook, my body did not want to go a step further.
I watched the happy couple go back down the trail, and looked up the hill through the thick hemlock grove. I had come this far, and knew I had to push on just a little bit further. Despite the pain, I staggered up through the snow towards the bluffs where John was waiting. When I crested the top of the hill, I suddenly forgot the pain in my knee. The view was so breath-taking it was hard to process. We both just stood there in complete silence until one of us would break through with words like “unbelievable” and “amazing.” Yet no words could really explain the immense beauty.
We soaked up the moment for as long as we could, and then began our descent back down the mountain. The pain in my knee returned, but I didn’t mind. I just kept thinking of our amazing (literal) mountaintop experience. The hurt was just as painful as before, but in light of what we had accomplished, now seemed so worth it. As if the every twinge of pain had been redeemed by the knowledge of our achievement. Every ache overshadowed by the beauty of overcoming an unthinkable obstacle. I can say now from experience that pain going up the mountain feels different than the pain that occurs when you’re coming back down, maybe because you’ve learned something along the way.
About an hour outside of Pigeon Forge we had to take a pit stop to fill up the car and use the restroom. I lifted my leg to step out of John’s car and almost fell to the concrete. My body felt as if someone had beaten me with a baseball bat. John just laughed as I stumbled towards the gas station bathroom.
I’ve thought a lot about my trek to the top of Mount LeConte since that day. And it has made me think a lot about my life as well. So much of our culture seems to tell us that life ought to be easy. That it should be comfortable, and you and I should always get what we want without the pain of trying. Yet, I am beginning to see that real life happens in the hurt. Real adventure blossoms from the fertile soils of pain. A life spent avoiding discomfort is a life not fully lived. Looking back, the pain almost always pales in comparison to the beauty.
Of course that is easy to say when talking about the physical pain of a grueling hike. It’s a lot harder to embrace when the hurt hits at a much deeper level; when the stakes are far higher, and the circumstances are more ominous. Yet, some of the most joyful people I know have weathered through the deepest of sorrows. They did not run from the pain when it came knocking. Step by step they drudged through the agony. Some of them are still climbing that mountain. Others have found themselves on the other side.
As I reflect during this Easter season, I find myself hard pressed to look at the life and death of Jesus and come to the conclusion that the ultimate purpose in our own lives would be to avoid pain at all cost. In fact, the more I get to know Jesus of Nazareth, the more I listen to what he had to say, I am fully convinced that pain is a key ingredient to a more fulfilled life. There would be no bright Easter morning without first enduring the darkness of Good Friday.
So if you feel like you can’t take one more step, I encourage you not to stop where you’re at. Lift one leg at a time and press forward with everything that’s in you.
It’s not going to be easy.
It’s not going to be pretty.
Everything within you is going to want to stop.
Just keep pushing.
And when you crest the top of that hill, and finally reach the peak of the mountain, you will look back at where you came from and soak in the beauty surrounding you unlike anything you could ever imagine.
I'm not guaranteeing you will no longer hurt.
But you just might find a purpose in the pain.