Birthday Presence

Little adventures have become my focus on birthdays in recent years. Two years ago, Theresa and I went stand-up paddleboarding. Last year, we did our first ropes course. This year? We took on the hike to McAfee Knob.

Context: McAfee Knob is the most photographed spot on the Appalachian Trail. From the parking area on VA-311, it’s roughly 4.7 miles to the summit with a 1,700 foot increase in altitude along the way. Then, of course, there’s the return trip back down and out. As a person whose idea of fitness is brisk 3-5 mile neighborhood walks, this was going to be a stretch.

And it was.

And it was cathartic.

And I could write a number of blog posts on what I learned and am learning from that six-hour round trip. But for now, I want to tell you about the return trip as Theresa and I walked down the fire road, opting for the slightly-shorter and definitely easier path.

My feet were hurting, friends. My back and shoulders weren’t so happy, either. Each steep step down from a rock in the path jolted my knees. I was tired. A gremlin voice inside of me started whining about wanting a wormhole that would take me directly to my cozy bed and another gremlin (who had been fairly chatty the whole time, actually) got in some licks about my lack of athleticism and fitness.

It felt like an exam I had been working up to for years. And I was particularly primed because I had read Mary Oliver’s iconic poem, The Summer Day, earlier in the week.

Most folks quote the end of that poem as though it is a call to bold action:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

But read the whole thing, friends. It’s not a call to action; it’s a call to presence. In that moment, she’s using her one wild and precious life to lie in a field watching a grasshopper with intense curiosity and engagement with the now.

While there were most assuredly times in my life that I would have tortured Theresa with whining or wishing to be elsewhere for our 4+ mile hike back down the mountain, I instead heeded Mary Oliver’s advice and used the crib sheets from my last six or so years of learning, and was present with each step. I felt the discomfort in my body and heard the gremlins chattering away in my head and I observed it all with the same intense curiosity and presence that Oliver offered that grasshopper. I thought about the preciousness of life and how even in the midst of that discomfort, I didn’t want to wish away one moment or one step, not on that beautiful day walking beside my sweetheart while wearing the ring she had snuck up the mountain as a romantic birthday surprise, not in the midst of this adventure that I had known would offer physical challenge and that offered me the opportunity to grow emotionally, too.

I even went all memento mori on it, reminding myself that each step forward was a step closer to our car just as each moment passed is a moment closer to my death. This is not to be morbid – memento mori was never meant to be morbid – but rather it is another kind of call to presence and to appreciation of the complex wonder that is life.

Walking pilgrimages have a long history in the world of spiritual exploration. Truthfully, I requested a birthday hike for the simple pleasure of being in the quiet of the woods with my love. What I found there was so much more.