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What backpacking through Yellowstone taught me about pain

Mr_MW | Shutterstock

Jim Schroeder - published on 10/13/21

There's nothing like backpacking through one of the wildest areas of the country to teach you a lesson about beauty and suffering.

I was sitting on the banks of a tributary of the Yellowstone River. My brother, two friends, and I were on day three of our epic adventure through Yellowstone National Park and the most remote portion of the contiguous United States. That morning, we finished 13 miles of what would end up being a 72-mile journey through some of the most beautiful and wild areas left in this country.  

Enjoying the break and eating lunch after a morning full of hiking, I examined my feet.  Earlier in the day, I felt a couple of blisters form and open up as we progressed down the trail. I realized that the dry dust, warm conditions, and subpar footwear (and care) had caused a hole to emerge in my socks, leading to a significant blister on the balls of both feet. With eight miles still left that day, and almost 40 left for the entire trip, it became clear the rest of the way was going to be painful, even with various medical and pseudo-medical interventions (like duct tape!) employed.  

As the day continued, and the next days that followed, each step became increasingly painful as both feet were showing their wear in multiple ways, and at times just felt like they were on fire. 

Although I had experienced blisters significantly on another backpacking trip before, and in various ways through other athletic endeavors, the final 48 hours of this backpacking trip were as painful as I could remember. Here, in this land of great beauty and wonder, I was pressed to ponder just how I could transcend the physical and mental toll and not lose the awe that came with being in such a sacred place.  

Afforded plenty of time to consider it all (as backpacking by its nature is replete with much time for introspection), I found myself thinking of my friend Paula. 

A few days before leaving on this trip, my wife and I visited with Paula and her family. For the past decade or so, through countless treatments and periods of remission, Paula had battled breast cancer, which spread to other areas of her body as well. In the process, she had remained remarkably positive and vibrant, and retained an authenticity that was widely recognized by those of us who knew and loved her. As Paula often said, “She was living a dream.”

But in the week prior, the decision had been made to call hospice into her home and halt any further treatment. As we visited with Paula, it was clear that she was in her final days, and I sensed that I would not see her again. I would later find out that Paula passed away the morning we came out of the Yellowstone wilderness. As her husband noted just before the funeral Mass, Yellowstone was the next family trip on their list.  

Hiking along Continental Divide Trail (CDT) on September 11, all of this was yet to be fully unveiled. But what I did know was that Paula, and so many people, had experienced pain far beyond what I was feeling in those moments and that the least I could do was honor their sacrifice by aligning my trivial discomfort with theirs. 

As I thought of Paula and others I know who have suffered greatly, I found myself united with my Creator, and with His Son and His Mother, and the saints scattered through history. Whether through Marian prayers or simple offerings of gratitude, praise, or even supplication, I found myself connecting with a source of strength and resolve that far superseded my powers of comfort and peace. Up and down the mountains, through meadows full of fiery yellows and muted browns framed in pine green, I repeatedly found that while my pain remained, a presence much greater propelled me forward, knowing that each step brought me closer to the people I was thinking about.

As I thought of them, I also considered the tremendous beauty that surrounded me.  In a place where rivers run freely, and fauna the size of chipmunks are interspersed among bison that reach upwards of a ton, I recognized that I was feeling pain in a land of great pleasure. Although repeatedly pulled by each agonizing step to ruminate what was going on internally, it was clear that the external world around me was an analgesic of sorts if I channeled the sights, sounds, and wonders that I was experiencing each moment of the day.  

And yet, while I worked to harness all that I could find within, around, and above me, it was clear that enduring and even relieving (albeit to a small degree) my pain also was predicated on accepting help from others, which is often hard for me. 

Little did my friend, Jordan, know as he entered into this journey that he would become my unofficial podiatrist. Seated high above the Snake River (as he did at other points during the journey), he tended to the carnage that my feet had become with great care. As a leading nominee for friend of the year, he selflessly tended to the some of the worst blisters, and did so without any hesitation. From that point forward, he also carried our tent to lessen my load. To say that I was thankful for Jordan and his efforts is like saying that I was thankful for the food and water that sustained us along the way. In embracing his offering of assistance, even when I would have preferred not to, I was receiving a gift of comfort, often given from God through those whom are dear.  

Through all of this, I came to one last realization when it comes to coping with pain: So often in our life, when we experience distress and discomfort, we have a habit of focusing our repeated attention on this area of hurt. Whether it’s a strained ligament or a friend/family member who’s rejected us, or whether it’s an anxiety or depression over a recurrent hardship, we as human beings have a tendency to become absorbed in our pain.  When this occurs, it is so easy to miss all the areas in our bodies and our lives that are functioning quite well, free of any obvious discomfort. 

While my feet were “screaming” at me in the mountains and the meadows, the rest of my body was doing wonderfully well. Beyond any expected fatigue, my back, shoulders, calves, and so many other areas were strong and fluid. In coming to recognize this, I heard the words of a friend years ago who said that when you are in the middle of a race, and you are feeling pain, make sure that you really focus your attention on the areas that remain strong.

In the end, I walked out of the wilderness and gave thanks to God that the trip was finished and my feet could begin the process of recovery. I must admit that there was a part of me that wished I could have enjoyed the journey without this particular hardship. But like all great adventures, there are trials and triumphs, and sometimes they are one in the same. 

In remembering those who experienced worse than me, in recognizing the beauty that lies beyond and the areas of strength that lie within, and in embracing help and strength from others, we all have the ability to transcend whatever pain we are experiencing. 

Sometimes we just need mountains beyond meadows to put us to the test.    

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