Many years ago, my son and I hiked to Plateau Point via the Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon. It’s a 13.3 mile out and back route that takes an entire day to complete. Most descriptions of this trail include the word “challenging”. Before we set out, we saw the sign indicating that we would be sharing the trail with an occasional group of mule riders who were headed to or from the bottom of the canyon. We assumed we’d merely need to step aside when we saw them. We didn’t think much about it, at first.
Before the sun rose, we were off with our backpacks, camera equipment, and soaring expectations based on our research. As we commenced and the weather alternated between an emerging hot and a threatening rain, and with the continuing downward pounding on our legs during the 3,400 feet of descent, we began realizing that the descriptions of the trail were accurate – this was challenging.
At one point, Joey, who was fifteen years old at the time, began to rethink our goal. The thunder claps off in the distance made him (and I) wonder what this hike might be like in the pouring rain. He suggested we turn back, maybe go another path, consider a different undertaking for the day. I was wondering the same thing.
At one point, I recommended that he focus on the furthest point we could see: Plateau Point, a clear and jagged outcropping of rocks that marks the final descent into the bottom of the canyon. We spotted the trail leading off through the green Indian Gardens section and straight toward a precipitous edge. That was Plateau Point. We could see it. It was a noble goal, breathtaking and fully representative of our destination. Aim for that, I said. So, aim we did.
But, as the hours passed, our view was obscured and the heat began to test our resolve. As the next group of mule riders passed by, without a great deal of thought, I suggested that we try to follow them as closely as possible. To keep up with their pace, which was no easy feat. Stare at the donkeys’ butts, I told Joseph. And I told this to myself.
So, we did. For miles. We continued our quickened pace, following behind.
And wouldn’t you know, it helped us focus, be in the moment. In that time and in that place. We looked at the trail in front of us. We observed the rocks and divots and mule tracks. We made more than a few observations about the specifics of donkeys’ butts, even. Eventually, when we looked up, we were both amazed by how far we had come. And how quickly time had flown by. We were nearly at the level ground of Indian Gardens and then on our way out across the desert flats to Plateau Point.
Joey and I have reflected on that hike many times through the years. The hike back up the canyon (emphasis on the word up) is another story, and another lesson, but for now I will say that the metaphor that emerged for us from the first half of the hike and which we have learned from again and again is that life is like that trek. Excitement. Challenges. Regrets. And there are times when it helps to set the destination as your focus. And there are times when you need to be present, in the here and now. A life too far directed only toward the goal runs the risk of making you miss the moment entirely. A life emphasizing only nose down trail watching can cause you to miss the target, and become lost, or discouraged.
You need both. You need to know where you’re headed. You need to be present. You need Plateau Point and you need the donkeys’ butts in your life.
As I said, we’ve learned from this lesson again and again.