This is the third installment in a series of essays about some life lessons I learned on a recent enduro motorcycle adventure designed to help rejuvenate leaders. In total, we covered more than 275 miles from Sequoia National Forest to Yosemite National Park. During the day we rode hard, and at night we sat around the campfire having honest, vulnerable, and courageous conversations.
Most of our lives are pretty tame because we spend a lot of energy avoiding things that are potentially painful, difficult, or injurious. Whether the risk is physical, financial, social, emotional, relational and/or spiritual, many of us often play it safe.
Playing it safe is understandable. Life is rough. It can be costly. It will break your heart.
However, playing it safe leads to a big problem: meaninglessness and melancholy.
This recent wilderness adventure trip was designed as an anecdote to that. It was created to be inherently difficult and dangerous. (It had to be for it to be meaningful.)
And it was . . .
Less than an hour into the trip, our group had become spread out. We were traveling the outside lane of a two-lane mountain pass toward a trailhead that would take us deeper into the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Sequoia National Forest. The higher we climbed, the more breathtaking the views—and the more perilous the cliffs off of our right shoulders.
The road was mostly un-trafficked except for the occasional utility truck that would pass us on the inside lane.
The lead guide, Steve, had reached a bridge on the downside of a mountain pass that served as a kind of rally point for our crew to regroup. Within a few minutes, about half of us had caught up with him. We dismounted our bikes and were resting while we waited for the remainder of our group to catch up.
After several minutes, Steve tried to radio the other guides but the winding curves that formed the mountain pass made radio communication unreliable. After a few attempts with no reply, Steve said, “I’m going to ride back up the road and see what’s going on. Stay put.”
We didn’t have watches or our phones so we had no way to tell how long Steve was gone, but it was long enough for the golden valley we were in to begin to fade to gray in the on-coming dusk. The sunlight illuminated the tops of the peaks above us making them alive with an amber glow.
A bit later, we heard the whine of a bike coming through the pass and in a moment, Steve was cruising to a stop as we gathered to hear the news.
“I’ve got good news and bad news,” he started as he lit a cigarette and continued talking without pause, “The bad news is that Tyler had a spill. He was knocked unconscious, and it looks like he separated his shoulder. The good news is that he is conscious now and not injured that badly.” Steve paused as he took a shallow drag off of his fag and looked at us calmly as he let his report sink in. “It’s getting dark. We are going to head on to camp, unload the truck, and then I’ll take Tyler back to Fresno to get checked out at the hospital.”
I looked across the semicircle of bikes and men surrounding Steve toward Philip (Tyler’s dad). It wasn’t hard to imagine how he was feeling.
After several long moments, the remaining members of our contingency arrived with the truck bringing up the rear. Tyler was riding shotgun, and his bike was strapped on the back of the truck. He didn’t remember a thing. He had taken a pretty good knock to the head and was obviously a bit goofy.
After allowing a few minutes for Philip to check on Tyler, we did exactly what Steve said we were going to do. We rode on a bit, set up camp, and Steve drove Tyler and Philip to the hospital in Fresno to get Tyler checked out.
Tyler wasn’t the only man down that day. Another man on the adventure took a spill. Steve R. laid the bike down on his ankle. He found out after the trip that it was broken. He tried to ride the next day, but with his hurt ankle, he decided it was too risky to push it.
The impressive thing about both Tyler and Steve R. is that they stayed on the trip.
Typer got cleared by the doctor to leave the hospital and by late the next morning, he was back at camp with us. Over the next three days, they were both in considerable amounts of pain. But by the last day, Tyler was riding on the back of Steve’s (the guide) bike gripping tightly with one arm and Steve R. was driving the 4×4 truck over some seriously gnarly and technical terrain. It wasn’t just impressive because they were tough; it was impressive because of their passion for the team and for staying part of the adventure.
On the morning of the third day, Steve cautioned us that we were going to do a particularly technical downhill section with some deep ruts. After giving us some pointers about how tackle the challenge, he summed it up with “If you get in a rut, ride it out.”
While that was particularly good advice for the day, it was even better advice for life.
Looking back on the trip, that’s exactly what Steve R. and Tyler did—they rode it out.
We can all learn from this. Sometime it’s a physical struggle. Sometimes it’s an emotional struggle. Sometimes it’s a spiritual struggle. Sometimes it’s a combination of all three.
“Riding it out” doesn’t mean denying difficulty or acting like something doesn’t bother you when it does. And “riding it out” doesn’t mean avoiding getting the help you need—because sometimes getting help is exactly what you need in order to “ride it out.”
Life can get really hard, circumstances can be really challenging, living can be really painful. “Riding it out” is about having a perspective that is bigger than any present difficulty. Maintaining a vision of a bigger story and appreciating that pain is an expert teacher. “Riding it out” is about perseverance and resilience.
Perseverance is two parts passion, one part mission, one part vision, and a shot of toughness.
Resilience is perseverance after getting knocked down by life.
Both require heart.
The human heart needs struggle to know perseverance. It needs difficulty to know encouragement. It needs defeat to know resilience.
One of the paradoxes of life is that the less the potential of being hurt the less potentially meaningful our experience.
The more we have lost, recovered, and kept heart, the more value we find in the simple beauty of life. The truest and purest things become less hidden in times of struggle and/or heartbreak.
Wilderness makes you better.
Sage Hill and Wilderness Collective have partnered to create two Leadership Rejuvenation Adventures for 2019. To register or find out more, click here.
The complete list:
10 things that Wilderness. taught me in 4 days.
1) Ounces = Pounds & Pounds = Pain (You need much less than you think.)
2) Ride your own ride.
3) When you get in a rut, ride it out.
4) “I don’t know. Maybe” is a great answer to many questions.
5) Worry about the essentials and !@#$ the rest.
6) Stay on the path and when you get lost, stay put and wait.
7) Disconnect from email, phone, and everything else.
8) The very best things can never be posted on social media.
9) Absence does make the heart grow fonder.
10) Wilderness Makes You Better.
Stephen James, MA, LPC-MHSP, NCC, is the Executive Director of Sage Hill Counseling in Nashville, TN. He is also a best-selling author of five books, including Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys. He is active in training other mental health professionals as well as to speaking to audiences around the country on the topics of living fully, servant leadership, family relationships, and spiritual authenticity.