Every choice I make while traveling carves a new and distinct path that determines what I will experience and what possibilities lay ahead. One of the most spontaneous and unforgettable choices I made was when I decided to leave South East Asia unexpectedly and fly to Europe with three new friends to hike 800 km from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea along the Haute-Route Pyrenees (HRP).
When the idea was planted in my mind by Greg, an American traveller I met in Malaysia with a passion for long-distance hiking, I initially brushed it off because it seemed too surreal. Yet to my surprise, Pavel and Tereza, a couple from Czech Republic, pounced on the opportunity immediately and within a few days their flights were booked along with Greg’s. My mind was flooded with thoughts of uncertainty and hesitation. “This is not part of the plan I had envisioned for my South East Asia travels. There’s still so much I want to see and do here. It’s too expensive. I barely know these people. I might not even be able to walk 800 km. I can always do it another time. BUT. What if saying “Yes” to this opportunity leads me to one of the greatest adventures I will experience thus far?” With this last thought lingering in my mind, a phrase that I try to live by came to me. “Why not?” With that, the choice was already made.
I booked the tickets and it was as if everything was falling into place exactly how it was meant to be (including sitting by someone on the flight who altered my life). Fear, doubts, and uncertainty of the path I was heading towards completely vanished and was replaced by a sense of inner peace. Ataraxia. Making this choice was an act of surrender to the flow of life’s naturally changing currents and allowed myself to let go of all the resistance that fear had created in my mind.
The same feeling of ease combined with a spark of excitement stirred between us as we stood at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, turned away, and began the long journey East towards the Mediterranean Sea. For 40 days we would walk. For 40 days we would experience waves of emotions from joy, to exhaustion, hunger, freedom, loneliness, sadness, amazement, frustration, gratitude and love. Such an immense amount of love for the mountains, for my companions, for my body’s strength, and for my own inner will, all of which kept me going.
I remember the first 10 days were the hardest. Pavel and Greg floated up and down the mountains with ease. I had always thought of myself as a strong hiker and walking with them lowered my self esteem, but it was good for my ego. I learned to accept that everyone has their own pace and I have no right to judge whose is better or worse.
Tereza had a slower pace and although it did not bother any of us, I could tell she felt defeated, as if she was holding us back. She wasn’t. I wish I had talked with her about this, about how it doesn’t matter how fast we walk, only that we keep walking and she was still there. 2 weeks into the hike we arrived to a small hamlet and she announced that she was going home. I was overcome with sadness. I am not one to typically show my emotions openly, but I couldn’t hold back the tears that rested on my eyes. At the time I didn’t understand why I felt that way. We were close, but not that close and if she wasn’t having fun then I wouldn’t want her to stay for the sake of staying.
Later I realized that it was because I could see my own struggle in her reflected back to me. The hike was not easy. Physically it was the most challenging thing I’ve done, but I knew I could finish it. It was my mind that challenged me the most. “Why are you doing this?” was a question I asked myself quite frequently. There were moments where I wanted to stop walking. I kept thinking, “This is pointless. I pack and unpack my bag every day. I walk from sunrise to sunset, eat, sleep, and repeat. What’s the point?” But there were moments in between where we would reach the top of a challenging pass I couldn’t help but smile and look in awe at the path we came from and the path ahead. It filled me with a sense of euphoria that washed away all my doubts. After Tereza left I made a commitment to finish it for both of us.
As I walked it became clearer why I was out there. Every physical and mental challenge was ultimately challenging my ego. The further I walked, the more I was able to silently observe my mind and the emotions that arose. I realized the depth of my ego complex and how attached it was to this false sense of self. Although it lurked deep beneath my conscious awareness, I was filled with a sense of self-righteousness.
I had no map or gps to guide me, only my companions who walked much quicker than I. They were very patient with me and stopped at intersections so I would know which way to go. But sometimes the trail was not so obvious and I would get turned around. Anger and frustration would arise at these times, and I blamed it on my companions. I was too consumed by emotion to acknowledge where these feelings actually stemmed from, but one incident made it clear.
I came to the edge of an open area with a small hut at the edge of a forested and steep path down the mountain. There were signs pointing right to a path heading down and another pointing left up a scree slope with no apparent trail. Frustration quickly consumed me, as if all it took was the flipping of a switch. “How could they have left me here?” I thought angrily. I paced back and forth with no idea where I was going or even the name of the next destination. I was a helpless mess. An older man was heading the direction I had just walked and I asked to see his map. I told him my situation and after much debate I decided I would take the ascending trail. I wouldn’t want to walk down and later realize I had to go back. I started up the scree and saw the man watching me with worry on his face. I felt so stupid. I stopped for a moment and looked up. There was no trail and if Pavel and Greg had gone this way they would have surely waited.
My intuition kicked me around and feeling defeated, I took the descending path on the right. I walked and walked as the trail zig-zagged back and forth. My companions were nowhere in sight. It was not like them to leave me this far behind, but I continued walking angrily down the mountain. I came to a crossroad. Right went to a town with the sign for food. Left went to a parking lot. I knew that if I was on the right trail, there would be no towns for a few more days so with only this logic in mind, I turned left. At this point I was fuming. I felt lost and stupid and abandoned and worthless all at once and it is not a state of mind I commonly find myself in.
Once I reached the parking lot at the bottom, there were a few cars and no people in sight. I thought about waiting around for a bit to see if Pavel or Greg appeared, but I was tired, hungry, and it was getting late. I figured at that point I would just keep following the trail and hope for the best. I wasn’t worried about not finding them because I had everything I needed on my back, except a map to tell me where I needed to go.
Still steaming, I imagined what I would say if I saw them again. As I turned a corner, there was innocent Pavel sitting on a bench eating. The anger I felt was instantly drowned by relief. I was beyond happy to see him. “Where’s Greg?” he asked me. I told him my part of the story, leaving out the anger. Apparently there was another trail right in front of the hut that I had missed and somehow along the way Pavel had lost Greg. The whole situation was becoming comical. I figured Greg was already at the hut with his feet propped up and sunbathing with not a worry on his mind. I could see it so clearly and this annoyed me. “How selfish,” I thought. When we reached the hut, he was not there. Now I was getting worried. We set up camp and waited, contemplating what had happened and what we should do. The sun was beginning to hide behind the mountains and I was getting anxious. I was also feeling quite pathetic with the scenes I had played over and over in my mind, blaming my patient companions for my mistake.
On the brink of darkness, we saw Greg. Pavel yelled out to him. “Is Cynthia with you?” he yelled back. “Yes!” we replied. We were both thrilled and hollered with excitement. He looked exhausted. We asked him what happened. He said he was waiting for me and noticed I was taking longer than usual. He waited some more, thinking maybe I was doing my business in the trees. When he couldn’t wait any longer, he dropped his bag and ran back up the mountain. When he reached the little hut on the edge, there were some people eating. They said they saw me take the trail off to the right. Knowing I didn’t have a map, he ran down the trail I took and when he came to the crossroad with no sign of me, he turned around and went back up the trail and down the other one to grab his bag, hoping I had turned left. When he reached the parking lot he waited until sunset before he had to carry on to the hut before darkness. He was just as relieved to see us there as we were to see him.
When I heard his story, I wanted to cry and hug him but I held back. “You waited for me? I can’t believe you did that?” I was shocked. “Neither can I,” he said. I felt so foolish and naive and ignorant. Who walks 800km through the mountains without a map and then gets angry at other people for getting lost? I felt like a sheep. I realized that my anger was not actually towards them, although I expressed it that way, but it was towards myself. I was angry at myself for having to be dependent on others to guide my way and I was frustrated that I couldn’t keep up with them. Part of my ego died that day and it transformed negative perceptions I had of myself and others into an acceptance for what is. Through self-inflicted humiliation, I was humbled.
From then on all I felt was love for my companions who were so patient, kind and understanding. I would smile with a sense of peace whenever I heard Greg singing while he walked, especially when he was climbing a 1,000m scree slope. It no longer annoyed me like it had at times before because really I was just frustrated at myself for hardly having any breath to breathe, let alone sing.
Those 40 days transformed parts of me that I never even knew were there. And they are still there, but slowly I’m learning how to let them go. On this journey, Pavel showed me true generosity and compassion. Greg taught me how to “do my thing” by accepting my own path and the path of others with humbleness and without judgement. A few days before reaching the Mediterranean I met another hiker named Zeke who taught me how to slow down, listen to my heart, and surrender to love.
As I stood looking out to the horizon with Zeke by my side, I felt a new sense of exuberance for life. Every part of myself was smiling because I knew that no matter the challenges that lay ahead, I will always have the choice to turn away or to keep on walking. And no choice would be better or worse than the other.
(The Pyrenees, July 24-Sept 1, 2017)