There are times I think I’m the biggest poser on the planet. This past Saturday was one of them, at least at first. I had this compulsion to get out to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and go on a hike through Palm Canyon to the palm oasis there. I didn’t even want to do it as much as I felt like I had to do it, and that right there should have clued me in to the fact that the whole darn escapade was going to be a series of life lessons…
The actual hike is 3 miles round-trip, but when you tack on the walk from the park Visitors’ Center to the trailhead, it’s closer to 6. But the weather was in the unseasonably-cool low 80s, and I’ve walked that kind of distance many times. I figured I could get away with about half of the strongly-recommended gallon of water per person since it wasn’t too hot, so I tossed a few water bottles, my camera, and my journal in a backpack, and off I went.
The walk to the trailhead is paved all the way to the campground at the entrance of the canyon, and it’s marked with signs detailing what kind of flora and fauna you might encounter on your way. Easy peasy. And then suddenly, you get to a sign saying “Palm Canyon Trail” with a little arrow, and you launch yourself into a vast expanse of sand dotted with creosote bushes and ocotillo.
But what that sign doesn’t say is that you’re merely on your way to the trail, not on it yet. You have to cross a campground parking lot and pass a toilet with no doors and apparently look lost enough that a passing park ranger rolls down his truck window and asks if you’re okay, and when you say you’re trying to find the trailhead, he looks at you dubiously and points, and says, “You mean where those 3 palm trees are?” and you just know he thinks your poser self is gonna die on that trail.
Just past those 3 palms I found another sign warning me that the trail is HOT and DRY, and PEOPLE HAVE DIED OF EXPOSURE HERE, and begging me to PLEASE TURN BACK WHEN YOU HAVE CONSUMED HALF OF YOUR WATER. It might as well have said, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here,” because there really wasn’t a marked trail. All I saw in front of me were downed tree trunks (which I later found out were remnants of palms destroyed in a huge flash flood in 2004) and boulders strewn haphazardly across the sand. But the canyon walls formed a V shape ahead of me, so I figured it would be hard to get lost. And I assumed the trail would be pretty clear…hahahaha. First life lesson time!
1. Sometimes you have to learn to see in a different way. And usually, you’re in the middle of a completely unfamiliar, potentially panic-inducing situation before you figure that out.
Based on past hikes, I assumed the trail would be clearly signed/mapped/marked. It was not. I had the hardest time even getting into the canyon, until slowly, slowly, it began to register that some of the rocks weren’t so randomly placed (TRAIL EDGES! HALLELUJAH!). And some of the palm trunks seemed to form barriers (YO! DON’T GO THIS WAY!). And, lo and behold, there were even a few, teeny-tiny, rust-colored arrow signs tacked here and there! It felt like learning a new language by immersion, but I started being able to see the trail more clearly…unless I looked too hard. Then I came to a standstill. Life lesson number 2!
2. In a life lived by faith, if you get too bogged down in the details, you lose momentum and bearing. Keep your eyes on the prize.
I found it fascinating that if I didn’t think too much, my brain seemed to identify the trail with no problems, and I didn’t feel panicky from not knowing where to place my foot. I heard the Lord whisper very clearly, “Just like following me. Faith transcends your understanding and keeps you moving in the right direction, even when you have no idea where you’re going.” However, life lesson number 3!
3. Don’t get complacent. That will get you off track, too.
A few times, I found my mind wandering and then realized I’d lost the trail. I had to stop, get my bearings, and backtrack. I also had to revisit life lesson number 1.
Finally, I began to see desert willows, a sure sign of water, and soon there was an actual trickle of liquid in the creekbed. I could see palm trees ahead of me, but I couldn’t figure out how to get across a very slippery boulder. As I shot photos and thought, a couple caught up with me and asked if I had been to the palm trees. I had to say no, that I couldn’t get across the rocks, and I turned to go. A minute later, I heard the woman call for me. Her boyfriend had been able to climb it, and they wanted to show me. Life lesson number 4!
4. Sometimes you’ll cross paths, however briefly, with people who can figure out things you can’t. There’s wisdom in being teachable.
He found a way around a side I hadn’t seen, and he offered to give me a hand if I needed it. His girlfriend took my camera so I wouldn’t accidentally drop it, and we all continued to the palm grove together.
Eventually, the couple took off in search of a seasonal waterfall, and I sat in the cool shade and wrote in my journal. Then I began to head back toward the trailhead, and that’s when I learned life lesson number 5!
5. Don’t think just because you’ve been somewhere or done something once, you’re an expert. Stay humble, and remember past life lessons as you move forward.
I suppose it was silly of me to think getting back would be trouble-free because I did lose my bearings a few times. Nothing ever looks the same coming and going; plus, I was getting tired and hungry, and I had to pee (guess I took enough water after all?). But I did get back, and I had such a lot to think about. I suppose I had felt like a poser because people are always telling me how adventurous/competent/in control I am, and I felt woefully inept on this hike, even a little nervous. But as I trekked back to my car, the Lord whispered the clearest life lesson I heard all day:
6. Courage is not the absence of fear. It’s approaching full-on freak-out mode and going ahead into the unknown anyway. It’s preparing as much as you can and then trusting Me with the rest. Good job, daughter. Go get a taco. And drink some more water. You need more than you think you do.