In life, there is a need for a sense of control in things. This is evident in anything from the job to personal relations to impersonal relations and the future. In this, nobody wants to be blindsided by unforeseen tragedies that can’t be cured by modern health science. People don’t relish the idea of waking up to collapsed walls that need thousands of dollars thrown at them in order to fix them. We also have this aspiration that the people who are in our lives will do what we want them to do, not in some way that we manipulate their strings, but more in the sense that they continue to be the people who we hope that they are rather than to bury us in their negativity.
When these things don’t happen, we feel a sense of angst and frustration in our lives. When these things continue to go wrong, we lose our sense of control in our lives, and for this, we stop being who we are because we have become the always on duty fireman. In the beginning, taking the hose to extinguish the flames becomes a singular purpose, but as the flames continue to build and spread, it’s not so easy to keep standing before the heat in the hopes that there is an ability to remove the danger. Nevertheless, it’s easy to quit trying. People literally have to do nothing when they quit. That’s the definition of quit. People literally get to stop doing what it was that they were doing and move on to something else, consequences be damned.
As a result, sometimes, when we’re playing our meaningless games, the easiest thing in the world to do is to tip the Monopoly board and to concede defeat. However, in real life, when things feel out of control, there’s no Monopoly board to tip. Instead, there’s a final bell to ring, but that’s not a good choice for people to make, so we don’t consider that an option (except for some people who do). As a result, people have to find constructive ways to deal with their negative stuff. These survival skills need to focus on the body, the mind, and the spiritual. Being out of control in any one or multiple ones of these things is a recipe for disaster, so it’s important that whatever the controlling method is, we need to find a way to utilize it often and effectively to efficiently limit the problems that we will have in our day to day lives.
For me, I have found that there are many things in life that I have no control of, no matter how good Laurence Gonzales’ Deep Survival and Surviving Survival are. I have a wife who loves me, but that doesn’t mean that either of us are 100% on each other’s smooth and easy functioning preferences all of the time. We are there way more than we aren’t, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t hiccups and frustrations. In that same way, jobs are never easy either. If I am facing customers or co-workers, I can be on my game, but that doesn’t mean that they are always on theirs (and vice versa). As a result and without going into specific examples, it’s fair to say that these personal and professional interactions are challenging to our sense of purpose and successful output.
Different more difficult environments make them even more challenging.
I’ve never been particularly good, let alone spot on, with finding a way to permanently eliminate my life’s concerns and frustrations. Allowing the freedom of choice to reign free doesn’t work for a structured environment, and apparently, rigid control doesn’t work well either. I believe that I know what I’m doing, but see the thing is that sometimes, I don’t. I’m not always on my game. I don’t always have the information, the learning, the experience, or even the assistance to get through, and I’m in Fugazi’s “Waiting Room” or Dr. Seuss’ “Streets that aren’t marked” way more than I need to be.
I don’t like those places; they aren’t my favorite.
But through it all, I persevere on and go to places where I have control when I sense that the rest of my life is out of control. That place is usually the mountain. It doesn’t matter if it’s spring, summer, winter, or fall. I’m there. The mountains provide meaning and answers in my life that some of my work no longer does. It gives me a sense of what Tom Petty said when he sang the words, “you don’t know how it feels to be me,” which if truth be told, is a very guy thing to say. As my dad did before me, I understand it completely.
But the mountains, the mountains… oh, to be in the mountains, for they are a good place, and being here in the center of relatively flat Lancaster County… I’m so far away, but you, the memories of you mountains… you are the answer.
I say this, and I know this, and yes, I am aware of Jon Krakauer’s quote from Into the Wild that:
“I thought climbing the Devil's Thumb would fix all that was wrong with my life. In the end, of course, it changed almost nothing. But I came to appreciate that mountains make poor receptacles for dreams.”
Nevertheless, for me, there is a mountain chain that I have a particular infatuation with, a mountain crush if you will, and those mountains are the huge Central Pennsylvania behemoths that make up the Standing Stone Trail. Whether in real life or in dreams, I see them and they stretch 70ish miles up and down the middle of Pennsylvania from Greenwood Furnace in the north to Cowan’s Gap in the south. If I access them from the middle, I see the painted on sign at the barn, which says, “At the end of the road, I will meet God.”
I look at it and I feel that it was written for me and me alone, even if I know that the Mennonites who have commissioned these Biblical billboards throughout the area are saving many souls – not just mine.
And there are other images and places from above and beside this road, too. Be they the Juniata River or towns and business that spring up and vanish just as quickly along the way, they are everywhere. These places also include more scenic lookouts like the Throne Room and Sausser’s Stone Pile. They’re quite big, and they offer a serious challenge to people who want to follow Jimi Hendrix’s advice to “stand up next to a mountain… chop it down with the edge of my hand.” In this, there is a pride in success at defeating obstacles that kick back. If it were easy, anyone could do it.
But the thing is that it’s not.
And for all that is up, down, in the middle, and all around, there is one place that stands out. In the center of this trail, about 2 miles outside of the town of Mount Union is the main feature of the trail that most people who have hiked the trail are familiar with. That landmark is a 1,000+ step staircase of sorts that rises from Route 22 to look out above Mapleton and the aforementioned Juniata River as it ascends some 800 feet above the valley floor. Nevertheless, it takes some doing to climb these stairs. Oh, there are people who do it all the time. I once met a older dude who does it every day, rain or shine. I’ve met marathon runners who do it in 11-15 minutes. I’ve met a trail runner who can do it in 30 while I lag about 10 minutes behind on my own pace in the cold of December. I’ve met plenty of people who hold up trees while pausing and stopping to begin redoing it. I’ve met a woman who claims she could run 6 miles, but she couldn’t do more than a couple hundred steps of it.
Perhaps, it was all her fashionable designer sneaker company running wear that held her back – that or the makeup she was wearing perfectly that day.
Nevertheless, I’ve also met a woman who never hiked before who pushed herself up to the top of the steps to celebrate her child turning 18. She had a few years on me, but damn… just being out there like that impressed me when I think about athletic kids who quit the hike because they’ve got some laziness going with their younger years.
All the same, back in the day, lots of people did this trail. They went up and worked at mining silica to turn into bricks. After all, Mount Union was Bricktown USA for a reason. The quarries closed, but their remains are still present. The dinkey house is still there, covered in graffiti and looking somewhat cool for high school kids and college age kids looking to drink a six pack of their favorite cheap beer while sitting around and doing whatever it is that they're going to do in remains of the building.
Hopefully, they can dodge the creepy crawlies that slither and squeak while doing it.
For the rest of the people who use the trail, whether they’re seasoned hikers, Amish families out for a walk, or other people who share an affinity with nature, the Thousand Steps is the central point for a challenging day out. To me, it’s the Great Equalizer. It offers no sympathy. Instead, it offers a challenge.
Climb me if you can. If you can’t, so be it. If you get to the top, sit on my bench and catch your breath. Take your pictures, but keep in mind that you’re only halfway up to the summit. If you push another 700 vertical feet, you can go see Clark’s View, which is a sweet little view of the surrounding mountains. If you ascend the rocky section of trail that comes after some additional switchbacks, you can do the windy and narrow relatively flat top through. If you don’t want that, you can go down the side and come back out to ground level in the valley again.
The choice is yours, not mine. If you want to do it, do it. If you don’t, make way for someone else who has the drive and determination.
But as you’re doing it, it all comes back to that element of control. You control your speed. You control your ascent. You call the breaks. Maybe being shamed by kids moving quicker than you will shame you, but in the end, it’s up to you and your heart, both the one pumping blood and that sports metaphor of how much drive that you have.
I like that in myself. I may do things right or wrong at work. I may want to be a better husband or to regain more control at the things I do. Many of them have a lot of what ifs. Oh, there are things that I may manage to make happen or not, but as to whether they happen, things can get in the way of that. I can get in the way of that, and I don’t like that about me. I really don’t like when all of the external locus of control stuff gets in my way. I can’t control that the same way. I want to be my own responsibility sometimes, but I’m a citizen of a community, so it’s not like I always can.
Nevertheless, when I’m on the trail, I can (for the most part). If I want to push up the trail, and go hard through the painted orange blazes to get up above Greenwood Furnace or Cowans Gap, if I want to see Monument Rock, or some of the views of Big Valley, that’s my call. I either can do it or I can’t.
It’s simple and mathematical. Either I’m in enough shape to make it or I can’t. I felt the same when I used to go to the gym and push weights. I could or I couldn’t. There was no subjective opinion. I didn’t have to be graceful; I just had to do it.
The mountains are like that too. I can hike the miles or I can’t. Very rarely is there an opportunity to hitchhike back to safety. That being said, when I attempted the whole 72 miles of the trail in the summer and I went out after 20 miles with blisters, it took me over 5 miles to get to a section where my wife could drive up to “rescue” me. Even then, it was an unmarked dirt road, and I had cruddy cell reception so arranging an extraction wasn’t easy, but it was a welcome sight when I saw her Mini Cooper in front of me.
But that’s the thing about hikes, and it’s the same whether they are a couple miles or a couple days. It’s about the repetitive nature of the journey and being able to stay in it for the game. Just like with NASCAR, most drivers and cars are fairly similar in what they can do, but can they do it consistently without going down? Hmm… now that’s the real question. In the woods, this control is also tested. Have I made the right choices for boots, backpack, poles, food, water, and tents as well as other odds and ends? Have I prepared enough? Do I believe in me? The trail answers all of those questions.
It even answers how long can I look at mountains and trees and rocks without getting bored out of my gourd. How long can I listen to birds give their chirpings? Are squirrels scampering enough excitement for me today? How will I do with the choking humidity of summer? If it rains, will I be stanky and miserable for the rest of the hike? Was that sound that I just heard a bear, and if it was, can I use my bear spray to have a fighting chance to get to the road before he chooses to maul me to death?
Oh, and there are other questions, too. Is there anyone else out here on the trail or am I the lone whackadoo crashing through spider webs that have been growing all summer? Am I lost? Is this map completely wrong because I have to be further along than it seems like I am? What the hell made me give up a perfectly good bed to sleep in the woods as things that I can’t see are happening out there all around me? Isn’t there someone that I can be hiking with so that I don’t have to say that I’m afraid of the dark?
But at the end of the day, that is the Standing Stone Trail. It is those types of trails that go on forever and ever, those views that stretch out for miles and miles and miles, those boulders that shake and shimmy when they’re stepped upon, the bounding deer that get spooked from their hiding places, the soaring vultures that wait to see if you or I will be their meal, and the lakes in the state parks that seem to wait for hikers to bathe in the glory of their victory while washing off the stench of the trail – provided that the hikers didn’t die of rattlesnake bites, dehydration, rockslides, and bear attacks, or just sit in the woods refusing to move.
Nevertheless, as Edward Abbey would say, “It is the right and privilege of any free American.”
To me, the what ifs don’t matter. I’ll take my chances because the rewards of the 2-3 hour drive are worth it. I can look back on the Thousand Steps from the Throne Room. I can see the farm land from tens of amazing views, named and un-named, up and down the mountain’s spine.
And at the end of the day, I can push myself to be great for me up top of all of this because the control that I have in this environment and the reward I get while I am on top of the world makes up for all of those people and things that I don’t want to deal with at the base of the mountain or back at home.
If I’m lucky, I don’t have to bring the conflicts with me. I can just focus on the good things. I can leave the stresses behind me as they drip out into my shirt as I sweat them out once and for all. Let the un-necessary remains seep into the forest floor in a Thanatopsis process of fertilizing next season’s growth. Let the things that don’t need to be vanish from existence like the leaves that once littered the forest floor.
Soon, they will be just dust and memories.
In the meantime, I will rise up as King of the Mountain and look out on all that I see, and I will know that it is good. While there, I will breathe it all in and hold it true until the next time I come back, which is never soon enough.
Why? Because everything I feel here is a good thing. I like this trail. It is my favorite.