The Balancing Act

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Life throws all of us off balance at times—sometimes so far off balance that we fall. It can take a little time (and a little laughter) while we pick ourselves back up. Last week I had a reminder of how this can happen in the literal sense.

My hiking buddy and I planned a midday hike. The skies were bright blue. She had suggested we take a trail in a nearby part of the Santa Cruz Mountains. I did a little investigation just before leaving home: The trail was a little over 4 miles (no problem) with about a 630-foot elevation climb over the out-and-back trail (in other words, significant aerobic exercise). There would be one segment with over a 15% average grade. Message? Be sure to wear sturdy hiking shoes!

Driving to the trail, we began to catch up on our current trials and triumphs, something we do regularly enough to continue where we last left off. The sky was a brilliant blue and I felt the gentle, warm hug of the midday sun—the kind of hug that makes you feel comforted and relaxed. Our plan was to walk at a moderate pace: slow enough to allow for conversation, fast enough to fit in the amount of time we had. We finished one last check that our lightweight daypacks had what we might need and walked to the trailhead.

As with other open space preserves, we anticipated that the trail would be cleared and the signposts would guide us at the trail’s junctions. The California winter had been another dry one, so there had been no erosion that might have required more caution as we walked farther into the woodland hills.

While our conversation continued, we kept in mind where we were and why we were there: One of us would stop and the other would know there was something to be seen—a doe and her fawn, a goldfinch fluttering between tree branches. The doe watched us carefully while her little one bounded toward her, having stopped behind a bush. They and we were nearly silent.

There were reminders of the recent official declaration that we are in a serious drought. A creek bed with granite rocks held not even a trickle of water. Instead, the forest’s low canopy sent branches arching over the vanished creek so that mottled sunlight accentuated the bare rock formations. Sometimes the fragility of nature is manifested in bold ways. Being there, the juxtaposition of bare rocks and delicate branches was a reminder: We can be, at once, vulnerable and resilient.

Only a half hour along the trail, the path ahead was a steep decline. We would be heading up that same path on our return. Rocks embedded in the packed trail dirt were both stepping stones and tripping hazards. We made our way carefully, mindful of the need for gentle, if not graceful, downhill footfalls.

On our return, as we mounted that steep trail segment, we stopped to catch our breath and shared the moment, looking out across the Santa Clara Valley to the Diablo Mountain Range, about thirty miles away. The view was so clear that we could see verdant trees dotting the golden-brown, dormant grasses of that range’s hillsides.

The last stretch of our hike would not be as challenging. We are not silent hikers when we are together. It is our chance to see a beautiful part of our region, to exercise, and to share the profound and ordinary parts of our lives. I looked out ahead, missing an unanticipated tree root that protruded from the packed trail soil. I sailed, forward and downward, managing to roll in one of those moments that seem to be happening in slow motion but are not. Stunned by the impact but not seriously hurt, I rolled my aging body over and stood.

My hiking buddy and friend was, of course, concerned. “Are you okay?”

“Yes, I’m fine.”

“Are you sure.”

“Yeah. I may have a large bruise tomorrow, though!”

It was time for an inventory check: Head? No bumps. Shoulders? Fine. Back? Fine. Arms? Hmmm. It was now obvious where the trail had done its damage. The thinned skin that accompanies graying hair and an elder’s wisdom is vulnerable. It had torn and acquired an unpleasant amount of trail dirt.

At this point, it was impossible not to laugh. What a sight I was! Covered in brown powder from shoulder to shoes. What a contrast to the beauty that surrounded us! There would be no brushing off this amount of dirt. There might not even be a chance that it could be laundered away.

And then it was time for a practical plan: Stop the light bleeding, scrub the wound, make an urgent-care appointment. But my predicament was still pretty funny. And it was time to acknowledge my good fortune—something we had been talking about on our walk, a reminder to count our blessings.

So much in life is a matter of attitude. Laughter and reflection on the ways in which our lives are blessed are the healthiest forms of strength when we are faced with our vulnerabilities.  

Patricia

Patricia is the author of a wide range of essays that span narrative, persuasive, and informational approaches. She believes that most writing benefits from an interdisciplinary approach, drawing on knowledge acquired over decades of diverse learning endeavors.

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