To celebrate the launch of the X Ultra 4 and following any path, your way, we asked author and Salomon ambassador, Carolyn Highland, to share an excerpt from her new collection of essays, Out There: Wisdom From The Wilderness. In her new book, Carolyn explores what the wilderness has to teach us about the human experience, using outdoor endeavors as extended metaphors for greater truths.
The Tiny Miraculous
I woke up just as the light through my tent walls was shifting from full moonlight to the pale shades of dawn. I pulled on my beanie, stuffed my sleeping bag under my arm, and walked out into the morning, following a footpath down to the lake near camp. I nestled myself into a nook backed up against a rock, and waited.
I watched everything closely, all the details of what was happening around me. The bird that kept swooping low over the water, tilting its tiny body as it flew. The fish splashing to the surface, creating ripples that began as a messy movement of water, and that became perfect spheres as they radiated out farther and farther into the lake. I looked at the plants and flowers that had made their homes on the shore, tucked into dirt patches between rocks. My eyes ran over the pine trees in the distance, tall and stoic. For a long stretch of minutes, I found myself immersed in only what I could hear and see and feel in my immediate surroundings.
The wispy clouds in the sky began to turn pink, bits of late summer color seeping into the horizon in the distance. The sunrise was imminent. I trained my eyes on the spot in the east I was sure I was about to watch the sun pop out of, any minute now. I stopped paying attention to the beautiful minutiae around me, and focused only on the spot I was certain the sun was hiding just behind.
Minutes passed, and still nothing appeared. No patch of warm light, no bright orb emerging behind the ridge. The pink began to fade from the clouds, the ambient light growing stronger. It looked like daytime, but still nothing. Where was the goddamn sun?
I found myself distracted from all the things that had held me wholly captivated before. Frustration began to boil up. I had woken up early to watch the sunrise before returning to camp and cooking breakfast with my friends. I had sought out some solo nature meditation, something that always brought me peace and joy. I was waiting for my mind-blowing, life-affirming mountain sunrise, and instead there was nothing. Rather than continuing to focus on what was before me and waiting patiently, knowing the sun would eventually come up, as it always did, I became fixated on the fact that it wasn’t here yet and what the fuck.
We do this to ourselves, all the time. We obsess over the things in our lives that haven’t materialized yet, and in the process miss all of the things that are already here. And all the energy that is spent feeling frustrated that certain things haven’t turned up protracts the entire process. It is focusing our energy on what we don’t have, rather than smothering it all over what we do.
We all want things and are working toward them. We may feel like we have done everything in our power to manifest those things, and feel confused and disappointed that they are still nowhere to be found. Haven’t we shown up, stated what we wanted from the universe, put in the work, and waited patiently? Don’t we deserve to be reaping the benefits of our dedication? Where the hell is the job or the human or the recognition or the success? Give us the goddamn sunrise already!
I spent nearly thirty minutes this way, picking my split ends and thinking about the mountain bike ride I’d be going on later, rather than paying any attention to the nature I’d woken up early to sit and look at. And so I lost twice. Not only was I not watching the sun rise over the ridge, but I wasn’t watching any of the wonderful things that were already there either. In my fixation on what wasn’t yet there, I was missing what was.
My experience had begun to revolve around the outcome, rather than the process. As the moments dragged on, all I wanted to see was the sun coming up over the ridge, the moment I thought would contain the highest beauty. I no longer cared about the subtle changes occurring in the light with each passing second, was no longer able to appreciate each stage for its particular beauty. I wanted only the outcome, only the sun popping up on the horizon.
If we are in it for the outcome, the process becomes a chore. The process becomes something we begrudge and bemoan and wish would just be over already. And yet, in most cases, the process is 90% of the experience and the outcome maybe 10%. We spend most of the time in the process, and if we can’t find wonder and magic in that, we will spend the large majority of our time being pissed off, cranky, and missing the point entirely.
After what seemed like an impossibly long time, I saw a ring of light appear from behind the trees, in a spot way farther left than where I had been looking. More northeast than east, it quickly became clear that the sun would do this whole thing absolutely whatever way it wanted. It was on no one else’s schedule, and had agreed to no one else’s rules for where it would appear. It was going to rise, but it was going to do it however and whenever and wherever it damn well pleased.
The sun is always going to rise. Of that, we can be infinitely, resolutely certain. And if we view the outcome as an unambiguous truth, then there is no point in running mental circles, wondering why it hasn’t appeared yet. It will happen when it happens. The sun answers to no one, it rises when it rises, and getting frustrated that it isn’t doing it on our self-imposed schedule is utterly pointless.
If we can begin to view the outcomes we desire in this same way, as something that is concretely in existence on some future plane, then we can release our attachment and anxiety around it not having appeared yet. It will come, it will be, and in the meantime, we live. We do not squander that which has already appeared worrying about that which has not.
If we really lean into the process, if we love each part of it for exactly what it is, if we realize that everything is happening on the exact schedule it’s going to happen on, then we win. We spend the time before the outcome dialed in and enjoying what’s around us, and before we know it, the sun is up. But it feels different, it feels less critical. It is not what we have centered our energy around. It is merely another beautiful thing to stack on top of the pile of beautiful things we are already and have already experienced. If you learn to love the process, you get to experience 100% awesomeness instead of just 10%.
A few days later, I jumped at a rare opportunity to take a sunrise run during the week. When I began, light had just started to seep into the sky. The air was cool, belying the eventual heat of the day. The tall, dry grass rustled in the wind and there was no one else on the trails. I felt my legs pump under me in a steady rhythm, watched two deer leaping up the hill into the shrubs away from me. The morning was still and quiet in a way the evening wasn’t when I usually ran.
I was coming off an injury that had prevented me from running as much as I usually would, and so even getting to spend an hour moving quickly over dirt and rock felt like a miracle. The clouds turned pink to the west, and I could feel the warmth of encroaching light. I took in the sunflowers in clusters on the side of the trail, felt focused dance of the decline, the pleasant burn of the incline, and before I knew it, I was cresting an east-facing hill, and there was the sun. It had appeared without me waiting for it, as it was always going to do. And when it came, though I savored the pale warmth on my skin and the light draped over the cliffs above me, it was not the main event. It was a part of something larger, something wonderful among many wonderful things, a mere added bonus to the spectacle I was already immersed in. On this morning, I had given myself an hour full of joy and meaning instead of 45 minutes of exasperation and a few minutes of well-fucking-finally.
And the best part is, we get to choose. We can’t make the sun come up any faster than it’s going to. We can’t dictate where it will vanquish the horizon. But we can decide how we pass the time in between. We can decide to dwell in what’s already all around, harboring inside us a calm knowing that the outcome will arrive precisely when it’s supposed to. The outcome carries the weight we give it. It can be everything, or it can be one of many things that bring us light.
What we seek is out there, hovering somewhere below the horizon line, not yet seen. But we have to know, we have to believe beyond the slimmest shadow of a doubt, that it is there and it is coming. And if we know that, then we are in no hurry. If we know that, then we can relax and direct our attention elsewhere. If we know that, we are not prisoners of our outcome, resigned to wait until forces beyond our control conjure up what we’ve asked for. If we know that, then we are free.
Out Here is a collection of essays that explores what the wilderness has to teach us about the human experience, using outdoor endeavours as extended metaphors for greater truths. Each carefully chosen piece embarks on a different physical and metaphorical journey: managing expectations and reality during a medical emergency in a 40-mile ski mountaineering race; staring down fear and consequences on exposed ski lines in Alaska; re-examining self-reliance and decision-making through heartbreak and snow science; and leaving room for unexpected magic as a female travelling through Patagonia.
For more essays like Tiny Miraculous you can purchase Out Here: Wisdom From the Wilderness here
About the author: Carolyn Highland is a writer and teacher with over 50 published essays in print and online, in publications such as Backcountry Magazine, The Ski Journal, A Worthy Expedition: The History of NOLS, Misadventures Magazine, The Leader, and the websites of Teton Gravity Research and the Outdoor Women’s Alliance, among others. She is a regular contributing writer to the Deuter blog and the NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) blog. Her writing has also been used in course readers on expeditions through NOLS, the Prescott College Outdoor Program, the Second Nature Wilderness Program, and NatureBridge. Carolyn received a BA in creative non-fiction writing from Northwestern University in 2012. Her essay “Parentage” won the Helen G. Scott Prize for Best Personal Essay from Northwestern’s English department that same year. She lives in Truckee, California, USA.