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  • Writer's pictureMark Gerow

Expanding My Comfort Zone


Now that I’ve returned from my epic High Sierra hike of the John Muir Trail, I get the common question, “Well, how was it? Was it totally amazing?” And I have to honestly say that it was not what I had imagined the hike to be. I dreamt about a soft trail, meadows, meandering, even bliss. In reality, I felt I went through something fairly traumatic even. I suffered altitude sickness, had severe anxiety, could not breathe properly or sleep. I even lost my hunger for a while. My son and I hiked our way so far into the Sierras that Search and Rescue were not guaranteed to help us in this haven of mighty peaks, reaching as high as 14,500 ft., as well as blinding

snow fields, icey, cold nights, and raging streams that were deafening to the ear. I also walked my way to some of the most brilliant, natural views I’ve ever experienced in my life. I challenged myself to an extreme and came out on the other end a changed man with new insights, strength, and ten pounds lighter.

The Sierras provide for a day that begins going uphill for literally hours at a time. Up at 6am, you eat, drink, pack, and throw it all on your back (40lbs), and walk for 6-8 hours. The uphill is grueling. And I was once told that backpackers tend to “pack their fears.” And I definitely packed way too many navigational tools like maps, 2 GPS devices, and a compass. Navigation was a fear, and I overcompensated. I was scared of my personal lack of internal navigational skills and instinct. So, with my fears packed heavy, the boulders, smaller rocks, sun exposure, and steep switchbacks punished my body, and in turn, my mind had a lot to say about that. “Mark, I really think you got in way over your head this time.” Or, “This is the feeling of suffering, and I want out.” It said. I heard these types of messages sometimes on and off for hours as I ascended 3000-4000 ft. in the early morning till lunch. And down again all afternoon. How did I make it through this trail with all that fear, anxiety, and daily suffering you might ask, as I have asked myself many times?

My 19-year-old son, who didn’t complain once always encouraged me and used guidance. “Dad, take 50 steps and take a break, then I’ll take another 50 steps and you follow when ready.” This was literally a one-step-at-a-time approach at 13,000 ft., where I was gasping for every breath. I took such deep breaths with an open mouth that my lower lip split open from dryness.

Day to day there were so many dangerous aspects to the hike that I had to stay in the moment all the time, which I was well-suited for, due to years of meditation that prepared the ground for this mindful ritual where I had to monitor my health and well-being closely. I needed to stay in front of the hydration curve, eat 4000-5000 calories a day, and make sure my equipment was holding up. I crossed many severe streams that, if navigated poorly or crossed too deeply, could easily have pulled me downstream into a death-defying struggle and drown. I crossed countless snow fields that required such concentration that one false step could send us shooting 1500 ft. down into a potentially harmful slide against sharp boulders or into frigid, hypothermic waters.

I found myself shivering in my sleeping bag, sipping miso soup to warm up. Even the last day of our hike, I had to quickly navigate my way from the top of a peak, where a sudden lightning storm had developed. My adrenaline threw me over the peak and down the other side at such a rate that I was running about 4mph with all my gear, searching for safety in a landscape that was totally exposed, creating a dangerous vulnerability.

If it wasn’t hard I wouldn’t appreciate nature’s brilliance and this raw canvas laid before me. The new me had a bigger comfort zone that developed in those challenging weeks and a greater appreciation of planet Earth.

Lessons I learned

Have faith in a master plan that is unfolding. Have a strong support network around you that is positive and folks around that have been there/done that because they can give you such insight. Know that you are stronger than your limited brain imagines. Take it one step at a time while being very present to the path you are currently stepping on. Make “shift happen.” At the end of the day, I can clearly see that the new me was not attained easily, and I might not be running back out there any time soon to hike those Sierras. Growth happens on the other side of challenge, discomfort, and flying faithfully out of the chrysalis to the more vital, strong, and deeply spiritual person I feel I am today. Spirituality is a verb in my book. I must do and create this experience by merging with the nature of things.

John Muir Trail
Resting if only to take in the monumental stretch of territory I just hiked

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