in search of joy on the Arizona Trail

One of the most valuable lessons learned on thru-hikes is that the trail doesn’t care about what you want it to be.

You’ve probably noticed lately that I’ve been diving deeply into the art of powerful and intentional quitting – perhaps noting I’m a bit obsessed with the topic!

Part of my obsession springs from a feeling of frustration at being labelled a failure if I quit. But, let’s face it, that’s me doing most of the labeling – or maybe more accurately, my inner voices of shame.

A funny thing happened on the way to uncovering more about this misunderstood and much maligned topic. I noticed that when I became more intentional and courageous about quitting, I was one step closer to discovering a precious secret, that we can access joy no matter the circumstances. When we take what we can’t control out of the equation and focus on what we can, all sorts of magic happens. But we have to choose it.

Joy can often feel just out of reach. I think that’s because we’re not defining it properly. Joy is something beyond happiness or a positive mental attitude and is not reliant on our circumstances. But if joy is not happiness or optimism and we can still feel it when things are not, shall we say, joyous, what is this thing we call joy?

Come with me to the Arizona Trail to find out.

One night on the Mogollon Rim about 60 miles south of Flagstaff, it was so cold that condensation built up on my tent. Damp also gathered on top of my sleeping bag making it heavy and lumpy. The bag weighed a ton and froze my fingers as I stuffed into my pack. When I rolled up my tent, an icy snowball the size of my fist slid off it. 

Even the man-made ponds or “tanks” were filled with mud and eau-de-cow drinking water, but one lone frog reached out to keep me company.

And then I had to pack my cold feet into frozen socks and shoes that were so solid they cracked as I try to flex them. It would be an understatement to say that day was hard. Sure, it was eventually sunny and warm as the sun rose – but the warmth melted any remaining snow and turned it into mud.

I have a long-standing relationship with mud, having walked through some of the worst of it in the New Zealand bush, but this was a different brand. Arizona-style mud is sticky, so much so that it clung tightly, creating a heavy set of Frankenstein-like platform shoes that no amount of scraping of banging would release. My pace slowed to a crawl.

As I struggled to manage the ice and mud, a pack of coyotes yipped and howled, an owl hooted, turkeys gobbled and a woodpecker found just the right hollow spot to hammer. But I wasn’t impressed. Yeah, go ahead, I muttered. You’ve got it easy.

The further I walked and the stickier and heavier my shoes got, the crankier I got. I was mad – mad at the trail; mad at the mud; mad at nature. Why did I have to deal with this? I asked. Why is this so hard?? 

Why me?

Funny thing about trails. They don’t really care about what we want them to be. They just are.

Had I mentioned that mud was everywhere, even in the water? At a “tank,” a manmade cow pond where I collected and filtered drinking water – most of it a thick brown eau-de-cow – I found one dry place to sit down.

And then I cried.

But somehow my cry wasn’t in vain. Someone – or something – reached out: a single frog in a clicking ribbit of contentment. Beyond him shorebirds took off as one in silver flight causing me to gasp at the beauty. It caught me off-guard and reminded me of a quote from “Miracle on 10th Street” by Madeleine L’Engle.

One foggy night, I heard the geese, very close overhead, calling, calling, their marvelous strange cry, as they flew by. I think that is what our own best prayer must sound like when we send it up to heaven.

That funny frog and all those luminous feathers gave me a bit of strength. Anyone can endure something for sixty minutes, I told myself as I took out my phone and set a timer for an hour. I committed myself to walk until it beeped, then take a pause and prepare for the next hour. Honestly, it was the only way I figured I could get out of there.

Battle-ready with a plan to manage the hard bits I moved on. In my zeal, I experienced each stage of grief – you know, anger, sadness, fear – all the feelings, all at once in a jumble of totally out of control. I even bargained with the air saying that once this was all over, then I’d feel joy, putting off that elusive goal for another time even if that meant missing out on what was here now.

Wet and miserable, joy grabbed me unawares with surprises like a marsh marigold-lined trail.

As I squished forward, I arrived at a copse of emory oaks, acorns spread out below on sun-bleached grass. Someone hung a cow’s skull on a branch as a kind of menacing greeter. I know just how you feel, Ms. Hollowed Out with a Dead Stare, I said.

My new schedule had me walking step by step for a full workday of eight hours and inevitably I found a rhythm.

walk – pause – whine
walk – pause – whine pray
walk – pause – pray

walk – pray
walkpray – walkpray – walkpray.

The very simple act of moving grounded and relaxed me, causing less a feeling of defeat in pushing hard against the conditions, and more acceptance in what the present moment offered. My prayer-like footsteps were more than just a meditation in mud-avoidance, they showed me I could move through this day if I took the spirit’s hand and let her lead me.

What happened next can only be explained by the mysterious surprises that await us if we look hard enough. Before my eyes, the trail became beautiful. It headed up a small canyon with a lovely creek stair stepping down. The rocks were covered with lichen. Marsh marigolds and spring beauties carpeted the forest floor. 

I still crossed water and sticky, unrelenting mud, but noticed for the first time that sometimes there were clear patches of dry grass. I named them “100-feet-of-joy and sung them out, joy, joy, joy! as I met them.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes the joy this way:

Discovering more joy does not save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters.

Surely a little mud was nothing like the world Tutu lived in and helped reconcile. I laughed at how wrapped up I was in my suffering, realizing there was no way I could force this mess to be anything else than what it was.

Joy does not mean life will be easy, that the journey will be free of difficulty, that the path will be without mud or that the tent will stay dry. The reason I walked the Arizona Trail – and just about any trail – is to get grounded by literally putting my feet on the ground. In that relentlessly muddy place, I learned a valuable lesson, that joy is embedded in us, no matter what twists and turns life takes. It’s a choice.

As the terrain began to slant down, I met a grassy area perfect for my tent. Two creeks fed around a small island, one which had three waterfalls. And this time, it was a chorus of frogs that greeted me, a reward for my tired, battered body. 

It was a muddy, wet slog on the Mogollon Rim section of the Arizona Trail about 60 miles south of Flagstaff, Ponderosa Pine on repeat, no views and patchy drifted snow emptying into streams-as-trail. I had a miserable time until I accepted what was and let things be, suddenly noticing the precious beauty of this place.
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Published by alison young

Alison Young is the Blissful Hiker, a voice artist and sometime saunterer. 📣🐥👣🎒

Reader Comments

  1. Alison, I always enjoy the way you talk so meaningfully about your very specific hikes – in ways that illuminate all of our steps, whether we are hikers or not. And as great lines go, it’s hard to beat “I have a long-standing relationship with mud.”

  2. This has left me with tears. It is what I needed to read right now and wish desperately that these words could be shared far and wide for all to read.

    Thank you.

    1. oh thank you, Vicky! I am so glad it was what you needed – I certainly needed to get to that place and process the moment. Feel free to share with your friends. hugs, alison

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