We had just pitched our tent, cooked dinner, and settled in for the evening when the wind began to gust strongly. Kellie and I had hiked six miles that afternoon from Unicoi Gap in northern Georgia on the Appalachian Trail to the backside of Tray Mountain. All afternoon we had trekked in fog—a cool damp blanket that made the woods feel mysterious. Not spooky, just mystical. The forecast called for some rain, we hoped light and brief. We were wrong.
The storm broke about 8pm as rain smacked the tent loudly…but it was the wind that rocked us with the sound and fury of a freight train and kept sleep at bay throughout the night. It was hard to tell when day broke because the gloom lightened only slightly, but we had ground to cover, so we broke camp and set off in wind and rain. Waterproof jackets and boots kept us dry for maybe 30 minutes until we stopped avoiding the puddles and splashed through the trails that were now rivers. It was fun for a while.
Unexpectedly, old knee injuries returned with a vengeance until my every step brought pain. Kellie’s shoulder began to throb, with pains shooting down her arm. We stumbled into camp 11 miles later disheartened. Where was the glory of our spring trek? A week’s journey back in April had been challenging but energizing. This time we were only getting the challenge. A glimmer of sunshine at dusk brightened our mood, and we set out on the day three more hopeful—but mainlining Advil!
By late morning the sun disappeared again, and we heard reports of more rain approaching. This adventure had become a gauntlet to run. Temperatures fell as we climbed our highest peak yet. Now wet, weary, cold, and painful, we finally decided to bail out, only halfway through our intended course. And while it was a relief to step into a warm shower and motel bed that night, it was hard to shake a sense of failure. What was that all about? we asked ourselves quietly. After so many encouraging life lessons from the spring trip, we struggled to find inspiration in this one.
Struggle is part of life, both on the trail and off. In both life and leadership. Pain and joy co-mingle in just about every season. And pressure is that unwanted gift that reveals what lies beneath the surface of professional smiles and evening entertainments. Our deeper beliefs are exposed in the wind and rain of suffering. Is the universe friendly? Is God trustworthy? Is my life successful? Are my talents enough? Is the future hopeful? Storms have a way of pulling down the mask that we use to hide from ourselves.
As our masks dropped and we grappled with our discomfort, we had a choice to make—either hunker down and let the second storm pass or push hard for another 5 miles to make the extraction point. We decided to push. I can’t say that one decision was better than the other; it simply seemed like the right thing to do at the time. Sometimes it’s important to weather the storm; other times it’s important to move to safer ground. You have to decide.
Think about the last storm you faced…or the one you’re in right now. What did it reveal? Whatever it revealed is the truth; the rest is woven with pretense. No simple steps in this post—only the gift of a big question: When pressure reveals and tests your character, what will you do with it?