ALF Continues To Enrich My Life In So Many Ways

Christa Gannon (Class XXV), Founder and CEO, Fresh Lifelines for Youth

This time of year as a new ALF class heads to Gold Lake, I find myself reminiscing about my participation in Class XXV.  I remember the feeling of anticipation as we loaded onto the boats to cross Gold Lake to our camp site, the fresh smell of the woods that surrounded us when we arrived, the gentle sound of the lake lapping onto the shore, the ping of the mediation bell ushering us into silence, and the laughter of those who would become life-long friends.  ALF continues to enrich my life in so many ways.

Thanks in part to my experience in ALF, I committed to spend one week a year on my own in nature. Every November I travel to Mt. Shasta, leaving behind the demands of being a nonprofit Founder and CEO, wife, mother, sister, daughter, granddaughter, friend, and all the other roles in my life. For a week I am simply a woman in the woods.  Each day I journey out and explore a new trail while working to quiet my mind and surrender my spirit to the lessons in front of me.

Surrendering is not easy for a type A, action-oriented planner like me.  I am very much a work-in-progress.  For example, a recent hike to the summit of Mt. Eddy really had its way with me.  I intended to hike for a half a day and turn around when my route met the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). But as I crossed the PCT I felt so good, the hour was so early, and the trail was so beautiful, I decided to continue. Before I knew it, I was at the base of Mt. Eddy.  According to my tattered guide book, summiting Mt. Eddy (which stands at 9,000 feet) was a moderate climb and at the very top offered “breathtaking views of Mt. Shasta and the valley below.” I had enough food, water, supplies, and daylight to tackle this challenge safely, and I even had a spot of cell phone reception that allowed me to text my family to set a new check-in time.

Within minutes, though, the light dusting of snow on the ground made the trail at the rocky base difficult to follow.  It didn’t take long before I knew I was way off course and I became totally frustrated. I had decades of hiking experience. If I could see the top of the mountain, surely I could find a safe way up! But the ground was soft and loose and the rocks at the base were just one ankle sprain after another waiting to happen.  After a good long argument with myself I decided it wouldn’t be safe to continue. I couldn’t risk falling and hurting myself hours from my car on a trail where I had yet to see another human being.

So, I surrendered.  I sat down, pulled out my journal, and wrote. After venting my frustration on paper, I looked up and realized there was a beautiful view right in front of me.  Off to the west I could see the rocky cliffs I so loved and had hiked to the day before. In the distance was Castle Crags, an amazing formation of rock cliffs that pierced the sky.  I noticed how given the angle of the sun the trees around me were perfectly split in two, half of each tree caked in snow, the other half basking in the warm light and gently moving in the breeze. My mind and soul were quiet and I experienced peace.

I realized that releasing myself from the tunnel vision pursuit of a goal allowed me to deeply experience the gifts right in front of me. Smiling, peaceful, and grateful I stood up to start my journey home.  And I immediately stumbled onto the trail.  There it was, the chance to summit a mountain!  I thought to myself, “I can learn more than one lesson from nature today? Right?”

Off I went, immediately back into goal-oriented mode, how quickly my hardwiring kicked in! As I charged up the mountain I looked ahead and noted what I thought was the final bend that would take me to the top.  As I approached, I pushed myself to near breathlessness excited to see Mt. Shasta burst into my view. But I was wrong—it was just another switchback.  In fact, the belief that I was about to round the final corner and the disappointment of being wrong happened three more times during my climb.  I actually began laughing out loud and talking to myself. “Stop focusing on the end and just enjoy the journey!” I yelled into the wind.

Finally, I gave into the fact that I had no idea when the switchbacks would end.  I found my rhythm and focused on putting one foot in front of the other.  And with each switchback I felt more confident that I would make it. Then, the trail flattened and I was at the top.  Silently and gracefully Mt. Shasta appeared.  It was beautiful and eerily quiet there above the tree line. It was just me, the soft earth beneath my feet, and the panoramic view.

Then I looked at my watch–it was a few minutes before 1 PM. Because I needed enough time to descend before dark, ironically I couldn’t stay and enjoy the view, I had to move. I must admit I was so proud that at times I skipped down the switchbacks yelling, “I did it!” My goal complete, my mind now more relaxed, I took in the scenery and noticed how every switchback had a different and breathtaking view of its own. I had missed these views on the way up as my eyes were so fixated ahead while I searched for the top.

As I think back on that day I am struck by how vividly I remember three very different feelings: the feeling of pride that coursed through me the moment I reached the top; the strength I felt when I made the choice to focus on holding a steady pace rather than continuing to anticipate when I’d arrive at the summit; and the deep feeling of peace that washed over me when I first couldn’t find the trail and surrendered to enjoyment of the view at the base of the mountain.

Mt. Eddy gave me a gift that day, a reminder that there are times to charge ahead in the pursuit of goals, times for easing into a steady pace as we walk through the challenges of life, and times that call upon us to surrender, to be deeply grateful, present, and at peace with what lies right in front of us. So as our new class of ALFers returns from their wilderness experience, here’s to us all remembering and embracing nature as one of our greatest teachers.