I spent much of my childhood alone, wandering through the mountain wilderness of Wyoming, as I previously related. I remember hearing some concerns that I spent too much time alone and that it couldn’t be good for me. I’m sure any true introvert can relate. But I didn’t see it that way. For one thing, I had friends I saw at least a couple times a week at church and siblings I saw more often than that. And I really believe my alone wandering time was vital for my development and education. I wouldn’t have the strength and confidence I have today without it.
So what could I learn by wandering alone through the wilderness, besides basic outdoor survival skills? Well, for one thing, the dull drudgery of that much walking gave my mind lots of free time to dream and think and imagine. At home I read widely and prolifically. But sometimes you get to the point where you’re reading so much that your brain doesn’t have time to fully assimilate the lessons of one book before the next book comes along to capture your attention. I think all the hiking, which isn’t really a mentally strenuous activity most of the time, enabled a more interactive approach to reading. It gave me structured times to mull, meditate, and undertake flights of fancy, inspired in some ways by recent reads but in which I was always free to soar as far as I wanted in any new direction.
But I think the most valuable lesson I learned during those times was the practice of plodding. Very rarely has any learned life skill proved to be so valuable in so many different ways in my life. Many times I had wandered farther than I should have when I knew I had to be home that night. My body would be dog tired, the sun would be going down, and I’d still have miles to go. Sometimes, out in the dry, dusty sagebrush, the problem would be compounded by thirst (I was never as good about carrying water as I should have been). My tongue would be so dry and swollen that I couldn’t even swallow, it would just stick to the roof of my mouth. Every step would be a struggle and the way would seem interminable.
I learned a trick somewhere along the way. When the full hike ahead seemed impossibly daunting, I would progressively break it down into smaller and smaller segments, until each one seemed manageable, then I’d focus on one segment at a time. There were only two rules: you had to pause every once in a while to choose distant landmarks, so you knew you were always going in the right direction; then, you had to put everything out of your mind besides finishing the next small segment.
Sometimes, when I was really tired, I would reduce the segments of my trip to twenty steps. I would tell myself, “No matter how tired I am, I can make the next twenty steps. What if I find something that would make all the difference just twenty steps from here? How tragic it would be to quit and die when I was just twenty steps away from success!” Then, I’d count out twenty steps and say to myself, “If I did the last twenty, I can do the next twenty too.” The trick was to keep your focus very much on your present task. Just count twenty then twenty then twenty more. Whenever your mind starts to say, “Yeah, but you’ll have to count out the same twenty steps a thousand more times!” you just have to ignore it and concentrate harder on your counting. “I know I can make it twenty more and I can decide then if I want to quit.” But you never do quit, because you can always make it just twenty more.
This life skill is remarkably versatile. I remember being exhausted working some manual labor job, not thinking I had the strength to continue. I’d be digging in some ditch or tamping some posthole, and whenever I thought to myself, “I can’t go on,” then I’d say inwardly, “Surely I can lift that heavy tamping rod at least three more times!” Then three more and three more until my time was done. Or when darkness fell on some day like a palpable cloud of despair and the night seemed so far away that I could never get to it before the sadness stopped the beating of my heart, I could just break the day down into progressively smaller segments and count my way through. Your mind always wants to think, “But that’s such a small amount of time, getting through just ten more seconds is meaningless when I have to do it a thousand more times!” But that’s when you have to force your mind not to think about anything beyond the next ten seconds. And if you can get through that ten, chances are you can get through the next ten. In college, when projects due seemed overwhelming and insurmountable, you could just break down each project into small segments and say, “Well, I know I can get through at least this much…” and before you knew it, you had made substantial headway.
Training your mind to live in the moment, when the near future seems impossibly daunting, isn’t easy. That’s why I think all that childhood wandering was necessary practice for me. It taught me the life skill of plodding, which I still use today. Various pressures and uncertainties sometimes come into my life and seem impossible to surmount – so I just quit worrying about surmounting them all (that’s way too big a task, it doesn’t seem feasible) and instead I just break it down to the next manageable segment and start plodding. Fortunately, I’m a world class plodder by now. 🙂