Occasionally, I run into people in the forest who are making some bad decisions of their own and I celebrate their optimism and poor judgment, not to mention commonalities. For if it were not for the optimists and poor judges of history, we wouldn’t be where we are today. Which is mostly a good place.
This is exactly what I was thinking as I stood in a half squat, leaning into some unidentified thorny bush, arms stuffed into the sweaty armpits of a near stranger as he threatened to tumble down a few jagged rocks and into an oblivion of side hill flora. In classic form, I was dressed for the occasion wearing a pair of biking shorts and Birkenstocks. This is not my preferred rescue attire – usually I need less padding on my rear end.
Some time earlier that day, I had happened upon a group of geriatrics. Just about when I was wondering what the proper term for a group of geriatrics is (a gaggle, a gandering, or perhaps a goiter of geriatrics), I realized they might be in distress. The kind of trouble that church hiking groups get into, riffraff that they are, heading into the wilderness with their ham sandwiches, good intentions and occasionally unreliable bodies.
Mind you, bodies of all ages can be unreliable and I’ve had to have a stern talking with my own on more than one occasion.
Presently, the gentleman I was trying not to drop was also talking to his. “Move, leg!” he commanded, but his legs had done enough moving for the day and, declaring their exercise quota met, were in active protest. Indeed, this charming group of perhaps the kindest (and most grateful and patient) hikers I have ever come across had launched early in the morning on a stroll of good views and good nature several hours earlier.
I stopped to check on them, noting they’d progressed only about a mile during my two-hour ride, when they told me one of their members was struggling. Leaning on the sunny slope was a cheerful gentleman who was well-equipped for any disaster, judging by the weight of his backpack and the pistol on his hip.
Except this particular kind, of course.
After a brief medical assessment – and breathing a sigh of relief that his ticker seemed to be ticking just fine – I suggested the most common wilderness first aid protocol: “Bring this man some food!”
A flock of clucking women erupted with offerings of everything from ham sandwiches to trail mix and I’m pretty sure at least one of them was cooking a brisket in her pack. Of all the problems to overcome that day, starving was not going to be one of them. Getting our outdoorsy comrade safely home without calling for search and rescue would be.
I rode my bike down the rest of the trail, moved my car to the trail head, put on my German backcountry footwear, and headed back up the trail to help the group, which was already making progress with the aid of its younger cohorts. They’d gone at least one-45th of a mile. We had about 22 more of those to go. And it took us about four hours.
We surrounded our patient with stabilizing and weight-bearing arms and carefully negotiated our way down the slope in a cooperative effort of strength and communication until he was safely planted in the front seat of my car.
You can learn a lot of things in four hours – or read all the good parts of a trashy novel, or maybe run a marathon – but it takes a special intervening of circumstances to learn the what I learned that day.
First of all, never stop doing what you love, even if it is arguably crazy and you’re unsure if your limbs are going to cooperate. All the caveats of appropriate risk-taking apply: Bring a group of people that can feed you and pray for you and call for help if needed. I am encouraged to know that I can still make dumb decisions after 80 and I have every intention of growing up to be just like that man.
Especially the part where everyone is trying to feed me.
Second, humility and self-compassion turn even the most challenging circumstances into an experience of shared humanity (and in this case, laughter).
I have never spent time with a group of kinder, more grateful, more gracious humans. Their positive attitudes, encouragement and ability to support each other was one of the most inspiring experiences of my life. If you are not surrounded by such humans already, go find them. I hear this particular group can be found getting into trouble most Fridays on the local trails. It is probably accepting new members, although the application process may involve some initiation like schlepping an incapacitated senior citizen through a thrift store or something.
And third, when the opportunity to help others arises, seize it. It is a gift that is often rewarded in unimaginable ways.
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