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  • Writer's pictureAllen Crater

Breaking Sticks

Updated: Mar 1


broken sticks in the palm of a hand

For me 2020 began the same way it probably did for many others – with a shiny new gym card. While I’ve never been much for New Year’s resolutions, I was planning a summer backpacking trip to Wyoming’s Wind River Range with my younger son heading into his senior year of high school, and I needed to mold myself into a shape other than round. I’d grown too comfortable, too lazy, and alarmingly soft around the seams.

 

My last real outing with multiple days under a pack had come a full four years earlier in a September outing to the Sawtooths with my friend Max. Since then, I could only count a modest handful of hikes against my name – Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, and Montana – beautiful places to be sure, but nothing that would be considered a true backpacking trip by any stretch of even the most vivid imagination. I needed to get ready, or risk complete embarrassment.


beautiful jagged mountains and blue lakes

I found myself back in the fitness center with the fervor of a new convert – stationary bike, stair climber, walking lunges, and leg presses. I was making progress. Melting away some of the softness and building endurance for the miles and elevation ahead.

 

And then Covid happened.


In March, Michigan’s Executive Order 2020-21 suspended all activities that were not considered necessary to sustain or protect life.


My gym closed. My business was essentially shut down. Traveling to see family and friends was prohibited, as was fishing from a motorized boat. I found myself rationing toilet paper, struggling to keep our hundred-year-old ad agency above water, and, like a lot of others, learning to manage the nuances of on-line school and Zoom meetings. Fitness was suddenly the furthest thing from my mind.


Two weeks to flatten the curve we were told. But two weeks became three, and weeks became months.


Everything in my life, it seemed, was out of control. I found myself wallowing, knee-deep, in some heavy-duty suck, wading the murky swamps of self-despair. Until I realized it wasn’t helping anything, at all – that while I couldn’t control the circumstances, I could control my reaction to them.


man in blue rain parka looking wet and sad

So, sick of self-loathing, I loaded a backpack, laced up weathered hiking boots, drove to a local trailhead, and leaned into four miles of steep, muddy trails. Finally finished, I was spent, completely soaked with sweat, and already feeling sore in parts that hadn’t been properly used in a month or so. But, in finishing that hike I had accomplished something. Was it earth-shattering? No. Was it needed? Absolutely.


Two days later I went back. And again, two days after that. It was there, on those trails, that my version of “embrace the suck” was adopted. The borrowed axiom is military slang that means to consciously accept or appreciate something that is extremely unpleasant but essential for forward progress. And that’s what those miles with the pack were to me. Unpleasant but necessary for forward progress.


I didn’t connect it at the time, but the idea closely resembles the ancient Greek and Roman concept of Stoicism.


In simple terms, Stoicism teaches us to focus on the things we can control – our thoughts, emotions, and actions – while accepting the things we cannot, such as the actions of others, the weather, or the natural course of events going on in the world around us.

 

By the 14th century, English speakers had adopted the noun stoic as a general term for anyone able to face adversity calmly and without excess emotion, and by the 15th century, stoic was being used as an adjective to describe that same kind of person.

 

The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was the last famous Stoic philosopher of antiquity. Interestingly, during the last years of his life he faced one of the worst plagues in European history – the Antonine Plague –­ which is estimated to have killed up to five million people. In many ways this hardship became the crucible for his book, known as Meditations, which records the moral and psychological advice he gave himself during this trying time.

 

The keystone of Marcus’ thinking – that true good resides in character and action – allows the ability to distinguish between what is up to us and what isn’t. Modern Stoics call this “the dichotomy of control.” In other words, what happens to us is never directly under our control, never completely up to us, but thoughts and actions are. The voluntary ones, anyway. 

 

The pandemic wasn’t under my control but the way I responded to it was.


man wearing green smiling and wearing a backpack in the woods

By mid-May, my pack had grown to fifty pounds and my four-mile hikes had become an every-other-day ritual. For one hour on those trails, I had something I could control. Something I could challenge myself with. Something that provided a feeling resembling accomplishment. It allowed me time to think, encouraged interaction with the natural world, provided an outlet for my pent-up frustrations, and it improved my stamina well beyond anything a Stairmaster or treadmill could promise.


Over the weeks I eventually established a set course that consisted of eight tours around a half-mile circuit – the first half a steady uphill climb, the back portion a sharp descent. Forgoing headphones to become more connected with my surroundings, I found myself lost in the rhythm of each step, distracted by the beauty of the flora and fauna, and immersed in deep thoughts and inner dialogue…before losing track of laps. Crap!Was that four or five?


To remedy the issue on my next outing I snatched a small twig from the trail after the first lap and carried it around the circuit. That was one. After the second lap, I broke the stick in half. That was two. Third lap, break one of the sticks. Three. And so on. Once I had reached eight sticks in hand, I was finished.


broken twigs in a man's hand

Was it a silly way to keep track? Perhaps, given the vast array of digital fitness trackers and sophisticated step counters available. But it was tangible, every lap providing a new opportunity to break a stick – a small visceral reward for the effort. And, at the end, that little stack in my palm represented something measurable. Something I could literally hold on to. Weigh.


Thus began the stick-snapping custom, and I grew consistent with it, almost to the point of obsession. Rain or shine, snow or hail. Blazing hot or freezing cold. Daylight by sun or darkness by headlamp. Four miles, fifty pounds, one hour, four days a week. It became my mantra. Throughout the hikes my mind would drift back to previous outings. Reliving old steps as my boots traced new ones.


I recalled my first "real" backpacking trip when two college buddies and I piled into and old Ford Ranger one June and drove twenty-four hours straight to Rocky Mountain National Park to explore the wilds. Everything we could ever need strapped to our backs. Nothing in front of us but peaks and trails. That trip provided my first glimpse into suck embracing and my first hint at my own mortality. Small tents. Ravenous bugs. Steep cliffs. Dangerous weather. It sucked.


young man in a red jacket wearing a backpack in the snowy Rocky Mountains

But it was also amazing. Because it included indescribable mountain sunsets, wildlife I had never before experienced, sliding down snow-covered cliffs on our packs, and brilliant trout swimming in glassy mountain lakes. It nourished me through time outside with my buddies, and moments that fostered a life-long love for mountains, trails, and trout.


I thought back to another backpacking trip, this one in New Hampshire's Presidential Range. Different buddies, similar results. It was September and a hurricane had worked its way up the coast, parking directly over us for the entire week. I quickly learned that Colorado rain has nothing on New Hampshire rain – either in terms of intensity or volume. I have never been that continuously wet for that long in my life. My hands and feet were prunes. At any given moment you could wring out my clothes like a dishcloth and fill buckets. And the New Hampshire definition of "trails" included sheer granite faces, which became ridiculously slippery when wet. It was miserable.


But I also remembered summiting Mount Washington among a lifting fog, before being struck speechless at the sheer ruggedness of the surroundings. I remembered sketchy border-crossing debacles, mountainside perches among others that shared the same love of the outdoors, and the exact taste and smell of the medium-rare steak and cold beer after we hiked out.


Boy with backpack by big mountains reflected in a lake

That August Blake and I made our trip to the Winds. Together we covered forty up-and-down miles in five days, among some of the most wild and beautiful country I had ever stepped foot in. We summited peaks, chased trout, and sat by the tent, watching more stars than we knew existed. It was a time together with my son that I will never forget, and a bright spot in a year that didn’t hold many.

 

The four-mile, embrace-the-suck circuit back home has become a treasured routine. It’s fueled backpacking trips to the mountains with my boys after the passing of our family dog, powered backcountry hunts chasing bucks and bulls with heavy packs and frozen digits, and inspired explorations into some of the most remote and unspoiled reaches of wilderness with friends in search of willing trout.


Three men wearing hats, fly fishing in the wilderness

And I still break the sticks. To keep count, to feel their heft, but more so as a tactile reminder that while I can’t control my circumstances, I can control how I respond to them.

 

Marcus Aurelius said, “Your mind will take the shape of what you frequently hold in thought, for the human spirit is colored by such impressions.” When I round the circuit and break one more stick, my thoughts are held by moments of beauty in special places, sweat on my hat brim, weight on my shoulders, and mud on my boots.

 

While I like the sound of stoic, for 2024 I’ll gladly settle for essential forward progress.

 

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2 Comments


smithwickfamily
Jan 06

Have a great 2024 and we'll catch up within your stories you pen!

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Allen Crater
Allen Crater
Jan 06
Replying to

Thank you so much. Happy New Year!

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