In the ’80s when my sister worked in Kathmandhu for a couple of years, I went out to do some trekking with her in the Himalayas. I went in monsoon season. Every morning we would head out at sunrise and walk until nightfall at 6 pm.
Here we were in the glorious Himalayas, beautiful vistas stretched for hundreds of miles in every direction… and we couldn’t see a thing. Because, it was monsoon season. We were mostly enveloped in grey clouds of thick wetness.
But we’re British! So we persevered. We made up games (“At the end of this trek, what I would like to find in my fridge…”) we recited entire movie screenplays (Day of the Jackal) and we just.kept.walking.
We were fully aware that the views surrounding us were absolutely breathtaking and, occasionally, the cloud would dissipate and we glimpsed what had been there all along but hidden from our eyes.
We were beset by driving rain, leeches, blisters and muscle fatigue like you wouldn’t believe. One day after stopping at a teashop for dahlbat and sitting cross legged on a tiny log for an hour, I was unable to stand. This to the enormous amusement of the children and teashop owners who kindly levered me to my feet. Crazy foreigners, I’m sure they were thinking.
We knew the trek was worth it for several reasons. We were in Nepal! It was the Himalayas! And we wanted to achieve it, to say yes, we did it! 13 hour days of walking with and without any view in one of the most amazing mountain ranges in the world.
Remembering those treks has been a very helpful metaphor for me over the years. So much of life is represented in them:
Climbing 13 hours all the way up to a peak only to look across the valley to an equal height and be told that that is where we have to get to by noon tomorrow. (I asked my sister, “Where’s the bridge?” She replied, “No bridge. It’s just all the way down, and then all the way back up the other side.” I wanted to cry.)
Sometimes there were bridges –
And sometimes there were not.
Then there were the leeches.
We were killing ourselves to go on this trek and now these nasty vermin were attacking our ankles? COME. ON.!!
And the rain and the wind. Sometimes we could laugh about it,
And sometimes we couldn’t.
Then the fog and those clouds. We knew that these incredible views were almost in touching distance. They were there right then along with us, but we couldn’t see them because of the circumstances.
Until, every so often, the clouds would lift and we could see the view and we remembered what this was all for.
And what views they were. Enough to make you want to shout and dance and scream loudly in sheer awe of what lay all around you. THE HIMALAYAS!!
On the days when the weather didn’t lift, there was just a lot of plodding forward. Keeping your eyes on the next step in front of you so you didn’t trip on a rock or slide on a humungous slug. Having a great companion made a huge difference.
For some extraordinary reason I’d brought a cardigan with me. Trust me when I say a cardigan in monsoon weather is one of the most unpleasant garments to wear ever.
The fog and rain could get pretty depressing. But there was no point stopping where we were. We had a destination to get to, the weather wasn’t going to change any time soon and the only option was to just.keep.walking.
This type of walking is what I refer to as The Long Middle: you weren’t where you started; you haven’t arrived where you’re going; and what you’re walking through doesn’t really seem to provide any view whatsoever. You just have to keep walking.
I’m in the Long Middle right now in this season of my life. And aren’t there many different Long Middles we have to walk through in a lifetime?
There’s a Long Middle –
To long term medical treatment
To a big project
In fact, to any major change in your life.
And you know there’s a view out there, but you just can’t see it now. Or you can’t see it yet. You’ve just got to crest the next hill, or traverse the next valley, or wait for the weather to change, or (my least favorite) just.keep.walking.
It’s not sexy. It’s not sensational. Sometimes it’s not even interesting at all. You just have to keep going.
Sometimes you feel like chatting to companions on the trek, sometimes you just want to walk and think, or walk and not think. It really doesn’t matter so long as you keep walking.
And you can meet some pretty extraordinary people you wouldn’t have met if you hadn’t been walking on that particular trek, on that particular day, in that particular weather.
One night mid-trek, we had to stop before reaching the village we had been heading for. Our guide or Dai (means “older brother”, loved this) asked a Tibetan family whose house we were passing if we could stay with them. They invited us in, fed us, laughed warmly at our aches and pains, and then my sister who spoke Nepali gamely married me off to their son who was working in India.
They had nothing in Western terms, and they gave us everything. I’ll never forget it.
The thing about the Long Middle is that it does eventually end. We haven’t got to our age without having been through other Long Middles before.
It’s called the Middle for a reason. It’s not the start, and it’s not the destination. It’s the bit of the process you’ve just got to get through in the meantime. And some days you just want to hide or scream or complain or snap. It really doesn’t matter how you deal with it, as long as you keep moving in the right direction. Attitude helps, but movement matters. There’s no medal for how you get through it, there’s only achievement when you do.
So if you’re in a Long Middle in this season of your life, Just.Keep.Walking. The views are there and they’re awesome, you just can’t see them. Yet. Don’t stop.
And the sense of achievement for surviving will be enormous when you arrive at the next place — you made it! So DON’T, for God’s sake, stop among the leeches. This season will change, and there’s no way to get to your next destination from where you are today unless you keep moving.
You know my proudest moment on that Himalayan trek? It was when, sitting by the fire, the father of the Tibetan family asked our guide, Dai, if my sister and I could ‘walk’. Dai thought for a moment, then replied quietly:
“Yes,” he smiled. “They can ‘walk’.”