As I sit here with my second unfulfilled elk archery tag in as many years, I am forced to reflect on my experience. I can only focus on one thing.
Was I tough enough?
O.k. that stings a bit to say out loud. However I began to reflect on a conversation over a fire back in July. As a trainer I advocated for the ability to train mental toughness. Can you train mental toughness? I believed, Yes. The harder you train; the more confident you become in your ability to overcome all kinds of challenges. You know, Tough.
Now I digress. No.
So, yes and no?? Agree to disagree. I hate when people say that to me, but here we are.
As I sat there during the third week of September high on the Continental Divide, the wind ripped. My rain-fly flew in the wind like one of those giant car dealership American Flags. It inflated my bivy sack like a birthday balloon artist trying to make a bicycle. It blew from every direction including straight down and straight up from the ground. It blew so hard that my stove wouldn't stay lit. I shivered slightly under every layer i brought with me and it was 50 degrees out. I was dry, that's for sure, but man was I miserable. I sat there with my binoculars raised and patiently waited for the view to change. I have done this many times before in way worse weather and I've seen elk. I settled in for a long day of glassing. I was seemingly prepared and relatively comfortable (not wet and not snowing). But the wind...
Why was this time out breaking me down? I was clearly well-trained and tough enough... ...wasn't I?
On my second trip out in as many weeks, I was prepared for 6 days in the woods. Plenty of food, right gear, and physically capable of staying. My loving wife had even stashed a couple small notes in my pack, telling me "I wish you success and fulfillment: I love you: and Good luck." Why did I walk out of the woods, in the dark after 48 hours?
I was 110% capable of staying in the wilderness but I made a critical mistake.
Excuse my language, but "I didn't have my shit together."
During my first outing I was energized by the excitement of opening weekend. Less than Ideal hunting conditions could be ignored just through pure stoke alone. But this time I was backed up against a wall. It was my last opportunity to be successful this season. The temps and precipitation were supposed to be better for hunting, but who can predict the wind. Throw on top of that, some extra pressure from some horseback aided Muzzle-loaders, and I was jammed. Jammed into a corner like a rattlesnake with nothing between it and freedom but you. I lashed out like you would expect any wild animal to do. Not on the forest though, on Myself.
My brain launched an all out assault on my sub-conscience. The questions popped in and out like those bad animated action memes in the old Batman TV series.
POW!! - do you deserve to be here?
BANG!! - you've got to pay off your student loans.
ZAP!! - you're out here creating debt instead of absolving yourself of it.
ZING!! - do you even know what elk do when its windy?
BLAMMO!! - you don't deserve this...
My mind was clouded in chaos. I was telling myself I would fail and convincing myself I could stay all at the same time.. I couldn't identify one single physical discomfort, but I was beat to death.
After an evening sitting against an aspen at treeline listening to hunters call hunters, and the wind whip through the trees. I'd had enough.
And then the crunch of nearby brush I so desperately waited to hear.
The forest fell silent with the sound of the intrusion.
And then IT happened. A squirrel. Right above me. The grocery store parking lot car alarm of the forest. Unattended, abusive, unnecessary. As I heard the bushes crash away into the distance I let a days worth of mental battery out on the pine tree. I stood up and shook the life out of that poor tree, committed to bring that chattering little creature to the ground.
It was time to go home.
So now; back to my original thought.
I had realized that being physically prepared and even mentally prepared for physical challenges is only part of the equation.
I needed better optics. I had to achieve a more focused head space to truly become mentally tough.
Sitting there in that thunderous wind, I learned about life-balance.
You can't escape the problems of the mind no matter how far you walk in nature. It will force you to deal with them up front and immediately. I walked out of the woods a motivated, challenged and better individual than when I walked in. I obviously needed to become a better archer, hunter, stalker, and caller. However, I also wanted to be a better husband, uncle, brother, and son.
The solo experience is a gift but use it wisely.
Never walk into the woods unprepared.
Be ready to deal with everything. Even all the small things.