Last weekend, Cheryl and I drove up to Virginia. Our travels took us past places we'd visited five years earlier, on a road trip we'd taken when we first became a couple. The trip five years ago was a pleasant drive. Highway 58 through the Appalachians is a twisty road that rewards you with mile after mile of breathtaking views. Stick a camera out your window and take a random shot, and odds are good it would make a decent post card.
Our first road trip was purely an adventure in driving. It was a bit like watching television. We sat the whole time, looking at passing images through a sheet of glass. Save for the occasional stop to get out and stretch our legs, we didn't interact much with the environment beyond just looking at it. From our seated position, we saw hints that other people had a different experience with the surroundings. In Galax, we drove past the head of the New River Trail and saw people unloading bikes. We saw dozens of places to rent kayaks, and passed numerous entrances for trails, including the Appalachian Trail. In Damascus, we got out to take a picture of a railroad bridge that had been converted into a bike path and were almost run over by the bikes coming down the mountain on what we later learned was the Virginia Creeper Trail.
Zooming down the mountain on a bike sure looked like fun, but, let's face it, it was the kind of fun other people had. People who were younger, healthier, and, to be blunt, a lot thinner. Cheryl and I occasionally did hikes. We were good for a few miles along the Eno or on Occanneechee Mountain, but the hike to Moore's Wall in Hanging Rock wiped us out. As for biking, three miles around the abandoned golf course near our vacation spot in Myrtle Beach was a real work out. We liked getting outside, but liked getting back indoors to air conditioning just a tiny bit more.
This year when we went back to Virginia, it was a very different trip. Those places we drove past five years ago? Now, we got to experience them fully. On Saturday, we biked 50+ miles from Galax to Pulaski along the New River Trail. It took us 9 hours to make the journey, and my butt is still sore five days later, but we saw vistas that would have been forever hidden if we hadn't left our car miles behind. On Sunday, it was off to Grayson Highlands, to tackle two different hikes, one taking us up to the highest pinnacles in the park, another to take us up to the grassy ridges where wild ponies munched lazily on new spring growth.
Monday, we returned to the New River Trail for an 8 mile bike ride along a spur we'd skipped on Saturday. Then, on our drive home, we stopped by Hanging Rock and did two short trails we'd never done before, to the upper and lower cascades, discovering amazing waterfalls we'd passed by a dozen times without knowing what we were missing.
There's truly no comparison between the two trips. Five years ago, we experienced the world mainly with our eyes, and the vast majority of the things we saw had a strip of asphalt right down the center. This year, we experienced the world with six senses. We saw things we'd never have seen from a car, we heard waterfalls and birds and the crunch of leaves under our boots, we smelled blossoming trees and the lingering creosote of old rail beds. We felt the sun and the wind and the rough coolness of stone as we climbed boulders to get a better view of our surroundings. As for taste, you don't really appreciate just how good plain water tastes until you're about thirty miles in on your fifty mile bike ride. As for the sixth sense, it's proprioception, the internal sense of the positioning of your body, the relative position of all your limbs, and the amount of energy flowing to each muscle to keep you upright on a bike as you're bouncing along a rough downhill trail, or keeping you balanced as you ascend an impossibly steep wall of steps leading up to the peak of a mountain. It's not a sense that kicks in much when you're sitting on a couch, but when this sense is fully activated, I can only describe it as an acute and profound sensation that you're exactly where you're supposed to be in the world.
What changed in the intervening five years? We did. It didn't happen overnight. We didn't wake up one morning and think, hey, let's go ride 50 miles and then did it because we had the willpower. There wasn't an easy, five step plan to get us from couch potato to mountain climber. Instead, we've been on a million step plan. Results will vary based on the size of your stride, of course, but a million steps would take most people somewhere between 400 and 500 miles. To cover that in a year breaks down to roughly 8 to 10 miles per week on your feet, propelling your body forward across space with nothing but your own muscles. It's not easy at first. I won't even tell you it's easy later. Cheryl and I live a mile from where we have gym memberships, and we try to walk there when we can, but there are times when we just hop in the car, because it's too hot, or too cold, or we're just running short on time and have too much to do give up fifty minutes of our live to walking a mile there and back.
Fortunately, more often than not, we put on our walking shoes and hit the pavement. Every step adds up. The reward isn't just hikes in the highlands, or long bike trips between distant towns. The real reward is our triumph over those thoughts that haunted us when those bikes flew past us five years ago. I no longer feel too old to have new adventures, or too fat to accomplish amazing things. A million steps a year can reshape your body. More importantly, it will carry your mind to a brand new world.
That world is waiting. Take the first step.