Today's Travel Story courtesy of English-Blog contributor Mae P.
The Lesson of Optimism
I learned more about myself in the final week in 2004 than I had learned all year. During that week, I participated in a dog sledding program in Maine through the Outward Bound School. Outward Bound is a school designed to push your limits, to widen your horizons, and build confidence. The greatest lesson I learned was from the sledding dogs themselves. Mine was a lesson on attitude; one can control their experiences if one makes the conscious decision about how they respond. I learned to tell myself, . . .
. . . “I can decide whether I am miserable or whether I am willing to challenge myself and succeed.”
It was the middle of the night, and even though I was exhausted I remained sleepless. The sensation in my gut was too strong to ignore any longer. There was no possible way I could wait to “use the bathroom” any longer. Bitterly, I untied the hood of my sleeping bag which let out all of the precious warmth. Everything was covered in a layer of frost; the moist breath of sleeping campers froze and settled delicately on every surface. I could feel the frost melt on my fingertips as I tied the laces on my boots. I stepped outside the tarp shelter, and with a yelp I nearly had fallen face first. It had been freezing rain through out the night; the snow was covered in a layer of ice.
I cursed myself for ever having thought, “A dog sledding trip? That sounds like a blast!” At three in the morning, in two feet of snow, nine hundred miles from home, sore, and exhausted, my enthusiasm for dog sledding had dissipated considerably.
I managed to stand up again. I made my way, step by irritating step, into the forest. The dogs, tightly curled, lifted their heads as I walked by. They were soft-cornered shadows in the dark; their thick hair diffused definite edges. I could feel their clever eyes on me as a passed.
A few minutes later, I trudged to the dogs to sit and perhaps have a conversation with one of them. They would listen intently to my frustration, nod knowingly, and appreciate the attention. They were not intimidating, wolf-like Siberian Huskies, but friendly and from a mixed heritage. Each dog had his own personality. Some were playful, others were timid, regal, intelligent, distant, lazy, loving, and had as many emotions as any human.
I sat next to Sabe, a creamy, dignified fellow, and scratched his neck. “I don’t know how you can run all day, Sabe,” I muttered. “I haven’t counted but I think I pulled every muscle in my body. I’m not even running.”
Suddenly I was aware that someone else was moving across camp. I realized it was Caroline, our instructor; she had been disturbed by the noise I made when I fell. Caroline was tall, thin, and soft-spoken. She moved easily across the slick ice, demonstrating many years’ experience traversing winter wilderness. She approached Sabe and I, and held his nose in the palm of her hand, looking into his eyes. “Have you ever noticed that Sabe’s whiskers are curled?”
No, I hadn’t. But they were. I realized what an odd trait that that must be—in fact, I had never known a dog to have curly whiskers.
“How are you doing so far, Mae?” she asked.
“Oh, I’m okay,” I said modestly. “Frustrated, mostly. I think I’ve lost heart in this trip.”
She nodded. “You haven’t gone sledding yet, have you?”
“No. I’ve been on the skis so far.” There were only two dogsleds with only room for four people to sled while there were a total of ten people on the trip. If you weren’t on the dogsleds, you had to cross-country ski your way to the next campsite carrying a forty pound pack on your back. Blisters were abundant and tripping over one’s own skis was inevitable.
“You’ll get your chance tomorrow, then,” Caroline said in her soft voice.
“You’ll enjoy it. Even though you’re frustrated, you’re doing very well, Mae.
The compliment made me feel a bit warmer. I rolled a question over in my mind for a moment, unsure whether it was appropriate to ask. “What do you do when you’re cold and tired and hungry?” I ventured.
She paused a moment. “You’ve seen what a frenzy these dogs work themselves into when we’re getting ready. The dogs can’t wait to go. They don’t care about the weather or how heavy the sled is. The dogs don’t mind how far they have to go or how hard it is to get there. They just want to run.” She paused a moment, to see if I understood yet. I didn’t. “I try to put myself in their mind frame.”
“Oh,” I breathed. It was true; the dogs wanted more than anything to run. It didn’t mean much to me at the time. I wasn’t willing to cast aside my self-pity and immerse myself in the wonder of the icy wilderness. I sighed to myself, letting my hand run over Sabe’s back.
Caroline smiled. “You should go back to bed. I’ll see you on the sleds tomorrow.”
That morning, I awoke to the sound of all ten dogs howling, moaning, singing, saying “Please, oh, please, you must let us run! Let us off these leashes! When will we ever get going?” The howling would come and go in waves as we packed up camp.
I was tentative to begin the day with gloomy possibilities swimming through my mind. I was still focusing on how sore and tired I was. Caroline must have read the expression on my face because she winked at me and said, “Howl once.”
“What?” I asked.
“Let out a good howl like the dogs. Pretend that you are one of the dogs. Howl like today is going to be the greatest day of your life. Just try it.”
Hesitantly I told myself, “This will be the greatest day of my life.” So I threw back my head and howled. It felt primal, it felt real. I laughed and howled again. The dogs barked with me, encouraging the sudden rush of adrenaline throughout my body.
“Now promise yourself you won’t become frustrated,” Caroline told me.
So I did. I promised myself that my discomfort was only temporary. I promised myself that I would only be miserable if I thought I was miserable. That day on the sleds will forever be one of my most vivid, exciting memories. Certainly, we ran into problems, but I cannot remember them now. Whenever I felt aggravated I checked myself. I made sure I remained optimistic, not only the remainder of that day, but for the rest of the trip.
I’ve carried those promises with me and I still remind myself of them. I realized that with this philosophy I’ve been much happier. I’ve created many cheerful memories in situations that don’t yield pleasure at face-value. I’ve accomplished many things I might have abandoned because they weren’t as successful as planned. I owe my sense of patience, optimism, and endurance to those dogs. And, to the neighbor’s bewilderment, I’ve developed the strange habit of occasionally running outside to throw back my head and howl.
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Posted by lhobbs at June 1, 2006 12:44 AM
Looked through your site. Good work!
Posted by: Ken at June 4, 2006 05:25 PM
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