A Backpacker’s Guide to Surviving a Pandemic

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“I really don’t know if I can do this.”  “I’m too tired.”  “I don’t know how I’m going to make it.”  “This is too big, too much for me.”

These are just a few of the self-doubts and troubling worries that accompanied me on a recent walk in the woods.

It wasn’t just any walk.  To celebrate my 60th birthday this summer, I went on a 40-mile, 5-day hike on the Appalachian Trail in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Backpacking alone with 35 pounds of gear on my back and sleeping in a tent in the wilderness each night isn’t as easy as it used to be.  Truth be told, it was physically and mentally challenging, even draining at times.  Yet it was worth every step of blood, sweat, and tears (mostly sweat – a LOT of sweat).

There was awesome beauty and strength and peace to be found in this solitude with Mother Nature.  What it taught me, as it always does, is that these things are always here.  They are always around us and in us.  Even when conditions are rough. We just need to re-attune our senses and refocus our minds.  We just need to awaken and remember.

I’m back home now, several weeks.  We’re about to enter the most important time of year for parents and professionals working with kids.  It’s back-to-school time!

Only we’re doing it under some highly challenging conditions, with stressors that we haven’t known in our lifetime.  The coronavirus continues to send waves of physical illness and mental anguish through our communities.  Parents, teachers, and school administrators are all “trying to do what’s best for the children” in the face of this pandemic.  But they vary widely on what that means.

We all have our own risk tolerances and vulnerabilities.  We all have our own fears and uncertainties.  We all have our own strengths and struggles.  And, like it or not, we really are all in this together.

So how do we proceed, when the path ahead isn’t clear?  How do we manage the incessant day-to-day details, while keeping our eyes on the prize (that is, to safely care for and educate our children)?

Over the next few weeks, I’ll share a few lessons from my backpacking trip that I hope might be useful here.

PART ONE: Plan with Intention

You may have heard of the acronym: Set SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Acceptable, Realistic, Timely).  Very wise advice for any successful endeavor – whether it be a backpacking trip, a school year, or a therapy session.  Yet there’s a missing ingredient that I think is the most vital element of all – our intentions.

Years ago Jason Frenn, a motivational speaker, planted this seed in my mind, and it’s never left.  “When your WHY is bigger than your BUT, you can overcome any obstacles.”  He was talking about how we often set lofty goals for ourselves, then self-sabotage with all the “buts” that arise along the way.  – Explanations or excuses that we tell ourselves.  BUT I don’t have enough time… BUT I don’t know how… BUT I’m not (smart, strong, rich, popular, etc.) enough…

When we get clear on what matters most to us and remain mindful of those intentions, it helps us get through the hardest of times.

So it really helps to do some SMART planning with your highest intentions in mind. Be clear about why you’re doing something.  What’s most important about this adventure (or school year) to you and your children?  What are your core values? What matters most here?

Then prepare to proceed with those intentions in mind, as best you can, with both the resources and limitations that you have.

My intentions for this backpacking trip were (a) to get rejuvenated from time in Nature, away from the modern stressors of our society and my work, and (b) to challenge myself, to see if I still had it in me, to feel and celebrate being ALIVE!

So I prepared and planned, with the best of intentions.

Be Realistic

As background, it’s relevant to know that I have backpacked all my life.  I have a decent amount of experience and expertise.  I’ve been working out regularly with a personal trainer the past couple of years.  I’m in decent shape.  On the other hand, I’m a life-long asthmatic who just spent 6-weeks battling pneumonia this Spring (in the midst of the COVID crisis, not fun).  As my trip approached, I was still feeling a little weak and winded when I exerted myself.

All that to say, I had some real strengths and weaknesses going into this trip, and needed to plan accordingly.  I needed to have a fair appraisal of what I could do and what my limitations might be.

I set specific goals for distance, time, and elevation changes.  I carefully plotted a route that would ensure access to potable water sources along the way (fundamental to survival).  I considered and reconsidered how much food, clothing, first-aid, shelter and cooking gear I would need AND I could carry.

I made sure I had well-worn hiking boots and a well-fitted backpack and a 60-year-old backpacker’s best friend – walking poles! (They help distribute the weight and absorb the shocks on the legs and back.)

I also made sure I had several escape routes and contingencies plans in case of an emergency.  If something went seriously wrong, selected family and friends knew the planned itinerary and were ready to assist, as needed.

In short, I did what I could to plan as thoughtfully as I could with the knowledge that I had at the time.  I considered the risks and the rewards, given my strengths, weaknesses and current circumstances.  I accepted that there is no such thing as 100% safe or predictable.

Most importantly, I always kept in mind WHY I was doing this, not just WHAT I was doing or HOW I was doing it.  There was meaning and purpose to this craziness.  I kept reminding myself: if I wasn’t being rejuvenated or challenged in a fruitful way, then what was the point?

Off the Trail and Back to School

Now, as we head back to school this year, I find many similarities with my trek in the woods.

There are some things we know, and many things we don’t.  We want our children to be physically healthy and safe, yet we know there is no guarantee (ever) about that. We want them to be socially and emotionally well, also.  We want them to gain academic skills and continue to progress as best they can given the current circumstances.

It won’t be “normal” as we’ve known it before.  Just like a 40-minute walk in the park isn’t the same as a 40-mile hike in the mountains.  Just like a 40-mile hike at age 60 isn’t the same as it was at age 20.  We each come to this with our own strengths and struggles.  Conditions will change.  Always.

AND it doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it or that it’s not possible to get through it. Different school structures and experiences doesn’t mean we can’t realize our goals (if we’ve been SMART about it) or that we can’t meet our intentions.

We might not meet every expectation, but we can fulfill our intentions of seeing that our children become resilient in the face of hardship.  They can learn how to plan and prepare.  How to do the best they can with the time and energy (and resources) they have.  How to triumph over adversity.  So can we!

Today we’ve taken the first step in that journey – Planning with Intention.

Soon we’ll meet obstacles – some anticipated, some as yet unknown.  Together we can see our way through this.  We can set about with realistic goals and strategies and we can adapt to changing conditions along the way.

In the coming weeks we’ll explore more about how to adapt to adversity in the face of so much uncertainty.