Clearing Paths

“I want you to know that even though I think it’s silly/unnecessary/a waste of time… today I shoveled the paths around the cabin all by myself! I think this means I must be going crazy holding down the fort alone.”

It was my sister, Ashley, writing me from our little cabin on Pikes Peak, Barr Camp. She didn’t sugar coat it. She told it like it was, straight shootin’. I could sense the comic undertones, but also a hint of something else. Was it anger, frustration, a disgruntled acceptance of reality, or some combination of all three? I was in Spain for a race, though, and with only her written words staring at me on the computer screen, it was kind of hard to decipher all of the emotions behind them. Nonetheless it made me stop and think, what is the value in shoveling?

Personally, I enjoy clearing snow, but I also like mowing grass, splitting wood, and running. There are plenty of people who don’t enjoy those things, but still consider them to be worthwhile. So, enjoyment aside, what’s the point of rearranging snow?

Our cabin is in the middle of nowhere. The nearest neighbors are squirrels, birds, bears, deer, mountain lions, and hikers. Most of them don’t even show up in the midst of a snowstorm. We clear the porch so that it doesn’t rot too much and the ice doesn’t build up, but why the rest of it? Do people hiking (or running) in the backcountry really need a path to the composting toilets, the porch, or the water pipe that we shoved into the creek months ago? Probably not. I’m pretty confident that whatever got them as far as the cabin can take them another hundred feet to the bathroom. So why clear the way?

Because it’s welcoming, that’s why. A well-beaten path is like a warm fire on a cold winter night. It beckons you in and suggests that you’re cared for, that someone’s been expecting you. Sure, it’s a small gesture, but it’s important. It’s the silent greeting before the handshake, the smile, or friendly hello. Realized or not, it makes a difference.

But porches and walkways are not the only things that need clearing. People need clearing. Not in a physical sense, but in a mental and emotional one. Just as the forest floor collects snow in winter, so do our minds fill up with all sorts of feelings and stresses. Some people are verbal processors. They talk, tweet, Instagram, blog, and Facebook their way to some level of sanity (or insanity). They get it out with words. Others, like me, tend to bottle things up. We hold it all in as we try to make sense of the world without burdening anyone else with our issues. “Life is tough,” we say. “Get a helmet.”

For a while it seems to work. We make it through one day, then another, and another. But each element of stress is a new snowflake atop the ever-growing pile. Our front door becomes blocked, the windows too, and darkness creeps in. We learn, the snow really does pile up and impede our progress. Forget going to the woodpile for wood or the creek for water. The mountain of snow is far too deep. As the last available log is burned, the cabin grows cold and uninviting. The light might be on, but the inside is none too nice.

It’s an ominous picture to say the least. The key is finding a way to shovel out all the junk. Fortunately I’ve found mine. It’s a pair of running shoes. Coupled with an adventurous spirit, a pair of shoes is the best shovel money can buy. It’s like the Pikes Peak Cog Railway snowblower, busting through snow at Windy Point and clearing the way to 14,000-plus feet. In college, my roommate, Max Ferguson, and I joked that running could solve anything. Cancer, war, global warming, you name it, running could solve it. We were exaggerating, of course, but I think you get the point. Running has a funny way of clearing our minds and setting us free.

When I return from a run, the proverbial shoveling that run has done in my mind is often evident. It might not be complete, but at least it’s underway. It tends to make me chattier, happier, and more attentive. The trick, however, is not allowing the paths to drift shut. As long as it takes to clear them out, they can blow shut again in no time at all. All it takes is a bit of wind to ruffle my feathers and I’m right back to shoveling again.

That’s okay, though. Life is like that. The storms come, we dig out, and eventually another one comes. It’s not our job to figure out how to stop all of the storms. Sure, there might be some that we can avoid, but it’s unrealistic to think that they will disappear completely. That’s why it’s so important to figure out how to weather them. If you learn to face them head on, view them as an opportunity instead of a burden, you can come out a better, happier, and stronger person. Anyone can go south for the winter; it takes a person of real character to weather the storms.

So, as the wind kicks up and the snow blows in, stand your ground. Find your shovel of choice and use it well. Keep the paths wide, the doorway clear, and the fire roaring. Sometimes it is those in the middle of nowhere who need a clear path to a warm fire.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

What does it take for you to keep your proverbial pathways clear? How much does a run help this process?

Zach Miller

is a mountain runner and full time caretaker at Barr Camp in Colorado. As caretaker, he lives year round in an off-the-grid cabin halfway up Pikes Peak. He competes for The North Face and Team Colorado. Additional sponsors/supporters include Clean-N-Jerky, GU Energy Labs, and Nathan Sports. Follow him on Instagram.

There is one comment

  1. Ian Petrie

    Thanks Zack,

    I am having a pretty shitty morning but having read your article a couple of times I am off in search of a ‘shovel’ and trying to get a bit of perspective on things.



  2. Kristin Z

    Yes. The run. Outside air and a wide open sky. Harsh weather to rage against and with. A big uphill. And the occasional French pastry/espresso.

  3. Collin

    I’ve been dealing with depression and anxiety lately and this piece really elucidates what running does for me. On those days when I barely want to open the door, let alone put in some miles, I’ll remember this and how helpful running can be. Thanks for this, Zach.

    1. Chris

      Definitely can relate to this.
      The best is to get out at the first one and make sure you dig out a path and continue digging out at every fresh storm or stressor in your life.
      Otherwise, you run the risk of being overcome, at which point you will have to shovel really hard, or even sometimes step out, and simply move to a place or plane, where storms are less frequent and less intense.
      Thanks Zach for sharing.

  4. Werner Brandt

    Might be time to read Chop Wood, Carry Water. The greatest lessons and the profoundest heights of the spiritual path can be found in our everyday life. Sounds like you might be living the life of a monk!

  5. Tina Houskeeper

    Great article. My hardest day this week, by far, was yesterday’s slogfest through snow, rain, mud, and then sun. And it was, by far, the best day of the week. The more overwhelming the other parts of life seem, the more I appreciate my battles with the tangible difficulties I find on the trail. Sometimes a difficult run is exactly what I need.

  6. Dave

    A belated welcome to Colorado! My friend and co-worker back in the Philly suburbs served you a beer recently and said you were a really nice guy. Another co-worker of mine out East said you came and talked to his son’s cross-country running team. Busy guy!

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