The more difficult the challenge, the more sweet the accomplishment

Bill Sullivan says the hike to Horse Rock is easy.

He ought to know, having hiked every trail in Oregon several times over and written guidebooks that outdoorsy people study and follow like others peruse the Bible or "The Joy of Cooking."

Horse Rock is a high point in the nearest hills directly east of our house. Our son Ben first discovered it four years ago through a Register-Guard article. Few people knew of it then, he says, but last March he arrived for an afternoon hike and 15 cars were parked at the entrance.

Our kids have hiked to Horse Rock often, as they can easily drive to the trailhead, hike to the rock or even a quarter-mile more to look out over the valley, and return home before dark on a Sunday afternoon. At times, I considered going along but was held back by a dozen excuses. Maybe I’d try it after I caught up with my life and got in better physical shape.

A year ago, Ben became more insistent. “The meadow flowers are at their best right now. You really should go with us.”

So, enticed by promises of wildflowers and counting on my daily walks to the railroad tracks to prepare me, I joined a group of long-legged young adults. They loped to the top like goats crossing a pasture while I lagged far, far behind, counting out 10 steps and stopping to breathe by turns and also discovering that my daily walks were laughably inadequate.

In his definition of an “easy” hike in “100 Hikes In The Central Oregon Cascades”, Sullivan includes this caveat—“Those who puff climbing a few flights of stairs may consider even 500 feet of elevation a strenuous climb, and should watch this listing carefully.”

Indeed.

I made it halfway, to the big meadow, where wildflowers in vivid colors welcomed me in a friendly manner without mentioning how long I had taken to arrive. The view to the east was astonishing as well — layers of dark hills with the Three Sisters white and majestic at the far edge.

From the meadow, I could see the dark spine of Horse Rock like a horse’s mane on the hillside maybe half a mile away. But I was too exhausted to continue, so I returned to the car at my own pace, admiring the ferns and leafy shadows along the way.

Most of us have a few abilities that came to us naturally and easily. I always had a quick grasp of math, languages, public speaking and memorizing, which garnered academic success and praise. Unfortunately, I learned to avoid the areas I found difficult such as music, technology, cooking and sports.

Talent can, in an odd way, be a disadvantage. When we expect everything to be easy, we don’t learn to conquer by hard work. We avoid the embarrassment of being slower and less competent than everyone else by avoiding situations that might compare us unfavorably.

I’ve learned, gradually, that the important thing is the goal, the skill and the reward — not how much effort it takes to get there. If you’re naturally slower and weaker, it will take far more work than anyone else expends, which is truly unfair. My friend Darlene told me she climbed to Horse Rock with her son last year at the age of 49, and it was hard enough but not overwhelming. They even retraced a bunch of their steps to find an iPad-type of tablet that fell from a backpack. Darlene, lacking my asthma and Yoder genes, didn’t spend weeks preparing. She simply showed up and did it.

My young friend Dolly was born with short arms, making normal tasks unusually difficult. “House cleaning is the biggest thing for sure,” she says. “I have more trouble reaching things, and even things like washing a few dishes become a big deal because I can’t do them as quickly as the average person.” She also fights depression which, she adds, “Just makes everything harder. It’s easy to feel discouraged and useless.”

Yet, when she comes to our house, she can wash dishes, slice peaches and set the table right along with our kids. Sometimes it seems brutally unfair that Dolly had to work 10 times as hard to acquire the same skill. But she did it, and I can hand her almost any meal-prep task without a second thought. It makes her feel like part of the family, she says.

This past March, I set a new goal: I was going to go all the way to Horse Rock when I turned 56 years old at the end of June.

My daughter Jenny coached me, using strange words like squats, lunges and cardio. I walked five days a week, starting with 15 minutes a day and slowly increasing to 35. I started jogging in short spurts on Powerline Road, along the filbert orchard, where the neighbors couldn’t see me.

I hated almost every minute of it. Such a bunch of doing the same hard, boring things over and over, with seemingly nothing to show for it.

My birthday was on a Friday. Two days later Ben drove us — me, my husband Paul, and our daughter Amy — to the Horse Rock trailhead.

Paul had prepared, not by deliberately doing anything as silly as lunges, but by breakdowns at his grass seed cleaning warehouse as he prepared for harvest. First, an employee accidentally ran into the man-lift apparatus with a forklift, and then the augurs kept plugging up, so Paul had to climb two or three long flights of stairs multiple times a day.

So I was the slowest in the group, and I still had to stop and breathe often. Once I lost my footing and slid a few frightening feet down a dusty incline. At times I found it easiest to climb up, spiderlike but safer, on fingers and feet. Other times I scooted down steep sections on my seat.

But I made it all the way to the top — 1.6 miles and 700 feet of elevation gain. The accomplishment was exhilarating and worth all the work. My family was impressed and full of praise.

Those dreadful daily regimens actually had made me stronger.

Realistically, I always will have Yoder genes and asthma, so mountains that are easy for Ben and Bill Sullivan always will be difficult for me. But it’s still OK to try.

If the goal is 10 times as challenging for you than for others, then surely the sense of accomplishment is larger as well, the determination that much stronger, the eventual skill that much more precious, and the mountain columbines 10 times as delighted to see you arrive.

Dorcas Smucker is a homemaker and mother of six. She can be reached at dorcas­smucker@gmail.com.