Hills and valleys

For Jarrod Stackelroth, the physical pain of hiking Kokoda was nothing compared to the mental strain.

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My shirt was wet when I put it on and it smells musty. Before me is a wall of roots rising steeply upward. I cannot see the end. Sweat is running down my forehead and stinging my eyes. At least I think it’s sweat. Sometimes it’s tears.

I’ve never felt so alone. As I struggle to breathe—to place one foot in front of the other—I wonder what I’m doing here. All the reasons that led me to this moment, trudging alone through this equatorial jungle, don’t seem legitimate anymore. The physical pain is bearable. It’s what I expected, what I’ve been training for, but the emotional pain, the mental strain . . . I didn’t sign up for this.

Six months of training and planning for this Kokoda hike. And for six months the plan was to do it with my mum and my brother. With me. At my side. We would cross the finish line together, triumphant, achieving something as a family. But after my brother dislocated his shoulder on the first morning, they made the difficult decision to go back on the morning of day two.

I thought I’d have time to talk to God, to reflect and plan and think and celebrate life. Instead it seems to be never-ending roots snaking out to trip me, and mud, catching my boots, clinging to the sides and sticking in their grooves, removing my grip and traction.

All I can do is repeat Psalm 23: The Lord is my shepherd . . . Though I walk through the valley of the shadow . . . God help me, see me through . . .

***

We arrive at a village. Smiling faces greet us. They sing a welcome song and drape us with flowers and billums. They make us feel at home. We’ve been climbing and struggling, but the joy in their faces wipes away the pain.

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”

We cross through the arch. The end. My loved ones are there. My mum and brother. Even my wife is there, waiting. Tired and stained, but we made it. Home.