I recently did a four-day solo hike in the backcountry of Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. I have an enduring theory that people show up as a better version of themselves when they are hiking in the wilderness. I am not sure if it is the thin air, solitude, breathtaking beauty, or freedom from expectations that make hikers this way. Once again, my hike confirmed my assertion that people are gracious, kind, and generous in the high mountain altitude while schlepping their backpacks up and down the mountainside.
A few hours into my excursion, I discovered that I forgot to pack a spoon in my pack, a necessary accoutrement for a multi-day hike when grazing on made-ready-to eat-meals and oatmeal (my “trail name” is actually Spoon because I seem to forget it on these long hikes). On a break, I came across a group of adventurers who were hiking out of the backcountry and we struck up a conversation. I asked permission to ask a bizarre question: “Since you are hiking out, would you be open to me buying one of your spoons?” Without hesitation one of the young ladies gladly offered me her spoon and refused to take money in recompense. She asked that I pay it forward on the trail, which I did several times over. Across four days, people shared compelling stories of the backcountry, and on several occasions, we paused and enjoyed the stunning landscape of the Grand Tetons.
Upon my exit from the high country, it was essential for me to hitchhike (first time ever) to retrieve my car that was nearly 20 miles away on the south end of the Park. A group of campers stopped and offered me a ride so long as I did not mind jumping in the bed of their truck because the cab was full (seemed COVID-proof to me!). They opened the rear cab window and we talked about our respective trips and shared fellowship for the entire drive. They offered to take me anywhere I wanted to go and, again, people refused my offering to pay for their inconvenience. They suggested I pay it forward to the next guy.
I escape to the woods several times a year to enjoy the rigors of hiking and mentally recharge for the demands of life, family, and an active career. Everyone wears a uniform in their day job, whether it be a police officer, nurse, teacher, businessperson, or otherwise, and we carry the baggage, power, and influence that accompany that profession wherever we go. Often we are guarded, impatient, and self-absorbed without consciously taking stock of how we show up with those around us. On the heels of this trip, I reflected on what it would be like if I were more gracious, generous, and benevolent with colleagues, clients, and others. Perhaps I may find higher quality outcomes and more meaningful relationships that lead to the kinds of return on investment I experienced with my fellow hikers on many of these amazing expeditions? Maybe I can be a better version of myself irrespective of whether I am walking on rugged trails or roaming the hallways of my office?
Ben Wilhelm, DBA, MSOD is EVP/COO of McFarland Construction, a commercial construction firm in Charlotte, NC, and Managing Partner of Unscripted, LLC, an executive coaching and leadership consulting practice. Ben is also adjunct instructor in the McColl School of Business at Queens University of Charlotte, and serves on the board of a privately held employee-owned company.