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It Took Me 53 Years to Walk 1 Mile

Some journeys are far shorter than others, but are no less meaningful. 

Some journeys are far shorter than others, but are no less meaningful.

As a young man, I had the wrong mindset. I viewed the destination as the most important goal of any trip. I raced to where I wanted to be, and missed gems and experiences and, sadly, people along the way. I thought I was taking trips.

John Steinbeck said, “We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”

And so was my experience earlier this year. A trip took me.

A trip of deep emotional meaning.

Let me back up.

My wife and I planned a trip to China with our youngest daughter over her Spring Break. In addition to many other sites, we set aside a day to visit the Great Wall of China — a long-standing bucket list destination for me.

I thought the Great Wall was the destination.

I had first learned about the Great Wall of China as a child in school. My memory is sketchy on the details, but I recall that it was thousands of miles long. That it was a rampart that protected China. As an adult, I learned that it could be seen from space. Cool.

But never did I dream that I could see it.

Between China being closed to foreign travel for so long and the amount of funds necessary to go there — well, I didn’t see how it could be possible.

I resigned myself that I’d never check off that bucket list item.

I was content. I had visited many other places in the world.

Then — thanks to Google Flights — an opportunity presented itself for an affordable trip to Beijing. $540-round-trip-from-Denver affordable.

Uh, we’re going! All of us!

We found ourselves on a plane to China. On a plane to the Great Wall.

Of the Great Wall sites easily accessible from Beijing, travelers consider Mutianyu the more beautiful site. We arranged a driver. We set a date. And we were off on our adventure.

Our first glimpses of the Great Wall came from the car. The Wall spanned across the mountaintops.

My pulse quickened. I was about to reach my destination.

We purchased tickets and rode a bus partway up the mountain. The Wall came into view in bits and pieces.

My heart raced. We would soon be at the Wall! I could take some sweet photos and then could check it off my bucket list.

We walked the rest of the way up the mountain. Past the village. Past the tourist shops. Past the Subway sandwich shop. (Yep. Subway. They’re everywhere.) We picked up sandwiches — though my wife protested about eating Subway in China — and dropped them in our backpacks. (But sub sandwiches are pretty portable.)

A tram took us to the base of the Wall.

My heart pounded in my throat! I had arrived!

Exiting the tram, I had to pause. The entrance was right in front of me, but I wasn’t ready to enter. I deluded myself that I was stalling to snap some shots and to take in the view.

In reality, I was struck to the core. I fought to hold the tears back. I needed to let the magnitude of the moment sink in. To show reverence to the magnificence of the structure. And those who had imagined and designed and constructed that edifice of power and honor.

Chairman Mao Zedong said, “Until you reach the Great Wall, you’re no hero.”

I was standing at the base of the wall, but did not feel like a hero.

Records claim that one million people helped build the Wall. They are the heroes. It is said that “a life was lost for every stone on the Wall.” Those who gave their lives were entombed in the Wall. They are the real heroes.

My wife and daughter encouraged me to climb the steps to the top of the Wall.

We were standing on hallowed ground.

I love words, but words fail me in certain situations.

This was one of them.

I have struggled for weeks trying to describe what I felt standing on the Great Wall of China.

It’s like trying to photograph a sunset that spans across the horizon from an airplane window. The majesty is lost. As is the magnitude. And the grandeur. And the gravitas.

Words fail. Photos fail. Memory then proves far more vivid than a photograph.

How do you describe splendor? I’m not talented enough to do that. I don’t have the tools to adequately do that.

The splendor was not in opulence. No. It was rooted in magnificence. The Ming Great Wall was built over two centuries using hard labor to build a structure that spanned 5,500 miles (8851 km). That spanned across the tops of the mountains. Built from granite.

Imagine a structure that stands only 7–8 meters tall and 4–5 meters wide — but is twice as long as the continental United States is wide!

A structure this is elegantly simple in design, yet with enough detail to add beauty and capture the essence of China’s charm.

The splendor I witnessed was rooted in respect and honor — for those who had given so much for its construction. For those entombed in the Wall.

From the precise moment that we stood on the Wall, my wife, daughter and I journeyed in a steady state of awe.

We slowed our pace.

We strolled.

We were in no rush.

We wanted to bask in that moment.

We climbed steps and descended steps. 1000 steps.

The sun warmed us. The effort warmed us. But the Wall warmed our hearts.

We pinched ourselves and repeated, “Look. Where. We. Are!”

We ran our hands along the stones.

We hiked and explored the towers and took in the views and studied the Chinese characters carved in the rocks.

At moments, we just had to stop walking, stop talking.

We were overcome.

We needed to show reverence for what we were a part of. What was now a part of us.

We took dozens of photos. Hoping that at least one or two would capture a fragment of what we were seeing, experiencing, feeling.

Our one-mile hike became a three-hour poignant journey.

Along the way, we found a branch wall — an offshoot section that led to Tower 11 — to eat our Subway sandwiches. An area with little foot traffic.

We ate with a view of the Wall winding for dozens of miles along the tops of the mountains under a pure blue sky.

Our hearts and minds relished in a state of wonder, awe, and humility.

Then the end of the journey neared. The point where we would descend the mountainside back to reality. Oh, the disappointment!

We turned to look at where we had been. Our hearts longed to stay.

We slowed our pace even more. We lingered. To imprint the sights, the peace, and the majesty onto our souls.

We never wanted to forget — the history, the significance, the wonder, the emotions.

“Every life is a collection of individual ‘journey stories.’” Dieter Uchtdorf

I had just added a meaningful journey story to my collection.

I thought I was taking a trip. But a trip took me.

After descending the mountain, we found ourselves in the same spot from which we had started — standing in front of the Subway.

It took me 53 years to walk just 1 mile.

But I was no longer the same person.

 

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Bryan Searing