Revisiting the Past

By Mike Greenwood, HFV alumnus, trip leader and co-moderator 

Revisiting a painful past is never easy, and often not a good thing. I am a firm believer that we should live our lives focused on the future with the lessons from our past being just that, lessons. Over the past few years, I’ve allowed myself to move further and further into the future and towards the person I want to be when I am eighty-five years old. On September 21st, I was given an opportunity to see the person I am becoming through my own eyes. 

In a previous piece, I wrote about my experience sitting under a tree, and I described a few experiences in my past that “forced” me to sit under a beautiful aspen tree. In that piece, I acknowledged that I was finally accepting that I was in charge of my life. I stated that I was beginning to define my life and that I was going to ensure it was a good one. So, for the past few years, I have been on a journey to do just that… 

Until now, every Huts for Vets trip has been led by Paul Andersen, the Founder and Executive Director. Sure, myself and others have helped co-lead multiple trips, but Paul has always been the “go-to man” for every one of them. He’s kept us focused on nature, literature, and the healing that could take place in the wilderness if you let it. Paul has invested greatly in many of the veterans who have gone through the HFV programing, myself included. As a co-lead and peer mentor, I’ve helped moderate on multiple trips over the past four years and have learned a great deal from Paul and the other veterans on those trips. There are two veterans from these trips that I value the most, Brian Porter and Erik Villasenor; they are both board members at Huts for Vets and have been by my side on almost every trip I’ve been on as a member of the staff. Brian taught me the importance of having a strong veteran mentor present and has been a firm voice of reason for me on many occasions. Erik reminded me that if we want to push these veterans to success, we have to challenge them to see what they are capable of, and most importantly, be ourselves around a campfire with them. 

This trip was the first one that Paul, Brian, and Erik would not be joining me on. When Paul asked me to be the “go-to man”, my thoughts were scattered and uncollected at best, which confused me. Why should I doubt myself when for the past three years, I’ve helped plan and lead a number of similar trips with much success, for both my full-time job and Huts for Vets? In the thirty seconds between when he asked me and when I said “yes”, I felt an immense amount of pressure wash over my body. I didn’t want to let Paul and the rest of the staff at Huts For Vets down by either refusing to accept this role or by putting on a bad trip for the guys that were giving up so much of their time to follow me on that trail up to Margy’s Hut. On top of all of that, I was having a hard time with the idea that Paul, Brian, or Erik would not be on the trip with me, as their support and motivation were big reasons why I returned to Margy’s Hut year after year. 

In the weeks leading up to the trip, I questioned almost every skill I’d gained over the past few years, and somehow found a way to poke a hole in just about every strength Paul saw in me. I was a nervous wreck on my drive up to our basecamp and had to pull over a few times to collect my thoughts. On one of those stops, while I was sitting on a rock on the banks of Twin Lakes and stuck in a cycle of self-doubt, I talked with two guys I respect greatly. One of them was Erik; he helped me realize that if anyone other than Paul could lead these men up the trail to Margy’s Hut, it was me. Then he assured me that he would gladly follow me over every inch of that trail and into Margy’s. The second guy that helped drag me off the rock and up Independence Pass was my buddy, Patrick. Pat is a tough-love guy who breathes confidence in everything he does; he makes the people around him better just by being close to them. He reminded me that I was capable of that as well, and he pointed out that it was my duty to get up that mountain and help those guys find the same peace and drive I did back in 2013. With Erik and Patrick’s encouragement and belief in me, I jumped in my car and drove straight towards the group of guys I would lead for the next four days. 

The trip started out as they normally do, on top of a hill in a teepee, in a circle with a few tear-filled introductions and a couple of pleas for help and guidance from our participating veterans. Huts for Vets trips are not meant to be a “cool” adrenaline-filled hiking trip in Aspen, Colorado. Instead, they are an immersion into nature and literature, and ultimately a challenge to live as nature does, free and ever-changing. These trips are often the beginning of a new direction in life for our participants, and a goodbye to the difficult memories they leave on that mountain on Sunday afternoon. 

When I was a participant in the second-ever Huts for Vets trip (September 5-8, 2013), I said goodbye to a version of myself up there and rooted it under that beautiful aspen tree. Until this trip, I’ve never wanted to go back or felt the desire to revisit that version of me… 

On Friday morning when we stepped off, I knew I was the right person to be leading those veterans up the trail and into the peacefulness of this section of wilderness where a piece of me has “lived” for the past few years. The feelings I had are hard to describe. All-day Friday and most of Saturday, I felt as if I was watching two versions of myself–both were on that mountain and they were equally invested in the men on that trip. 

In the first version, I was the leader and I was leading these men to find value and personal challenge in themselves; that version felt completely normal and comfortable. In the second version, I was watching the entire trip from afar with an intense eagerness to join in. This one didn’t feel normal, and I mostly wrote it off and ignored it out of confusion and a desire to focus on the other men and their experience. 

On Saturday afternoon, I walked over to the tree I sat under in the cold rain back in September of 2013, and I began to make sense of the feelings I was having. Up until this point, I had never been back to that spot. I had been in the same area a couple of times, but I never stood on that piece of ground where I had rooted my old self, until that day. As I was approaching the Aspen tree, I felt both versions of myself coming closer and closer together until they finally met above the roots of my tree. When they joined, all I could do was smile and feel proud of myself; I had accomplished a lot over the past few years of my life and I was finally ready to accomplish more. While under my tree, I thought about a few of my proudest accomplishments and felt myself standing taller and taller as I revisited them: 

I saw the birth of my daughter, the child my wife was afraid to have with me until I went on that trip back in 2013 and ultimately sorted out a few things I had been running from. Today, I am honored to be her father and encouraged to walk with her in life… 

I saw the eyes of the many veterans I had inspired through my work with Huts for Vets and Team Red, White & Blue over the past few years, and I too felt inspired… 

I saw my wife Demetria, the person who believes in me the most and pushes me forward the hardest, and I felt love rush up through my body and into my heart…

After a few minutes, I started moving back towards the group of veterans I was leading that weekend, and I felt empowered to push them forward toward their own accomplishments and more importantly, to peace. 

Later that night… 

A small group of veterans who had been complete strangers just three nights earlier now sat together in laughter around a late summer campfire while they told colorful stories of their past until the fire died down and they retreated to spend their last night in the comfortable beds inside Margy’s Hut. Although they weren’t there with me, I felt the presence of Paul, Brian, Erik, and Patrick around the campfire with us, and I knew I had made them proud that weekend. 

We closed out on Sunday morning while sitting on the deck of Margy’s Hut with a beautiful view of the mountains and the valleys below. We shared with each other the pieces of the weekend that stuck with us the most, and what we were going to carry forward in our lives when we stepped off the trail later that day. 

When it was my turn to share, I pulled a small rock out of my pocket that I had picked up when I was standing under my tree. I held it up to the group as I told them I was carrying this rock forward as a symbol of who I used to be, who I currently was, and who I could become as a result of their belief and trust in me that weekend. At the end I thanked them for following me and for allowing me into their lives, then I challenged them to live like nature, free of their past and ever-changing… 

That weekend, when I had an opportunity to revisit the place that has meant so much to me over these past few years, I was proud to pick myself up and carry it forward. My past has made me the person I am today and will make me proud to be the person I become in the future. When I am eighty-five and looking back, I will see only one view of who I am and who I’ve become in life. Then I will say, “I was courageous enough to pick up my past and carry it forward to help build me into the man I am today…” 

Leave a Reply