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Sweatpants & Soul | What the Dirt Taught Me

By Grace Olscamp

The ground below me suddenly releases and I start to slide. My feet do a clumsy dance in their hiking sandals as they try to find solid footing. Panic instantly rises as my hands flail, searching for something to grab. My eyes lock onto the cliff edge that I’m sure I’m headed for.

In a matter of seconds, it’s over. I’m only a few feet from where I slipped, plopped safely in the dirt. I dig my hands into the loose soil as I feel my face burn red from embarrassment. The self-berating begins and my anxiety rises instantly. I am mortified by my mistake, I regret that I even came on this hike, and I’m sure I’ve disappointed everyone I’m hiking with.

As a cloud of dirt, which I kicked up while stumbling, settles back down onto my sprawled out legs, I shove my hands deeper into the earth. The dirt is fine and grainy, almost like sand, but it once was part of the mountainside. Once a strong slab of stone, years of erosion, weather, and history have beat it down into the dirt it is today. I toss a clump of dirt to the side of the trail and wonder if part of that handful was once at the peak of the mountain.

I stand back up and start to brush my butt and legs off but there’s no point. The dirt is caked on my clothes, resting in my hair, and decidedly wedged under my nails, entrenched just like my embarrassment from falling is. My mind wanders, as it is apt to do while hiking, thinking about the other falls I’ve taken in life. Am I now the tiny grain of dirt that was once at the peak?

In the household I grew up in, portraying perfection was almost a requirement, not only to the outside world but to my own family members too. As any mistakes my mother made, be it a slip of the tongue or an overcooked meal, be met with anger from my father, a sense of mistakes as failure, disappointment, and wrong was cultivated in me.

I watch my feet scuff the dirt as I keep hiking, refusing to look at any of my fellow hikers as I continue to stew in my own self-frustration. Part of me knows that I shouldn’t be mad or embarrassed about falling but the other half can’t help it. It’s not just things like slipping on a hike or not finishing a route while rock climbing that set this chain reaction off in me. Anything that I even briefly question as a mistake creates an innate reaction of anger and embarrassment. Skipping class in college, talking too much in a social situation, quitting good 9-to-5 jobs, crying in public: they’ve all shaken the picture of perfection that I try to portray, that I have to portray. Distracted by a sense of guilt and shame about mistakes I think I’ve made, I almost miss my name being fervently shouted.

I look up and bolt out of the way just as rocks and dirt roar down the cliff, landing in the spot I was standing. The rest of my hiking party hoots and hollers as they crawl across the rubble once it all settles.

“Isn’t this incredible!” a fellow hiker shouts as he safely makes it to my end. “This is an entirely new feature that was created just from this rockfall. And it all sort of happened by mistake, from some animal misstepping up there I bet.”

A mistake? Incredible? I almost laughed in his face at the irony. But the destruction from the rockfall caught my eye first. The cliffside from which it fell revealed an ancient layer of the mountain, the rubble in front of me was an intricate sculpture, and the dirt was scattered all around. Each part came together in a magnificent, accidental masterpiece. Maybe a mistake can lead to something incredible.

Bending down to grab another handful of dirt, I thought about the things I’ve done to get me to where I am now. Skipping that class led to a stronger friendship with someone, talking too much spurred a greater conversation, quitting jobs improved my happiness, and crying in public when I needed to helped me heal.

Opening my hand, I let the dirt flow through my fingers back to the ground. Maybe this messy, ever changing, unpredictable dirt had a point: mistakes are okay. Not only are they okay but, like the new feature created on the trail from the rockfall, they can lead to something good, albeit different. Maybe, just maybe, the mistakes I’ve made along the way are necessary, incredible parts of the masterpiece I am today.

Grace Olscamp is an adventure and mental health author based out of Salt Lake City, Utah. Between consulting for public relations and writing, she can be found petting every dog she sees on the trail or at the crag, meditating, using her turn signal, or baking bread. You can find her work here or follow her adventures here

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