By Mandy Cloninger

The laughter erupted between the two of us, as I held up my lacy, teal green, paisley panties. Leslie giggled. I inhaled and let out one of those milk snorting, full belly laughs. We carried on for several minutes. Laughing so hard, we cried. The laughs kept coming. I lost my breath in laughter. My pack felt so much lighter.

I looked above, and said, “Thanks.”

Thank you for the humor that transformed and reclaimed new energy for the day. 

Laughter surrounded us as we hiked through Yellowstone. A beautiful group of 11 strangers connecting in nature with our stories, our bad jokes, a genuine love of adventure and a sense of peace for where we are.

The group of awesome adventures in Yellowstone! Photo credit: Gretchen Hull

How I’ve missed laughing. I hadn’t even noticed how long it had been since I laughed that hard with a friend. I laughed every day I traveled and hiked through Yellowstone. It was healing for my mind and my soul. I retold the panty story to make others laugh.

I’ve long been a fan of finding joy and gratitude every day. It’s consistently one of the practices that I return to when I’m struggling with anxiety and depression. In fact, it’s like a Tetris-game: the more you focus on it, the more you find opportunities to be grateful! I collect my lines of gratitude and offer, Thanks!

Random news on Tetris – did you know two teenage brothers have the high score now? They weren’t even born when Tetris first debuted!

In all things, give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever. Psalm 118:1

I use my gratitude jar (also given to me by my dear friend Leslie) to write down what I’m most thankful for that day. I try to recall the details, the specifics, in each moment that can bring forth that memory and the accompanying feelings of joy and gratitude when I reread those treasured, little slips of paper again. On particularly hard days, the ones where my mental cloud and fog are very dark, when I can’t seem to reach out for help, I try to remember to pull out those slips of paper, reread a few, and remind myself I have had beautiful moments before, in fact, even recently, and I will again.

I found three themes of gratitude and thanks on my adventure in Yellowstone: humor, the sheer physical challenge and the vast mental space that brought forth clarity.

I trained in the summer heat and humidity of Florida for nearly two months. I built up my hiking and walking schedule to ensure I did one long hike each weekend of 6-10 miles, and that I logged at least 4-5 miles five days a week. In addition, I sprinkled in some more challenging cardio workouts and yoga. The most my pack ever weighed was 25-30 pounds, and of course, Florida is sea level and flat. I enjoyed the physical challenge and even the training immensely: the discipline of focusing on a goal, preparing for it and then achieving it, fed my gold star-oriented nature. 

I cheered for myself internally. I celebrated reaching a new elevation. I recognized when the challenge pushed me to a new limit.

On the first day of our group hike in Yellowstone, we started early at 6:30 a.m. to pack our supplies as a group and travel to the trailhead. We planned to hike 10.5 miles that day. I have a cadence that I’ve observed from when I trained for my triathlons and various 5, 10, 15Ks and a half marathon I’ve done over the years. My first mile is warm-up, settling into my body, the next 2-3 miles are my quickest as I enjoy the start-up and gain energy. Miles five and six are hopefully getting near the end and kind of where I’d like to just stop and be done. Then I have to reframe and tell my mind that I’ve passed the halfway point. Sometimes I get the runner’s high or the endorphin kick and gain some energy and pickup my pace in miles seven or eight, other times, it eludes me, yet I press on. Then the last few miles, whether it’s a couple, or the last five, I begin wanting and willing for my personal cheerleading squad to arrive. It’s what makes a group race so fun! When you want to quit, you have friends, family and strangers out there cheering you on. Fellow racers around you offer, “You got this. You’re doing great. Two more miles to go.” 

Though I tried to conjure a crowd of supporters, the vastness of Yellowstone simply did not lend itself to a finish line. I harkened back to training and swimming in the triathlon. I’d say, “Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming.”

I recognized as I climbed the last few miles that first day that I was reaching a new physical challenge and limit. Blood rushed between my ears, and my heart throbbed loudly in my head and my chest as I climbed. My thighs and calves burned. I looked down at my bracelet at different moments as I felt like I was too tired to go on, “Breathe deeply.” I’d pause and take a few deep breaths to catch my breath, stretch and shift the pack around. Then, I’d keep swimming. One step in front of the other. One stroke. Then another. And another.

I am so thankful for a healthy, strong body that can carry a nearly 45-pound backpack more than 30 miles. I am proud of the 10-day span that I spent camping and hiking, and I logged 99 miles.

What I didn’t expect to be grateful for is the space that was created in my own mind. While I’m addicted to my phone like the rest of the world, I have lots of limits and boundaries on my device use. I’ve done a social media fast, and then permanently given up various forms and deleted the apps from my phone. I have a bedtime for my device. I go hours sometimes without looking at my phone. But you simply don’t get coverage in the national park. I only used my phone for pictures and reading on my Kindle app a bit before bed. What that enabled is my mind to wander, to empty and to reignite and inspire dreams, both old and new ones.

I can’t recall when I first wrote down my big three. It was likely in 2011 after my first international mission trip to Guatemala, but it may have been later in 2016 when I traveled to South Africa. I remember reflecting on the goals during that trip, but I have a feeling God wrote them on my heart when I began my path of service and forgiveness. He likely wrote them on my heart the day I was born. It’s what I feel is my personal calling, and how I love God with all my heart, mind and soul.

When you go on safari, the goal is to see the big five: the African elephant, leopard, lion, Cape buffalo and the rhino. When I visited South Africa and our team toured the Hluhluwe Imfolozi Game Reserve, we only saw three; hence, the big three instead of the big five. The cats eluded us. Though we did hear a lion. Sometimes you have to be quiet and still enough, just to hear one roar. I needed to be quiet and still enough to hear my own roar!

These are my big three life goals:

  1. Live a family adventure.
  2. Write a book. Just write.
  3. Live and serve internationally.

It’s not that I’d forgotten these divine goals that have been on my heart and mind for probably a decade or more, it’s that they were really, deep down underneath all the mental clutter in my mind. The daily deadlines, goals or frustrations at work take precedence. You have a family and gain two daughters in a year and begin living that family adventure. Your family struggles with unemployment, addiction and loss. A pandemic wrenches everything into unknown territory, oppressive human need, racial injustice, politics, chaos. You can’t travel. You have no time or energy to write. You maintain the status quo of the day to day. You survive. 

And yet, the big three remain. They revealed themselves as I began to dream, as my mind wandered. They are truer than true. 

I am thankful for the space in Yellowstone that allowed that still small voice inside me to be heard. For me to recall those old dreams, my big three.

I am still searching for my roar, and those elusive cats.

Part Three: Wow!

Part One: Help!

Published by mcloninger

Mandy Cloninger, CFRE, is a nonprofit thought leader, charismatic spokesperson, and a results-driven executive. With 20 years of experience raising hundreds of millions of dollars, cultivating transformational relationships with diverse constituencies, she has built capacity, scale, and scope in higher education, health care, and community-based nonprofits. She is passionate about social justice and humanitarian work internationally and at home. Mandy Cloninger is also a writer, public speaker, leader and faith seeker. Her journey and travels often bring inspiration to write, think and dream new dreams. Mercy & Meadows is a writing project inspired by a camping and hiking trip to Yellowstone National Park in 2021.

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