Life Lessons

Rearview Mirrors, Trails and Tunnels: How Looking Back Propels Us Forward

Me, 1992, squeezing out a smile at the final tunnel

We pedaled up to the yawning, misty opening. Giant wooden doors stood like sentries on either side. Everything looked far creepier than I’d expected. Nervousness flooded over me as reality hit.

“I don’t know if I can do this,” I shakily mumbled.

This was the first time my then-boyfriend-now-husband and I took a trip together. For weeks we’d planned a mini getaway bicycling through the rolling hills of Wisconsin on the Elroy-Sparta trail. It sounded so idyllic…and such a couple-ish thing to do. Caught in the excitement of it, I hadn’t paid attention to details. Important details. Details such as 3/4 mile long tunnels are really, really dark. 

Elroy-Sparta is an abandoned railroad converted to public use trail. It’s famous for three musty, unlit, wet tunnels. If I’d given more thought to the route rather than the romance, I’d have remembered my fear of dark, enclosed spaces. I would’ve prepared for the tunnel now facing me. And I most certainly would’ve confirmed we had flashlights.

Instead, I swallowed hard. My chest squeezed. My heart pounded. Dripping sounds echoed from within the cavernous opening. Peering in, the other end wasn’t even visible. My skin prickled as I conjured all kinds of crazy within that black hole.  

“I’m scared,” I choked out.

“Scared of what?” he asked, taking another swig from his water bottle. 

“The dark, the tunnel, all of it.”

He looked at me, completely baffled. “What? Why?! Look at how cool this is!”  His expression showed childlike wonder and excitement. My level of panic wasn’t registering.

My mind ticked through options as I scanned for another route. Could I go up and over? No, climbing the high hillside while carrying a bike would be impossible. Could I bike around it? With no map and only private property surrounding me, I’d never find the trail again. Could I just turn around and go back the way we came? Well, thanks to that friendly one-way shuttle service, nope. Our car was at the other end of this 34-mile trek…on the other side of this and two additional tunnels.

There was no turning back. 

The only way out was through.

Sometimes—despite exhaustive attempts otherwise—there’s only one way: through

We all land here at times. Maybe it’s a diagnosis or a divorce. Perhaps it’s addiction, grief, or a crisis of finances, emotions, or spirit. No matter how big or small it might be, stepping into unlit, unfamiliar terrain disorients and unnerves the best of us. 

It’s hard to proceed when you can’t see the route.

My husband and I have retold the tunnel story many times over the years. It’s one of our ‘Top 50’ hits. But today’s version is different. It’s a colorful story splattered and splashed with good humor. We laugh about our miscommunication. He jokes about bruised and bloodied shins because he steadied me and two surprisingly sharp bikes. I tease how his Boy Scout “Be Prepared” motto failed to pack flashlights.

It’s a different story today. 

Aren’t most stories different when viewed through life’s rearview mirror?

Still, both versions are true. On that day, fear overwhelmed me with its sharp and prickly edges. My body shook, my heart pounded, and tears fell. And—after time softened the intense edges—my perspective shifted. The further away I moved, the more I could see the humorous arc of the story. 

The “and” feels important to me. 

Each time the only way out is through, I crave to remember the “ands” of my life. 

There will always be tunnels. Times when skinned knees and bruised egos happen. Times when it’s shocking to make it. Times when there’s no Hollywood ending, but rather dirt, sweat and gratitude for reaching the light at the end of a tunnel.

And…times when our wisest voices whisper to our heart, “You’ve been here before and you know the way.” 

6 thoughts on “Rearview Mirrors, Trails and Tunnels: How Looking Back Propels Us Forward”

  1. Thomas Palmersheim says:

    Interesting. I never knew you had that fear.

  2. Barb C says:

    Once again, you took me right along on that ride! Such rise words and advice! Thank you for sharing!

    1. Katie O'Connell says:

      Glad to hear you enjoyed the ride! Thanks so much <3

  3. Laura Barber says:

    What a great story and life lesson. Thanks Katie!

  4. Pam Nielsen says:

    What a story and a great lesson.

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