I wanted to channel my reckless energy into magic. Two years ago, a man I loved deeply took me on my first proper backpacking trip, and ten months ago, I ripped him out of my chest with the ferocity of a Volkswagen colliding with the sea. As our relationship crumbled, my love for the outdoors grew, mud and tree bark patching up my heartsick. Last week, I felt it was finally time to revisit the mountain that started it all, the trail that slingshot my heart into a new phase of life, Alta Peak.
It was 10:37pm the moment I rolled into the gloomy parking lot of the Lodgepole Visitor Center in Sequoia National Park. Two burgers and five hours of solo road tripping had me in a haze of Led Zeppelin and muscle cramps, so I shut off the engine and rummaged for my arrival beer the moment I pulled my dusty adventure Prius into a parking space. The night was balmy with faint shrieks from distant campsites echoing off to my right. I tilted my head back and inhaled half a can of lukewarm, alcoholic foam as I stared, slack jawed and smiling at the fuzzy, spiral arm of the Milky Way.
I struggled to get to sleep that night in the back of my vehicle. Somewhere between anxiety and excitement, my nerves had grown claws and were jabbing my belly full of fears and doubts. I would sleep for an hour and then thrash for an hour, my feet antagonizing the sweaty down in my sleeping bag as I tried to twist into a faint idea of comfort in the back seat. Inhale. Exhale. The breathing I learned in yoga helped as I leaned into forced serenity and steadied my body’s rhythm.
The next morning, the sun rose over towering lodgepole pines like a pastel firework showering the forest with pixie dust. I felt uneasy. Edgy and running on 4 hours of intermittent sleep, I grabbed my permit from the ranger desk, drove to the trailhead, and took the kind of long, deliberate breath reserved for final exams and rights of passage. I was nervous, but ready.
From the moment I set foot on the trail, I noticed my anxiety was following me like a kid sister. It was shrill, insistent, and digging its tiny fingers into my stomach. I took a look around. The way the morning light shot through the trees like slivers of a golden deity was breathtaking. Tiny streams babbled as they crossed the trail, feeding lush meadows full of purple wildflowers. I had no need for nerves, so I made the decision to exile them from the front of my mind, pretending instead that they were a naughty critter hiking alongside me. This way, they were annoying, but manageable from my vantage point three feet away.
I monitored my panic goblin for the rest of the morning, slowly steadying my heartbeat when it rose and reminding myself that I had all the time in the world to solo this mountain. I stopped and talked to strangers who asked if I was alone and seemed impressed that I was on pace to summit the peak with a full pack of 35lbs. I giggled and enjoyed the view as I ascended, wiping pearls of sweat off my forehead. It’s funny, you forget how strong you’ve become until someone mirrors it back at you.
I hit the top of Alta Peak in the early afternoon, crunching through the late season snow in heavy crampons I had begrudgingly packed as I watched other hikers slide around in hiking boots. Something about the way they all unintentionally fell into a trekking-pole assisted moonwalk made me smile as I turned and scrambled up an outcropping of boulders for a better view. The sun hit my face as I let out an excited yawp. “Wooooooooo!” I shouted from the razor’s edge of the summit block. The sun felt hot on my face, and I drank it in, smiling.
I couldn’t believe it. The trail that massacred my calves only two years prior had become an easy day hike with a full pack on; what’s more, I completed it alone. I felt the apparition of my former lover lift, dislodging from my body like a cancer. Inhale. Exhale. I stared out over the vast expanse of the Great Western Divide like a junkie getting her fix. My cheeks hurt from smiling too wide. I was home, and it was magnificent.
After a close encounter with a too-friendly marmot in the boulder field, I made my way down the rocky slope. I practically skipped with glee as I passed gnarled foxtail pines and the pin pricks of white flowers that flourished at altitude. A quick traverse through the forest brought me face to face with my first and favorite backcountry campsite, Alta Meadow. To my right stood a field of emerald ferns that blanketed the hillside like verdant fur. To my left, a crisp, mountain stream tricked like wind chimes as the evening descended. “What a gift,” I thought as I dropped my backpack and erected my tent.
Being type-A and hell bent on maintaining the perfect schedule, lounging is something I never get to do, so I took full advantage of my leisure time at camp. I fed my mind with the rich wisdom of mountaineer Steve House, my belly with rehydrated beans, and my soul with the stillness of the sunset. No fire. No chatter. Just me, my camera, and my breath. I found myself silently saying thank you to the trees and the wind in the humble reflection of just how far I’d come.
In the morning, I rose at the exact moment the sun stretched its honeyed tendrils up and over the Kaweah range, my tent instantly struck with blazing, bright light. I crawled into the center of the meadow, becoming one with the mosquitos to capture the spellbinding quality of this wilderness morning. Things are so often full of dichotomy in the woods; gorgeous and yet you arise with welts on your arms. I laughed at the absurdity.
Not wanting an elaborate breakfast, I inhaled a Clif bar and a clumpy mug of instant coffee, cold. Motivated by the promise of a burrito in Visalia, I moved quickly, dissembling my tent and camping equipment into my pack with the speed of a backcountry ninja. Delicate, white clouds floated overhead like baby’s breath, and I snapped a few photos in the cool, bleary light. Nothing beats a sunrise in the wild, I thought.
I zoomed through the remaining six miles of trail, stopping only briefly for a snack and a snapshot of a fuzzy brown bear just off the path. Once I had internalized the message, I felt full and energized and motivated to tell everyone I knew that my mojo was back. My head spun as I finally reached my car, the magnitude of the trip behind me and the gale force of the modern world ahead. Inhale. Exhale. Nothing is against me.
The drive home was a dance-fest of John Spencer and The Pharcyde; I felt cocksure and enthusiastic in my newfound power. I rolled down my windows, letting the wind whip my hair across my cheekbones, and felt full of the myriad of secrets that only the wild can tell. My anxiety would rise and fall, just like the seasons and the bumps on the trail, but, like the sinewy muscles in my thighs, I knew I was strong enough to surmount it. I refuse to let my fears hold me hostage. The world requires my resilience.
“Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” -Rumi