“The surest way to mend a broken heart is through a forest wilderness.”
On really confusing evenings of self, I like to drink beer and make up quotations that John Muir definitely did not write. I summon him like my own, personal break-up Yoda the moment a man threatens to rip the sticky, sensitive tissue of my heart to shreds. I need this. A stubborn, fantasy-ridden reminder that things can still be beautiful, even when they do not turn out as I’d hoped. Though very much dead, Muir offers surprisingly warm company, a wild-eyed mountain guru who will hold my hand through the thick fog of being a suddenly single outdoorswoman.
On a chilly Friday in November, following a particularly gut-shattering break-up, I got my dates screwed up and realized that my friends were climbing Mount Baldy the following week. I thought it was tomorrow. I stared at the vacuous, blue light emanating from my iPhone as I wondered whether or not I should still set my alarm and attempt the 11-mile summit. On one hand, I had nothing else to do with my Saturday now that my partner was gone. On the other, my heavy heart had plummeted into the very pit of my stomach where anxiety gestates, and the thought of hiking to 10,000 feet alone and in high winds made me shiver. “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings,” whispered my ghostly sidekick. I fist-bumped the air above my bed, set my alarm, and rolled over to get some rest.
The following morning on the trail, I found my mind sluggish and distracted, wind kissing my cheeks with sharp sprays of cold air that turned my face a bright pink. My thoughts wandered. I didn’t often hike at high altitude alone. I set one foot in front of the other, just like I had done a thousand times before, and put my head down. It became a moving meditation as my brain began to massage the precise details of the breakup into something resembling a lesson.
“Had I asked for too much?” “Was my sensitivity too erratic?” “Could I have better shape-shifted into a form that fit the relationship?” I traversed the alpine landscape as my mind roamed through the rocky debris of my heartache. The sound of gravel beneath my rubber soles bit into the air with a familiar crunch. My lungs burned, and the tips of my fingers went numb from the cold. As the massive hump of Mt. Baldy’s east face came into view, I began to feel solid. Alone, but strong.
This was the moment my mind snapped fully into philosophical reverie. I wondered why I fancied malleability such a desirable trait in myself. It left me exhausted and resentful when partners could not follow suit. After all, what was there to change into anyways? I was already a dancer, a yogi, a mountain climber, a college graduate, a political activist, and a road trip sing along master. I read the news as well as the entire Game of Thrones series. I was everything I strived to be. Why was I depleting myself in frantic attempts to keep partners who failed to proffer the same effort?
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” I thought of John Muir’s apparition high-fiving me as I rounded the top of the summit mound. It felt blissful to have soloed the massive peak alone and at my own pace. There was no one to impress but myself. I let out a deep sigh as the wind painted my arms with goose bumps. I was tugging at the thread of this break-up and finding it hitched to the universe of how I approached life itself. Perhaps my 20s had all been a vain attempt at searching for the best thing, the biggest job, or the most compatible partner. I began to feel like I had it all wrong.
Maybe the real journey is to give up the hope of better things on the horizon so that we can follow our gut and truly embrace all the good and badassery that we have in the present. I felt it on that summit, the need to hold fast to my strength and my self-respect so that I would not allow another love to topple my ego. “I am a goddamn mountaineer,” I thought. “It’s time to start calling my own shots.” And, with that, I took off down the mountain, feeling more free than I had in a long while, the halo of Johnny Muir’s phantom trailing behind me like a superhero’s cape.