I’m hurtling head first down an icy slope, tips of massive pine trees whizzing past my eyes as I wield my ice axe as hard as I can against the snow. My legs twirl around chaotically until I’m right side up again, digging the tips of my hiking boots hard into the side of the ridge. “STAB THE MOUNTAIN IN THE FACE,” my instructor, Eddy, yells from fifty yards away, and I do. I skid to a stop, my cheeks pink and tingly from their recent caress against the sandpaper that is a frozen peak at dawn. I regain my composure as I stumble to my feet, and I can’t help but pause and stare at the thick spider web of clouds licking the tops of neighboring mountains. I can’t feel my toes, and I’ve got the wildest, shit-eating grin on my face.
I’m standing in the middle of a closet-sized tomb, feet sunk into the muck of Canongate Kirk and the pale tremor of the supernatural upon my cheek. The tiny, stone room is crammed full of a dozen new friends from my hostel, and Olivia, our guide, beckons us to come closer. In the mud-thick dark of the new moon, she hisses, recounting the tale of the infamous Edinburgh serial killers, Burke and Hare. I take a sharp swig of whiskey out of my flask and gaze up at the beacon of stars through the cold, iron bars that crisscross above our heads, a relic to prevent corpse-stealing entrepreneurs in the 15th century. As the alcohol slowly begins to cloud my mind, I close my eyes, taking in the fuzzy damp of the graveyard through my nostrils. If ever there was a place to be a spirit, Edinburgh was it.
“I feel bad about Ben,” J.C. muttered as we tip-toed down the razor’s edge of Angels Landing. “He would have loved this.” I nodded, squinting as I peered off into the brittle, orange canyon, 1500 feet below. At that exact moment, a pair of bouncy, brunette pigtails inched over the top of the trail where the chains meet their steep demise, carried by Emma, who looked nervous, wild, and full of vertigo. Ben’s curly head of hair followed shortly behind, smiling. I laughed out loud, grinning like a maniac. Emma had faced her fears and hoisted herself up nearly a thousand feet of wet sandstone to share this moment with us, suspended in the clouds as the sun began to wash itself over the striped walls of Zion National Park. Welcome to Utah.
“It’s not me, it’s you,” I whispered as the wind whipped a red tangle of hair around my left ear, punctuating the sentence so that you could feel its weight. Forgive me, but these days my mind often wanders like a teenager at a job she no longer sees as necessary for survival. You are no longer necessary for survival. I was always a fan of cinematic moments effortlessly captured in the day to day of the default world, and I guess giving a breakup monologue atop a cliff in Yosemite beneath a full moon seemed too good to pass up. “I’ve found someone else,” I declared, insistent. “Someone more stable and diverse and with a bigger heart than you could ever possess. I’m breaking up with you to date mountains.”
“Why have I never used these before?!” I quietly exclaimed to myself as I skipped down the side of an ice-covered ridge in Yosemite National Park. Rather than boulder-hopping and mountain-goating from stone to stone as I had on my way up the mountain, I was suddenly free to move, parading over frozen streams and mini-waterfalls with the grace of a Bolshoi dancer. The reason? Microspikes.
The American dream is dead. While still nestled in infancy, star-spangled hopes of anything resembling my parents’ life had pretty much vanished, and a strange subtext for what was to come silently gestated as I grew. The car, the house, and the child before age 30 were all near impossibilities for those of us who inherited the great recession. We were taught to dream small and assign great meaning to the tiny crevasses in which we were held, to play the game the way it’s always been played, though the rules have shifted greatly. Cultural milestones carved deep into society’s structure suddenly feel staggeringly out of reach for this generation of misfits, caught in the middle. So, what are we to do but erupt? To transform? To leap daringly into that which we can hold and experience with the limited resources we have been given? The new American dream will be forged not in matter, but in memory. A bleary-eyed tumble into the ephemeral nature of all things, seen through the lens of conscious nomadism.
A manual in 7 easy steps
In one of my grandest schemes to date, I decided to push several self-limits at once and hike the entirety of Malibu’s recently completed Backbone Trail System in only 3 days. For those of you who aren’t LA local, that’s 70 miles of peaks and valleys, traversing along the Santa Monica Mountains, just spitting distance from Los Angeles! It promised to be relatively waterless, 40 degrees at night, difficult to navigate, and illegal to camp on (technically). Oh, and the gods decided to grace me with a massive rainstorm in the middle of day two that left me sliding down the side of a mountain in the pitched black, hiking through multi-million dollar Malibu estates, and finally befriending a valet at a 4 star restaurant who let me charge my phone and call a ride home. Even with a TON of planning and back ups in case of things going wrong, the trek decided to take a left turn in a hilarious assortment of unexpected ways, leaving me to bail on night two and return to complete the last 24 miles of trail the following weekend. So, I felt it only fitting to write a how-to manual in reverse for what not to do on The Backbone Trail!