The first time I soloed a long trail, it almost broke me. Being naked and shivering inside my sleeping bag with nothing to shield me except a tiny backpacker’s tent quickly twisted my thoughts into a thousand worst case scenarios, my mother’s voice echoing loudly about hypothermia, snakes, and career-minded decision making. It was 42 degrees outside, and I could hear the percussion of rain lapping against my tent as I trembled in my down sack. Below my precarious perch on Saddle Peak’s mud-covered switchbacks, the constant whoosh of traffic pulled at me like a trail of breadcrumbs. Civilization was just a mile away, if only I would give up.
It is 8:05 AM, and I can feel the razor-sharp edges of my crampons cut through the fragile, top layer of snow like a child cracking crème brulée. I shove the spike of my ice axe a couple of feet above me and, shoes turned out like a clumsy ballet dancer, I hoist myself another few steps up the dizzying, 2000 foot climb. I turn over my right shoulder and exhale, taking in the panoramic view, as a breeze carries tiny ice crystals into my hair. I am exactly where I want to be.
The moment I decide to start trail running is around 4:51pm on a Friday, my body tepid from four hours of sleep and sunset crawling over the horizon by the minute. Armed with a muddy pair of tennis shoes and no headlamp, I set off for Griffith Park after work, promising myself that, no matter what, I would not slow my pace below a run for the entirety of the six mile trail.
“Of. Fucking. Course!” The demons inside my head are screaming at me as I skid down sun-drenched gravel and onto the highway shoulder, narrowly avoiding a rock kicked up by an old Ford Ranger. I am rage-walking in the unrelenting sun of Death Valley National Park, whipping my head around my shoulder to double-check that Ben is still behind me, and praying that at any moment, my heels will sprout wings. It’s nearly 2pm, we’re out of water, and our car is definitely not where we left it. In the distance, thunderheads shroud neighboring peaks, filling me with envy for the comforts of water and shade. My skin is seething as my stomach churns trail mix into knots. I steady my breathing, look both ways down the dusty, two-lane motorway, and shove my thumb into the air, indignant.
I feel like I weigh 400 pounds today. Heart heavy with things left undone as I ponder the 90 minute car ride, the meeting that should have been an email, the slow march towards death that an office implies. Outside the lunchroom window, raindrops flutter past, synthesized from thousands of miles away to share this moment, born out of lush rivers and frigid snowfalls. I often wish for that kind of rebirth. The transparent purpose of evaporation and nourishment that every droplet knows at its start. Transience etched into their very essence.
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.