5:30am – The alarm on my iPhone ricochets against the dark womb of my 2015 Ford Transit. I lift my head a few inches to groggily peer outside at the tall, black spires of towering pines all around, dizzied by the carpet of stars surrounding them. Is it too early? Should I go back to sleep? My boyfriend, Brian, stirs in bed next to me, burrowing his warmth into my legs. I yawn and spread my toes as far apart as I can muster like a cat napping on a sofa in the sun, grumbling like an eighty year old man. Leaving this isn’t going to be easy.
The walls were moving, and I didn’t know where my guide was.
I was squatting, pants-down, over a pit toilet within a crudely constructed turquoise shed somewhere around 15,700 feet in the Andean foothills of Peru, trying desperately not to puke. The walls appeared to be having a rave of their own, swaying rhythmically to and fro like one of those inflatable arm waving men you see outside of used car dealerships. Mind you, the walls were not actually alive. They were static, as ordinary outhouse walls tend to be. I was the one collapsing. I was trapped in the psychedelic hellscape that only severe altitude sickness can bring, and I was terrified.
My first backpacking trip was a burly 12 miler that left me gasping for air as I crested the last few boulders on the summit block of Alta Peak. I was 28, hopelessly in love, and had a gorgeous assortment of all the wrong gear. Among the sundries inside my pack were: a bohemian leather jacket, a full-sized towel, and a child’s size sleeping bag from the sale bin at a suburban H&M. I was a mess.
I awake to fuzzy hipster garage rock reverberating off the tin can that is my unfinished Ford Transit in the wee hours of dawn, downing a Clif Bar and a caffeine gel while praying for an extra 8 minutes to snooze in the comfort of my luxurious sleeping bag. I think I was having a sex dream about Alex Honnold. Ugh… Such strong hands.
I am not a good employee. At 3:47pm on a Friday, I am frantically moving my fingers across the computer keyboard while simultaneously pressing the phone against my ear to order flowers for my boss’ grandmother while praying that he makes an early dinner reservation at 5pm so I can scoot out of the office, quickly. I have an expansive Yosemite trail map permanently hidden in my browser tabs on my work laptop (yes, really), and on any given weekend, I’m struggling to answer important emails from high in the Sierra Nevada or a local desert crag. In short, my mind is often elsewhere.
In July of 2016, I completed my first 3-day backpacking trip with a man I was terribly in love with. We ambled up rocky paths in the high country of Yosemite National Park and watched the sun rise with a shock of electric pink over granite domes that dotted the landscape like the hardened knees of some huge, mummified giant. On our last night out, we set up camp early near Polly Dome, allowing for ample time to dodge mosquitoes, smooch, and jump naked into an alpine lake. “1… 2… 3!” I yelled as I launched my sweaty, dirtbag body off a neighboring rock and into the water. Not two breaststrokes later, I yelped loudly, clutching my left leg. Careful not to sink too deep into the murky water, I examined my knee, noticing a flash of bright red that trailed through the lake like a miniature oil spill. “Are you ok, dude?” Asked my companion from his mindful perch along the shore. “I’m fine! I’m just bleeding!” I shouted back, laughing emphatically so that he wouldn’t make me get out of the water. I was happy and hurt and full of as much aliveness as a body can possibly muster. Instead of stitches, I found smiles.
“Stop looking at me!” I screeched as I crouched into a windbreak to clumsily remove a used tampon from my body with a sharp tug. My boyfriend, Ben, didn’t know how to turn off his joke faucet, especially on a long thru-hike, and he was darting from rock to rock like an untamed marmot. My nerves were getting raw. It was lunchtime on October 3, 2017, and the closest thing I had to comfort was a granite ledge perched 2500 feet above the Kern River Valley, wind whipping my face as I teetered, bloody-handed and sore. I couldn’t believe it was 33 degrees in the sun. I couldn’t believe that I was sick, depressed, and on my period, either. I squinted pathetically as a raven flew overhead, twisting my neck as it soared out of view. A sharp pain seized my stomach like a petrified child. Everything felt wrong, and the only way out was to climb over Mt. Whitney.
“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.