About a month ago, I gathered a makeshift team of oddballs together to celebrate my birthday in the Alabama Hills. It was a Tetris game of wildly different personalities from nearly every one of my friend groups – the photographer, the mountain guide, the dude I met once from Facebook, the couple that picked me up at a goth club 6 years ago, and the weird kids in the back who really wanted to stay up late and do too much acid. We were a junkshow.
Here I am, all five feet, six inches of tanned, golden-haired glory. I’m probably wearing yoga shorts and trail runners so clean you could eat a vegan acai bowl out of them. I smell like snickerdoodles and definitely don’t poop in the woods. My selfie stick rivals Gandalf’s staff in its sun-stained splendor, and I’ve got ninja-like skills when it comes to using it. You see that trail over yonder? It’s ready for its goddamn close up.
First, a loud whumpf roars through the valley, slamming my entire body with the malicious ferocity of a kick drum beat at an underground club. Next, terrifying silence as the slope gives way underneath. The snowpack crumbles before it turns to a mushy gunk the consistency of hand-cranked cement as it pours down the face of the mountain. I didn’t even see it coming. It is 10:45am on Monday, April 2nd. I’m three-quarters of the way up Sherwin Ridge, and my climbing partner, Ryan, is about to be hit by 1,100 tons of sludge.
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.
“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.
So, you might have noticed that I have a camel-colored crossbody bag that I take with me everywhere. It popped up in my photo series from Peru, again on the trail in Zion, and now, it’s following me in business attire as I tackle my upcoming job interviews. This nifty handbag was sent to me by the wonderful folks at Atana Bags, and I’m positively addicted to its rugged versatility!
My anxiety is allergic to the outdoors. When I walk for hours along a wooded path or affix my limbs to a rock crag, I don’t think about my weight, or if he’ll call, or biting the inside of my lip. The sticky brain gunk that fuels my visions of destruction and self doubt are obliterated, and I focus intently on the task at hand. I breathe. I climb. I balance.
I skid down the side of the mountain the moment I see the crash. My trail runners burn rubber as I launch myself over a boulder to get to the victim, a 44-year-old hang glider who caught a gnarly gust of wind coming over Big Bear Lake. He is moaning and clutching his side as I ask his name to discern a level of responsiveness. He mumbles something about the fall, and I check his airway, noticing a large amount of blood in his mouth and a pale film of skin across his forehead. I bark directions at my partner to help me move him into a spine stable position, and she holds his head to ensure that we don’t further damage what could be a severed spinal cord. We check his vitals before performing a head-to-toe patient assessment in which we discover a sorely broken rib. As I frantically scribble the details into my notebook, we formulate a plan to get help before we move him into a recovery position so that he doesn’t choke on any of the blood he is coughing up. Then, we wait.
Instead of saying no, I found myself sobbing next to a creek in the Eastern Sierras. Fresh out of a fight with my boyfriend, I had traversed a cross-country approach to one of California’s highest peaks in the sweltering heat. I was terrified of climbing my first bergschrund, uncomfortable in my avalanche transceiver, and struggling to prop up the idea that I could make a great mountaineer. There was a bar fight inside my head, and I was losing.