The moment I catch my first glimpse of Dead Woman’s Pass between ragged breaths in the thin air of 13,000 feet, I smile with relief. Perched atop massive stone steps, slick with jungle rain, I can barely make out the fluorescent sheets of plastic adorning ant-sized tourists up top to shield them from the downpour. My hiking partner, Rosie, and I are way out front of our group, preferring to put our heads down and charge forward until our heart rates soar and we stop to gasp for air in the crisp mountain morning. 828 feet later, I stagger up the final few stairs to the top of the notorious pass, beaming. My fingers go numb as I wander around snapping a few photos, the wind-chill dipping into the mid-twenties. I can feel the blood coursing through my capillaries as I take in the taller peaks and wait for my crew to catch up. The hardest part of the trek was behind me, I was higher than I had ever been with a full pack on, and my mom was somewhere just below, crushing it on The Inca Trail.
You inhale. The feeling of new air mixes with unknown space as you first place one foot and then the other onto the path ahead. A lightness tickles your stomach, curling upwards and into your heart. It tugs at the outermost threads of your mind and trembles, massaging the gray area that arises between excitement and edginess. At once delighted and supernaturally aware of your surroundings, you begin to sink into the unfamiliar. The journey is afoot.
I’m sitting here on my day off, staring at the computer screen, recklessly picking the skin off my cuticles at the sheer nervousness I feel about relaxing and writing a simple article about rest. Sure, spending 15 hours clinging to the side of a mountain with no food or water is dangerous and perhaps more than a little unwise, but, if you’re type-A and goal driven like me, there’s something comforting about repetitive motion towards a singular objective. The ragged in and out of my breath at altitude and the familiar burn of my legs as I ascend huge, granite steps give me a source of focus. As long as I’m moving forward, I can’t worry about my car payment or if my boss hates me or if the last piece I wrote is any good. I inhale, I sink my body into the dirt, and I push.
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.
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.