It’s sunset, and you are watching the last of our star’s orange glow fluoresce against the horizon before it dips out of view. You’re sitting on the stoop of a 400-year-old stucco building in Cinque Terre, Italy, swigging Chianti straight out of the bottle like a college sophomore. A light breeze blows past. Giggling couples begin returning from the rocky shore towards restaurants lit with dancing flickers of candlelight, ready to gorge themselves on fresh seafood. You take a deep breath and exhale proudly, “Now this is living!”
Last Sunday, I plopped onto the couch, curled up into the lap of a man I love, and did absolutely nothing but watch documentaries from morning to night while eating ice cream, laughing hysterically, and pausing for extremely necessary sex breaks. It was glorious. I felt happy and dizzy and blissed out. My joy bubbled up from brain stem to crown and left me smiling and slightly lobotomized in its wake. But somewhere, in the pit of my stomach, a familiar twinge of worry began to blossom. A faint notion of guilt for spending a day doing nothing other than resting and being happy crept across my toes and made me shiver.
I’m limping again. I can barely walk downstairs. Bruised knee and bloodshot eyes. My life in boxes. My heart in a tourniquet. Used up. Washed out. Pale moon shadow of the girl I wanted to be.
This is a love song to sing to ourselves at the bottom of the blackest pits (the ones we too often choose to leap into willingly).
It’s the question on the tip of everyone’s tongue each time I conjure the courage to spit out the idea for my latest sufferfest. Why climb over 10,000 vertical feet in a day? Why push for a summit in 70mph winds? Why waste a perfectly good Saturday waking up at five in the morning to bloody my fingers on sharp granite crystals?
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 wish I remembered more of it.”
The feeling stuck in my brain like old gum to a shoe as I tried to conjure up details from the day’s climb that broke all my records, bruised my heart, and took me to 16,818 vertical feet above sea level.
“How much higher do you think that outcropping is from where we’re sitting right now?”
Justin was faded, nauseous, and swaying in the mid-day heat of the Eastern Sierra when he the words fell out of his mouth. My head felt like an over-inflated balloon. Dumbstruck, I tried my best at a civil response, “Fuck. I don’t know… Maybe 50 feet? Is this not the summit?!”
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.
“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.
First, there is water. Air thick with salt sweat and a deep blue landscape dotted with the lacy imprints of coral. There are trees that rise in mounds from the scattered fingers of islands like forest green muttonchops or particularly dense broccoli. Land and sea boast of their fertility; the earth is rich with color.