You hear a familiar crunch as your leather hiking boot bursts through a thin layer of orange leaves littering the trail below. You look up for a moment, startled by delicate footprints up and to your left, just managing to catch the tail ends of two deer before they hurriedly prance out of view. There’s a chill in the autumn air, and, if you look closely, you can see your breath manifest into a tiny cloud right before your face as you walk. At the next junction on the trail, a small, weathered sign leans squat against a tree. “Monarch Lake 1.2 miles | Crystal Lake 1.4 miles” – Which do you choose?
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!”
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.
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!
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.
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.
“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.
“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.”