To celebrate our recent wedding anniversary (4 years! huzzah!) we headed out for an overnight backpacking trip in the Eastern Sierras. With the drought here in California persisting, there was minimal snow even at higher elevations. We left early, only to be halted somewhere in the desert when my car started shuttering and belching smoke out of the exhaust. Halfway between home and our destination it seemed as though our trip might come to an end before it had even begun. Not ready to let the adventure we had planned go, we managed to rent a car and several hours later we were on our way again, now quite a bit behind schedule.
When we arrived at the trailhead it was already late afternoon. In preparation for the colder weather, I had brought a zero degree sleeping bag with me and its bulk was packed awkwardly in the side of my pack. At the last minute I shoved our bear canister in the top of my bag, just barely cinching the top closed. I was anxious to get hiking as the sun headed downward, so it was with this uneven backpack that I started up into the mountains.
As we set out, the climb was gentle and my pack was relatively light but for some reason it was particularly unpleasant. The sun was shining in my eyes, somehow managing to creep around my sunglasses entirely. All of my excitement for the trip seemed to drain with every step. I was no longer looking forward to trudging up into the snowy mountains and testing my limits. It could have been the stress of the day, dealing with my car and how to get where we were going, or the altitude having an effect on me (we were already at 8,000 feet) but something dark started to drape itself over me. But I trudged on, trailing a ways behind Shawn.
At some point the trail turned and we were brought into the shade of the mountains. I was relieved to be able to see again but the ominous sadness still lingered. I searched my mind for where this melancholy could be coming from and what might be the cure but I could find no answer. I was hiking in beautiful scenery, with someone I love. I was not hungry or weary and I did not long to be somewhere else. The more I thought about it, the more I longed to be exactly where I was at that moment. With this realization my thoughts floated into a vortex of existential dread.
What am I doing with my life? Why am I not doing the things that I love? Why am I constantly plagued by daily stress? How can I be the person I want to be?
A wave of emotion washed over me. Something caught in my throat. I gasped, holding back tears and I suddenly couldn’t breathe. I stopped walking, pulled off my pack and struggled to catch my breath.
When I was in my early twenties I went backpacking in Europe. A different kind of backpacking clearly but still carrying all my possessions on my shoulders. I had graduated college earlier that year and had little idea of what direction I was headed in next. I had studied through the summers to graduate a year early and hadn’t stopped to figure out any sort of plan for my future. What does one do with a degree in fine art and student loans to pay? So I set off for Europe on what I hoped would be a grand adventure. Besides, planning the trip gave me focus, where I otherwise felt adrift. I don’t know that I was looking to “find myself” but I probably was in some sense, following the mythic ideal of self-discovery in far off places. I had made plans with friends to travel with me in different countries but at the last minute no one could actually go. So I went alone. Years later I remember one of my bosses saying how brave I was for going by myself, but more than anything I just felt lonely.
I arrived in Florence one morning after taking an overnight train and managed to get on a bus headed the wrong direction. I spoke no Italian at all and when I realized my mistake I panicked. I got off the bus with no idea where I was and started walking in what I hoped was the right direction back to the train station. The streets were empty and tears streamed down my face as I walked. I could not hold them back. I was just overwhelmed with this sense of being utterly alone and having no place. It wasn’t the only time I cried on that trip, feeling entirely lost even when I wasn’t lost at all. I kept questioning why I had traveled across the world to feel so intensely sad and lonely when I was perfectly capable of feeling sad and lonely at home.
The thing is though, looking back, much of the sadness I experienced on that trip is dampened by memory. At some point I figured out how to talk to people, to spend days with other travelers. I remember the highlights, the exciting moments, not the endless searching for where I should be and how I could fill my time. It took a while for me to shed the person I had been at home and get into a rhythm of transient life. I did not have any personal revelations but I found that I was capable where I initially I had thought I was not.
I think of this trip often when I am having a hard time on a vacation or adventure. That the bad times, though not entirely forgotten, recede into the background. Sometimes, even the most difficult of situations are still better than sitting around letting your life pass you by. At least there is some sort of experience there, not just a couch and a tv and the comfort of the familiar. Sometimes the hardest parts become a sort of talisman, a notch on your belt, to say you got through this even if it was just wading through the swamp of despair in your own mind.
When backpacking in nature these moments of struggle can be compounded. There is some level of real risk, even if it is usually low. It is hard for me a lot of the time. I don’t feel tough. I feel slow and easily affected by things like low blood sugar and elevation. My fears can get the best of me. I hate this but it also enhances things in a way. I get such a feeling of accomplishment when I face the parts that are hard for me and get through them. I love car camping but I don’t get the same sense of satisfaction as when we go backpacking, it’s just easy and fun and a welcome change from our everyday life. The key is finding a balance between the parts that are actually enjoyable and the parts that are challenging.
So there I am, sitting on the side of the trail, struggling to catch my breath. Shawn stops and I tell him I’m okay, but in telling the tears come. No way to hold them back now. Why am I even crying? It seems too big a question to answer. The answer doesn’t make sense. I want to be here, outside, having these experiences, even the hard ones. I want to have the freedom to be the creative person that seems to have been buried under the rest of me that gets through the day, that pays the bills and does the dishes. I don’t know how to solve these things. I just know that they are there and at this moment I cannot hide from them. So I just sit and cry in the mountains over nothing and everything while Shawn waits patiently for me. Soon crying does that magic thing it does where it makes you feel better and I put on my pack and continue on.
We hiked another few miles until it started to get dark and very cold and the elevation a little too much for me. We set up camp and I forced myself, somewhat unsuccessfully, to eat dinner. Why do things taste so intense at high elevations? Why does it feel so impossible to put food in your mouth and swallow even when you are hungry? Finally we huddled up in our tent and though I did not feel good, I felt safe. I was warm in the zero degree bag, even though it was probably 20°F. I still woke every few hours though with All of the Lights blaring in my head. It wasn’t just stuck on repeat, it had the distinct quality of being loud, despite being physically silent. Plus I was starving, having not eaten much dinner but unwilling to go out in cold to retrieve any food from our bear canister. Still, there was something pleasant about being in that tent and suffering (a little), not with the sort of anxiety and fear that makes the night unbearable.
The next morning I was feeling better. We ate breakfast (oatmeal is my savior), broke down our camp and hiked into the snow. We passed a few other campers on the way but had the trail mostly to ourselves for the morning. The snow was soft and packed down on the trail from previous hikers. With the sun high in the sky, it felt more like an early summer day than winter still. When we finally reached higher elevations still we were treated to views of snow covered lakes and rocky peaks. It was a strange mix of the snowy beauty of winter and the warm temperatures of later season hiking. We set up another camp in the snow and cooked lunch. From our perch we could see others walk out onto the frozen lakes. The views and solitude were the reward for the struggle that came before. We made it.
As we hiked down I asked Shawn, half joking, if he thought our trip had been romantic. I had a breakdown on the way up then spent most of the evening feeling nauseous. True romance! Still, it sort of was. Not traditional roses and chocolates romantic, but an experience together. We both felt so lucky to have someone who wanted to do these wild trips together and still understood that it is often hard and sometimes not fun. It still feels so worth it though and I feel so fortunate to get to do what we do. It’s like a clean slate every time we head into the wilderness, sometimes that wiping clear can be a bit more jarring that others.
Part of the reason I want to write about the adventures we go on is not to say “oh look how cool this thing we did was” but rather to hopefully inspire some people go outside, to get out there and see the beauty and magic that is out there. I am not religious or even spiritual but there is an undeniable energy in nature that can have a great effect on you. I want people to experience that. And I want to be honest that it is not easy, that I struggle and that is part of what makes it special. You don’t have to be a hardcore hiker to accomplish something meaningful.
We went backpacking in the snowy mountains, I cried, I wanted to throw up and still it was awesome. I recommend it.