My first hike of the season, which was several weeks ago for me this year, always conjures up memories of my first solo summer spent in Colorado 3 years ago, otherwise known as my 66 day experiment. Because of unforeseen circumstances, I ended up with condo rental for 2 1/2 months in a town where I knew no one. One of my first blog posts explains this in further detail, along with how I came to buy a place in that very town a short 2 months after my arrival; something I had no intention of doing before I made the trip. It truly was my summer of discovery and growth and one I remember fondly every time my boots hit the dirt, but it didn’t start out well.
After going through a difficult break up, I felt like my heart had been ripped from my chest, stomped on and mushed back into the cavity where it originally sat. The easier feeling for me at that time was to go to anger, rather than sadness. Anger has a fueling effect, sadness, not so much, and it was that anger that became my teacher that summer and hiking became the catalyst for me to learn, not about hiking and how to do it better, safer and stronger, but rather, about who it was that those hiking boots were carrying. I discovered myself. It certainly wasn’t the easiest way for me to arrive at that discovery, but it was what it was and I look back now with tremendous gratitude for things did not go as I had planned or expected.
One of the biggest ah ha moments of that summer for me was when I climbed Torreys and Grays – 2 fourteeners (mountains whose summits are over 14,000 feet and who Colorado claims 52). I had been advised to get to the trailhead EARLY as it’s a very popular climb with limited parking. When you tell a Virgo, who is a tad bit anxious about doing the whole thing solo in the first place, to get to the trail head early, plans of a pre-dawn arrival are not out of the question. One can never be too early or too safe, or too prepared, especially when facing a 14er alone, with no more information about it than an overheard conversation and photos and text from a guide book. So, at barely 5:00 a.m., I began my 30 minute car journey to the trailhead, the easiest part, or so I thought. All was going as planned and I was feeling excited with anticipation and a bit smug with what I had decided to tackle, until the road got narrower and narrower with deeper and deeper pot-holes, looking more like a trail than a road and certainly not accessible without 4 wheel drive. Oh and to add to the scene unfolding, it was still dark, there were no other cars on the road and I had no cell phone service. No longer did I have AAA for my back up plan. I could hear my pulse.
In all the wandering through the state of Colorado that I did that summer, it was that moment, on that dark path of a road, alone, that comes to mind when I think about what really scared me and got my heart to race. It is also that moment, when I decided not to turn around, that has influenced several decisions since when I’ve opted not to turn around, whether it be a hike or a life decision.
Once I made it to the dark and very empty parking lot, my car being the ONLY car, I sat for a few minutes and wondered how smart it was of me to continue. Do I sit and wait for other people? Do I scrap my plan and go back the way I came, Buick-sized potholes and all? With a combination of pride and perhaps a wee bit of stupidity, I decided that I had enough invested in the whole operation to stay with the plan. I grabbed my pack and strapped on my headlamp because it still dark out and started down a trail that I had never been on before and knew very little about. Right this moment, some three years later, while I type this, I’m thinking…”Seriously? You did THAT?’ It is the “THAT” that comes to mind at some point during every single hike I’ve done since and I’ve got to confess, I’m in search of the “THAT” as much as I seek out the views, crazy as that sounds.
I walked alone following the small beam of light from my head lamp until the sun came up. I’m guessing 10 or 15 minutes, but really have no idea, but it seemed long and lonely and given that I had never hiked in the dark, scary. I couldn’t help but continue to ask myself if this whole idea was really very smart, yet my legs kept walking forward. Had I stopped, I’m guessing I would have turned around. Eventually, I reached a fork on the trail and couldn’t remember what I had been told… go up Grays first, or Torreys?
While I stood at that crossroads, and surveyed the incredible early morning scenery, I saw a small group of people in the far distance, making their way towards me. This was my cue to sit down, rearrange the things in my pack, have a snack, take a photo, waste some time and then when they’d make their way to me, I’d stand up, watch which fork they’d take and casually follow them like it was no big deal..
“I was just catching my breath, organizing my stuff, grabbing a photo and wow, what a coincidence that all of you just happened by!”
That’s what I had planned, but I was so excited to see life on that trail that I greeted them overly enthusiastically and asked which route they were taking, as I hadn’t yet decided. They told me Torreys and did I want to hike up with them? Well… sure…. !! Honestly, they had no idea. Their generosity had saved me. We summitted the first peak about an hour later, ate our lunch (again, they had no idea what a gift they had become to me) then made our way across the saddle and up to the summit of the 2nd peak. While seated and catching our breath, I got a text. Now mind you, I’ve been hiking for a few hours, had climbed around 3,000 feet, and now sat at an elevation of over 14, 000 feet (14,267 and 14,270 respectively), literally in a different world and with a very different mind set and I get a text??? It was my daughter, Emery, reminding me to buy coconut water before her visit the next day as it helped her to adjust to the altitude. My new best friends asked if all was OK and when I told them, with a mixed tone of exasperation and are you kidding me?, they all looked puzzled and said, “Well, if it helps her, you really should get it for her.” By the way, they were her age, so this all seemed very normal to them, and so I began making a mental note of my to do list while enjoying my lunch at the top of a 14,000 foot mountain. I had to laugh, but was quick to reassure them that by all means, I’d follow through with her request. I think they were worried about her.
|Crossing the saddle|
|One down, one to go…|
Seven hours from my dark, lonely start, I was back in my car, making my way through the 4WD potholes, which no longer seemed the size of Buicks, but VW’s at best. Daylight and accomplishments made it all look a lot better and far less scary and who cares that I didn’t have cell phone service? I felt a whole lot stronger than the person who had driven in a short 7 hours ago. I think I just might have been a little bit taller also.
Once home, I put my head in a bag of ruffle potato chips, with a 1/2 a tub of french onion dip and a 3 beer chaser because when you hike a 14er you get to eat anything that sound good and so I did. I had set that precedent after my first 14er climb a few weeks ago, so was simply following protocol. While immersed in my delightful dinner, I couldn’t help but wonder just who that girl was who had pushed through so much that scared her yet kept on going when quitting would have been a whole lot easier. She wasn’t someone I had seen in a very long time and I was hopeful I’d see her again.
That summer, without planning on it or anticipating it, became my summer to push my personal boundaries and enter into my fear zone so many times that it began to feel comfortable. By the end of the summer, I had logged over 135 miles in my boots and climbed 31,500 vertical feet, in search of my boundaries, which thankfully kept moving just out of my reach, which kept me moving. It was as if my trusty old hiking boots had become my ruby red slippers and the heels had been clicked together, only this time, they took me out of Kansas and far away from my comfort zone and made me realize that just like the ruby red slippers, I had had the power with me all along. I just didn’t know it.
Go figure. I had to walk, climb and sweat my way up peak after peak after peak to finally become familiar with the person who was guiding those boots and time after time after exhausted time, I’d stop that summer during a hike, not to grab a photo or a drink or a snack or even some oxygen, but rather, I’d stop and try to absorb the moment of where I was and how far I’d come and the odd circumstances that had brought me to that point. Stopping to absorb on a hike or life for that matter, is never a bad idea.
So today and yesterday and the day before yesterday and every day I’ve hiked since that summer of MY coming of age, when I hesitate because I’m not sure I can do it or am I setting the bar too high? or for Pete’s sake why can’t I be content with walking around the neighborhood with a mountain backdrop?, I try my best to bring back that girl who drove down a dark road to a dark parking lot to a trail head where she had to strap on a headlamp to see the trail that she knew nothing about and say, Really? Seriously? Snap out of it. You’ve got this. And that… that right there, is what has made every bit of this journey a priceless experience for me.
Several times this past month, I’ve thought about a return trip to the Torreys and Grays peaks but have slowly come to realize that for me to venture up those two beautiful peaks for a 2nd time, would be less about experiencing their majesty and more about trying to reconnect with the girl who climbed them 3 summers ago and recreate an experience, which I know is impossible. I can’t recreate a first time experience the second time around, no matter how hard I try. Not surprising, those notions of a “re-climb” seem to come when I’m feeling insecure and am struggling to find my strength. For a split second, it feels like I just might be able to find it on the Torreys and Grays trail on an early morning, using my headlamp to guide me, because it was there once, as if I carelessly left it behind in a heap on the trail after stopping for a breath or a view and all I have to do is go retrieve it, stuff it securely into my pack and return home. Logically, I know it’s with me, somewhere in there, whether those beat up boots that are trying to be ruby red slippers are on my feet or on a trail or not. I just have to remember how to find it. Again.