Nearly one year ago, I wrote a blog post for Six Moon Designs entitled, “The Dark Valley of Injury.” I was recovering from hip labrum surgery and had just been diagnosed with pudendal neuralgia. The days were dark and punctuated with pain. At the end of the post, I wrote, “The trail awaits and I know that one day, I will put on a backpack and follow that trail until it leads me back to myself again.”
Seven months after that writing, on June 7, 2023, I set off from Durango, CO in my 2019 Ram Promaster (named Pierre) to begin that journey of healing. After 10 years of working in public interest law, I took six months of extended leave to process my trauma and the trauma of those individuals I’d represented. I knew the only way I could do this was to immerse myself in an adventure while surrounded by nature. I rented out my condo for 4 months, finished building out Pierre into a livable space, and left town. My first stop was to a specialist in Denver for one final round of injections to help keep the nerve pain at bay. After more than 7 months of constant medical appointments, this would be my last (I hoped) until I planned to return to Durango in late September. My body felt like it was finally turning that page of the recovery book where it allowed me to run a little, hike a little, and scream a little less. I felt hope.
Study after study has proven the link between trauma and the physical body. Stress impacts our central nervous system, placing us in an indefinite state of fight, flight, or freeze. We begin to forget what it feels like to truly rest and digest. Humans are incredible in that we can operate in this state for years before things begin to break down. The ability to endure in this state of heightened arousal can be both our greatest strength and the source of our own suffering. When I left town, my body had already broken and it felt as though my mind was not far behind. I exhibited all the symptoms of burnout. The constant emails, ringing of the phone, worry about my clients, anger at the systems that oppress the most vulnerable individuals, and fear that I could never do well enough made me feel like a wounded caged animal. When I climbed in Pierre on June 7, I was on a mission to save myself. With no real plan in place other than to head west and then north, the journey began. What follows are journal entries made along the way.
June 19, 2023. Night 13.
Sage Hen Creek Campground- Tahoe National Forest. About 4 miles down a dirt road off Highway 89. California.
It’s a free campground. Not a soul around. Wet, but no rain is expected and there is a dry spot for Pierre. Deserted campgrounds are eerie in their own way. But it’s quiet. Cold. I hiked up the Emigrant Trail from Hwy 89 to Stampede Reservoir. About 18 miles total- more than I’ve done in a day, but the trail was flowy and the miles went fast. Mostly saw mountain bikers and a few trail runners. Talked to my therapist yesterday morning. At first, just a general talk about the trip, but then some tears came when I talked about some past relationships I’d been processing. There is still some hurt and shame there. We talked about the different kinds of anxiety that can come on a trip like this. The unknown is so real and in your face. I’m doing it, though, and I’ll keep doing it. Try to let go of some of the fear, anxiety, and lack of control. There is no other choice.
July 3-7, 2023. Nights 26-29.
Oregon Coast Backpacking Trip. (Met up with Jamie in Ashland, OR, whom I met hiking the Colorado Trail in 2021).
Jamie and I dropped Pierre off at Harris Beach State Park and then drove up to Bandon to begin our hike south on the Oregon Coast Trail. It was a wild and rugged experience. Probably one of the most challenging backpacking trips I have ever done. 100-ish miles of sand, highway, and steep trail hiking. When we set off on the beach from Bandon, the wind was whipping from the north and our jackets flapped loudly. One minute, we were in the car and the next, we were just walking south on the beach, venturing into the great unknown. At one point in those early miles, Jamie looked over at me and said, “Walking is the best meditation.” Yes. I smiled. We saw seals! I’d never walked that many miles on the beach before and at points, my mind truly felt empty minus the sound of the wind, the waves, and the thought of moving constantly to find firmer footing. Day 2 brought a crossing of the Sixes River. It was about two hours before high tide and the seas were rough and stormy. We decided to try at the mouth where the river met the sea. Exciting! Water up to our crotch and a strong current. We crossed feeling strong and brave. Next up, Elk River! Otters were playing in a fallen tree. This time, we were waist-deep, but the current was gentler. Spent the night of the 4th of July sleeping on the beach near Port Orford, falling asleep just after a firework show’s grand finale. On Day 3, we learned how to walk on the highway for miles upon miles upon miles. We became numb to the semis and RVs blasting past us and just single-filed it. I became very familiar with the contours of Jamie’s backpack and the backs of his legs. A roadside attraction brought us Fritos and cold brewed coffee. Stealth camping in the woods. On Day 4, we realized that the sand and road walking had greatly pissed off Jamie’s left ankle tendon. The day was long as we stayed on the highway to avoid the uneven sand. Finding fresh water to filter proved a challenge until we finally found some trickling down the hillside near the highway. As the sun dropped, so did the ocean away from the road. There was nowhere to camp because the land between the road and the sea was either cliffs or private property. Finally, after 26 miles of walking (Jamie is a trooper), we made it past the private land into the Samuel Boardman Corridor and spotted a tent just off the road. There was room enough for two more and we quickly pitched our tents and ate dinner in relief. On the final day, I left Jamie in his tent and hiked the last 17 miles to Pierre as quickly as I could. The Oregon Coast Trail tossed one more challenge at me with its twisting turning trails that dropped sharply to the ocean before climbing again to the highway. The true trail was up and down and around and lost and found again. Finally, I emerged on a bike path that led me to Pierre and back to Jamie. I took him back to his car and we parted ways. I was on my own again.
Tuesday, July 11, 2023. Night 34
Off Road 252 in Three Sisters Wilderness Area, Willamette National Forest. Oregon.
It’s morning and I’m doing my morning routine. Coffee and breakfast while I look at maps. As I was falling asleep last night, the weirdest thing happened– all of these images of my life with my abusive ex-boyfriend came into my head. All the people who were around, the places we lived, the things he did and said. Maybe, my mind is suddenly having space to process that trauma. Maybe, I can finally clear it out of my brain and body. I remember the people who always tried to help. I remember the kindness in their eyes as they looked at me with concern. I was so young. 19, 20 years old. I should have been in college- learning, playing. I guess I was learning some different life lessons. I know I have to forgive myself for that time. To let it go. I think I mostly have. It happened and it shaped me, but it does not define me. I wonder how much it has impacted my relationships as an adult. I wonder how life would be different without that chapter. I wonder. Twenty-five years have passed, and it’s time for my body to let that chapter go.
Monday, July 17, 2023. Night 40.
Swampy Lake Sno Park- Deschutes National Forest. Oregon.
What a backpacking trip in the Three Sisters Wilderness. The first 12 miles to and around Green Lakes were awesome and I felt great! Suddenly, I started hitting downed trees that got progressively worse as I got into the Pole Creek burn area. I kept losing the trail. It was hot. I kept getting scraped and banged up on the trees. After several hours, I reached the turn-off for Camp Lake, where I wanted to camp, but the downed trees continued. Camp Lake was beautiful, nestled between South and Middle Sister, but I had a sense of foreboding. The wind was whipping and the lake felt eerie and remote. I was kept awake all night by anxiety and the wind. Finally, as the sun began to rise, so did I. Oh, how I dreaded that return through the burn area. I had to keep talking to myself and reminding myself to stay focused and keep going. Breathe. I gathered more cuts and bruises but found my way back to Green Lakes. Exhausted and with a headache, I decided to abort the mission and hike out. I have never been so happy to see Pierre. I am proud of myself for getting through that. It was hard.
Monday, July 31, 2023. Night 54.
Eightmile Campground. Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Washington.
I think the excitement of this adventure is beginning to wear off. I’m feeling tired. Tired of being alone. Tired of searching for campsites. Tired of figuring out trails to hike, logistics, and where to go. This is probably where I need to do the work. Don’t give up, but let me comfort myself. Do what I need to do to feel safe and peaceful. I slept long and hard last night and am lingering over coffee in Pierre. Reading some Pema Chodron and remembering the struggles I’ve been through before. I forgive myself for melting down a little yesterday and realizing the goal is not necessarily to avoid the meltdowns, but what we do with them afterward. Let it go. Now, I must just do it today. Go for a run. Explore. I’m thinking about life and how quickly we become accustomed to our environments and new normal. How the thoughts are always still there. As the saying goes, everywhere you go, there you are.
Monday, August 7, 2023. Night 61.
Sherman Pass National Forest Campground. Washington.
I felt something shift last night. I want to hold on to it. It was a feeling of peace and gratitude and wonder in the ordinary. Only, it didn’t feel ordinary at all. I made it up to Sherman Pass in Northern Washington and found myself in a lovely forest with cool temperatures and smoke-free skies. I was stretching on a picnic table and listening to a podcast with Cheryl Strayed about not letting your dreams get in your way. You just have to start the thing. One mile at a time. One day at a time. The big picture becomes too overwhelming and you can get lost in the why of it all. Every day, put yourself in the way of beauty. Find it somewhere. In the sunrise, that one perfect flower, in a tree, the view. She talked about embracing mediocrity. You don’t have to do everything most grandly, but rather, just do it and the rest will take care of itself. Get out of your way. While I was listening to this podcast, two older women drove up with cut-off milk jugs. Indicative of berry picking. I realized I was surrounded by huckleberry bushes and invited them over. The three of us must have picked berries for an hour. Barely moving. One of them was a historian and had a wise aura about her. She asked if I was traveling alone and seemed thrilled that I was doing this trip. She was one of the first women to work for the forest service. I felt mutual admiration that sometimes passes between two women in ways that are hard to explain. I felt so peaceful and content and somewhat in awe of this seemingly ordinary experience that felt so extraordinary and beautiful. It’s these experiences that become treasures. Ones that I could never have planned and never would have happened. If everything else had gone the way I wanted. If I hadn’t had to abandon my plan of hiking the North Cascades because they caught on fire. Breathe.
Monday, September 4, 2023. Night 89.
Off Hwy 191 just outside Grand Teton National Park. Bridger Teton National Forest. Wyoming.
Rain the last few days as I drove from Canada’s Waterton Lakes down through Montana to arrive near Grand Teton. Backpacking in Waterton Lakes was an adventure. Hiking alone in grizzly country adds a certain heightened awareness to the days. I met a Canadian family with two young boys in the backcountry around the US/Canada border. As I played with them and joked about brushing our teeth in Canada and spitting our toothpaste in the United States, I recognized how much more patience and playfulness I have now. My energy to engage with people is stronger and I don’t feel the need to escape.
Monday, September 11, 2023. Night 96.
Trails End Campground- Bridger Teton National Forest. Wind River Range. Wyoming.
It’s starting to feel like fall is coming. I spent last week in the Tetons starting with a thru hike of the Teton Crest Trail and then several days with my sister-in-law. It was a beautiful, wonderful time. Overall, I feel happy and content. What a life this is. A dream, really. To just drive from one beautiful place to the next- hiking, eating, reading, running, sleeping. My body has been feeling strong and healthy and I am so very thankful for that. The time I get to talk to my friends and family feels so precious since cell service is infrequent. I’m not sure what’s to come with my emotions. Two more months of time off. Look how far I’ve come since last year. Hold on to this health. Protect it at all costs.
Friday, September 22, 2023. Night 107.
Twin Lakes dispersed camping area. Colorado.
It’s about time to start making my way home. I love this area. It’s cold at night. I have a weird rash on my hands that has been coming and going over the past few months. I really want to run/hike up to Hope Pass today and then summit Mt. Elbert tomorrow. Am I still wringing my body out physically to avoid emotional discomfort? Is this okay if I pay attention to the cues that it’s too much? Is it a problem or is this thirst for pushing myself just an integral part of who I am? Does it matter?
Thursday, October 5, 2023. Night 121.
BLM land outside Capitol Reef National Park. Utah.
I have to remember I can always come back here. When life gets too overwhelming or I feel out of kilter and unbalanced. When I don’t know what to do, I can do the thing that grounds me. Drive Pierre to a beautiful place. Go for a hike. Turn off my phone. Sit and watch the sunset. Eat. Nourish. Read. Rest. There is no one to please. No one cares what I say or how I say it. No mirrors to judge the lines, wrinkles, or dirty hair. I catch a glimpse sometimes in the rearview mirror. Who is that wild woman? Let it be is the only option. Nothing to solve. Nothing to conquer. Just the last of the light fading as the temperature drops and my eyes grow heavy. There is quiet in the desert. Out here on the edge of nothing. No big cities within hundreds of miles. No traffic. No ambient sound. Just the quiet as the ancient rock settles and the sand is still. I am home here. In Pierre. Alone. In this space, I helped create. I can always come back here.
Over the past six months, I drove over 7,000 miles through 11 states and one Canadian province. I spent over 120 nights in my van and backpacked on the Oregon Coast Trail, Three Sisters Wilderness, Wonderland Trail, Teton Crest Trail, and Waterton Lakes National Park. I hiked and ran over a thousand miles. Mostly alone. The old loops in my brain started to unwind and my soul settled. My body healed along with my mind. As I return to parts of my old life- my condo, my routine, my imminent return to work, I will hold on to these lessons and remember that I now have the map to that trail that will always lead me back to myself.