Day three dawned cool and clear with a mirror-like aspect to Bonneville Lake and, unfortunately, yet another altitude-induced headache that made me feel as though I had spent the previous night drinking tequila shots (for the record, I did not bring any alcohol on this trip - too heavy). I popped some aspirin, forced myself to eat 1/4 of my breakfast bar (yep, still tasted like an old sock) and we packed up and headed out. I knew this would be a big day (common theme on the route - pretty much every day was a big day) - our plan was to ascend two major passes so that we could set ourselves up to climb Europe Peak, a mid-route summit, the following day.
As we walked, my headache started to fade (thank you, coffee + aspirin!!). We gradually got into a rhythm - something that is crucial for long distance hikes. Finding that "sweet spot" where your heart and lungs can keep up with your feet at a pace that doesn't turn you into a blubbering mess is truly an art. Go too quickly, and you'll be gasping and begging for mercy in quick order. Go too slowly, and you'll never reach your destination. Right in the middle lies that perfect balance of effort and enjoyment - fast enough to make progress, but slow enough that you don't want to throw yourself off a cliff. As we pushed upward, we found that balance - my legs and lungs burned, but my eyes were hungry for what lay ahead.
The rhythm of hiking is addicting, almost meditative. Focusing on each step, each breath, each moment - the mind is forced to be in the present. There isn't room for worrying about trivialities. Thoughts come in uneven waves - I can go miles without really thinking about anything, and then suddenly, like an unexpected visit from a dear friend, a memory surfaces. As we hiked through the endless willow thickets and tundra (and rocks, don't forget the rocks), I was suddenly struck by a memory of myself in second grade - the teacher had called my parents to report that I was refusing to do the assigned worksheets in school, and that I insisted on writing my own stories instead. My obsession with writing stories took off with an even greater intensity when my parents gave me a manual typewriter. I remember that the keys were so stiff that you had to press down forcefully on each key with two fingers in order to make an imprint on the page, but I didn't care. I sat for hours and hours at a little wooden desk in my bedroom writing stories - and they started to develop a common theme - surviving in the wilderness. As I graduated from a typewriter to a computer, the stories became longer and more elaborate - most of the stories started with young kids being involved in a tragic plane crash and finding themselves stranded in the wilderness. I didn't have a fascination with plane crashes - but at the time, it seemed like the best way to get really young kids out into the wilderness, because obviously they weren't going to drive there. The characters in my stories figured out how to survive by drinking out of puddles (they always seemed to find muddy puddles, sadly), building shelters and foraging for food. Sometimes they would get lucky and stumble across an abandoned cabin, where they would magically discover a supply of unopened canned food. Predictably, one of the children would fall ill due to drinking the previously mentioned muddy water, and the other child would provide medical care. These were some seriously awesome kids.
Immersed in my thoughts as we hiked, I was swept away - back to the little girl with the big imagination, back to the little girl who was obsessed with the wilderness. I pondered deeply, "Why?? Why had I been so fascinated with the notion of being alone in the wilderness." As I channeled my inner 9-year-old, it came to me: self-reliance. As the oldest of three girls, one of whom was chronically ill throughout my childhood, I loved the concept of surviving in the wilderness because it represented that even given the harshest circumstances (or so I believed) on the planet, the children in my stories would not only persevere, they would thrive. Rain, snow, wind, illness, exhaustion, thirst, hunger - these things were no match for the resourceful children in my stories. My characters always figured out a solution to any problem they encountered, and they always survived. Sure, they might encounter difficulties on their journey - but giving up was never an option. As an awkward teenager, while trying my best to navigate through a very confusing world, these children gave me hope.
I'm 35 years old now, and I would like to think that I've matured (slightly) since I first started pounding out stories on my green, antique typewriter. As much as I've grown physically and emotionally, I don't believe my heart has changed very much. I still love the idea of self-reliance. It does not surprise me that I spend every free moment in the mountains. Whether it is a 10 day trip or a simple overnight, I adore every aspect of the planning process. I love the idea that I can hike 80 miles and carry everything I need on my back. I like the idea that I know how to do a trip like the high route - that I can depend on myself. That I know what to do. It makes me feel strong and confident - not just in the wilderness, but in life.
Mountain passes and miles of rock hopping pale in comparison to the difficulties of navigating through life. Amidst the intense joy and happiness in my life - I have, like most people, experienced deep, profound sadness, been exposed to unthinkable trauma, made horrible decisions and, in general, I've been a typical human - completely messy and imperfect. I wouldn't trade those experiences for anything, because they have shaped me into who I am. The tallest peaks in the world take millions and millions of years to grow - continents need to collide, ash needs to build or liquid rock needs to pour out of the bellows of the earth. And yet, even the tallest mountains are constantly changing - eroding and crumbling - constantly sculpted by the environment around them. The strongest mountain in the world is not impervious to even the tiniest raindrop. And yet, they stand, steadfastly watching over the valleys below them - a reminder to those who seek their rhythm, that we are all in a constant state of growth and change. Sometimes we feel weak and powerless, other times we feel courageous and strong, but at all times we have the innate ability to rely on ourselves for absolutely anything that we need to keep moving forward.
Up and over Photo Pass we walked. Down a steep slope into the Wind River Indian Reservation. Across a crystal clear stream, teaming with trout. Into the forest. Up another steep hill, winding our way on ancient elk trails. We hiked on - pushing past the fatigue, beyond the inner voice that says, "Stop, you don't deserve this" or "Just quit, you aren't strong enough" or "Turn around, you don't belong here" or "Go back, you don't know what you are doing." More than twenty years after I first started writing my "silly" wilderness survival stories - I find myself in this place - surrounded by the most beautiful mountains I have ever seen. When I make the connection to the dreams of my childhood - I feel tears streaming down my face. Everything I ever imagined, everything I wanted for my story characters (minus the plane crash), everything I wanted and valued in myself - I realize that I'm living it. It isn't a dream anymore. From a little girl using two fingers to painstakingly craft a story on a rickety typewriter, to walking 80 miles on my own two feet - I've stepped into that world I created as a young girl. It's real, it's messy and it's amazing. Every bump, every twist in the trail - they've been there for a reason. The mountains have a way of connecting you deeply with what you can do - they help you find what you previously believed was your limit of possibilities, and they extend it. They take you beyond those negative inner voices, into a place where anything is possible - into a world that you previously thought only existed in your mind. I don't need to create that self-reliance in imaginary characters anymore - it is in a rhythm that beats deep within all of us. You are the only human being in the entire universe who knows each step that it has taken you to get to this very moment in your life. That rhythm beats within you too - close your eyes - can you hear it? It is a song older than any mountain...with a story that only you can tell.