the metamorphosis

At 30 years old, 16 months clean and sober, and eleven weeks into the love of my life, I’m happier than I’ve ever been. In January I may have hit a ten-year high, but nothing could prepare me for the changes March and April would bring. Not only am I happier, but it feels like my very capacity for happiness has increased.

I credit my time in recovery for a large part of this change, while a smaller but still significant part comes from attending to my psychiatric needs. But the element that has pushed it to full fruition is the relationship that has consumed the past eleven weeks of my life.

Throughout my twenties, playing out a series of variations on the theme of self destruction, I abandoned the ambitious dreams of my teenage years. Forget becoming an important writer or a successful academic—suddenly just being a reasonably happy and stable adult seemed like a loft goal. I slowly and fitfully resigned myself to the fact that even the idea of being a normal, happy person might be too much to achieve. I finally accepted the stark reality: I’d never be normal.

But that didn’t mean I’d never be happy.

Despite a soft spot for stories about enduring partnership, I had a sneaking suspicion (and in my mind, mounting evidence) that I was the kind of person who was happiest without the hassle of romantic love. My therapist told me that was not a kind of person. But I never understood the seemingly ubiquitous fear of “winding up alone,” which to me sounded like nothing so much as a relief. Living alone had always seemed like the ideal state. And while I did it, finally, it was great. But that was because I hadn’t yet gotten involved with the man who transformed me. People around me are alarmed by how quickly I packet my bags and moved in with my partner. But they can’t feel the radical sea change in my spirit he has triggered. I have a place I belong. I have a home. Intimacy with him feels natural, emotional, and unguarded to the point where the shame I felt for years has been turned inside out.

Also, thanks to recovery, my relationship with the universe is much less contentious than it used to be. I no longer feel like hiking 211 miles by myself proves much about my worth as a person, nor do I feel like I have much to prove in the first place. I won’t feel like a failure if I fail to complete the JMT. And doing it alone doesn’t seem as symbolic or necessary—though I’m still going to try. But if it turns out that I have to leave the trail early, I don’t know if I’d necessarily insist on a second solo attempt. I can’t go with my partner, who lacks the fitness or experience, but I could see myself recruiting a friend or family member for the next undertaking.  I’m comfortable enough in my own skin now that I can finally shed some of the armor I’ve been hiding out in.

a return to the trail

So much for keeping up with this blog. Life happens—and sometimes it’s so good you forget anout everything else—but that’s no excuse not to write. And it’s no excuse not to train either—so last week my father and I packed our bags for the Grand Canyon.

My Dad is a hardcore Canyon vet, and I’m also very experienced with the corridor trails, though less so with the “cool routes” he’s spent the last twelve or so years mastering. For this trip, our original plan entailed descending the Grandview Trail to Cottonwood Creek, followed by a second a night at Grapevine, a third night at Cremation, and a fourth night at Phantom Ranch before heading up the South Kaibab to the rim. In the weeks leading up to our trip, I’d been plagued by some troubling stomach issues, so we decided to play it a little safer. We ended up doing a one-nighter at Cottonwood and climbing back up Grandview, then taking a day to explore the rim, and ending with another one-nighter at Phantom via the Kaibab both ways. In all, we hiked about 35 miles, thanks to an 8-mile boost from our so-called “rest day.”

Arriving at the Canyon, we made it to the wind-blasted rim for sunset. Looking out at the sacred natural marvel before me, I felt a stronger spiritual contact with the Canyon than I’d felt last year. I prayed for patience, and I prayed for time.

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We hiked down the Grandview the next morning, which may be the steepest trail I’ve ever encountered. At least it was the most consistently steep over its mere 4.5 miles, many lined with brutal cobblestones. We didn’t capture the fierce grade in photos. I guess we were too busy suffering. Or maybe it was because we dropped our camera on one of our rest breaks and half of our photos suffered from the ensuing shutter problems the rest of the trip. Our climb back up for the lost camera added at least another mile to our day. Though Cottonwood Creek (not to be confused with the much more civilized Cottonwood Camp) is only at the level of the Tonto Plateau, getting there felt just as hard as hiking all the way to the bottom.

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The same could be said for getting back up. After watching bats reel in the cool gray dusk and sleeping under the stars to the tune of the creek frogs, we woke up with aching muscles and the daunting prospect of retreading our steps to the top. The relentlessly steep ascent was sweetened by the low swoop of a California Condor over our heads and a monstrous helping of mint chocolate chip ice cream at Bright Angel Lodge.

Tuesday was our recovery day. In the morning, we explored breakfast options in Tusayan now that the Best Western has started charging for their buffet. After a successful trip to R&E’s Stage Stop for bagel sandwiches, we drove out to the tower at Desert View, which I’d never seen in my six trips to the park.

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I was impressed by how open the canyon is from Desert View. Supposedly, this is the spot where Coronado’s men first set eyes on what would become a wonder of the world.

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After climbing up the tower with its faux petroglyphs and more amazing views, we took a quick detour to the new visitor center before catching the shuttle out to Hermit’s Rest, the western terminus of the Rim Trail. From there, we took our time hiking 7.8 miles back to Grand Canyon Village along the winding, intermittently paved route, snapping photos along the way. Our soreness from the Grandview trail began to dissipate.

 

 

 

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Wednesday morning, we made our second and final descent, this time taking the familiar South Kaibab down to the river and staying in the campground at Phantom Ranch. Compared to the Grandview, the South Kaibab felt easy, but by the junction with the River Trail near the last mile, we decided to change things up. The River Trail proved a lovely, shaded alternative to the hot Black Bridge crossing and traverse past the beaches.

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Arriving at the glistening Bright Angel Creek always feels like entering a fairyland. We got there crazy early, in time for lunch, lemonade from the canteen, and an extended beachside chat.

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The wind had picked up over the course of the afternoon and was wreaking its usual springtime havoc, so we pitched a tent this time. I was more than warm in my brand new North Face sleeping bag, which I’ll review in tomorrow’s post.

The final climb back to the rim the went smoothly, mostly under gloriously temperate skies. Some hikers coming downtrail complimented us on going up the Kaibab instead of Bright Angel, but it’s so much faster that its steepness is worth it for a veteran canyon hiker. In the last half hour of hiking, dark clouds took hold out of nowhere, and it grew so cold I was eager to trail my dad’s slower uphill steps rather than wait for him at the top in the wind. As soon as we got back to the car, a light snow began spattering the windshield. Talk about perfect timing.

As I reluctantly return to the “real” world (or leave it, depending on your point of view), I have a clearer sense of what I need to do to prepare for tackling the JMT this summer. The canyon trip was a good barometer for my hiking fitness, and its steep ups and downs make it particularly relevant for the Muir Trail ( though our packs were lighter than mine will be in July). I certainly don’t have the cardiopulmonary conditioning I should have at this point, but I can tell my knee exercises have been paying off: I didn’t feel any knee pain the entire trip! It was also an opportunity to consider my personal growth in the year since I last came to the park. My father agreed there’s been a tremendous difference.

 

 

moving boxes

I haven’t been keeping up with my regular blogging this week—I’ve been packing, moving into my new place, and getting ready for a weekend out of town. But never fear, I have been getting plenty of exercise! My knees will be grateful for the stair climbs I’ve been doing, and lifting boxes full of books has given my arms some much needed work to do.

Every time I move—and hopefully this will be the final time for awhile—I try to toss out or give away as much as I can. But it’s hard. I get attached to everything from tattered high school track tees to the empty moving boxes themselves. One reason I find backpacking so satisfying is the feeling of liberation from the endless mountains of STUFF we first-worlders tend to accumulate without even trying. When every ounce counts and we pack up and move every day, we’re forced to make hard choices and identify our priorities. And when I’m in the wild, I don’t need things to feel fulfilled. I’m not even planning on bringing non-trail books on the JMT. There’s enough spiritual food out there.

Every time I get out on the trail I get the sense that this is how life is meant to be lived. Yet when I return to the city, all the trappings and clutter have magically become necessities once more. Funny, isn’t it?

 

things i cannot change

So I was browsing the JMT Facebook group and found this lovely piece of news:

“I called Yosemite and spoke with a park ranger to get clarification. She just called me back. Here’s what I was just told:

1) Glacier Point will NOT be allowed as a trail head for accessing the John Muir Trail in 2015. That new rule is written into the Superintendent’s Compendium. I’m told (I haven’t checked) that it can be found here:www.nps.gov/yose/parkmgmt/upload/compendium.pdf.

2) AS OF TODAY, there is also a new rule establishing an exit quota for permit reservations originating in Yosemite and going onto the John Muir Trail anywhere past Reds. Only 30 such permit reservations will be approved each day, no matter whether the point of origin is, Tuoloume [sic] Meadows or Happy Isles. This new rule is not yet written down, but it is in effect as of today. The intention is to make sure that there are some permits available for people who want to hike and camp within Yosemite from either of those major trailheads.”

Yikes. I already knew the permit process could be dicey— I’d been advised to apply exactly six months before I hoped to hit the trail and to have backup entry points (ie. Glacier Point) in mind. But I’d always believed that as long as I did everything right, I would get to hike the JMT. Now I’m not so sure. It’s possible that despite my best efforts the universe will decide it’s not my year.

I’m trying to be okay with this. How embarrassing to have begun a blog called “Whitney Calls” only to be deferred from my quest by the cruel gods of probability. If this happens, I’ll try to see it as a blessing in disguise. With my sights set on 2016 like Hillary Clinton, I’ll pick a different solo training trip for this summer and relish the additional time to get in shape. But I’m not gonna lie, I’ll be incredibly let down.

Since Monday when I read about the supposed new regulations, other users have posted conflicting reports about the new rules. Do they even exist? Who knows? I hope this is all a misunderstanding, but it seems way too specific to not be true.

Today I woke up not only anxious about said permit process, but also about a more immediate unknown: whether my rental application for my new apartment would get approved. Yes, I found an apartment: a one-bedroom charmer on the western border of Koreatown. And when I returned home from my three-mile walk, I learned I had in fact been approved. Score one for being an adult. I couldn’t be happier to know where I’m going to be, and I’m proud I followed through and pushed through the anxiety of the process. A little bit of faith goes a long way.

I’m going to need to exercise a similar sort of faith a month from this week, when I put in my permit request for the end of July. I’ll do everything I can—multiple faxes multiple days if I have to—but if it’s not enough, so be it. The Muir Trail’s not going anywhere and I have a lot of preparation to do. A year flies by like no time at all, and it will all be all right in the end.  At least that’s what I tell myself, bolstering for heartbreak. As on the trail itself, all I can do is my best. The rest is up to the powers that be. It’s a lesson I have to learn again and again.

a new year

Even though 2014 has been an incredible growth year for me, I’m really not that bothered about New Year’s Eve this year.  In the next few days I’ll celebrate a year of continuous sobriety and 30 years of continuous existence, and yet it all feels rather arbitrary. I’m really too tired to celebrate tonight, but I’m also unusually content. For the first time in months I feel possessed by an inner calm. I’m looking forward to the challenges of the coming year—from getting my first apartment by myself to tackling the JMT—but I’m also content to linger a little longer in the last hours of this one. No need to rush forward all the time.

This morning I had planned to go on my first hike since returning from Bangladesh, but I slept in (much needed) and have been feeling physically shaky since I woke up at eleven. Some nutrient deficiency or blood sugar problem is still at play here. I’m going to just do knee lifts instead so I feel like I’ve done something.

For Christmas I received a new tent, sleeping bag and stove as well as three JMT trail guides. I’ll be reporting on each one in the next few days. Somehow receiving these gifts made the whole trip seem that much more real. For the first time, I feel nervous about my ability to follow through on my plans. Luckily, writing this blog will keep me honest. I’m heading into 2015 with plenty of time to do for my body what I did for my mind the year before. And like Bangladesh, it’s not going to be perfect, but I’m not going to let that stop me from taking it on.

Here’s to new chapters, however they’re measured.

the opposite of regret

10822490_10100695441366724_1295437619_nWhat is the opposite of regret? That’s the thought that popped into my head Saturday morning as I stood on Santa Monica State Beach gazing out at panoramic blue. It was a few degrees too chilly to qualify as beach weather, and I almost hadn’t bothered to make the drive to the meditation meeting. But I know myself, and I knew that the less I felt like going, the more I needed to. Sure enough, once I got there, all I could think of was how glad I was that I’d mustered the willingness to roll myself off my leaky air mattress (long story), put on sandals and leave the house.

I couldn’t have asked for a lovelier day. The colder temperature made for a thinner crowd, and honestly, the fewer people cramping my seaside style the better. It had rained hard Thursday night and intermittently on Friday, and the top of the sand had crispened into that thin brown sugar crust that crumbles to softness underfoot.

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The relative solitude is what makes winter my favorite time to visit the ocean. That’s what I call it. “Going to the beach” sounds so sand-centric, conjuring up boogie boards and tanning and kids running around with tiny plastic shovels. For me, it’s all about the sea: its sound and scent, its rhythm, its unfathomable vastness. I don’t even need to get my feet wet. The payoff comes from just looking out over the water, listening to the deep yoga breathing of the waves, processing how small and ephemeral my troubles are against the great slow churn of the undying sea. It’s my one sure ticket to conscious contact.

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I’d intended to go for a longer walk on the sand, but I soaked up too much of the morning with coffee and conversation. That’s fine. I need those things, too. Saturday morning set the tone for the whole weekend. I spent more time than usual with friends—and less time writing and working out. I’m not too bothered about the drop in productivity, though, since I’m settling into holiday mode. In a few days I’ll be headed to Bangladesh for a good friend’s wedding (which clearly warrants its own post), so right now I’m struggling to cram everything in before I leave. I’ve accepted that the ten-day vacation is going to reset my physical fitness levels, so inner fitness is my top priority right now. And in that respect, I’m doing something right.

 

going it alone

Now that I’ve started telling my friends about my plans to hike the John Muir Trail, those who know me aren’t surprised that I’d voluntarily spend two to three weeks sleeping on mountainsides. But what does consistently raise eyebrows is my choice to tackle the trail alone.

Granted, you’re never really alone on the JMT in peak season . Even after clearing the swarms of tourists in Yosemite and Tuolumne, it’s impossible to go a day without human contact. But at the end of the day, especially for a woman, a solo trip is undeniably a risky endeavor.

“You’re bringing pepper spray, right?” non-hiker types ask me. I tell them I’m armed with a GPS unit, a SPOT messenger, and a Leatherman. I joke that I’m probably safer alone in the wild l than I am in the city. As for bears, I’ve had several close encounters before and spray was never the answer.

Dangers aside, hiking alone also means a heavier pack load, fewer distractions, and, well, zero emotional support.

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Still, while I’m not saying it’s the best idea, or even a good one, I’m absolutely set on it.

The first reasons I usually give people—or used to—seem reasonable enough:

  • I can hike completely at my own pace minute by minute and day by day. Nobody else’s injuries or bad decisions are going to prevent me from completing the hike. Likewise, I won’t dash anybody else’s Whitney dreams should I decide to bail early.
  • Eighteen days is a long time to spend in the constant company of someone else. One one of us would start to hopelessly annoy the other. Alone, instead of lashing out at other people in moments of anxiety, I’ll have to learn to cope with my own inner resources.

But really, these reasons are a bit of a copout. The real reason isn’t about spending less time with others, it’s about spending more time with myself. One feature of people with my particular cluster of psychological symptoms is a lack of a sense of self. And backpacking is one of maybe three or four through-lines I can pinpoint as integral to my identity.

Many of my friends are surprised to hear me say that I don’t have a strong self-concept. On the contrary, they see me as a very distinct personality: outspoken in my views, expressive in my personal style, and unabashed about whatever geeky obsession I happen to be hooked on at the time. However, my relationship with myself has been tenuous since I was a small child. I was always was pretending to be a different character or creature years after it was socially acceptable. This is harmless, even common behavior for kids, but I took it to extremes, always electing to live in fantasy rather than reality.

As a teen, while I’d long given up openly role playing as fictional heroes, I instead immersed myself in subculture. I was the kid who spent a year of high school dressing “goth” and the next year improbably transformed into a hippie . And it wasn’t just because I wanted to stand out from the crowd or market myself as anything other than a nerd. Rather, at some gut level I felt I needed a framework to define myself by and obsess over. Otherwise, I felt kind of lost. I was ripe for indoctrination into a religious cult. Thank goodness nobody got their holy hands on me.

Over the years, everything from my career path to my sexual identification has been in constant flux. Once, an incredibly insightful boyfriend, dumbfounded that I had suddenly decided to resume the PhD program I’d supposedly abandoned, accused me of not knowing who I was. I thought he was being overdramatic, perhaps projecting. In fact, he was right on. Despite having spent a hell of a lot of time thinking about myself, I didn’t really know. Again, it’s common for twenty-somethings to feel directionless. But I made so many 180-degree turns that I eventually lost the ability to trust my own feelings.

Yet the wilderness never came into question. Along with my passion for writing (which I ignored for a time due to fear of failure) and a fairly consistent sociopolitical stance, my love of the outdoors has remained steady through umpteen career reboots and band shirts and chemicals of choice. Reconnecting with nature is integral to recovery for me. When I’m in the woods, I don’t have a “brand” to hide behind. And when I’m hiking alone, I don’t have an audience for whatever identity I feel compelled to project. It’s just me and the closest thing I’ve got to God. It’s a freedom I got a taste of this past September,  when I hiked a three-day solo loop through the Cottonwood Lakes area.

“Won’t you be lonely on a longer trip?” my friends ask, but the reality is that my loneliness isn’t a function of the people around me. I can be every bit as lonely at a party as I am alone on the trail. (A quote to this effect appears in the trailer for Wild, which I still haven’t seen. But while I certainly find Cheryl Strayed a kindred spirit of sorts, we differ in that hiking was never central to Strayed’s life before she took on the PCT.)

You could make the argument that, rather than isolating, it would better serve my recovery to practice coexisting with others. And you’d be right—but I have to do that every day. And while I’ve definitely wondered how motivated I am by the desire to say I hiked the JMT, to brag about it on Facebook, to brand myself all over again as That Hiking Girl—well, I really am that hiking girl. I always have been.

The truth is, I do have a self. I’m just so uncomfortable with it (for whatever reason) that I channel and project and distract and morph and pretend to avoid inhabiting it. So it’s not that I’m hiking to find myself, exactly. How anticlimactic would that be? No, I’m hiking alone to accept myself. To practice really living in my own skin, without distractions to help me escape. With nobody to dress up for or make snarky quips to, I’ll have to face the fact that I exist independently of the external trappings so easily confused for identity. I’ll have to get to know what’s under my own mask, to make some measure of peace with what’s there, and what’s not. I’m going out there alone to get real.