Survivor

Allie checked her watch as she adjusted her scarf more snugly around her neck. She knew it was 2:30 AM, give or take, because she had been waking up before two in the morning for some time now. Her daily routine had her at one or another hiking trailhead every morning.  Today, it was Colby Mountain, one of her favorites—a nice steep start from the trailhead, up to a series of long switchbacks, followed by a meandering traverse during which she could catch her breath in time for a rocky, tough ascent to the summit, 3 miles and one hour away if she jogged the traverse.

She snapped on her headlamp and slung her backpack over her shoulders and attacked the slope feeling the sweet ache in her thighs and calves.  She moved smoothly through the dark accustomed to negotiating the twists in the trails and the rocky footpaths in the flat light cast by the lamp.

She felt happily alone on the mountain as she inhaled the scent of the earth and the chaparral that surrounded her.  She was unlikely to meet another hiker on the way up and had become practiced at switching off her light and melting into the darkness if she saw anyone approaching her.

As much as she had become accustomed to avoiding people, she relished her contact with the wildlife. Her light caught the eyes of a roadrunner that froze on the trail as she approached and then fled into the brush. The eyes of birds looked like sparks in the trees when she happened upon them.  Once last week, she froze when she saw the glow of large amber eyes just twenty yards ahead of her on the trail, a bobcat or mountain lion. She approached slowly, curious and unafraid, but the animal slid off into hiding, wary of the light.

By the time she crested the switchbacks she was in a good rhythm and could feel the sweat begin to run down her face and her torso even in the cold morning air.  She stripped off her scarf and her sweater, comfortable now in her shorts and long-sleeved t-shirt.

She began to jog easily over the flat traverse but was brought up short by a warning rattle coming from the dense brush to her left. She stopped and picked up a broken branch that had been kicked aside and gently lifted the twigs that hid the rattler. She knew that with the cold, the snake would be sluggish and not anxious to attack.  She got close enough to make out the diamond-shaped pattern on her back and the reddish color of her skin.

“Hey,” she said softly, “sorry to bother you girl. I’ve never met a red diamond before. You’re a beauty.”

The snake’s head pulled back and settled into a fold of skin as if comforted by her soft words as Allie gently lowered the twigs and tossed the branch aside.  She checked her watch again and realized she’d need to push herself to get to the top within the hour.  She jogged hard for the rest of the straight-away and stopped just long enough for a long swig of water before tackling the final rocky stretch cresting the isolated summit, enjoying her racing pulse and the full sweat that streamed down her upper body.

She sat on a flat rock, pulling her sweater back on and grabbing a couple of power bars and her water bottle.  As she rested, she checked her smart watch once again.  The digital readout showed her that she had lost four minutes on the trail somewhere, not summitting in her usual one-hour flat, and that today was April 3, 2022.  Her heart rate was already back down to 94 bpm and it was a brisk 48 degrees out.  She didn’t used to be so obsessed by time and numbers, but the pandemic had changed that for her.

When it first had struck and she had to spend all of her time at home, she felt paralyzed and helpless.  As the months went on though, she found some comfort in breaking down her day into hour-long segments. She found she could do eight hours of work in only five hours. Figuring she would get at least eight hours of sleep a night, she just had to plan for 11 hours.  Reading, television, emails, Facetime, social media, food prep and meals, all just rotated through and around her work hours.  After a while, it all started seemed normal until the insomnia fucked it all up.

The anxiety that built up over time brought with it chronic insomnia.  She began to wake after only a few hours of sleep, leaving her body restless and her mind full of spiders.  It was then that she had become a nocturnal hiker. She hadn’t expected it to become habitual, but the sleeplessness was unrelenting, and after a while her body craved the release that exertion brought and the hard, physical activity calmed her mind.

This routine had also allowed her to avoid contact with people.  Even when the authorities assured the public that the virus had been eradicated, she found it impossible to go back to being in crowded spaces.  Her graphic design firm had discovered it was cheaper and more efficient to have everyone work from home so she no longer had to spend time with her work colleagues. She continued to order food on-line or do take out and limited her time in public spaces to no more than two hours a day.

Time’s up, she thought.  She allowed herself just a fifteen-minute break at the top.  She was ready for the easy walk down the mountain and back to her car.  With the time she’d make up going downhill she should be at the coffee shop right when it opened at 5 AM.  She liked to have her coffee on the patio there and enjoy the sunrise and the endorphin rush she got from the hike. God, she thought, I hope Tariq isn’t working the drive thru.  He can be such an asshole.

One hour and five minutes later, she was the first car in line at the coffee shop.

“Hey, Allie, how you doing this morning?” came the voice over the speaker.

Tariq.

“Can I get a large, black coffee with no room, please?”

“Oh, sorry Allie.  We’re all out of black coffee this morning. Can I get you a mocha frappuccino or maybe a nice chamomile tea?”

Humor.

“Goddam it, Tariq.  Will you just get me my fucking coffee?”

“Of course, Allie.  Anything you want.  I’ll see you at the window.”

She drove forward and just wished he would let her be anonymous for once–just one more drone on her way to work.

“Hi Allie,” said Tariq, who always managed to look fresh and cheerful even though he’d been working since an hour before the shop opened. “Thank God!  We did have some black coffee brewed, but hey, guess what.”

“Tariq, will you please just give me my coffee?”

“You see, this nice man saw you drive up and offered to pay for your coffee, but he said that I had to come out and bring it to you personally at the table where you always sit.  So, I said OK.  I hope it’s all right with you.”

“You,” she said, giving him the death stare, “are just impossible.  I’m going to report you for harassing me.”

“I understand, Allie.  I’ll see you out at your table in just a minute.”

She gave up and drove around the shop, parked, and settled into her favorite chair at a table in the corner of the patio, fuming at Tariq’s ridiculous efforts to engage with her.

Seconds later he backed out of the shop carrying not one, but two cups of coffee and sat down with them as if he had been invited. He was tall, and good looking, Middle Eastern maybe.  She guessed he was probably ten years older than her 25 years.  She tried to keep up her sense of fury, her sense of intrusion as he sat down, but the guy was just so goddam nice, it was hard not to like him. He passed her a cup of hot coffee and a chocolate croissant wrapped in a paper bag.

“Tariq, why do you do this?  You know I like to be left alone.  I sit out here in the dark and the cold for a reason.”

“I assumed it was because you really reek from that crazy hike you take every morning.  And I’m just on my break so I thought I’d sit outside too. Can you be alone while I’m sitting here taking my break?  I like the view of the sunrise from here.”

“You know, I dread seeing you every day,” she said with resignation as she pulled the croissant from the bag and bit into it, suddenly hungry.

“I know,” he said as he sipped on his coffee and looked out at the horizon. “It’s going to be a pretty one this morning.  Now quit bothering me, so you can be alone, with me here with you for now.”

Exactly six feet apart from each other, they sat and drank coffee and watched the sunrise without saying another word.

 

 

 

 

Depression–Again

I’ve wanted to write this piece for some time, but I wanted to start with:

“It’s OK.  I’m feeling much better now.”

I didn’t expect it would be July before that happened.

I did not see this one coming.  Near the end of March, I was about to write a piece about how well the experience of sobriety was going with one of the most remarkable things being a nearly euphoric sense of well being. I had just finished a 30-day writing challenge and had gotten to spend five days on the Oregon coast.  I was physically active and had my volunteer work going to keep me engaged. I felt great.

And then, everything seemed to go south on me.  Suddenly, I began to feel a sense of isolation and anger began to build up inside of me.  I was plagued both by self-pity and a sense of inadequacy.  I didn’t have friends to be with.  I no longer had the comfort of a bar or a brewery to use to pass the time and enjoy the boozy camaraderie.

I can’t explain the weird reversal of my my emotional state.  There was not an easily identifiable trigger.  I simply drifted into a state of withdrawal and anger bordering on a kind of rage–rage at the news, rage at nearly everyone I encountered on the road, simmering anger at every person in every bar or restaurant I entered who was allowed to enjoy their beers, when I had to deny myself.  Was it their second or third?  Why were they allowed to toy so casually with their health when I could not?

I have been seeing a therapist who specializes in addiction medicine and I saw her twice during the month of May when things were going badly.  Before the appointment begins, I have to take an iPad and click through a multiple-choice questionnaire about my mental state and how I’ve been doing since the last visit–have I been drinking, have I taken drugs, have I felt depressed, had I had thoughts of harming myself–you get the idea.

I feel like a kid in class when I do the iPad thing, wanting to get good scores for my efforts at abstinence but also wanting to be honest about how bad this bout of depression had been.  When I got to the question about harming myself, I had to press the button for “once or twice” instead of the usual “never.”

I had not actually contemplated suicide over the past two months.  I hadn’t started to imagine how I would do it or make a plan. It wasn’t like that.  But I was feeling a deep sense of weariness, a feeling of being overwhelmed by the effort it took to say “no” to alcohol every day, and to simply cope with everyday life.  Dealing with a minor car problem seemed epically difficult.  The multitude of unfinished projects around the house made me feel surrounded by failure even though they were dwarfed by the overall beauty of our house and our yard.  I hate to use a Hamlet reference (it’s so former-English-teacher-ish), but when he thinks about death he imagines the peace that comes from ending the “heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to.”  A respite from all of those “thousand shocks” was all that led me to momentary thoughts of being able to go to sleep and not get up to once again have to fight that feeling of being overwhelmed.

It is as hard for me to describe clawing out of a depression as it is to explain how I fell into it, but two things stand out as I look back at how I began to heal.

Since I retired, I’ve been a casual and occasional hiker around the county of San Diego even going so far as to join a hiking group that meets up once a week.  I was far from passionate about it.  However, inspired by my niece who has set a goal of 100 rigorous hikes during 2018, I started upping my interest as she and I began to meet up occasionally, and she introduced me to more and more challenging peaks to climb.  As I started to get stronger, I started to push myself to take on these tougher hikes 2-3 times a week. The hikes became easier and my body began to recover more quickly between them.  I found that the hikes literally cleared my mind as I was immersed in the natural terrain and the physical exertion I was putting in.

But that kind of healing takes time and 6-8 hours a week of physical activity was not going to, by itself, be enough.  When I was still deeply mired in feeling bad, I sat on the edge of our bed with my wife and admitted the obvious–something that she clearly already knew–that I was really struggling with depression once again. She did the best of all things.  She let me talk through my confusion, my anger, my sadness and just acknowledged and affirmed what I was feeling.  When I was all talked out, she held me close and we just quit talking and I could feel something melt away inside of me.  I can’t explain it.  There was no advice, no insight–just warmth and love and reassurance.  It was as if a boil had been lanced and the healing began almost immediately.

When I first wrote about my decision to abstain from alcohol back in November of ‘17, I recognized the the decision was going to force me to confront some substantial issues.  At the time, I wrote, “Alcohol had simply helped me paper over feelings of isolation or purposelessness or inadequacy.  Now, I need to confront those feelings for what they are and see what kind of growth can come from that.”  

Maybe that is what I was going through here.  Maybe this was a time of growth and reassessment of my purpose and the things I need to work on to stay connected to the people in my life.  I’m working on all of those things.

I hope it will be enough to keep the storm clouds away.

“Dude, I Said I Was Sorry!”

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I’m a very careful driver. I almost never run over bicyclists. I give them wide berth even when they are doing something obnoxious like riding two abreast on a street with no bike lane, or wearing those garish neon, spandex outfits, or walking around the coffee shop in those ballet slippers they wear.

So you can imagine my confusion, when I was confronted by an angry—no—apoplectic, spandex-clad, black-helmeted, bicycle rider after having just pulled into the parking lot of a popular regional park that was the meeting site for my weekly hiking class.

“Hiking class” is one of those things that as a retired person, I can sign up for and attend because I have time. The teacher draws up a list of hikes for the quarter, emails us notes and directions the night before, and then at 8:30 every Wednesday morning we hearty retirees meet up to trek about the local hills and valleys.

“YOU IDIOT! YOU CUT ME OFF DOWN THERE AND NEARLY HIT ME!” the irate man screamed at me.

I stared at him dumbly for a moment as I started to pull my gear from the back of my car. I hadn’t even seen him.

“I didn’t even see you,” I told him.

“I KNOW YOU DIDN’T SEE ME, YOU ASSHOLE! WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH YOU?”

Actually nothing was the matter with me except that this large man was screaming at me, and I was puzzled how I could have nearly hit someone in a wide- open area, someone that I had not even sighted. I decided repetition and an apology might work.

“I’m sorry. I-Never-Saw-You.” I said the last part more loudly and more slowly, as if he perhaps had not heard me the first time.

“I HEARD YOU THE FIRST TIME!” he yelled. “YOU ALMOST RAN ME OFF THE ROAD DOWN THERE. BEING SORRY DOESN’T HELP THAT.

He had a point. But since I HADN’T hit him, and he HADN’T fallen, and I HADN’T damaged him or his bike in any way, I was stymied about what to say. By now I had withdrawn my walking stick that weighs all of about 8 ounces because I was starting to think I might need to whack him with it if he became violent. I’m a lover, not a fighter, but angry people are unpredictable, and I can get flustered easily when confronted by one.

However, he seemed content to sit on his bike and continue to berate me some more at which point I apologized a third time, although I was finding it harder and harder to be sincere since I had no idea what I was apologizing for.

Finally, he grew tired of yelling and turned to ride off, screaming a few more insults at me as he left, and I strapped on my hiking gear and set off on the trail enjoying a rare cool morning, but I found myself going back over the incident in my mind and wondering if I could have handled it differently.

How could I truly apologize for something that I wasn’t even sure I had done? Maybe he was just an angry guy, hiding in the bushes, waiting to ride out and scream at someone. A guy who felt persecuted and needed someone to take his rage out on. Maybe it was a hobby for him, confronting and making people uncomfortable, and then riding off gleefully knowing he just might have ruined someone’s day.

But what I most pondered, as I enjoyed the hike that wandered down along the San Diego River and then back up to the visitor center, was what does one do when an apology simply is not enough?

I don’t have an answer for that one.

 

 

 

 

“You F@#$%&* s Left Me Behind”—Abandoned in the Wilderness

Mount Mendel, Mount Darwin and the Hermit, Evolution Valley, Kings Canyon National Park, Sierra Nevada, California

 

Note: Generally I avoid profanity in my posts, but some will show up in this piece in the interest of authentic dialogue.

As I mentioned in my last post, during my backpacking days, our group was dedicated to getting into Evolution Valley on the eastern side of the Sierras. The third time was the charm. Sort of.

It was Scott who spotted a shorter, but more difficult route to get there. It involved a relatively easy first day, a bruisingly difficult second day, and if all went well, we’d make the valley by lunch on the third day. But, once again, our well-rested enthusiasm while sitting around looking at maps in May overrode the reality of the trail we would face in August.

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I was cursing Scott vigorously (in my mind) on that second day as I stood at the bottom of the steep incline that we knew from the beginning would be the backbreaker of the trip. We had spent the day threading our way to the base of the route that would ascend about one thousand feet over the course of a mile, a cross-country trail, meaning narrow and at times non-existent, with the last 500 feet being through a snow field. This would lead us over Lamarck Col (above), elevation 12,900 feet. A col is a small saddle or crossing that is not big enough to be considered a full-fledged pass.

There was nowhere to go but go up. It was one, slow, slog for me, and I had never been at this kind of elevation, had never made my body work this hard. The higher I got, the more it felt like my heart was going to burst alien-like from my body. I started to think of all of the good-byes I had not said to my loved ones before leaving on the trip.

As I hit the snow field, I didn’t think about anything except the headache and nausea I was feeling, my very first bout with altitude sickness. When I finally crested the top of the col, there was no elation. If possible, going down looked worse. The same one thousand feet, straight down, with no real trail, just a broken field of thigh-crushing boulders that I had to pick my way through and hope that every one I hit was solid and was not going to tip and launch me forward into oblivion.

We lunched at the bottom of this scree, knowing we had just gone through the worst part of the trip. There wasn’t much conversation, but Steve, generally acknowledged to be the smartest guy on the trip, said simply, “I’m not going over that again on the way out.” I think there was a collective sigh of relief that someone had had the brains to say what we all were thinking even if it meant a longer, more round about route back.

We camped that night near a chain of lakes in a spot known as Darwin Basin, feeling much better, knowing that tomorrow it would be all downhill where we would join up with the main trail that would take us to the friendly confines of Evolution Valley.

The four of us set off in good spirits the next day. We had studied the map and decided that our first stop would be where our current trail hit the main trail, having learned the lesson from my experience with getting lost to always plan for places to gather up after 1-2 hours of hiking to avoid losing track of anyone.

It should have worked. As usual, Harvey and Steve kept up a pretty brisk pace, and I settled comfortably back in the third spot with Scott taking his time and bringing up the rear. It was easy hiking and we soon were pretty spread out when I came to a fork in the road that had not been on the map. I looked for markers but there were none to be seen. Having looked at the map, I didn’t spend a lot of time agonizing over it. As long as I was headed downhill, I was going to intersect the main trail. The left fork looked more well worn so I opted to take it.

An hour later, I discovered I had chosen wisely. Steve and Harvey were resting comfortably at the trail junction, waiting for Scott and I. We figured Scott to be maybe 20 minutes back so we snacked and waited. And waited. And waited some more. We were puzzled, but not overly alarmed. Scott was experienced and the hike was easy, the trail, well marked.

But there was that fork in the road. After considering all of the possibilities, we decided that the most likely explanation was that Scott was the only one of us who had taken the right fork and had actually hit the main trail ahead of us and had likewise been waiting for us to show up, probably ½ mile closer to Evolution that we were.

We decided to forge ahead and see if we could catch up to him. The entrance to the valley was breathtaking. A wide stream ran down the center with steep ridges rising in the distance. By now it was late afternoon and Harvey, with his crazy, savant-like ability to sniff out a premier campsite suddenly veered off across the stream and found a nearly perfect spot—flat, protected, and possessed of a spectacular view.

We gratefully eased out of our packs and again considered the need to find our missing friend. Since I figured I owed him one, I volunteered to hike up the trail and see if he indeed had ended up ahead of us as we suspected.

Sure enough, less than a half-mile up the trail, on the opposite side of the stream Scott was comfortably set up in a campsite at least equal in beauty to the one I had just left. I called out a greeting, glad to be re-united with my friend, but he was anything but a “happy camper.”

“You fucking left me behind,” he said glaring at me.

“No way, Scott,” I tried to explain. “We waited for an hour. We could still be waiting and it wouldn’t have mattered. You came down to the trail ahead of us. If anything, you left us behind.”

But by now he had had a couple of hours to stew about this and had entered an alternative universe where logic had no place.

“You fuckers. I can’t believe you guys did this.”

I quit trying to convince him with logic and told him we were in a great site, less than twenty minutes back down the trail.

“No way. I like it here. I’m not moving.”

I saw there was no convincing him, so I told him I’d let the other guys know that I had found him and where he was set up and maybe we’d come up there and join him.

I shuttled back to Harvey and Steve, finding that they had begun to set up camp and while happy to know that Scott was safe had no interest in putting their packs back on and re-joining their disgruntled friend.

“Fuck him,” said Steve.

“Fuck him,” said Harvey.

I was torn, but tired of trying to be peacemaker.  “Fuck him if he can’t take a joke,” I said registering my vote.

So that night, in two campsites not twenty minutes apart, we separately enjoyed a peaceful evening, a gorgeous sunset, and a star-filled evening in what we had convinced ourselves was maybe one of the most beautiful spots on Earth.

After a leisurely morning, Harvey, Steve, and I packed up and headed up to Scott’s campsite. Scott, in better humor, renewed his list of the egregious wrongs we had done to him by abandoning him on the trail, but a night alone had completely changed his view of the event.

From that day forward, that night became “the best night of backpacking I have ever had.” He had savored the isolation, the quiet, living the experience of the valley without the distraction of his asshole friends.

To this very day, the story of this trip (if he is telling it) begins with “you fuckers left me behind” and ends with “best night ever.”