Wednesday, May 25, 2011

on needing adventure

I am plotting for summer adventure. I don't know where to, I don't know when, but I'm plotting. Without these important specifics though, my plotting has turned into non-realistic daydreams of a cruise in the Mediterranean or backpacking in Alaska.  I have to reign myself in.  But a part of me wants to just let go of practicality and do something big.  It has been a long year.  We need something.

We had a similar experience after Mike's dad passed away a few years ago.  Except that time instead of the stress of student teaching and final months of a graduate program, Mike was dealing with the stress of being unemployed for eight months.  I needed an adventure then too, but I needed it to be alone.  I know this might sound terrible, but the burden of helping someone out of mourning coupled with the burden of being the only one bringing in an income was just too much.  I needed some selfish time but was afraid to ask for it.  One night that winter I came home to find the Sierra Club's outing page up on the computer.  Mike, knowing me better than I know myself at times, sat me down in front of it and told me to go.  A few months later I left New York and spent twelve days away.  Eight of them in the wilderness of the High Sierras.  With ten strangers.  And a lot of nothingness.  It was amazing.  And slightly terrifying.

I have always loved camping, but on those trips when I was growing up there was always a car nearby and if the rain and thunder lasted too long, my Dad would break the 4th wall of wilderness and take us to a bookstore for warmth or a diner for pancakes.  This was something completely different.  There were no cars.  Instead there were 35 miles of walking between me and the parking lot where we arrived the first day. 

And there was the quiet.  In the Adirondack campgrounds we frequented, even on still nights there was a hum of activity.  The soft sound of a radio from the other side of the campground.  Or a family walking by on their way to the bathrooms (yes, bathrooms, how could I forget I had never camped without running water!).  But in the Sierras, miles away from civilization, there was only quiet.

On the first day of hiking, after a long uphill climb to our resting spot for the night, I fell up a boulder as I tried to maneuver my footing.  I slipped forward, and the weight of the 50 pound backpack forced me into the rock.  My knee hit first, hard, and I stayed down and shuffled over to the side to let the rest of the group by.  There was blood, and a pounding that started in my knee and elbow then traveled to my head, to the space behind my eyes that would normally trigger tears.  I managed not to cry.

I got myself up and moved a few more feet to flat ground where some members of the group were setting up our kitchen while others were staking their claim to a tent site for the night.  I found mine up another short climb and then met our leader down at the lake to get cleaned up and bandaged.  Afterward I took out my journal and started to write.  And I wrote that I wanted to go home.  I hurt, I was tired, and I was pretty sure that I wouldn't be able to make the hike the next day, one of the toughest of the week, up and over Mono Pass. 

I don't think I fully believed it yet, but by the time I finished writing I had told myself that I could do this, and made the decision to stay.  The next morning two women decided to leave, and as I watched them make their way down and away from us, I realized it could have been me, and was proud that it wasn't. 

My bravery was not all encompassing though.  At night, when things were still, I thought of what might be out there beyond the flimsy confines of my tent and was scared.  Mike had recorded a goodnight message on our camera and I would take it out, muffling the speaker so that no one else could hear, and press it against my ear to listen to his voice saying "you can do this, goodnight sweet girl".  Panic set in a few times as I watched clouds rise and double in size on the horizon.  I was irrationally scared of rain during the night, of lightning storms on the trail, of not being protected.

But my moments of fear were tempered by the thousands of moments of amazing.  Things I had never realized, never noticed before in my hometown world of light pollution and noise.  Like how long the sky holds on to every bit of light long after the sun sets.  Or of all those stars, so many that it was as if the sky was star and the darkness the stuff that could be counted.  Or on the last night when the wind screamed its way through the stunted trees on top of the mountain, how I got up in that perfect darkness, alone, to stake and re-stake my tent into the sandy ground, tying knots around rocks to keep the tent from picking up, and found that I was no longer afraid.

When I turned on the phone for the first time after walking out of the Sierras, I found a dozen text messages from Mike.  Most were just to let me know he was thinking of me, one night the scores of a Mets game, another that he missed me but was proud.  Then, on the last day, the text said that he was ready to move on.  After twelve months of mourning, he felt something shift and was ready to move forward.  Somehow my being away was not just important for me, it was for him too. 

And so I think we're in need of that now.  A little adventure.  But this time, together.

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