This year is calling me. I can feel something I can’t describe, but it excites me. This is when it happens.
Possibly a dramatic way to say hello to you all, but that’s who I am. But truly, this year seems so full of possibility. I am wrapping up my MFA this June, my daughter graduates from high school, we are going on a massive road trip in the new van. I’ve already begun taking my health more seriously; I’ve got a lot of livin’ to do. I want to go back to climbing peaks. I want to hike with Astrid and keep up.
I am writing my memoir in earnest under the guidance of my mentor, Anjali Enjeti, an amazing writer who I am humbled to have read my words. This is such a hard and amazing thing to go through pain and ecstasy on the page.
And a resolution of mine is to begin sending out pieces for publication to literary and commercial magazines and other platforms. I have so many ideas to explore and so many words to share with others.
Good people and $99 gas
Well, my skid plate underneath my Xterra came loose again, most likely when I pulled in to take some pictures of a Woody Guthrie mural in Okemah, OK. The proprietor of the Blue Swallow had told me he would be up at 6 with hot coffee and he could help me fix it. At 6:3o am the sun was already high in the sky, solid and bright, not the dappled morning light I am used to. We went into the office and bought an abundance of souvenirs and said hello to the family dog and asked him if he could help.
This man went out of his way, used his own tools and materials, and crawled around on his back on the ground to get us safely back on the road. And if we hadn’t had a timetable to stick to, I’m sure he would never run out of good stories to tell and we may still be there in his motor court being entertained by this good man.
We drove straight through New Mexico, passing by our beloved Albuquerque but not stopping. Old Town ABQ was calling me, but, alas, not this time. The beautiful hollyhocks on the town square would have to wait. By the time we got to Gallup, we were hungry so we stopped at a family restaurant that lets the local native traders peddle their wares. We bought R a necklace and a ring and I wondered if I would be brazen enough to buy a squash blossom necklace at the roadside stop just inside Arizona. I ended up stopping there and asking the price and once again could not justify spending several thousand on something I wouldn’t wear that often. One day I will be able to invest that, but I’m not there yet.
There were still many miles to go before our stop for the night. In retrospect, I maybe had planned more miles than I should have. To get there, I would need more gas. I stopped in Seligman, AZ and pumped gas. 17 gallons later I looked up in horror at the final price: $99.78. Better get used to it out here, I thought.
From Seligman, we descended down to the far western desert of Arizona, arriving in Bullhead City and then crossing over the Colorado River to Laughlin, Nevada. We pulled into the Tropicana Casino and lugged all of our belongings through the smoky casino to registration. After getting our room key, we trudged back through the casino and wound our way through the halls to the tower. By the time we reached our room, I had a headache from the smoke. I started to feel crappy enough that I didn’t even get a chance to go play some slots. A green light shone up into our window until midnight. I was exhausted and fell into a fitful sleep.
The next morning was another a bright one with the sun rising early over the mountains to our east. The day would bring with it a lot of driving on rural roads across a great valley and end in a pink sequined room. But that will have to wait for next time…
I’m alive on the road.
I’m back y’all. Sorry I’m so shitty about writing to you. I’m going to try to change that but an ADHD tiger has a hard time modifying that which is inherent to her genes.
This past school year was tough, mostly because I didn’t give a fuck. I realized the root cause a little too late, but I vow to change that. I loved the kids dearly, don’t get me wrong. They are the only reason I was searching for what was wrong. I’ll get it right next year. But I digress. Let’s talk about my lover. Let’s talk about The Road.
R had wanted to go to Los Angeles for awhile and I figured while she was still with me and a willing and available road trip partner that I would indulge her. LA isn’t off the beaten path, but I don’t shy away from cities in my travels. I’d been there before but I figured a few days wouldn’t kill me.
At first I thought let’s just fly. This was right after we had come off of an exhausting three week RV trip from Georgia to the Grand Canyon and back. I watched airfares. They crept up and up. I confess to being spoiled by first class and seriously didn’t want to be stuck in a three-person coach row for four hours. Eventually, the only choice was to drive. This took the trip from being a week of exploring all of Southern California to an out and back with only major SoCal highlights. Because we weren’t towing the travel trailer (I sold it just before we set out on the trip) we could log many more miles per day, and once I found that my summer MFA residency began in mid-June those miles became a necessity.
We decided to spring for some special destination hotels. The first was The Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico (where I am writing this…more on this gem later) and the other was The Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, California. An Airbnb in the Hollywood Hills would be more than sufficient. I went ahead and procured a few other hotels in some cities and the rest I would leave to chance.
My best friend, Cathy, was talking about how this mercury retrograde was really fucking with her. I said it hadn’t been too bad for me. This was a few days ago. She said, “If you had to write a paper right now could you?” and I responded that I had been as my critical thesis class was in full force. As always, I spoke too soon.
Everything was fine on day one. A beautiful morning for driving. Little traffic. Smooth sailing all the way to Fort Smith, Arkansas. Found a cheap hotel room that had free breakfast. So far the biggest issue was that the air conditioner didn’t seem to cool as much as it could have. I called my mom and told her that we were in for the night.
A couple of hours later, my dad called and told me that they had to call an ambulance for my mom. She had come in and said she was having trouble breathing. I had joked with her before we left that I didn’t want any medical issues while I was gone. This had been when I dropped her back at her house only days earlier when she had had an allergic reaction to something. They gave her an EpiPen and kept her overnight. When I was finally able to get a hold of her this time around she said she was doing better, but she felt two stings and welts came up and suddenly she couldn’t breath. After some back and forth she decided the culprit was an ant. I went to bed and told her she could message me anytime. I plugged in my phone and went to sleep.
My sleep was fitful. I kept waking up every few hours. The last time I woke up the sun was clearly up and I thought huh, what time is it? But I couldn’t tell you because my phone had decided to become an absolute brick. No response. Frantic, because I was on a timeline to get to Tucumcari, I grabbed R’s phone. 8am. Not bad on a normal day but 30 minutes after my planned wake up. As we tried to get our stuff together and get ready for the day, I kept trying to wake up my phone. I hate that it is such a lifeline but it has a great camera and my road music. I finally had to give up.
We went downstairs to breakfast. It was a pitiful affair made worse by the man proudly wearing a T***P 2020 shirt. Even the coffee pissed me off. We left.
After a few miles of driving (and having gotten a LARGE shitty truck stop coffee), I came back to myself, remembering that there is always a fix. I had R look up TMobile stores in Oklahoma City and we arrived just before it opened. I remembered that I am blessed to have income and credit cards and the gentleman got me into a $200 smartphone that would get me what I needed for the trip and be a backup when I got home. I would have to deal with replacing my good phone when we got back. I still had no music because Spotify wouldn’t recognize my Facebook login until I got backup codes. I pouted but at least I had maps and texting.
The wind was ferocious all day, whipping my car this way and that. As we crossed into the Texas Panhandle the sky turned hazy and all around us the horizon was blurred. Dust. Dustbowl dust. We made it into Amarillo for an early dinner at The Big Texan Steakhouse. I ordered a ribeye. A young man around R’s age began taking the 72 oz steak challenge. When we emerged back into the sunlight, the dust was still there, the wind was still there.
It took another long ass drive to get to New Mexico, but there it was. One of my favorite states at my favorite time of day. The panhandle flat plains had given way to mesaland and scrubfields. Thirty-some miles in, we reached the cut off to Tucumcari on old route 66.
The sun was getting lower and the neon lights of the vintage motels and motor courts were beckoning. We crawled through, observing the mix of lovingly restored artifacts and desolate ruins. Soon we saw the Blue Swallow.
The proprietor greeted us outside and led us to the registration desk where we signed in on a paper card and he handed us an actual key. He personally escorted us to the room and showed us where to park. He gave us tidbits of information about the place and told us there would be coffee in the office at 6:30am. He lives behind the office so if we need anything, just bang loudly on his door. Amazing.
R an I instantly set about taking dusk photos of the neon time machine that was this motor court. We walked down the street (Route 66!) to photograph some of the other beauties as well. One less restored offering announced that Clint Eastwood had stayed there in ’66. Across the street from our place were two cannabis dispensaries. And we had 100% refrigerated air.
Night fell and I came outside to the vintage metal garden chairs in front of our room. And that is where I am now, under a jet black sky. It has cooled to 81 degrees, which in this dry air is extremely tolerable. The breeze is blowing and I am surrounded by the glow of neon. New Mexico always enchants me and I’m sorry that I’m not spending more time here. We will be hitting the very southern bit as we visit Carlsbad Caverns again, but that is all.
But tonight is perfect. I have tonight.
The sun was starting to rise in the East and I leaned against the red convertible and took another drag from a joint I had rolled when the stars still dominated the sky in a vast velvety void. We had been out here all night while you tried to capture the milky way as it traversed the space above us in rural New Mexico. I searched for aliens and a reason to be here with you and all I could come up with is that I was a fool. But fool or no, I was here and you had asked me and that was all that mattered. We had tore off through the night in this beat up relic of a car and we tried to pick up some music on the old radio bathing us in orange glow and it was static and preachers and occasional music from over the border in Juarez. Our boots were dusty, our hair was dusty. I wanted to find a diner and some breakfast but I didn’t even ask because once you are in the zone behind your camera there is no one else. I thought about that and wondered at how I was fine playing second fiddle to a piece of photographic equipment but no one else. But I was the other fiddle here so I couldn’t say shit. All I could do was walk around and kick some rocks. The wind blew my hair askance and as the first rays rose over the horizon, I squinted. I kept staring at that sun just coming up without a care and I felt your hand grab my side and pull me to you whipping me around to your face and your lips and you bemoaned that the stars were gone but I was just as good and of course I forgave you everything that I made up in my mind in the night. And I got myself situated in the front seat and I thought about good strong coffee, black, and maybe some bacon and I knew it was going to be even better when the herbs hit my system. I propped a boot up on the dash and looked over at you and put on my sunglasses since we were about to drive right into the goddamn sun and smiled at you. And you cranked the engine and you took my hand and told me I was your ride or die and I told you that you had no idea.
His desk was empty. The hole he left sucked the air out of my 4th period senior English. There had been a jubilant pep rally on Friday and on Saturday morning he blew his brains out.
I gave all of myself on that Monday. I made a husk of myself so that my students could cry in safety. So that they wouldn’t feel alone as he did. At the end of the day, I closed my classroom door and lay on the cold tile floor.
I stared terrified at the drawer that held his classroom journal. I gave it to another teacher to hold onto. I couldn’t take it screaming at me from inside the filing cabinet.
The grief counselor for the county came by. She butchered her session with my class. “Does anyone want to share any memories of him? No? Is it because he was so quiet that you don’t really have any memories of him?”
Later a student came up to me. “We didn’t want to talk to her. We don’t know her. Of course we have memories of him.”
I heard a story about a mom that was mad about her kid’s class schedule and she screamed at the administrator that we cared more about a dead senior than her daughter.
I watched his mother thank people for coming to her son’s funeral. In her ultimate, bottomless grief, she was trying to make sure we felt valued. I was nauseous and thought of my own daughter. Would I be able to emerge from that darkness or would I let it take me, like black waves in a wine-dark sea?
I watch my quiet, middle-of-the-road students. The ones who just want to be left alone, not in the spotlight, just-let-me-do-my-work-and-leave kids. Do they know I love them? That on day one they became my adopted children? That I care more about making them whole humans than teaching them proper comma placement?
I have no idea what happened to his journal.
The Day He Left
Money was disappearing. We were already feeling the effects of him leaving his full-time job to wait tables over third shift. There would be a myriad of excuses as to why the money was low. It was dead that night he would say. It was always dead that night. But he would walk in the next morning with breakfast as if that made everything better. Some mornings he was later than others. He wouldn’t pick up his phone. I alternated between worry that was born of a raging codependency and complete apathy, hoping that maybe he was dead and my troubles would be over. When he walked in one morning, wearing giant earrings that looked like a ram’s horn wedged in his ear holes, I just stared.
“Hey.” He acted like nothing was different.
“Where did you get those?”. Not even a greeting from me, just diving right in, which would lead to a fight.
“A customer gave them to me for a tip. Pretty sweet, huh?”
He lumbered up the stairs into the grey hallway and into the bedroom. I had Rhiannon in my arms and I followed, knowing that I was poking the bear, knowing he would be pissed.
“Why didn’t they just give you money?”
He shrugged his shoulders as he pulled off his pants, chained wallet pulling them to the floor.
“I don’t know,” he replied, “he just had these.”
“Who was it?” I pestered.
“A dude I know from the restaurant, okay?”
I paused only for a second.
“The money would have been better.”
“I’ll get some more tonight.”
“You’re off tonight.”
“I took a shift.”
I sighed. Loudly. I knew I was pushing it and as terrified as I was to do that, he had to know that he was responsible, too, that he had to pull his weight.
“We need money, not idiotic earrings and tattoos.”
“FUCK OFF!” His anger echoed in the cathedral ceiling and reverberated around the room. It was a shotgun blast, a crack of thunder.
His head collapsed back on the pillow. I had reflexively put my hand over my baby’s ears to somehow shield her from the anger of her father. She was blissfully unaware but I had been punched in the gut. I left the room, letting him sleep.
All day I sat in the recliner watching bad tv, mostly Criss Angel and thought about the fact that if something happened to my husband, I would be free, maybe to marry some dark magician like Criss. Then I immediately felt bad about even entertaining the thought. It never occured to me that there was any alternative than being in this marriage. I was stuck with this man who was going to ruin us financially, as he had before. Stuck with secrets and lies.
As late afternoon approached, I heard him moving around upstairs. I tensed knowing that I would have to face him. He eventually came and sat on the bottom of the stairs, facing me in the recliner as I sat stony, not peeling my eyes away from the television.
“You want to talk?”
I wanted to talk, but as always when there was a confrontation with him, I found myself physically unable to speak. My mouth was frozen shut and my mind was blank. In later years, I have wondered if my body knew something that I didn’t, that it was protecting me from some evil that I was refusing to see with my conscious mind. An amulet against a monster. Now it was his turn to sigh loudly.
He put on his jacket, even though it was July, grabbed his keys, and walked out the door. I don’t know how, but I sensed that something was off. I grabbed Rhiannon by the hand and led her out to the little stoop out front. He was backing his truck out of the driveway in the golden light, heavy music blaring, cigarette already lit in his hand. He put it in drive and as he pulled away, his eyes never left us until he descended down the hill and out of sight.
“Wave bye to Daddy, Rhiannon.”
Deep down I knew he was never coming back.
As the evening wore on, I found myself pacing. I was a caged animal, completely imprisoned by marriage, desperately unhappy and terrified to lose him. I wandered upstairs, sat on the bed and looked along the wall on his side of the room. Stuff was piled up in a line and wedged underneath some books and shirts was the duffel bag that he had brought back from the time we were separated. I stared at that duffel. I needed answers.
There were a few items inside: deodorant, comb, underwear, and even though I knew better, I picked up a notebook that was hiding in the depths.
“…try to pretend and play the good son-in-law but I can’t anymore…”
“… how does she even believe these stories…”
“…living a lie…”
Everything stopped–time, my breath, my heart. I grabbed my phone and frantically started dialing him. No answer. No answer. No answer. I left my two year old in front of the tv downstairs and went out to the back deck and chain smoked while I tried to get ahold of him. My fingers shook so that the smoke wavered in zigzags in the air. One cigarette. Two cigarettes. Three. Four.
“I’ve been calling you for the past hour, what do you mean what?”
“I’m at a friend’s house.”
“You were supposed to be going to work early.”
“Sorry, didn’t realize I was supposed to tell you my every move. I’m hanging out with friends before work.”
“I found your notebook. What is this shit? Living a lie? You need to come home.”
“I’m not coming home.”
“I’m not coming home.”
“Goddamit, come home.”
He was with his people. The fellow outcasts who no doubt had people who missed them like I missed my husband. They were content to wait tables and be strung out and pierce their bodies to feel something besides their internal pain. They were stealing him from me. I was abandoned.
The next several months were a blur. I took his beloved Grateful Dead shirt that he had been wearing on our first date and made a bonfire in the side yard and burned it. The shirt sent black smoke into the air and I had to go grab the hose to put it out before someone called the fire department. I piled his personal belongings in trash bags and together with an old work buddy we pulled up at his restaurant and threw everything in the back of his truck. The exit goes right by the open air dining room and my very Christian friend pulled herself out of my side window and flung a middle finger in his direction as we peeled out. I would call him and he would ignore me and I ended up on the floor in a pile of clothes, crying so hard that I thought my blood pressure would send me into a stroke. Lying there I knew I was hitting the bottom.
But I couldn’t escape. I had our little girl and was teaching high school full-time. I couldn’t lose myself in drink or drugs. At night, I would lie in the dark, and watch the moon rise over the hill behind our house. A pressure on my chest, palpable, pinned me to the bare mattress. Alone in the dark with my fears and my broken mind, I began to understand why someone would entertain ending it. But I never would. Daytime was no better. The sunlight was too harsh; it offered no hiding space.
He was off finding himself and living life on his own awful terms while I had to be the responsible one. I fought against being a mom, though I loved my daughter more than life itself. I started looking for ways to escape teaching. I wanted to live for me instead of giving everything to everyone else. There was nothing ahead of me.
But thankfully, the universe had other plans. One day, out of nowhere, my friend Jeff sent me a text.
What are you doing this Friday? Wanna help me write a film?
And with those words, a former lover saved my life that day.
Eight years ago, I sat in the living room of some extended family in the northwest Arkansas mountains and had an idea. I was going to hike up Pikes Peak.
People have asked me, “Why that mountain?”. Pikes was sort of random, but also deliberate in that it was the only large mountain I knew of by name. Oh of course, I knew about the Denalis and Everests but as far as something that was accessible to me at the time, it was what popped into my head.
I had first seen Pikes looming in the late afternoon light, coming in at it from the eastern plains of Colorado. It was June of 1987. I was ten, nearing 11. Like the white men in years past, this was the first that I had seen of the Rockies. Its prominence is huge: Manitou Springs, at its base, sits at 7000 feet in elevation and it rises sharply to 14,115 feet. At the time it was estimated at 14,110 but has since been amended. An extra five feet can make all the difference in the world.
My young eyes had never seen such a massive thing as that mountain. I couldn’t take my eyes away from it. I would stand on the balcony of our motel room and just look skyward, towards its iconic peak. We left Manitou Springs and traveled around Colorado, into Utah, and back into Colorado and the last time I saw those majestic mountains was when the poor Mazda sedan was finally relieved of chugging up high elevation roads as we left the front range and headed back eastward, towards the plains, towards home. I cried.
So, when I was looking for something to do, to achieve, something symbolic of everything I had already, and would, overcome, I had a natural answer. I would return to Colorado, and to Pikes Peak. Sure, I had been to the top already by way of the cog train which effortlessly drops tourists off at the summit which itself houses a gift shop where you can gorge on doughnuts and Pepsi and buy a shirt with sayings such as “I Like It On Top!”. But when I was out there with my aunt and uncle that summer, my aunt couldn’t go to the top with us. She had respiratory issues that would put her in the ICU for months during the next year and to go to a place where the oxygen seems reduced even further was out of the question. So she was left behind at the motel, like she would be several times during that trip. I know she hated that and I hoped that she would be with me in spirit, climbing a mountain she never could have in life.
I sat with my laptop and researched every aspect of this venture. It went without question that I would tackle the longer and more difficult route which is the Barr Trail. This trail begins down in Manitou Springs and rises over 7,000 feet in 13 miles. It is a long hike for a day, compounded by the fact that it just keeps going up, and up, and up into increasingly thinner air. It is recommended you be very fit and acclimated to the elevation.
I was the heaviest I had ever been and I live at 1200 feet.
I had been doing some day hiking and I figured I would use that to get in shape. I went to various trails in the area, especially Little Kennesaw Mountain since it was the closest mountain trail to my house. It’s trail was an actual trail, with ankle twisting possibilities and some steep inclines. However, at only 1600 feet, it’s only offering to my training was 400 vertical feet. So I ventured further out. Fort Mountain. Amicalola Falls with its approach trail to the Applachian Trail. A scary moment when I thought I was having an actual heart attack at Cloudland Canyon.
And, more importantly, I began to feel like an actual backpacker. I had never thought of myself in that way, had no desire to. I was strictly a day player, thank you. I had no desire to get all technical. But after much research, and the skepticism of a clerk at REI, I decided to split my hike into at least two days (the clerk had sized me up and stated that that was “a…uh…fairly agressive pace”). So I began my new favorite hobby of acquiring outdoors gear, or, as I like to refer to it, “investing in my REI dividend”.
I read voraciously. I haunted online discussions and read all the articles. I knew pack weight was important. I learned that cotton kills due to the fact that it sucks heat out of you when it gets wet. I was having to consider things I never had to before.
I was fairly well-educated by the time I finally read Wild. It had been out for about a year when I got my copy just before the Christmas break. I pulled my chair up next to the fireplace, wrapped my blanket around me and propped my feet up.
I read the book in two nights.
I was so engrossed by her writing. I found in Cheryl Strayed a kindred spirit. Someone who had been through the lowest points of her life and found solace and symbolism in undergoing a crucible in the outdoors. She had the PCT and her giant pack. I had Pikes Peak and my fat ass.
Upon return to school for the start of a new semester, I loudly informed my AP Lang class that we were reading Wild. I brought my backpack in to school and would haul it around the school’s cross country trail, just trying to get a feel for walking with this thing on me and also to maybe get a little more fit. I would encounter one of the coaches for our high school doing his daily cross country runs on the trail and we discussed my plans. I had never talked to him before that point but we would go on to become great friends afterwards. My students, in the meantime, were reading my new favorite book and getting educated in the finer points of backpacking life. I was thoroughly inspired for at least one hour of my day.
My mom and dad were skeptical about this endeavor, mostly from a safety standpoint. My mom vastly preferred that I not do this alone. They didn’t say much, but always the questions. “So, you’re going to be all alone out there?”
The Barr trail is a pretty popular trail but traffic thins out after the top of the Manitou Incline and definitely does after Barr Camp. It’s bad form to descend the Incline so climbers use the Barr trail to go back down to the parking areas. There are some people who just take a leisurely 6 mile uphill stroll to Barr camp for tea in the morning. But way fewer continue on. So if something did happen to me, it could be a while before someone came along.
I hated that these questions were putting doubts in my mind. I mean, I was indignant. How dare these people try to keep me ruled by fear!
But of course, it won out.
I had two students, Matt and Hunter, who I was close to. I’d met Matt’s mom at open house. His parents were progressive hippies, and Matt was a chip off the block. Matt was definitely a free-thinker but also part of the pep squad at school and I am always more intrigued by multi-faceted types. He was shorter than average but all sinew and bone; he reveled in his body’s athleticism. I watched him at a track and field meet one time. He was a pole vaulter and his body defied gravity as it propelled itself over the bar. It seemed that half of the fact of him getting over it was just him deciding to do it. Then his body followed suit. He loved the outdoors and when I showed Into The Wild in class for a comparative exercise with Siddhartha, he was riveted.
Hunter was similar but with more of a bro subtext about him. Both him and Matt were beautiful golden boys. Hunter was more of the gym rat, and I could never tell if his goofy “gainz” talk in class was satire or real. But he also longed for something different, for May to come and graduation and was champing at the bit to just start life already goddamnit.
One day Matt stopped by my classroom–he had been changed to another teacher for the second semester–and visited me during Hunter’s class. I called them both up to my podium.
“Gentlemen. I need someone to go hiking with me up Pikes Peak.”
They had already been talking about moving to Colorado after graduation. I made it clear that they were traveling separate from me and would just happen to be joining me out there for a hike. After some back and forth and their talking to parents, it was a go. I had company and safety from some kids I cared about.
Over the next few weeks I would ask how they were doing on preparation. It seemed like they were not as aware of what they were doing. I gave them some articles once on altitude sickness and High Altitude Pulmonary Edema and Cerebral Edema. They looked at me stunned. Matt countered with, “But I’m in good physical shape so that shouldn’t affect me, right?”. I sighed. “Read the literature, darlin’.”
I worried over the potential for rain. I wondered if it was still going to be snowy at the top. I constantly was poring over research and checking trail status on the Barr Camp Facebook page. I was prepared. Of course, like teaching, you don’t really learn anything until those first days of actually doing it.
Graduation came and went. Matt and Hunter headed out a few days before me. I landed in Denver at the very end of May. I promptly dropped my phone outside next to the rental car shuttle area. It was right under my luggage but I didn’t see it. I went sprinting back in back and forth, looking, asking. I was loathe to admit my smartphone was so crucial to my life but it had everything: Matt’s number, the address where they were staying. I was reliant on GPS. I had no other camera. I was screwed.
I approached a lady on a bench who was scrolling on her Ipad. “Excuse me, ma’am? I’ve lost my phone and I was wondering if I could access my Facebook on your tablet and maybe get a hold of someone?” I know I was still panting from panic and I’m sure I looked crazy. She paused while she looked me up and down.
“Well… I normally don’t do this…”
“I’ll sit right here next to you, please I honestly just need to try to contact somebody.” She reluctantly handed it to me. I was grateful and truly could get why she might be hesitant, but on the inside I was still a little miffed. Lady, look at me. I’m dragging a suitcase and a duffle, I’ve got tears in my eyes. If I’m a grifter, I deserve an award.
I logged onto my account and lo and behold my mother, true to form, had overshared about my life on her status. And while I wanted to be snippy–it’s none of her friends’ business what I’m doing–I couldn’t be mad on this one.
“Sara already having bad start to her trip! A woman called me from her phone saying she found it and was taking it to the rental car company.”
“JesusChristThankGod!” I shouted. I logged out of Facebook and handed it back to the confused lady on the bench. Dragging my luggage wildly behind me, I went to a courtesy phone and dialed my mom.
“MOM! Which rental car company?”
“I have it written down, hold on a second… Fox I think?”
Bless. BLESS. It was the same rental place I was headed to. I thanked my mom and told her I would call her later. I went back out to the curb where the rental shuttle would pick me up and anxiously awaited my arrival. Once there I got my phone, my car which was supposed to be a compact but “we can get you in this van for the same low price!”, and off I went. The van turned out to be a blessing between my equipment and that of the boys.
Finally I could let it sink it. I was in Colorado. I hadn’t been here since I was ten years old. The snow capped peaks rose majestically in the distance. It was like home.
I found the place where Matt and Hunter were staying in Denver and we embraced for an exuberant “we-are-in-Colorado” hug in the middle of the street. They piled their stuff in the back of the van and we headed down to Colorado Springs through a rain storm.
“Well, guys I was hoping that you could see the mountain as we were driving in but no such luck I guess.” We had emerged from the rain storm into a cloudy night. “Maybe tomorrow.” I dropped them off at their hostel and made my way into Manitou Springs where I had a reservation at one of the modestly priced mom and pop motels there. I arrived at the Silver Saddle motel, got my key and pulled the van up to the door. I was lucky to have a room on the mountain facing side, if she ever decided to come out from the clouds, with a window that actually slid open and closed. I was excited and doubled with being over five thousand feet above my normal elevation, had fitful sleep. But I wasn’t worried because I had given myself several days in Manitou to acclimate to this elevation before climbing.
I awoke to the sounds of traffic outside and could tell from the light peeking through the edges of my blackout curtain that the sun was shining bright. I got up and pulled the curtain away. I caught my breathe. There she was.
Glorious. Her snow-capped topped gleamed white in the morning sun on her east facing side. “Hello, my love,” I whispered. I got dressed and headed over to the free breakfast set out by the motel. I grabbed some food and sat on the park bench outside my door on the walkway paved with green astroturf. I sat in the cool morning air just looking at that mountain. I couldn’t pull my eyes away; nothing had changed between us in those 28 years.
I called Matt and told him that we were going to REI that day. Clouds had rolled back in over the mountain later in the morning, so they still hadn’t gotten a good look at what we were about to do. We bounced around REI getting supplies. I had waited until I got out there to get microspikes for my shoes in case of snow on the upper parts of the trail and I knew from my morning view that I would need them. Matt bought a sun hat. After an hour of debating various purchases, we walked out of the store to a view that stopped Matt in his tracks. Pikes is a big mountain, but it looks even bigger from far away as you can get the full perspective of its prominence above the eastern Colorado plains. He froze in his tracks.
“It looks like Mt. Everest.”
That’s how it had seemed when my life was falling apart. An Everest that I had no idea how to overcome. The gaping maw of my life was wide open in the absence of someone I had built my life on. But you can’t build a castle on quicksand. And that’s what he was. Seemingly solid, but ever-shifting. Deceptive. Drowning me. But I knew that, just like my metaphorical mountain, giant things could be climbed in sections. A climb was made from individual footsteps, and surely I could I could put one foot in front of another, one at a time, for thousands of steps.
The night before we set out, I put all my stuff on the bed and proceeded to put it all in my pack. The pack was cheap, not one of the expensive, lighter options that serious backpackers had. My rationale was that I could use this and see how I felt about the whole sport and then make an investment. I looked over my supplies. I had been over and over this in my mind and on paper and I knew I had gotten stuff down to the essentials. Despite this, I had a devil of a time getting everything in. Once I had filled my platypus bags with water, the weight was enormous but doable.
Morning came. I quickly scarfed down breakfast from the motel again, loaded my crap into the van and set out in the opposite direction to pick up Matt and Hunter from Colorado Springs. They were, as teenaged boys are wont to do, running late.
By the time we got to the trailhead, it was getting near 9 a.m. I knew the small lot for the Barr trail would be packed, but luckily we were able to slide in behind someone. After strapping our loads on, we were off across the parking lot to begin the ascent. I paused at the edge of the pavement. This was the moment I had been waiting for. The boys were already tromping up the side of the hill, but I stopped, breathed in the Colorado air, and ceremoniously planted my foot on the dirt of the first step up. I was beginning.
I had read that the first three miles of the Barr trail are the worst. They gain elevation quickly and steeply. Let me clear this up: it is the absolute worst. At least for me, a lowlander who was carrying excess weight on her body and pack. I was trying to keep up with two 18 year olds in the prime of their physical condition. They would kindly wait for me. We made a lot of unneccessary stops, including a full sit down lunch that we made only two miles up the trail. We sat up on a boulder and got out our camp stoves and made a camp meal and enjoyed eating out in the open like we were out in the damn wilderness. But that was as wild as I had ever been and it felt right.
We continued on. Up and up and up. I knew logically that I was climbing a mountain but there was never a break. I started to truly know what a mile was. Every time we stopped, I would take off my pack just to feel gravity release her hold on me. It was so heavy that I couldn’t really control how it came off of me and several times the straps would twist the skin of my upper arm until I ended up with a dark bruise on the tender underside of my left arm. Matt, ever the mountain goat, was scrambling up rocks and standing atop them, ruler of all he surveyed. I want to climb rocks too, but my total effort was just in putting one foot in front of the other and lifting my bulk up the trail in ever-decreasing oxygen.
Near where the Manitou Incline connects with Barr Trail, there is a turn that many hikers miss, us included. We added about a half mile to our trip, cursing all the while back. At one point, Hunter had stopped and turned to survey the land around us. He faced me and said, “My life is already changed.” I knew how he felt. I was doing an adventure. I was doing a thing I set out to do. My life was changing with each step.
At the three mile point, the going still hadn’t gotten less rough. Blisters were already tearing my feet up. If Matt and Hunter hadn’t been there, I would have quit at this point. I was hurting. How I was hurting. I sat on a log and gingerly removed my hot shoes and peeled off my wool socks. I got my first aid kit out of the top of my pack and found the blister bandages. I had never used them before so I screwed it up and before long they were working their way into the blisters. I hurt all over. A deer popped out of the woods and watched us. I kept going.
Mid-afternoon, we reached a point in a gentle pine forest where the canopy opened up and we were able to look at the peak ahead in all her glory. I should add, in all her snowy glory. I was worried about being up there on the side of the peak. Were we going to be able to find the trail? I decided that this meadow, in view of the mother mountain, was where I wanted my ashes spread. But I couldn’t stay long to look at her. Clouds were moving in.
At one point we stopped on a relatively flat area of the trail. Past the point where the Manitou Incline joins the trail, the traffic thins considerably. We saw no one for hours. While we were sprawled out on the side of the trail, we encountered a hiker on his way down. After some back and forth, we discovered that he went to high school in a district next to ours. He told us it “wasn’t far now” to Barr Camp, our stop for the night. I would learn that “Not too far ahead” and all it’s variations are lies. They are meant in good faith, but distances measured from the down hill are different from going up. Just up ahead could still be another hour for me. My pace was slow but I was generally able to stay with my companions. Hunter’s back was hurting from his pack. I was in pain from my shoulders to my heels.
We began to descend for a bit which felt as good as any earthly pleasure that I can think of. Rain began to fall and so we secured and rain-proofed the packs and donned our rain jackets. Thunder ricocheted off the surrounding rocks and rolled through the woods. The wind picked up and with it my heart rate, but not from the struggle as we were flat to downhill on this stretch. Here was another part of the adventure! I knew I should be wary of lightning, but I found a new spring to my step and the wind and rain cooled me down.
But then, back up again. We neared 10,000 feet and there was only a mile or so to go before we reached Barr Camp, roughly the midway point on the trail. At this point I could no longer keep up. The pain was excruciating. My hip flexors were screaming at the point where my legs connect to torso and threatened to revolt and leave my top part sitting on the trail while they went off to live a brief life of relaxation without me. I was bruised, battered, and I could not think about anything but not walking anymore. What would have been considered gentle inclines earlier were now exercises in torture. What made it worse was knowing that there were people who did this for morning exercise. They were acclimated, true, and they generally weren’t packing for spending the night out here, but they also were fit and knowing that I had gotten myself into this mess made me angry. I was supposed to be training before this, getting conditioned and shedding body weight. But I was only slightly better than ill-prepared. And now, I was feeling it.
Matt and Hunter had long since reached the cabin at camp, when I came around the bed and saw the fencing which delineated the property. Pure joy propelled me forward, the knowledge that I could stop for the night as the only energy I had left. Triumphantly, I passed through the gate, across the little footbridge, and stepped onto the porch. I was greeted with hugs and I wept a little when I was able to take my pack off, lean my poles against the bench and sit, actually sit, like a civilized human on a chair. All I could do was moan in the pleasure of it.
The tent camping area was a little downhill from the main cabin and we picked a spot with good trees to hang our hammocks from. Moving up and down the hill to what we needed–the bathroom, a table to cook dinner at– was excruciating and I stumbled around slowly, both in pain and still out of breath at 10,200 feet. The altitude was fucking with me as it always did. I was starving and yet could only eat a few bites of my dinner, which the boys dug into with glee. I could see the top of the mountain through the trees, its eastern face looming large in the dusk. I knew there was no way that I could continue going up.
“Y’all. I can’t do it. I can’t even fathom going uphill tomorrow. I hate to say it because I spent so much money to do this, and I’ve come so far. But I just can’t.”
“SAME.” They both shouted in unison. That these two young men, made of sinew and bone and atomic energy were both wiped out made me feel a little better. Hunter added that he had definitely screwed up his back. It was official: we would head back down into town the next day.
Darkness crept through the woods and we were all exhausted so we headed to our hammocks. I thought I had been smart by purchasing a light sleeping bag. It was a cheap brand from a box store and was barely summer weight. It was light and small in my backpack so that was important. But as the temperature plummeted in the shadow of the summit, I realized my error. It stays cool enough at the camp that there were still snow piles near our sleeping area and it was June 1st. Sleeping in a hammock creates a cold air pocket beneath you so I didn’t have the insulation of the ground, though I would be more comfortable pressure-wise. I had worked my body so hard that day that in this cold, I seemed to be unable to warm up. My body was exhausted.
Hunter had gone into the main cabin to sleep since the hammock was doing his back no favors and Matt was already gently dozing in his giant down sleeping bag. I, however, was shaking as my body tried desperately to keep warm. Violent spasms shook the hammock and my teeth clacked together. I watched the full moon rising above the foothills in front of me and it began to shine down on me through the pine trees. There was a little snowmelt creek a few yards from us and it trickled and gurgled through the night. I got out of the hammock and shuffled back and forth in my wool underlayers and fleece. I didn’t have the strength to do jumping jacks, and surely my legs would have popped off and revolted then had I tried, so a small shuffle it was, next to the creek, in the silvery light of the moon. In short, I was in heaven.
I went back and forth from my hammock to my shuffle stance throughout the night. I would zip myself in my flimsy bag, pull my hat down tight on my head and try to get warm. Then I would wrestle out, walk down ways to pee on the edge of the clearing, then come back and stare at the moon and shuffle. I did this several times until I guess my body just gave out and I fell asleep, winning against the sleepless affects of altitude. I remember worrying that I could possibly get hypothermia and then like that, it was morning.
If you stay with Barr Camp, you get Pikes Peak Power Pancakes in the morning which are hearty and designed to power you up to the summit. I was even more sore this morning so I trudged up to the main house and ate my pancakes simply to restore my body. An older lady was up there having tea with the caretaker. As we were gathering our stuff together on the porch, I talked with her. She was wearing some outdoorsy pants and a floral shirt, with a cute little hat. I imagined her in a garden club back home among the magnolias. She disabused me of that notion when she said she regularly comes up to Barr Camp from town for morning tea.
For morning tea.
This older lady–yes, I know, she was rail thin, not carrying any bags beyond a small Camelback, and acclimated to the elevation–would hike six grueling uphill miles in the early morning to come have tea. Then hike back down by noon. What took us eight hours to do.. well, granted we took long breaks and goofed off but.. who am I kidding, it took us awhile. I was humbled.
To add to my misery as we left camp and descended, I found that my trusty hiking shoes were really not the right size. They were slightly too large and my toes kept slamming into the front. After doing that thousands of times, the pain got to be so intense that it nearly knocked me over on some bigger steps down. My knees were aching. My toes were getting blood blisters underneath. And somehow I was almost as slow going down. I eventually told the boys to just go on, that I would be ok. They skipped along and disappeared from my sight.
I was still making decent time and I began to get close to where the Incline meets the trail. The shade thins out at this point as you start to get into Englemann Canyon, with stretches that put you in the sun and at the mercy of the warmer temperatures. It had been chilly at Barr Camp, then pleasant as the day warmed and I walked through thick woods, but every step took me lower in elevation and now I was in an out of the scorching sun and into 80 degree temperatures.
I stopped to drink water. A clammy feeling washed over me. Sweat ran down my face. Pain coursed through me like lightning each time my toenail received pressure from my foot. My hip flexors reminded me that they were still angry. I was breathing weird.
And that’s when I started to black out.
It had happened to me once before, dehydrated and hot in Florida once. I was on my way back home from a medieval reenactment event in my 20s. I had fought all day in the heavy armor in the hot sun and then drank all night, keeping up with former Army boys and making bad decisions. That morning we pulled out and went to a Waffle House for breakfast. It was one of those Florida mornings where the air is thick and cicadas are already buzzing by 9 AM and the heat is rising off the asphalt to your face. Like any Waffle House on a Sunday morning, it was packed. We got a booth and the only thing I remember is going to the bathroom. They are single bathrooms with a lock and I thought I would throw up but then the darkness began to close around me and I knew there would be a scene if I passed out in this bathroom and they had to break down the door. So I stumbled out, past our booth and walked along the outside brick wall and put my back against it and began to slump down. My view was pixelated–it had happened once before when I was in middle school and had a 104 degree fever and thought I was going blind. There was a red spot far away that I knew was my friend Big Mike. And suddenly the spot was right in front of me, holding me up, shouting, “Sara! Sara! are you alright?” and the decision was made to put me in the back seat and get McDonalds and get on the road.
I had that same feeling again, except I was still a couple of miles from the trailhead and there was no one there to pick me up. I made it to the one shady spot on that part of the switchback and lay down. The trail was narrow here, with a bank on the upper side and a drop off on the lower with a fence at the edge. I made myself as small as possible and put my backpack behind me as a pillow and lay there with my eyes closed. A few people passed by on their way down from the Incline, ignoring me, one stating that she wished she could just curl up on the trail. I remembered that I had electrolyte tabs in my bag and I mixed those up in my reservoir and snaked the hose out and lounged like Alice’s caterpillar. I had no way to get a hold of the boys; my cell service wouldn’t come back until I was close to the car. I lay there for close to 30 minutes. I knew they were already there, watching for me to emerge. What could I do but wait to regain my strength?
Eventually it did. I struggled up and heaved my pack on my back and lumbered down the trail. Eventually I came across a woman who was hobbling a step at a time. She was wearing a white ensemble that looked like she was about to go play tennis and she was carrying a small Gatorade bottle that was half full of water. I reached her and asked her if she was ok. She said she had fallen coming down from the Incline. I gave her some water but she declined to use one of my hiking poles. I felt bad to leave her but she insisted she would make it down and so I went on.
I could hear the cog train making its way up the valley floor below. There was no more shade. I knew that I couldn’t be too far away but I hadn’t yet seen the one mile sign. I saw a couple standing at the edge of the trail looking down and they were near the sign. I looked like shit and probably smelled like it in this heat and I really did not care. As I was passing them, I was certain I had misread the sign. A half mile? Only a half mile to go?
“Thank GOD!” I shouted. They looked alarmed but didn’t move from their canoodling spot.
I resumed with a purpose. The heat was unbearable but the drink mix had saved my life. My toes were enraged. My knees sullen. My leg joints had long since disowned me. My hair stuck to my increasingly sunburned face and neck. I had never been so happy to see a parking lot from afar. It still took me several minutes but there I was, falling down the last steps in a controlled crash. The boys were sitting on a wall near the bathrooms. They came running towards me to bring it in for a hug.
“NO! Back off!” I dumped my bag and poles at their feet. I walked over to the water fountain and drank until I felt I would be sick and then I wet my face and my hair. Matt and Hunter were still standing there expectantly so I came back and pulled them into a hug.
“Lunch is on me, dudes.”
I blasted the air conditioning in my rental van and reveled in the luxury of civilization. We went to a Mexican restaurant that didn’t care that we were rank and disheveled then I went and rented a room for the night at a literal mom and pop place next to a creek and let the boys take showers there before I returned them to Denver. On the way back to the motel that night, I picked up grocery store fried chicken and potato salad and a giant Diet Coke. I showered, pulled myself up in bed and tried to ignore one of my big toe nails which was hanging off. I turned on America’s Got Talent (which along with Braves baseball and my parent’s old whole house fan, automatically reminds me of summer) and chowed down on my feast. I was alone again in Colorado.
It was ten years ago this week that the shit hit the fan in my life.
Honestly, I wish I had kept a journal of what was going on. There is so much that has faded away from the ravages of time, or from my eternal sunshining it. But just as much has been seared permanently in my brain. I’m going to have to actually do writer work to get some of this out, interview friends about what was going on. And this scares me because I know that there is much I don’t want to face, moments I had blissfully forgotten. And I also know my friends wouldn’t mind doing a post-mortem. It will look like that warehouse jail cell after Hannibal Lecter tricks those policemen.
But ten years ago, it was Christmas lights and presents and having my entire world turned upside down. Were there signs? That he was an asshat, yes, always. But about what was to come? I can honestly say that, had I not already been lying down, I would have had my legs go out from under me.
It was the week after Christmas. I had gone out to a girls gathering with some ladies I worked with. I went for a few hours to this woman’s house and had a good time, laughing, dreading the return to school after the break. I stayed a little longer than I meant to, but nothing extraordinary. When I got out to my car, I found a series of texts and a voicemail from my husband.
“You need to come home, I can’t get her to sleep, I’ve been trying for hours and she won’t go, you need to come home.” It was all rushed together and insistent and the subtext was that he was mad that I was still out. As if I wasn’t the person who normally dealt with this. R wasn’t really a fussy baby at all; quite the contrary, she was a GOOD BABY. Sweet. But she liked to be cuddled to sleep. So yeah, if you wanted to go do something else, sorry. But she also would fall asleep fast.
And when I got home, that’s exactly how I found her. Knocked out, lying next to him on our bed. I came into the room and climbed onto my side of the bed. He was lying there, illuminated only by the hallway light.
“Looks like you got it all taken care of,” I said as I started to snuggle my little family. I remember now, I was lying on my right side, looking at him.
“I need to tell you something. I’ve been……”
I honestly can’t remember how he phrased it. Did he say “sleeping with someone else?” Maybe it was “seeing someone else”. But there was no deft segue into it. Just a bomb, dropped from the relative height security of someone who has a bag packed on the floor on the floor, out of sight of the person whose landscape is about to be scorched and burned beyond recognition.
I lay there, numb.
“Let’s talk about this,” I finally responded.
“There’s nothing to talk about.” And in one swift motion, he was up, with a duffel bag in his hand. And then he was gone.
I lay there on the bed, not willing to leave my baby’s side. I heard the garage door open, the truck start up, the fading roar of its engine as he backed out, and then the garage doors closed again. I heard the familiar sound of him pulling away and then a sound that I would get acquainted with: the sound of his silence.
Back in the Saddle, Again
So I started my morning off by reading an article about a girl who disappeared from a work crew in Grand Teton National Park. She was discovered recently not too far from where she disappeared and had changed her hair color and cut and maybe her name and also she ran from the search party.
I mean, I get it.
I discovered that Wyoming will do that to you. It’s a broad, wild expanse of country. Like, I can’t even reconcile that wildness with the fact that it’s a state in the Union. States are mild. They have suburbs and shopping malls, right? But Wyoming. My heart.
So you’ll find out more about my love affair with Wyoming. I meant to blog my travels as they happened, but a funny thing happens when you are traversing the country with just your daughter, a tent, and a tub full of books. You tend to just experience things and want to be in the moment. Like when I was holding the tent up in the middle of a South Dakota prairie thunderstorm.
I was busy sweating with my trainer. I was busy reading books. I was busy wanting to get married to Kate McKinnon and watching my daughter get inspired by Ghostbusters. I was busy turning 40.
It’s coming, the writing. As a part of my renewed vigor of life I will vow to sit down and get this stuff out on paper. Or screen. Because I can’t make a movie of my memoir until I write the damn thing.
Happy trails, to you. Go change your hair and your life.