14,115

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.

“Hel-”

“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.

 

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Shitiversary

It was ten years ago this week that the shit hit the fan in my life.

Ten years.

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.

I Failed You, Jacob.

The pep rally was threatening to be a boring one. Spring sports, 5 bazillion student names to be read aloud… but if anyone could save it, it was my emcee crew. I like to put on a show and my emcees were the showrunners. At our school, this group is the one that runs the pep rallies and holds giant flags with the school name on it and are basically the spirit leaders. We had an enormous task of trying to keep the entire school population entertained for an hour while essentially reciting the school directory. And we did it. Somehow we pulled it off.

I remember looking through the crowd to my seniors. All of them so full of life, creeping closer to graduation. Every year these kids become my joy. I call them “my kids”. I was their Aunty, Mama, whatever nickname they wanted. Some just called me Sara, trying on the adult world of calling people by their first name. I was fine with that. That is the relationship that I have with them.

The next day was one of those Saturdays where I should be getting stuff done, but instead decided that a visit to the bookstore was time better spent. My daughter begged to go to the multi-level Barnes and Noble in Smyrna. I was lingering in the astrology section when my phone rang with an unknown number. I don’t normally answer the phone in those cases but I did that day.

“Sara, this is Bob.”

Bob. Bob? Who…oh my principal. What the hell did I do?

“Sara, one of your students committed suicide this morning.”

The sounds around me faded. I could only hear my principal telling me the basics. Jacob. He asked me if there were any students that he needed to personally reach out to that day and my mind was a blank. I couldn’t function, couldn’t find the shelf to put the book that I was holding back, it was so important that I get that book back in the right spot. I thanked him and went in search of my daughter, blissfully unaware in the children’s section.

The rest of the day I spent in various positions curled up on my bed. I trawled through social media, waiting for the RIPs to surface. It was eerily quiet out there. I called my best friend, worrying about how to face Monday. It was going to be the hardest day of my teaching career to date.

In my thirteen years of teaching, I have lost some. One year I handed a girl her diploma on a Saturday and she was dead by Monday. A car accident, youthful indiscretion  with a two ton vehicle. Her best friend watched her die from another car. I taught that friend the next year. She was changed. She had seen death.

But this was different. It was fraught with the implications of suicide. The mystery of it all. The questions, the stigma. The helplessness of those left behind. I wasn’t trained for this. I was prepared to go into full Mama mode.

Sunday was Super Bowl Sunday. I tried to distract myself with by watching the Kitten Bowl with my daughter. Late that night, one lone memorial video popped up online. It was made by his best friend, one of the school’s talented filmmakers. I saw a side of Jacob that I hadn’t really seen in class. The Jacob I knew had been quiet and reserved, not in a sullen way, but in a way that just wanted to be unobtrusive. I saw a laughing, singing boy. I didn’t sleep much that night.

I rolled into school and dreaded the moment that students would come in. One girl came in early to my 1st period and she hadn’t heard and I was the one who had to tell her. I fumbled through that and showed her where the kleenex box was in case anyone needed it. An emergency faculty meeting was scheduled for 8am, and I headed down to gather and get information and possibly some strength.

I found my teacher neighbor, Krista, who taught him last year. We sat with arms entwined in the glare of the theater’s florescent house lights, clutching tissues. Bob spoke to us through tears, gave us a template to read to the class, and advised us to do what we do best which is be there for the kids. He introduced a lady from the county, a grief counselor. She was very matter of fact, almost offensively so. I rationalized at the moment that that was her job and she must have to go around all the time to different schools with people she doesn’t know, offering her services. I supposed that she had to adopt that front or she would be a miserable wreck all the time.

Back in my classroom, the activity seemed almost normal and I was terrified that maybe I was going to be the one breaking this awful news to a room full of senior girls (and our one lone male in the class). I printed out the template that had been emailed to us. I walked over to the computer cart. A sense of deja vu crept over me.

Earlier in the year, we lost a beloved teacher and coach to cancer. Just like this morning, I stood in front of my first period AP Lang 12 class with an emailed template. I teared up a little reading that one and I was nervous because it was the first time I had announced a death to my students. Now, I’m an old pro at it. But this time…I had to breathe. My hands shook. I stopped, I started. I finally got it all out.

Dead silence greeted me.

What the hell do I do with this?

“Y’all. I don’t do a lot of things right as a teacher. I take way too long to get your essays back. I’m imperfect in so many ways. But the one thing I do right is love you all. You have to know that I am here for you. Please know that. I am always here and I care so, so much.

There’s an assignment if you need something to focus on. If you want to do it, fine. If not, if you want to stare at the wall, lay your head down, come talk to me, leave the room, whatever. You do what you need to do today. I’m going to sit over here behind my desk and stare. No, first I’m going to go get some caffeine so I can make it through this day. I’ll be right back.”

I walked out the door, out into the harsh lights of the hallway from the womb of my warmly dim classroom. There wasn’t enough caffeine to get me through the day.

***********************************************************************

During second period, I was out wandering and came across one of my senior boys that was in Jacob’s class with me. He came to me and I immediately gave him a hug.

“I just couldn’t sit in class anymore.”

“Do you want to just come hang out in my room for awhile? No one is in there.”

He only shook his head in a silent yes. I walked him to my room, pulled up two chairs across from one another, and didn’t ask anything of him. His head was down and for a minute there were brief spasms of grief, and some audible sniffles. Then he broke his silence.

“No one knew. No one knew.”

***********************************************************************

Fourth period came. Jacob’s class.

As promised, our principal came right at the beginning of class, with the county grief counselor in tow. He spoke of the general support that was there for each student. Then the county lady was introduced. She started off in the same way but then veered sharply in her sharp and high pitched southern twang.

“Does anybody have an memories they would like to share about Jacob?”

The class, mostly males, was silent. I could have predicted that. What I couldn’t have predicted was the her next line.

“Is it because he was kind of quiet and kept to himself that you don’t have any memories of him?”

I don’t know if my mouth was agape, but I do know that I turned ever so slowly to look at her with a real “what the fuck” look on my face.

Later, after they left, one of the students that sat at Jacob’s table came over to me.

“We didn’t want to talk to her.We didn’t know her.”

“I know,” I replied. “I don’t blame you.”

“I’ve been thinking about how you must feel right now, as his teacher. Like, maybe there could have been something you had seen.”

Obviously. But coming from a student, that hit me like a sack of concrete in my stomach. What could I have done? Even his best friends had no idea. He had just been accepted by his dream school. He came in and did his work and was quiet and how many hundreds of kids just like that had passed through my doors?

***********************************************************************

The day of the burial was cold and Georgia got a rare chance of snow in the forecast. Krista and I rode together from school. We had never actually attended a student funeral before. Pulling up into the parking line we saw a large group of students huddled together at the top of the hill overlooking his grave site.

“Should we go up to them or what?” asked Krista.

“I guess we can walk up halfway and if they want to stand with us they can? I don’t know.”

We stopped halfway up, and like a flock, they all moved together, in a mass, and headed for us. I just started holding students, male , female, crying or numb.

“We didn’t know if we were supposed to go ahead and stand around the tent. We don’t know what to do,” said one student.

Krista and I looked at each other. Clearly we were being looked to as the adults. We had to be the rocks. But there is never anything wrong with saying you don’t know something. We began walking tentatively towards the site and as we did, the family pulled up with the hearse. Watching 17 and 18 year old boys carry a casket is something I want to add to my never again list. Watching a mother bear the grief of a dead son is another.

It was a Jewish ceremony and for awhile I was lost in the symbolism and simplicity of the service. “Practical Grieving” was the only way I could describe it to people later. Every gesture had a purpose and that was assisting those left behind. The kaddish was haunting and as it floated through the air, punctuated by groans of ultimate pain from the family, snow began to fall. Flakes swirled through the air, landing on shivering teenage girls, settling over us all. Meanwhile, I watched my boys shovel the ceremonial filling in of the dirt. The symbolism of the sound of the dirt hitting the casket did not need to be explained. The thud echoed in our ears.

The rabbi asked us to form two lines which the family would walk between to leave the grave. My worst and clearest memory was of that mother, that poor mother, being supported by loved ones and desperately sobbing and thanking us all for coming to her boy’s funeral. Her grief seemed bottomless.

I was thinking about all of this the other day, one of the last days of the school year. The seniors were done, graduation was upon us, and Krista, as yearbook advisor, had sat aside a book to give to Jacob’s family. It was early on a nearly empty day at school and I got first crack at it. I sat for ten minutes staring at the pristine page. I began a sentence. I complained to Krista about how difficult it was.

It wasn’t that I didn’t have things to say. It’s that it wasn’t appropriate for the yearbook. Because what I needed was to write a letter to him.

Dear Jacob,

I failed you. I thought that I had always made it clear to my students that I cared about them, that I was there for them, but I know in my heart that not everyone feels that way about me. The loud ones, the ones who feel the immediate bond of kindred spirits, the troublemakers, the class ditchers.. all these kinds get more than their share of attention. The quiet and self-sufficient ones in class, the ones that do what they should and never demand anything, they, I fear, may not know the intensity of my love for my students. The ones that feel the bond, they obviously feel it. The ones that fuck up, they even get to feel it, when I plead with them to get their life together. Because of you, I will try to be a better teacher. I will try to always touch base with all of my students. I thought by always greeting you guys at the door and smiling and saying Good Morning that I was doing a good thing, but it is clear that it is not enough. I was caught up in my own life, with its own turmoil and confusion, and while that is not a crime, I have to remember that I have been gifted by Spirit with a great task and honor which is to guide young souls. I am, in essence, one of the many earthly angels that we trust our kids to through the day. I know, I know, I know that I am not responsible for what you did, but the possibility that I missed a clue, a sign, will haunt me the rest of my days. I will have to learn to let it go; maybe talk to you at the top of one of my mountains out west, ask your forgiveness. I  can only hope that i hear you this time.

Aunty Reg

A Little Cart Before the Horse Action

 

I want this song to play in the movie based on my memoir. It should be part of a travel montage, preferably with me looking out over a sunset desert landscape. Golden hour stuff.

Oh and I think Milo Ventimiglia should play my ex. He’s way hotter, but that’s how it works in Hollywood. But honestly, the look is kind of the same from early ex years.

image courtesy of google via pinterest via unknown.

Starting With a Look Back

I’ve never needed a summer break so badly.

We’re just getting started here, and I know it feels SO SOON and maybe you’ll bolt with this level of intimacy on what is, essentially, our first date. But I’m used to that. I tend to dive in and I scare everyone off.

This has been a fucking roller coaster of a year.

Back in August I had enough of my physical limitations and got a per$onal trainer. I quickly began seeing results and the compliments began flowing in. I was empowered again and had the goal of losing 100lbs by my 40th birthday.

Then, J moved back to town. J was, in my stupid 20s, the love of my life. Which is bonkers because he was cheating on his live-in girlfriend/fiancee with me. But over the years I would find his picture and think, “Wow. He was my Mr. Could-Have-Been.” A fairy tale, you know, which tragically ended in his marrying her and not me. It was Venus retrograde, the time of past lovers, and here he was, in my very town, divorced. I don’t really pay attention to red flags.

Within a month, we had gone from friends hanging out to making out, to a ten year sexual dry spell over. But…

He had another girlfriend. I wasn’t doing this again. I was worth more than that.

And that’s when my heart got captured. For real.

I tweeted recently that having feelings for a friend was one of the levels of hell. I stand by that.

In February, I discovered a real level of hell. One of my students committed suicide. I’m going to write about this later, as I discovered this morning as I signed a yearbook for him that is to be given to his family that I had not really dealt with my feelings around this.

More romantic roller coasters. A drunken night over spring break and words were said that can’t be put back in.

In a two week period, I lost three more former students.

And to come back around, I haven’t been doing well with my weight loss. I basically stalled back in the winter and here we are. Food is good, y’all.

I tell you all of this to give you some perspective on one of the many reasons I will be traveling soon. My trainer questioned why I needed to be gone for so long, maybe up to three weeks. Why? Because knowing that I can travel unfettered across wild landscapes that make my problems seem smaller is what gets me through a year full of bells that dictate where I go and what I do, through the constant yapping of voices that want all the prizes without any of the work, through having to act like someone I’m not because of my exalted behavior modeling status.

I need to get out and see snow-covered mountains. Watch the sun set over the desert. Create new synapses in my brain by getting lost in new places.

I need to be free.