The trail sloped downward, winding back and forth as we rambled down the hillside, tangles of colorful wildflowers and tall grasses swishing as we passed. I could hear my husband’s feet pounding on the dirt behind me. “This is where the water crossing is,” he announced.
Okay, we’re here! This is what you prepared for, I thought encouragingly. Just change into your water shoes, like we planned. A splintered, wooden sign read La Garita Wilderness Rio Grande National Forest. I pulled out my iPhone and snapped a few pictures to upload to Instagram later, when I could get a signal again. I heaved off my backpack and grabbed my brand new Keen sandals out of the side mesh pockets. See, I’m so prepared, I thought proudly. I carefully balanced myself, one foot at a time, as I changed out of my hiking boots and arch-supportive socks, trying not to lose my balance or get anything muddy.
The river didn’t look very deep. It would probably only go up to my calves—easy enough. I took a few steps. Wow, okay, that’s freezing. The cold water seared my skin. It’s all good, just a few more steps. I stepped quickly, trying to hurry to the other side, and suddenly, I stepped into a small ditch, losing my balance and scraping my ankle against a sharp rock. Ow, pain. Okay, freezing. It feels like I’m getting stabbed. Hurry up; just get out! I leapt the last part, out of the water and onto the soggy bank, splashing mud onto my shoes and legs. My feet throbbed from the shock of the cold water. I slogged up the bank and sat on a large boulder where the trail was dry. I glanced down at my leg and quickly looked away. Omigod, there’s blood. Suddenly my mind raced with mental images of microscopic parasites and bacteria swirling in the water, which were probably now flowing freely into my bloodstream. We were about to enter the woods. I could die of infection out there.
I looked over at Mark, who was slowly walking up the sloped riverbank carrying his trail shoes.
“Is it bad?” I asked him, trying not to look at my ankle. I could see him put on his comforting face, the one he usually wears when coaxing our elderly dog into the bathtub.
“Just sit back; let me take a look,” he replied calmly. He set down his boots and crouched next to my leg. “It doesn’t look too bad. Let’s just clean it off, okay? Will you grab me a BandAid, pretty please?” I dug through my backpack for the first aid kit as Mark opened his water bottle and rinsed off my wound. He pulled out a paper towel and patted it dry.
“Will you put this on it too?” I whimpered, handing him a packet of antibiotic ointment.
“I don’t think it needs it …” he trailed off and wordlessly took the packet. I handed him a BandAid, which he gently applied to my bloody gouge. He finally stood up and handed me the wrappers from my trailside surgery. He gave me a teasing smile.
“Are you gonna make it?” he asked, patting my shoulder. “We’re only about a mile in.” Six miles left. We’re not even close. You’ll be fine. Don’t let this ruin it. We’re already all the way out here.
“Yep, I’m good,” I replied with a small smile. “Thanks, babe.” I dried off my feet and put my hiking boots back on.
I’m eternally on the hunt for new adventures. Part of it is ego: a desire to have an interesting story to tell or at least an impressive picture to post on Instagram. The other part of it is something a bit more difficult to identify; in a way, it’s an ongoing quest to scare myself. I’ve always been a fearful person: anxious thoughts and tragic fantasies murmuring in the background of my mind, an endless horror film playing just loud enough to know something terrible is about to happen, even when I can’t make out the plot line. Anyone who’s ever asked, “What’s the worst that could happen?” clearly doesn’t have a very good imagination—or wasn’t raised by my father. Growing up in the backwoods of Southern Oregon, my dad endlessly warned us of the perils of the forest. While my little brother, David, barreled through the bushes, stick in-hand, shirt off and covered in mud and bug bites, I was supposed to be the one to watch out for both of us. I had a lot to worry about, my dad’s warnings playing on repeat in my mind: When you’re walking through open fields, always scan the area for rattlesnakes. Make sure to empty out your shoes before putting them on, in case of scorpions. Avoid tall grasses in the summer heat, because the pronged grass seeds can spring off the stalk and fly off into your eye. When you pee in the woods, stay away from bushes so you don’t get ticks on your “peep.” And when you poop in the woods, give the area a good look around to make sure there aren’t any snakes. Make some noise when you’re walking so you don’t startle a bear. If you see a wild boar, climb a tree as quickly as you can, because they carry rabies and have teeth like dogs. And don’t run during dawn or dusk, because a mountain lion could drop down on you and drag your limp, lifeless body into the trees.
You’d think I would just avoid situations that make me nervous, and believe me: that’s my first choice. But my life would be too small if I gave into everything that worried me, so I keep hoping that the more often I feel fear in small doses, the larger my comfort zone will become, until one day, maybe I will be free.
So, for my Mark’s birthday, I decided we should embark on my first backpacking trip, a 14-mile round-trip voyage to Wheeler Geologic Area, a Mordor-like cascade of ferocious spires, otherworldly hoodoos and unusual rock formations. If it turned out to be a terrible idea, at least I’d get a good picture out of it.
Mark once joked that my appetite for adventure is greater than my stomach for it, but I think he just doesn’t realize how much danger we’re in, all the time. As we trekked along the narrow dirt trail, our backs loaded up with heavy packs, I scanned, I looked, I searched the areas, keeping an eye out for anything lurking in the dark woods, my hand poised on the canister of bear mace belted onto my fanny pack. Mark didn’t seem at all concerned as he blithely walked along the trail, marveling at the viewpoints along the way. He’s not even paying attention! I’m the only one keeping a lookout, I thought in disbelief. I don’t want to be caught off-guard—I have to watch for both of us.
It was easy to get caught up in the scenery, the dramatic landscapes seamlessly shifting, all the while tapping into childhood memories of fairytales and epic journeys. Now I know how Bilbo Baggins felt, I thought as my stomach growled. We meandered past wide-open meadows speckled with wildflowers, through stark stands of ash-grey beetle-kill trees, beneath the shade of dense forests and across a vast field of foul-smelling mud that sucked at our boots and conjured up mental images of that scene from The Neverending Story, the one when Atreyu’s horse becomes swallowed by the Swamps of Sadness.
Somewhere around mile five, I started realizing how alone we were in the wilderness, especially since we hadn’t seen anyone else on the trail for at least a couple hours. What should I do if something happens to Mark? Would I have to just leave him here and run all the way back for help? I’m not sure I know the way. What if a bear comes? I really should be making more noise as I walk, I worried. I considered starting a conversation with Mark to make some kind of sound, but I couldn’t really think of anything to say without delving into how nervous I felt. That seemed like a downer. Maybe I could whistle? No, I’m not a very good whistler. Singing? I could be into that.
You know how you think you know all the lyrics, until you try to sing a song from start to finish with no teleprompter? Yeah, as it turns out, I don’t know very many songs. But my musical repertoire is deep and rich when it comes to animated Disney movies circa 1989 through 1996. So, I stuck to the classics. I belted out “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas. I wheezed out the Lion King’s “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” while trekking up a hill that turned out to be a lot steeper than I thought. And I aced pretty much the entire Little Mermaid soundtrack, even bantering back and forth as both Chef Louis and Sebastian for a very spirited rendition of “Les Poissons.” Thankfully, Mark grew up with a couple sisters, so he chimed in on the choruses.
On the last mile, the sky began to darken, and a chill moved through the hot summer air, tickling the hairs on my arm until my skin crawled with goose bumps.
“Let’s try to beat the rain,” Mark said to me, and we picked up our pace, hoping to get to camp before the afternoon storm rolled in. It wasn’t far. I imagined how marathoners must feel, mentally and physically exhausted but hurrying to complete that final stretch before the finish line. As we rounded the last corner of trees, the forest opened up, leading into a quiet meadow with several primitive campsites dispersed along the edges. We made it.
We worked quickly and without much conversation, setting up our tent as we had many times before. The first time Mark showed me how to assemble it, I remember being in awe at how a small bag of thin nylon and flimsy aluminum poles could transform into a shelter—and more in awe that my husband knew how all the pieces fit together. He didn’t even look at the instruction manual. Now, I could probably set it up on my own, too.
As soon as we began pounding the last few stakes into the ground, the sky seemed to rip open, large, cold raindrops pelting against our rain jackets. We dove into the tiny tent, and I stripped off my wet clothes and shimmied into my puffy sleeping bag. From inside the tent, the torrential shower roared against the taut rainfly, and the openness of the meadow seemed to echo the sound of driving rain pelting against the solid earth. I closed my eyes to listen and fell asleep almost immediately.
I stirred awake. The rain had stopped, and the sunlight had softened. We would need to cook dinner if we wanted to eat before dark. I hauled myself from the warmth of my sleeping bag and pulled on some dry clothes. I unzipped the tent and shook out my boots before shoving my feet inside, heaving myself into a standing position. I could hear Mark stirring.
“I’m going to get a fire started,” I called gently into the tent.
“Okay, babe,” he replied sleepily. “I’ll get the food out. Just give me a minute.”
I grabbed a fire starter from our utility kit. They were eco-friendly, according to the packaging, made of all-natural wood chips and wax, and they were obviously mass produced: perfectly rounded balls with a flat bottom, as though someone spooned them out of an industrial-sized bowl with a mini ice cream scooper and set them on a cookie sheet to harden. My little brother and I used to make fire starters when we were kids. We would walk along the well-worn trails that wove throughout our property and carefully inspect the pine trees, looking for wounds in the bark where dense, sticky sap would slowly ooze from the smooth, wet core beneath. We’d scrape it off, a little bit here and there, until we had a blackberry-sized ball of golden sap, and we’d roll it in a pile of sawdust leftover from a firewood day, until it was no longer sticky. Then we’d rub our sap-covered fingers in dirt—the drier the dirt, the better—until they weren’t sticky anymore either, just colored brown and scented like pine and earth. I’m not even sure why we made them; David and I were both perfectly capable of building a fire with just pinecones and twigs. It was probably just something to do.
The eco friendly fire starters didn’t work for shit. I wished I had one of my homemade ones, stacked side-by-side in an old Altoids tin. I grabbed a Whole Foods bag out of my backpack and tore it into fine, crumpled strips, but I could tell the paper had absorbed too much moisture from the mist-laden air and probably wouldn’t burn. It smoldered, white smoke lazily rolling over the top and through my nest of pine needles and delicate twigs. After a great deal of prodding and relighting, the fire finally came to life.
After dinner, we sipped on hot apple cider spiked with Bulleit rye, our hands cupped around the steaming hot mugs as we breathed in the cloyingly sweet, artificial apple-scented vapors. The night sky was nearly covered with clouds, sometimes offering a small clearing here and there, a drifting peephole into a black sea of glittering stars. Slowly, with my face burning from the heat of the campfire and my chest warming from the whiskey, my edges began to soften. My body was tired and sore from the long hike, but I felt good about it, feeling as though I accomplished something difficult. I watched the light from the fire dance across our campsite, casting shadows into the trees overhead. For a moment, my awe for the world bloomed, becoming bigger than my fear of it. I stared, unafraid, into the thick darkness beyond our halo of light. And as I sank into the stillness, I enjoyed the deep silence.