December 12, 2014
This is the third installment of a three-part essay on hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada.
Space. All those miles, more than a third of a million steps opened up space. They allowed me to let go of the pain and doubt wrought from all of the mistakes I made through life. By the time I entered the alpine meadows of Kings Canyon National Park, I no longer felt full. Instead there was room for me to experience exquisite joy and gratitude.
It was 5:15 one morning. I woke up with Colin Hay's "I Just Don't Think I'll Ever Get Over You" in my head. The moon had set but the sea of stars cast a silvery light over the valley. At 11,000 feet, it was cold. Frost covered my sleeping bag, so it was hard to start moving. I heated up some water for oatmeal and instant coffee. That’s probably the reason Colin Hay was in my head—the lyrics include, "I drink good coffee, in the morning...." The song always reminded me of a girl I'd loved. It used to be that when I thought of her I was angry, hurt, or lonely. But this time, the thoughts that came to me were the good ones, ones that I hadn't thought about in years. I watched the stars wink out one by one as the sky turned from purple to violet to blue. The sky was turning orange by the time I lifted my bag onto my shoulder and began walking through the huge basin surrounded by fantastic jagged peaks. The sun hit the tops of them, igniting them, and their reflections in the lakes looked like liquid gold.
An overwhelming sense of thankfulness washed over me. I was grateful I’d gotten to know the girl I once loved and lived with. I was grateful for the good times we had. And I was thankful for the pain because it led me to here. It helped me become the man I am today. As the sun slid down the mountains and glaciers I was overwhelmed with memories. Thoughts so thick, I could touch, smell, and hear each moment. I remembered sitting in a truck watching the moon set over the Sheep River after a night of catching more than 40 bats in Canada. Canoeing with friends, from the clear blue waters of northern Minnesota to the green Caribbean colored waves of Florida’s 10,000 Islands. Playing a game of cards and drinking microbrews with my family. All these memories, and more. I was thankful for every damn one of them. All the beautiful people in my life. So much beauty that it filled me up and I felt like I was going to explode. So I let the memories go and flow through me like rain.
As I walked into a forest of trees stunted by the harsh winters, the warm sun hit my face. And a memory from my childhood came to me. My dad bringing my blanket up to me, still warm from the dryer with nylon edges worn and tattered to a silky softness. And I was grateful, for everything my parents had given me, for making me who I am, and for making this trip possible. And I wished that I could find a way to show my gratitude to them and to all my friends. I suppose these words are a start.
Just as during the hike, I might trip on some bloody stick or rock on the trail, sometimes I trip up on self-deprecating thoughts both on and off the trail. But when I do then and now I stop, and breathe.
Breathe the trail back in. As Edward Abbey would call it “that sweet and lucid air." Breathe in the scent of mountain lupine flowers perched on the shoulder of Mt. Hood. The earthy, musty smell of caves rising from rock-strewn slopes of Washington. Sagebrush, hot and gritty percolating through the southern California deserts. Or the butterscotch scent emanating from a sun-soaked ponderosa pine.
And again I breathe.
And open my eyes to see clear cold lakes with arteries and veins of mountain streams flowing in and out of them. The heart of the mountains. Feathery cirrus clouds drifting over the sawtooth Sierras. The impossibly orange sunrise over the Mojave or the crimson clouds created by Mt. Adams. A cold hard white, blue, and black world of snow-covered Glacier Peak. I can feel the thunderous hoof beats of elk running down the mountain, velvet antlers splayed out proudly.
And with each breath I let go. I let go of the pain. Let go of the mistakes. Let go of all the choices. And I realize that when it comes right down to it, there are few things that truly matter in life. I'll hold the things that matter close, feel gratitude, and let the rest slip away. Returning to the world like sand through my fingertips.
John Muir was right. Going to the mountains is going home.
Photos from the Pacific Crest Trail courtesy of Luke DeGroote.