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Adventures in Self-Care: Panic! At the Mountaintop

I write to you after a glorious vacation. Although I’m a little overwhelmed with just how much time I’ve spent out of town this summer, I’m grateful for the opportunity to spend so much time seeing new places and being outside.

Andy and I’s big vacation plans for the summer couldn’t have fallen during a better time. Exactly one week after my cat died, on the first sunny day in the entire week, we hopped in his car and drove up to Niagara Falls. This part of the trip lasted only one evening–about as much time as either of us could stand in the city when there were mountains to be climbed.

As a water-loving Pisces (and fan of The Office), I loved watching the water fall over the cliff’s edge in smooth sheets as much as I loved seeing advertisements for the Maid of the Mist.

As an introvert, I really did not like the crowds, which is why I talked Andy into going for an early morning run along the falls with me before we left for the next leg of our trip.

That was the best way, for me, to experience Niagara Falls. The early morning emptiness of a tourist town has a haunting beauty, especially when the streets are designed as a veritable amusement park.

From point A of the trip, we moved on to wine country, googling a random winery and stopping by for a quick tasting to select the wine we’d bring with us to our campsite on Sunday night. (Is that legal? If it isn’t, we definitely did not bring the wine to our campsite and definitely did consume it in our Airbnb the night before). The Thirsty Owl in the Fingerlakes did not disappoint.

The pre-camping day was spent relaxing in a hammock on one of New York’s many lakes, reading the rom com delight that is Kerry Winfrey’s Waiting for Tom Hanks (me) and some thick, knowledgely book that has a year for a title (Andy). We drove to our AirBnb in Sackett’s Harbor and ate a leisurely dinner, strolling around the harbor town and peeking in a few shops (new soap for me, new shaving foam for Andy). All the time, I kept thinking about the Big Adventures to come–a kayaking trip down Raquette River on Sunday and the Big Hike on Monday.

I’ve written before about how I learned to process grief when my college boyfriend died. In fact, I explore the way in which Wild and H is for Hawk taught me to grieve in this essay, The Lonely Planet Guide to Grief.  So, it was a little bit lucky and a little bit strange that Andy and I’s plans lined up so neatly with how I’d handled that very different sort of loss–kayaking one day, hiking the next.

Losing a beloved cat is a different type of sad (the crying when you listen to a podcast about pets kind of sad, apparently), but nature’s healing beauty works much the same for me. The moment my rented kayak splashed into the water, I felt a huge weight lift from my chest. This, paddling my way down the river, soaking in the sunshine and the sound of water beneath the boat, is living. I am alive. 

My second kayak experience lived up to expectations–it wasn’t a grief-fog fluke, I truly do love kayaking. The couple in a canoe who’d been just a ways ahead of us our entire journey pulled up to shore the same place we did, for a brief pit stop in the ox bow before the return trek.

In one of those strange, serendipitous moments, we learned once we got to chatting that they were from my college town of Evansville, Indiana–and in fact, the woman had gone to the University of Evansville. Delighted to meet someone with such an unlikely shared experience in such an unexpected place, I reveled in that deep, certain feeling that this, here, now was where I was meant to be.

We made our way back down the river, and then to our campsite in the Adirondacks. The easy, using my arms part was over–the next day, we would hike.

I was equal parts excited and terrified. While I love hiking, I’m still relatively new to it, and my longest hike before we tackled Mt. Marcy was about a 12-mile adventure that ended in running down the mountainside to meet Search and Rescue. I wasn’t sure what getting down a mountain after so much climbing without the adrenaline would be like.

Furthermore, the trail was a “difficult” rating, which I wasn’t sure I’d tackled before. Andy, having thru-hiked the AT, had the experience under his boots. I, having once hiked somewhere in the Sawtooth mountains and occasionally around Red River Gorge and Hocking Hills, did not.

Still, when the morning came and I got to strap on my old, worn out hiking boots, my joy was difficult to contain. I was going to hike the highest mountain in New York! I was going to add miles to my boots and be able to say I’d tackled a fifteen mile hike. Privately, I also feared I’d be able to add “had first fight with boyfriend because I sucked at hiking too badly” to my list of… accomplishments?

We stopped for gas station coffee and, 30 minutes later, pulled up to the trailhead caffeinated and ready to go. My camelback and a full Nalgene stocked up my backpack, and Andy handed me my first ever set of hiking poles. We signed the trail register and, at 7:30am, we were off.

Because I’d never used poles before, I was astonished at how much they added to my balance. I’d read about poles before, of course, seeing as I’ve read Wild about four  times and had just finished another book about thru-hiking the PCT. But me, clumsy me, being able to climb over rocks with ease?!

Of course, a few hours into the hike, my enthusiasm dwindled a bit when one of my beloved poles got snagged in a tree and, in my haste to free it, I ended up ankle deep in a mud puddle. My leg slammed and scraped into a tree, resulting in a lovely bruise scrape combo that I’m still nursing. Still, we trudged on, wet hiking boots (me) or not (Andy).

It was hard, but not in the way I expected. Normally, the thing I battle with most on a hike is my lungs, the way they don’t seem to fully understand that you can actually keep sucking in air even when you’re climbing upwards. Because the “trail” was more like a pile of rocks, it was my feet and legs that bore the brunt of the work, my lungs mostly keeping up.

And then, we found the flies. It turns out this time of year is big black fly season in the Adirondacks, at least when you go up the mountain a ways. Not knowing this, we didn’t have netting and quickly learned our bug spray helped minimally, at best. Those annoying little gnats attacked our ears and eyes, to the point where I was cursing them loudly by the time we finally broke above treeline.

The view up there was spectacular, even if the bugs didn’t disappear when we hoped they would. Of course, the other thing about being above treeline is the sudden, stark awareness of just how high up you are. And how steep the rocks you need to climb to reach Highest Point in New York status are. And how good you are at falling and how much falling from here would probably definitely make you very, very dead. (Okay, probably just injured, but still).

I tried. I really, really tried. I looked at my comfort zone and, with Andy’s encouragement, I stepped a few hundred feet above it. And then, my anxiety did what anxiety will sometimes do–it attacked.

I was nearly 5,000 feet above the ground, midway up a stretch of rock on the side of a mountain, and I was having a panic attack.

Panic attacks were something I thought I’d left in grad school, what with the imposter syndrome and fresh grief making the whole “mortality” thing a lot more real. Finding one again at 5,000 feet with no choice but to climb back down the scary rocks, even if I didn’t go the other 344 feet to the tippy top, was less than ideal.

Tears pricked my eyes and I struggled to breathe. Andy helped me over the rock face I’d started freaking out on and we found a place to sit down while I breathed through it. My anxiety brain felt trapped–I couldn’t give up, couldn’t just not finish this hike. I couldn’t climb those basically vertical rocks to the top because how would I ever get down? But if I didn’t do it, and let Andy do it alone, he would obviously fall and die and it would be my fault. For a few minutes, my brain rattled between these impossible but definitely super real and not at all hyperbolic choices before I relaxed, listened to what Andy was saying, and agreed to sit and enjoy the view (and temporary buglessness) while he made his way to the peak.

It was beautiful. I ate a Clif bar, took a selfie and a panoramic photo, and waved to Andy as he stood higher than the rest of the state.

Oh, how disappointed in myself I felt–how close I’d come, and how I had just not been able to manage it. Nearly seven miles up into the sky I’d hiked, and the last several hundred feet did me in? I mean, who has an actual, full-on panic attack at 5,000 feet? And, what’s more, who does this while wearing a hat that literally says PANIC! on it?

But, as I looked out over all the other mountains below me, I remembered that I had still done what I set out to do–I’d hiked, like, 95% of Mt. Marcy. This was the longest, hardest, steepest hike I’d ever done. Even if I met my edge, hard, at the top, that edge sat so far above where it was when we started that morning.

I’d like to say the trip down was beautiful, but in fact the black flies were worse and things got a little tense for a while, my slow progress over the rocks making it impossible to outpace the angry hoards.

But, eventually, we reached the easy parts, the fly free parts, and enjoyed the last few miles of our hike to their fullest. Pride and relief began to sink in–I’d done it, I’d done it, I’d…well, I’d mostly done it.

The part of the mountain I did not climb

That night at our campsite, we relaxed in tired satisfaction, our day fully seized. Though I knew my legs and feet and, it turns out, entire body would be sore the next day, I felt happy and free. The sadness tugging at the corners of my mind–the first time I’d come home from a long trip without the reproachful mews of my cat, asking where the hell I’d been without him–couldn’t compete with the presentness that was my body, which had done something new and proved itself more than I could have imagined.

Did I limp into work this morning with sore legs, scrapes, bruises and more bug bites than I can count? Yes. And it was worth every minute.

I can’t explain why I love hiking any more than I can fully explain why I love any of the other things (yoga, running) that I’m just not really all that naturally gifted at. I just know that there, among the rocks and trees and water, I feel solid, real, grounded, and present. I feel if I can climb a mountain then surely, surely I can handle what life throws at me.

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