All That We Carry
With a quick sidelong glance across the gravel parking lot, I can see that my backpack is stuffed beyond recommended carrying capacity. I swivel back to the trunk to grab the final provisions that I’ll haul seven miles uphill towards a backcountry hut in the Gore Range north of Vail. During a more typical late winter season, I’d have been able to hike from this parking lot with skis on my feet and climbing skins attached – but alas, it’s been unusually warm and dry this spring, and I’ll be starting with everything strapped to my back. Swinging the pack up onto my shoulders, the added weight of skis and bulky ski boots seems to press through my entire body and push outward in a sharp exhale of breath. The crunch of gravel footsteps begins, eyes trained upward in a pulsing wind. Opaque gray clouds roil on the hills around me – a cold front is moving in.
Until this winter, furious upward movement was always a coping mechanism for me. The catharsis I found in aerobic movement would calm my heart’s worries, no matter the cause. Pushing myself to physical exhaustion was my way of outrunning my own racing mind. Incessant movement, travel, onwards, upwards, outwards. Never sitting still long enough to let things pool around me. I could leave everything behind at the trailhead and run for miles, until the sun arced west and my feet grew tired.
I sat behind the wheel of my car at a trailhead sometime this March, skis loaded into the trunk, poised to charge uphill. I didn’t hop out of the car with spritely energy, but instead pressed my forehead against the steering wheel and took deep breaths. My breath grew ragged, face wet with tears. Everything inside of me seemed to have come unmoored, all the strength drained out as if it had leaked through the very bottoms of my feet. Watching my sister-in-law (who was my age) die of a particularly vicious form of cancer has called into question many of the cushioned comforts to which I used to cling. Her ghost is so present that she feels like an appendage. Now out of the car and hiking, I am pressing up a steep incline through the trees, and she is still all around me. Tears flow in concert with the swing of my arms. I’m hiking up Emerald Mountain via a bumpy old access road that locals have dubbed “Lane of Pain” for its steep incline, tough on lungs and hearts.
A couple of months later, I ascend through the subalpine Gore Range with that heavy pack towards the backcountry hut where a wood stove fireplace beckons. Along the way a snowstorm blows in with force, and I scurry up the trail to where the trees provide some respite from the wind. Hiking through the dense lodgepole pine stands, I take a break to adjust my pack. I am alone – my friends are spaced out along the trail, everyone on their own journey for the moment. I am trying to learn the art of stillness. How to walk this path and to take pause along the way. To move through pain while also letting it sink in, deep and dark, with texture. I shrug and lift my pack off my shoulders and hips, where the bones ache from the weight. It seems as though this lump in my throat has been stuck there for weeks. I close my eyes against the rising tide. It’s quiet all around me, save for my breath. Breathe in, breathe out. Grieve in, grieve out.