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That picture above. Right there. It’s gorgeous, right? Only a few miles from the road, yet wonderfully rugged. The North Cascade Mountains in Washington State. Hours from home. Fresh air, steep terrains, squeaky pikas, bear prints in the snow, flowing mountain streams. Stuff I’ve been traipsing in and around for almost 10 years.

I had a panic attack in the valley. Deep in the forest. Just out of the photo frame. Bottom right.

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This was part of the Annual Ladies Backpacking Trip. Organized by one of my favorite outdoor ladies, it was guaranteed to be a good time. Get in a heart-pounding hike up and over a few ridges, with the potential to camp by a lake and even bag a peak. Most of us on the trip are constantly hiking and climbing with boyfriends/husbands/male partners, so the women’s trip is a refreshing change of company.

Despite all the promise of a trip with lovely company and views, part of me wanted to stay at home and just … stop. I’d just ended five months of absolute insanity. It’d been two weeks since the last of it, ending with the massive bike ride from Seattle to Portland.

I even complained to Maria a week before the trip. “I’m so exhausted and tired, I have no desire to leave my house.” No, you have to go, she said, don’t bail. I’ll even drive.

* sigh * Ugh. OK. I guess.

As email traffic increased leading up to the trip, I started to get excited. I started packing Monday night, even though we didn’t leave until Friday morning. I also had no choice, as apparently my life of insanity had not stopped and I had no time Tues-Thurs evenings to pack. I also was determined to go as light as possible, so I gave myself time to go through my gear and ditch things (and, well, buy a smaller pack). I eventually got down to 17 lbs of gear and 13 lbs of food and water = 30 lbs in a 50 liter pack, with room to spare! That’s a RECORD for me. However, just before we hit the trail, I added meat, which brought my pack up to 41 lbs, the heaviest of the group. FAIL. Seriously, 11 more pounds of food? I was so mad at myself.

We met the other five women at the trailhead and heartily started up our first trail: 4 miles and 3,000 feet to Easy Pass. With all the chattering and excitement, that seemed like a piece of cake and before we knew it, we were having lunch three hours later at the pass in the shade, with Fisher Basin open before us.

From there we could see the rest of the day’s route: drop down to the valley, climb out the southern end of it, scramble up and over some rocky ledges (a.k.a. “The Cakewalk”) and then drop down to Silent Lakes for base camp. Great! (Even if “The Cakewalk” looking nothing like that).

We started down to the valley, dropping 1,500 feet in 2 miles, under the oppressive heat of the July sun, and swarmed by mosquitoes and black flies. We reached the bottom of the valley near Fisher Camp and turned southeast, following a rough boot path with some log hopping.

At this point, I was doing OK. I’d enjoyed the climb to the pass, but something started to bother me on the way into the valley.

It started slowly with a sense of not wanting to be there. I felt guilty about that but then those feelings started to get raw: Damn my pack is heavy, why the hell did I pack so much food, I was totally cool with 30 lbs last night, I’m so exhausted, I guess I’m still trashed from the past few months, damnit it’s really hot all I want to do is go home I want to be in my gardens if I’m going to work this hard I want it to be at my house working with iced tea brewing on the backporch and feeling a sense of accomplishment why do I do this to myself–

Then came on the shallow breathing followed by a racing heartbeat, then a feeling of suffocation.

Maria was just a few yards in front of me.

“Maria?” my voice breaking to my surprise, and then suddenly feeling myself mentally, emotionally and physically crumble. “I’m… done. I’m just … done.”

She turned toward me.

“Oh, yes I know I am too. We bit off more than we can chew. And it’s really hot right now.”

“No, it’s not that,” I said as we met in the middle, my trekking poles dragging behind me like a toddler with a blanket. “I’m, like, DONE. I can’t go any more. I’m just …”

I then burst in tears and collapsed in her arms, and sobbed and sobbed and sobbed.

Like body-goes-limp-but-trying-to-catch-my-breath-while-trying-to-get-it-all-out-sobbing. I can’t remember the last time I cried so hard.

Maria held me for awhile before she gently guided me to a log to sit down and collect myself while she went to catch the girls.

I sat there dumbfounded, numb. I wanted to turn around and march right back up that hot hill and then back down to the car. It was only 5 miles. It was not hard. I knew I was still trashed from the past few months but I didn’t realize it would hit like this. I’m supposed to enjoy these types of outings. These types of outings are supposed to relax me. Take me away from everyday life.

When Maria returned, she didn’t have her backpack, which immediately crushed me.

“We’re going to stop just a little ways up here and make camp,” she said. “We won’t go all the way to the lakes and one of the other women is pretty done too. The heat is getting to all of us.”

“Oh… I was hoping we could go home.”

“No, now that’s silly. We’ve come all this way. We can’t leave now. We can just sit in camp, we don’t have to do anything.”

With a heavy sigh, I got up and trudged on. My body felt heavy but my head was completely void of emotion. I was just floating now. Not really engaged but still aware of my surroundings: that creek we had to wade, the boulder field we had to navigate, help make decisions on where we’d camp that night. Just barely.

But I continued on. Our group made the decision to camp below The Cakewalk and the next day, those who wanted to could do a trip up to Silent Lakes and Fisher Peak.

We camped on a rocky outcrop with established tent sites, with a stream to our left and a snow patch to the right. The southern end of the valley rose above us, with Fisher Basin behind us. We established campsites (Maria had to call my name a few times to get my attention as I stood there mindlessly just holding one end of the tent as she was trying to set it up), rinsed off in the creek, changed clothes, pumped fresh water, had dinner and drank snow-ritas (margarita mix and tequila poured over cups of snow – WAY better than anything served in a restaurant.). We shared stories of previous trips and read outloud from the trip’s Official Literature, “Woman’s World Weekly.”

I explained to the ladies that I didn’t think I had the mental capacity for the climb the next day. They completely understood, and said they’ve been in my place before, where all you can manage is just one foot in front of the other just to get to camp. I was so thankful for these ladies. I may not have been all “there”, but I knew I was safe. If there was an emergency, I could snap into rescue mode, that wasn’t problem. But, at this particular moment, I didn’t have to do anything. I could just … be.

The next day, I woke up only feeling a bit better. Still in a funk but at least rested. I was wondering if I’d step out of the tent and see the day’s objective and wonder if I’d be struck with the usual “OMG I should go, I’ll feel guilty if I don’t, I came all this way, I should take advantage of this, I’m weak if I don’t go!”

Nope. Nothing. I mean, I felt a slight twinge of desire to scramble something but not necessarily do the weekend’s objective. I could have climbed to the edge of valley to peek over the other side, but I also felt completely OK with just staying in camp. Maria would be staying too. In fact, I entertained the idea of a nap after breakfast.

After the ladies took off for their climb, I straightened up camp, organized my food and took stock of what I had (why the hell was my bag so heavy?) and made it an objective to eat as much food as possible during the day, even if it meant stuffing an entire block of cheese, several landjagers and a log of sausage down my throat over the next 12 hours.

After I finished my food organization and made a list of lighter gear to research, I moved to the tent to organize my other gear. Maria was reading inside, shaded and away from the bugs.

“So what are you doing there, Tiff?”

“Oh, just organizing, putzing, nesting … Wait! I’m NESTING! Which is what I want to be doing anyway but just right now it happens to be while I’m seven hours from home and in the middle of nowhere!”

We both laughed.

That’s when I realized it.

It took me being in the wilderness to force myself to stop. To put myself in an environment free of any stressors, to simply just survive. To not be distracted by anything. No projects to tackle (even if that’s what I thought I wanted to do). I love being in the outdoors for those reasons – to simply survive and not think about all things I should be thinking about.

How to mitigate the bugs, what layers should I work with right now, when should we fill up the group water jugs, how much food can I eat today, when can I steal Maria’s book after reading Woman’s World Weekly from cover to cover again…

After coming to that realization, I finally relaxed, finished my putzing, then took my pillow and sit pad out of the tent, laid out on the ground and thought, “Here’s the vacation I’ve finally wanted. It may not be on a beach, but it certainly was warm, outside and quiet. No family, no work, no Internet to distract me.”

And I was OK with it. I even took that nap.

Later that night, when the ladies came back from the climb, the first thing Eileen did was march right up to me, embrace me, and exclaim, “Smart decision!” Apparently that climb was not for the faint of heart. Or the mentally unstable.

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Back to my regular self

By this point, I was back being OK with life. I also made a few decisions, such as to truly zero in on my desires in the moment (mountains, city or home?). I also realized the mountains weren’t where I wanted to be this summer. I’d been biking since March and really loved it this year. So I mentally cancelled my Mt. Baker trip that was in two weeks. Once I made that decision, and started making plans for fun things to do around town for the month of August (including more bike time and yard time and yoga), I started to feel immensely better.

Just because it’s summertime in the Northwest doesn’t mean it always needs to be spent in the mountains. In fact, I LOVE my house in the summertime. The front porch is great for sunsets. The backyard (when it’s weeded and cleaned up) is cozy and lush. The light in the morning in the living room is lovely.

Then there is the question – am I living the life I want? Every year, I’m faced the issue – I want to do EVERYTHING. With EVERYONE. I need to climb mountains to stay strong for mountain rescue, which I absolutely love, almost more than life itself. I want to kayak though. I want to enjoy Seattle in the summer, with picnics with city friends in the little city parks. I want to spend time at home enjoying my investment. I want to be closer to the water these days, and not be far away in the mountains.

How do you find balance so not to burn yourself out or be overwhelmed?

Talking with a friend the other night, he said, you just have to learn to say no. Truly listen to what you want to do and do it. It doesn’t make you weaker or less of a person if you don’t climb mountains all the time, or decide you want to have an in-town weekend, or if you want to do yoga all the time instead of sports, or embrace your new found love for biking, or pick up a water sport.

Fay offered a quote that stuck with me: “You have to let go of the life you expected in order to have the life that is waiting for you.”

Basically – go with the flow. Do what you want. Do what makes you happy.

Three days after that emotional backpacking trip, I was sitting at a campground on the Pacific coast. I was there for two days of work but I couldn’t bring myself to find a hotel or sleep in the Jetta. I wanted to sleep as close as possible to the ocean. So I tossed the tent,  sleeping bag and pillow in the car. A few snacks. Backpacking stove and a dehydrated meal for my dinner, which I delightedly and slowly ate on the beach as I people-watched. I could feel the sticky but refreshing layer of the saltwater on my skin. I’d been excited by the idea of sleeping by the ocean, by myself. Ironically, all completely forced by logistics of work.

And maybe my friend is right.

Maybe I should buy a surfboard.

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