I just finished reading Wild, a memoir by Cheryl Strayed about her life-changing solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail from California to Washington. When she starts on her epic walk in Southern California, her life is in shambles. She’s reeling from the death of her mother and the disintegration of her marriage. But she finds herself again in the wilderness and discovers a path to a new life.
It’s a good book. But it made me nearly insane with jealousy. When I first saw it on the shelves of the bookstore, I couldn’t stop myself from sniping to my friend, “That’s my book. I wanted to write that.”
Of course it’s not my book. Nor is it my story. I’ve always wanted to hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,650 mile back-country path that traverses some of the wildest and most beautiful land along the Sierras and Cascades between Mexico and Canada. But I’ve only experienced a small stretch of the trail in California. Jay and I hiked a hundred-odd miles on the PCT on two glorious backcountry backpacking trips. One of these was on our honeymoon. When we emerged into civilization we told each other, “Someday we’ll come back and hike the whole trail.” We even bought the trail guidebook that Strayed used, and did some semi-serious thinking about the logistics of the trek. But then we moved to Montana, and embarked on different adventures—living in Palau and traveling in Southeast Asia, bringing Andrew into the world, moving back to Montana.
And then I got sick. I didn’t lose my ability to hike immediately. Jay and I schlepped baby Andrew up many a Montana mountain. But vigorous backcountry hiking became difficult for me. I gained a lot of weight (a marvelous combination of high doses of prednisone and using food to soothe my anxiety). Sarcoidosis moved first into my joints, and then into my bones. My foot bones eroded from the inside out. I spent months in casts and boots trying to heal stress fractures caused by the sarcoidosis. Under stress from the extra pounds, weakened by prednisone, and damaged by disease, my ankle ligaments ruptured spontaneously on four different occasions. To make things even worse, the neurological problems brought on by sarcoidosis have made walking difficult and dangerous.
I tried not to dwell on what I can’t do—slip into the wilderness, with everything I needed to sustain me in my backpack. But I have missed my hiking time, especially my backpacking trips. We would go for days without seeing another person. Our daily routine was simple. We rose with the sun, walked and talked, cooled off in frigid mountain lakes, walked and talked some more, took breaks in shady glens, walked and talked, made camp where we wanted, built a fire and read aloud to each other, cooked something basic and nourishing, watched the stars fill the dark dome of the sky, talked a little more, and then slept beneath that never-ending sky. Some days we’d walk twenty miles; some days just a few. We walked beneath bald slabs of mountains and through fields of lacy wildflowers. We climbed to waterfalls and to windy vistas where we could see the land unfolding to the horizon. These trips were intense. I felt closely connected to Jay, to the sky, to the movement of the day, to the mountains and the dirt and the mosquitoes, and—most profoundly—to myself.
Our two trips on the Pacific Crest Trail were more than vacations or the chance to get away for a few days. Jay and I truly got to know each other on our first backcountry trip. Those miles of walking—and talking—bound us together more profoundly than an eternity of “date nights” could. And our time on the Pacific Crest Trail after our wedding cemented that bond. I also made some fairly important self-discoveries in the PCT. I decided to give the writing life a real try.
Another trek on the PCT is exactly what I need right now. I’m still trying to navigate life with a chronic illness, and I’m craving the silence and openness of the trail. I want to get away from hospitals and infusions, and worry only about how many miles are ahead of me for the day. It would be wonderful to feel so connected to Jay again. It’s been quite a while since we’ve had a whole day together with no distractions or interruptions.
Except I can’t do it. I’m not even close to being healthy enough or fit enough to walk all day long with a heavy load on my back. My ankles are too unreliable, and my vertigo too severe. There’s also that pesky thing called my real life between me and the trail. I have a kid, a house, a mortgage, and work I want to do. I simply can’t remove myself from my life so that I can gain perspective on it.
We all have full lives that require us to be in them. Such is the nature of growing up. It’s not chronic illness that keeps me here, out of the wild. It’s my gorgeous son and the crazy, full-to-the-brim life Jay and I have built for him and with him. But staying home doesn’t mean that I have to sit still.
It’s time for a pivot—that delicate turn from the grandiose to the possible. It feels like I’ve been doing more than my share of pivoting since I got sick eight years ago, but I’m beginning to believe that the pivot—done well—is the essence of intelligent adult life. I used to be a woman of extremes. I lurched from one absolute to another. But that’s not who I am anymore, thanks to my time in Chronic Town.
So if I can’t traipse off into the wild, what can I do to keep that dream and that part of myself alive? I can walk in the not-wild right outside my front door. Every night for the past couple of weeks, I’ve laced on my ankle braces and grabbed my trekking poles for balance in case of vertigo, and headed onto my street. I started off just walking a block. I’ve progressed to 1.5 miles. I admire my neighbor’s gardens. I breathe in the crisp scent of spring. I listen to the birds. I’ve even gotten to take in a couple of grand sunsets.
These walks are what I have now. Who knows what might be next?
Have you had to pivot in your adult life?