“Alexa, you know I love you; I just don’t think I can be away from the firm for that long,” he explained. I could hear him tapping away at his keyboard, only half listening to our conversation. Erik’s voice gave away his exhaustion and I pictured the dark circles under his eyes that seemed to accompany his most recent promotion. I stayed quiet, allowing the silence between us to linger just a bit longer before I did the inevitable.
“I understand; it won’t be the same without you but maybe this will be a good experience for me. Don’t worry about me, just promise you’ll get some sleep while I’m gone. Call me in the morning, love you, good night babe,” I replied in the steadiest voice I could manage. I hung up the phone, plugged it in to its charger and fell into a troubled sleep.
I woke with a start; the alarm was not scheduled to go off for another four minutes so I sat, realizing that this would be the only time of peace today. I moved through my morning routine with an incredibly low level of motivation, throwing on a pair of overused leggings and a grungy Radiohead t-shirt. After neatly tucking my scantrons into my bag, cup of coffee in hand, I tried to prepare.
The day lingered but eventually came to a close, as did my college career. The time in between finals and graduation passed slowly with little differentiating one from another. It was a relief to have college behind me but I missed the structured schedule that I had become accustomed to. I stared at my phone, I had no new messages but the date caught my attention. It was the thirteenth of June, where had the time gone? In just a week I would begin my hike up the Pacific Crest Trail.
I had been planning since the beginning of the semester but with the chaos recently it had all sort of slipped to the back burner. In the corner of my room I could see the bags I had only half packed in my pre-trip excitement last month. The stash of food that I had organized for Erik and me was too much for one person but I figured I could just take the excess anyways.
Despite the fact that I wanted him to be with me, a solo hike had definite potential. This was the perfect opportunity to depend on no one but myself, to discover more about who I was and embrace it all. The Oregon wilderness had never let me down before and I didn’t think it was going to start now.
I picked up the map that had my path highlighted on it, tracing my finger from the origin at the very bottom of my home state to the Washington border. Four hundred and fifty six miles should be enough to find myself, right? From what little research I had done, it took an experienced hiker, such as myself, thirty-one days total to complete. The time was not much of a concern for me; it was more a journey than a race.
As my departure approached I realized how unprepared I really was. The supplies seemed to add up differently each time I took an inventory and I wasn’t sure where to start the adjustments…so I didn’t.
“Here goes nothing,” I whispered quietly to myself as I gathered my belongings from the bus. My heavy pack settled between my shoulder blades and I tried to ignore weight that I felt, both physical and psychological. Day one passed easily as I leisurely covered ten miles. I made camp that night just outside of the Cascade–Siskiyou National Monument. The sun setting over the sprawling landscape threw shadows of the thousands of evergreen trees. It was a beautiful sight and while I ate a modest dinner I pondered the size of my problems compared to this forest.
Day 8. I’m a hundred something miles from home and I feel even farther from civilization. My pack has given me back pain like never before and the blisters are my feet have begun to bleed, again. I overestimated the amount of food I could carry before reaching the next refueling station so yesterday I left four days’ worth of food in a tree. Oh well, not like I’ve been eating anyways. The motivation to eat or even hike has all but disappeared.
The landscape no longer holds any virtuous mystery for me; every branch that snaps under my boots is just another of my dreams ending. The steady fall of rain since day three has put me in a state of constant negativity. The moisture clings to every part of me, soaking through my so-called water repellent gear with ease.
Day 10. If someone were to tell me that I had been out here for a year, I would believe it. I can’t remember why I came out here. Around me I notice only death. The leaves wilt from the constant moisture and perfectly reflect the way I feel. Campfires left by those who had the will to continue only make me feel weaker. Time creeps by.
Day 13. I’ve only progressed fifteen miles in the past three days. My GPS tells me there is a refueling station three miles ahead and the thought of continuing any longer is causing me physical pain. I pick up my gear and head towards civilization. The only motivator is my need for relief from my current mental state.
It’s the fourth of July and all around me my boyfriend’s coworkers are celebrating America’s birthday in true USA style. The red white and blue décor overwhelms my senses as I realize this is more people than I’ve seen in quite some time. Erik stands by my side with his arm casually draped over my shoulders, unknowingly pressing on the welts left by my pack. The pain had faded but it is a reminder of how dark I had been feeling since my return.
The failed hiking expedition was the topic of most conversations and although I appeared to have fallen back into my routine I felt more lost than ever. I had lost eleven pounds and gained only the feeling of emptiness that had settled in my stomach. I hated that the depression had forced me to call off my trip but I needed a way to rebuild.
I had gotten back into the swing of things over the past few weeks. My new job at Starbucks was hectic enough to keep my attention yet relaxed enough to allow the stress to run off of me. In my free time I had been going to museums and taking short walks on the local hiking trails but something was missing. I couldn’t accept the failure of my trip; as soon as I started to think my life was in balance I would remember the unfinished business of my post-graduation trip.
The voice in the back of my head was pushing me towards the only resolution…a second try. I began training at a local gym four days a week, focusing on endurance and strength. By the beginning of August I was in the best shape of my life and started to reorganize my supplies. I packed up just enough food to get me from the drop point to the nearest refueling station. Take two of my solo hike would not be based on a search for myself it would be a journey fueled by hunger.
I turned to say my goodbyes to Erik as he double and triple checked my load again. Our relationship had grown stronger since my return and he fully supported my second attempt. Three months after my initial departure I was back at a drop sight of the Pacific Crest Trail, only this time I was prepared for the challenges ahead. That naïve recent graduate was all but a memory as I easily lifted my pack over my shoulder. This time the weight was less of a burden and more of a gift. I kissed Erik hard and set off once again.
As I emerged from the woods I ran into his arms just the way I had imagined for the past twenty days. Erik picked me up and spun me around expressing how proud he was of me. Once he finally let go, he released all but my left hand; stepping back as he kneeled down onto one knee and pulled out a small black velvet box.