About Thick and Thin

South Rim, Grand Canyon National Park to Highway 389/Colorado City

Hayduke Trail, Days 38-46

Total Miles: 788.1

I woke up about 2am, our second night out from the South Rim, to the sound of Kasey vomitting outside his tent. “Is that the first time?”, I asked. “Second”, he said. Oh, boy. This could get interesting.

While at the South Rim we went through the maps in our resupply boxes and realized that we had somehow gotten our mileage a little off. This was going to our longest section and, according to the guidebook and other data, one of the toughest. We set off from the rim already knowing we were about a day low on food and would need to ration.

We then made the decision to bypass one of the canyons on the official route due to high spring run off and frigid temperatures. This added even more miles to the section and took us a little off the grid on our own “Tim-Tammando” alternate. (Side note: once we got into town we heard about two missing hikers who were swept away in swift water in the area we would have been traveling through if we hadn’t taken our alternate…)

So, I lay there in my tent the night Kasey was sick thinking through options for us – both best and worst case scenario – and reminded myself to get some sleep. “You’re going to need it.”

We left the South Rim of the Grand Canyon after spending days 38 and 39 as tourist in the crowds of people snapping pictures from a comfortable distance of this wild place. We headed down the Bright Angel Trail on day 40, slowly leaving behind the tourist crowds the further we dropped into the canyon. With a late start, our goal was to push as far as possible that day. We ended up doing a Rim to Rim hike that day, arriving on the North Rim as the daylight disappeared.

The North Kaibab Trail heading up to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon

 

The next day was when we needed to make a final call about our alternate. After seeing the water level in Bright Angel Creek and the snow melt off happening around us back on the Kaibab Plateau, we decided heading around the canyon was the best option. Stitching together a series of snowy forest service roads we slowly made our way toward the Bill Hall Trailhead which would take us back down to the official Hayduke route.

The night and morning Kasey got sick, we were camped in a snowy meadow. We decided to keep moving forward hoping the worst was over for Kasey. That was a day of many breaks – 45 minutes on, 15 off. Kasey dug deep and incredibly pulled out some big miles that day so we could make it to the Bill Hall Trailhead.

Day 43 brought our fourth and final climb down into the Grand Canyon. Kasey woke up feeling much better so we began our descent on a lesser used trail in the GCNP trail system. The canyon hadn’t disappointed the entire time we were there and this section was no different. Steep switchbacks brought us into Surprise Valley and then over a boulder field into Deer Creek Canyon where cold spring waters gushed out of a hole in the side of a rock wall.

Heading down the Bill Hall Trail…fourth time dropping into the Grand Canyon!

Earlier in our Hayduke Trail experience we got a ride from one of the trail’s co-founder. As we chatted with him, we asked if there was any last advice he had. “Yeah, don’t do the section between Deer Creek and Kanab Creek. Hitch a ride down the river on a boat.” The section he was referring to was an almost 8 mile section of boulder hopping and bushwhacking along the Colorado River. He was not a fan. When the co-founder tells you to skip something, you feel okay about trying to skip it.

We had no clue what to expect as we got closer to the river. We didn’t even know if this was a place where boaters stopped. As we enjoyed the shade of the spring, Kasey noticed a group of people heading up the trail towards us . . . Boaters! As we chatted with them briefly, they told us to talk with Captain Jim down at the river about a ride. This might work!!

Looking down on the Colorado River and our soon to be ride.

We enjoyed the last mile down Deer Creek, hiking on a ledge above a narrow slot canyon with fast moving water that eventually cascaded down to the river in the beautiful Deer Creek waterfall. Captain Jim was standing at the base of the waterfall when we arrived and quickly made his way over to us, pretty much offering a ride and the most amazing hospitality before we barely said anything (including fresh fruit and cold beer!). We took a break, waiting for the group to return from their hike, and then loaded our bodies and backpacks onto the supply boat. Glade and Tony took us down river, including a few sets of rapids, to Kanab Creek. Wet from the rapids and excited to have just run the Colorado River (however short), we marveled at how everything had come together so perfectly.

Once in Kanab Creek, we walked up this narrow canyon, climbing over and around large boulders, each of us trying to find the path of least resistance and make our way up the 23 miles of this canyon. This was our fourth time hiking out of the Grand Canyon . . . Four different ways in and out. What an incredible opportunity and way to explore this place! Kasey still was not feeling 100% so this afternoon was an arduous one for him. We found a small patch of sand to set up camp for the night and reveled in the good fortune of our day.

At the mouth of Kanab Creek…a day of wet shoes.

Day 44 began with the reality of what hiking in Kanab Creek was like and the goal to make it through the remaining miles of this canyon. I began to feel the achiness and nausea early that morning. My turn. About noon the stomach bug hit in full force. Kasey and I reversed roles from a couple days before, as he took charge, found spots for me to lay down, and at one point carried my backpack and told me to stop being stubborn. I didn’t have the energy to argue . . . At least not as much as I normally would argue.

This was probably the most difficult hiking day I’ve ever had. That day and the next two are a bit of a blur. Neither of us had an appetite for anything and we still needed to move. The goal became get to town, drink a big glass of sprite with ice and a straw, and find a hotel. The hiking became hot and unshaded across the Arizona Strip, offering more motivation to keep moving.

When we arrived at Highway 389, we once again were gifted with an incredible hitch. Jason not only gave us a ride to the post office in Colorado City so we could pick up our resupply boxes, he waited for us and then dropped us off 25 miles down the rode in Hurricane, Utah. We found our sprite with ice, comfy beds to crash in, and Kasey has his appetite back (mine is slowly getting there).

When I’m sick I take care of myself. I figure it out by myself because I have to. This is what I would have done had I been out there, sick and by myself. It’s how my life works. And, as I told Kasey to lay down while I packed his backpack the day he was sick, I was reminded that Kasey is used to operating the same way. Kasey and I are used to doing things on our own, including thru hiking.

But . . . We weren’t alone this past week. As hiking partners, we are in, whatever “in” means at that moment. We only move as fast as the slowest person, we go as far as is possible for them, resting as much as is needed. And, even with the strong individuality Kasey and I both bring to this partnership, neither of us question that.

Perhaps the biggest testimonies of how relationship and community transform us is when we are able to let go of our own agenda, become increasingly aware of what is happening in another person, and allow someone to care for us. Trusting that person will see us on our knees vomiting in the dirt, vulnerable and weak, and will stick around. Knowing deeply that I no longer need to prove anything about my strength or ability for them to be “in”. This is when the true self shines through in all it’s messy, beautiful glory, offering us the opportunity to know others and be known.

While Kasey and I both could have figured this section out hiking on our own and being sick, I’m so grateful I didn’t have to. It was much better sharing the experience of both rafting the Colorado River with Kasey and having him there to help me take my backpack off when I was sick, both hiking Rim to Rim with him and packing his backpack for him so he could rest. Through thick and thin, strength and struggle. I don’t take for granted this partnership with Kasey or other people I am honored to share life with.

What a stretch – 7 days, 144.9 miles, a Rim to Rim hike of the Grand Canyon, rafting the Colorado River, two gracious hitches, a creative alternate, and being sick on trail. This felt like our final exam of the Hayduke Trail. As soon as my appetite is back we head out for our last stretch – less than 50 miles from Colorado City to Zion National Park. Unreal that this experience is almost complete! Onward to Zion!

Much love, friends, from the land of the most delicious sprite I have ever tasted.

Sunrise on the Arizona Strip.

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About an Unlikely Community

After day three of my PCT journey, I was on my own. My friend, Jonathan, headed home and I adjusted to solo backpacking. The first night on my own, I found myself camping in a large group of thru hikers. There can be quite a bottleneck at the beginning of the trail until people start to spread out.

This first night included people from England, Canada, and the U.S. There was a middle age married couple, another single woman my age, and a large group of twenty-something males (two of whom had just rolled themselves in the mud for natural sun protection and were hiking the trail barefoot). Thus was my introduction to the variety and uniqueness of the thru hiker community.

Over the course of the trail I found myself often hiking alone during the day but running into new people at each water and lunch stop. I generally camped each night with new people, too. As I got further down the trail and fell into pockets of hikers with a similar pace, I started to see the same people in town and on the trail.

I hiked with people from New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Korea, China, Israel, Croatia, Finland, England, France, Switzerland, and almost every state in the U.S. (I’m sure I’m forgetting some other countries, too!). I hiked with Protestants, atheists, Catholics, Mormons, agnostics–these are just the backgrounds I know about. There were so many more religions and worldviews represented but we didn’t always have those conversations.

Some hikers find someone at the beginning of the trail and stick together until the end. Others hike in and out of people the entire journey and never have a consistent group or hiking partner. There were a few longer periods of time when I hiked with the same people. My first hiking partner for about a week was a college student from Washington state. Next, I connected with a university professor who immigrated to the U.S from Croatia a number of years ago. He is a seismologist and I had the opportunity to walk along the San Andres fault with him, soaking in as much knowledge as I could.

The first larger group I hiked with was in the California desert someplace between Wrightwood and Tehachapi. A group of four in their twenties from across the U.S., a retired gentleman from New Zealand, and myself. In Northern California and Northern Oregon, I spent time with couples from Seattle and Switzerland. Then, I hiked the entire state of Washington with a group of four. Two of them I met over a thousand miles earlier and one I met the first day hiking in Washington.

3 Goat Rocks Crew 3x5

The Washington hiking crew in the Goat Rocks Wilderness, August 2015.

There were also many other people I shared the trail with along the way!

I write all this to give you an idea of how hiking partners and community ebbs and flows on the PCT, and more importantly, to give a glimpse of the variety of people represented. I remember processing on the trail the uniqueness of the community I was hanging out with. I wondered if we would be friends in our normal, everyday lives off the trail. Would we hang out if it weren’t for this common goal we were all pursuing? Would we have these same deep conversations so soon if we weren’t alone in the woods? Would I spend the time getting to know people different than me if I had my close friends with me on the PCT? My answer to these questions is, “I hope so.” Yet, I know it only happens when I’m intentional about choosing to go there.

For five years of my professional life I lived and worked on a Christian college campus. Into year two I realized that I lived, worked, worked out, ate, went to church, and more all within a few blocks of my building on campus. Not only was I in a bubble, the bubble consisted of a majority of people who looked like me, thought like me, read the same books as me, and heard the same speakers as me. There was a similar language in how we talked about faith, spirituality, politics and issues facing our world.

I learned and grew during those years; it was a strong community that helped continue building a solid foundation for me. But I also noticed some things that were lacking. I was being challenged but it seemed as if only within the context of my own religion and background. I loved and respected my community of friends, church, and co-workers. However, I also wanted to learn from and know people who had a life experience, belief system, and worldview that would challenge me in new ways and help me understand different perspectives.

So, I sought out opportunities to be involved and volunteer in areas outside of that community context. I didn’t do this perfectly or consistently but I worked at it in my own way one little interaction at a time.

It’s easy for me to stay in my cozy world and live life with people who have similar beliefs and values, lifestyles and interests. In fact, I like it. And, it is easier to make decisions about what I believe in that context.

Once I move outside of my cozy world, I get to know people who think differently and live life differently than me. Each is their own person with their own story. Once I know about their life, their realities and beliefs, it makes it impossible to think of them as a stereotype. We have a greater capacity for patience, empathy, grace, and understanding for each other. These interactions help make the world less divided and fearful. And, I am changed.

It is also really hard. Putting aside my own desire to be right, to be heard, to persuade others to my way of thinking? If you’re familiar with the personality assessment “Strengthsfinder,” then it will make more sense why this is hard for me. Two of my top strengths are Belief and Command. Talk about a dynamic duo! Not only do I have a strong sense of what I believe and why, I’m not afraid to voice it. In fact a direct quote from the definition of the “command” strength is, “Unlike some people, you feel no discomfort with imposing your views on others.” Eek! I have to constantly be aware of this in my conversations with others. Let’s just say during my lifetime I’ve gotten really good at going back to people and apologizing for something I’ve said.

What I’ve learned along the way is that when I ask questions and keep my mouth shut for a while, when I seek to understand before being understood, I connect with people on a different level–on a level that breaks down walls. But I forget. I don’t agree. I get really fired up about something and want someone to see things my way (because I’m right, of course!). It’s a constant choice and a fine balance of asking, listening, learning, and sharing.

For me, this unlikely community of thru hikers is a huge part of what the PCT was about. A group of people coming together, learning each other’s stories, laughing and traveling together towards a common purpose. People challenged me, disagreed with me, taught me, and accepted me. It was a beautiful experience of setting aside differences and finding commonalities. I have a high level of respect and affection for my fellow thru hikers.

13 Seiad Valley Hikertrash 3x5

Thru-hikers taking a brief resupply stop in Seiad Valley before hiking on to Oregon.

Now we have this common experience of the PCT that will never be lost. We have a common story we can share with the world; a story that brings people together from many walks of life instead of alienates. A journey that removes walls instead of builds them.

I love this.

I don’t always know how to incorporate what I learned on the trail back at home. As I process my experience and find myself back in my cozy community, this is one of the areas I have been wondering about. One thing I know for sure is that I want to be a part of understanding people’s stories and helping remove walls in our world. Maybe today that starts simply with saying, “hello” to someone I might normally walk by without acknowledging. Baby steps, right?

Addendum: Just last week, after I had written this post, I was sitting on a bench in front of the twelfth station of the cross at The Grotto, reading and journaling. A couple walked by and asked me how often I come there. As we started talking I found out they are a Muslim couple from Iran doing a road trip in the U.S. We had a 20-minute conversation about their experience in the U.S., why they had decided to visit The Grotto on their drive through Portland, and about similarities between the world’s major religions.

A Quaker from Portland and a Muslim couple from Iran spending time together at a National Catholic Shrine asking questions about each other’s world and beliefs. This. This was a breaking down walls moment. It was also a “thin place” moment for me, a Celtic Christian term for a space in time where the distance between heaven and earth seem to vanish. The presence of God felt very near. Baby steps. 

About Vulnerability

When I first started thinking about this writing project as more than just something for me, I mentioned it to a mentor of mine. I told him I was writing and had the idea of a blogging but said, “No, I don’t think I can do it.” “Why not?” he asked.

Because there are hard things I’m writing about. Honest things that I don’t usually say to more than the handful of people in my inner circle. My life doesn’t come across as perfectly put together in all these stories. “Ah, it’s vulnerable,” he said. He knows me. And he knows me well enough to know that vulnerability is not my strong suit.

I am a fairly open person about many things. I can laugh at myself and tell stories about dumb things I do. In my work with college students, I’ve found that being honest about my life experiences and mistakes is helpful for them to hear so I’m happy to offer that as part of their learning process. I don’t have many inhibitions when it comes to doing goofy skits at camp and wearing crazy costumes in public (see Exhibit A below).

wig 1

Exhibit A . . . one of many costume moments in my job working with college students.

These things are easy, often because I’m in control of the stories or activities. I get to call the shots and push boundaries I feel comfortable pushing. I can use only the parts of my experiences I think are helpful teachable moments. It’s on my terms and generally about other people. This is totally great.

But if you want to know what I really struggle with? And I can’t make it into a joke or use it as a teaching tool in a safe way? If you want this to be about me? If you want me to ask for help? Yikes. Peace out.

Vulnerability makes me feel out of control and I like to control things, to make things better and function seamlessly. Vulnerability might show my weaknesses and I am pretty adamant about not showing those to the world or asking for help. Vulnerability only happens between certain people and myself… People that I have grown to trust and respect and identify as safe.

So, yes, actually letting people see what I was writing sounded terrible and scary, especially when one of the topics I kept ruminating on was… Yep, vulnerability. Here I go!

I feel fairly confident in my backpacking and survival skills in the wilderness. I’m a trained guide and wilderness first responder. I take calculated risks and try to think through potential scenarios so I don’t end up on the six o’clock news. I typically backpack with people and have a built in support system if something goes wrong. When I guide, I feel the need to be the strong one, the one with the answers, the one who isn’t freaking out when someone gets hurt or the weather turns bad. I stay in control and I don’t let them see if I’m scared or uncertain.

But, essentially, if you’re traveling through the wilderness, everything is out of your control to an extent. Mother Nature doesn’t take your comfort, feelings, and needs into consideration when the weather changes or when a water source you are counting on is dry. You’re left feeling exposed. Solo backpacking especially opens you up to even more situations where you might need to rely on someone and ask for help.

One area that I feel particularly vulnerable in when backpacking is during thunderstorms. I had an experience a few years ago leading a group on a wilderness trip that left me with a love/hate relationship with thunder and lightning. We had a couple close calls . . . Too close. During a massive storm in the middle of the night, I spread out the students into lightening position. A tree was struck near us and I spent the next hour wondering how I would decide which student to do CPR on if multiple people were struck. The weight of responsibility for my students’ lives left me with anxiety. The “what if’s” after the fact left me fearful and not confident in my skills as a guide. The situation also left me acutely aware of how quickly things can change in the backcountry and how out of my control situations can become.

I love thunderstorms if I am watching them from inside my house snuggled up in front of a window. I hate thunder and lightning if I am exposed in the wilderness, lying in my tent wondering who will come perform CPR on me if I get struck. This is what goes through my head at 2 AM as lightning lights up my tent.

(I should say I mostly hate these moments in the wilderness. There is always a part of me that is completely awestruck by the power and magnitude of these storms . . . A reminder of how God created all of this to be part of an incredible, detailed system working together to sustain the world.)

Due to my experiences as described above, this means hiking solo during thunderstorms was not my favorite thing about my time on the PCT. I did it because it was part of the experience, a reality on the trail. I stayed strong and independent, my normal resolve being to prove I didn’t need help or to rely on anyone.

However, one day in July, on a section of trail in northern California, I had enough and vulnerability won.

I had been hiking in and out of other groups, leap frogging with fellow thru hikers, but had been mostly hiking alone for a few days. Not just hiking alone in the sunshine but through about six or seven days of thunder, lightning, and rain. This means I had been hiking for many days feeling nervous in the pit of my stomach, really wanting people around me but not willing to allow others to see my fear.

Earlier that morning I had met a couple from Switzerland. We had started the PCT a day a part but were only just now meeting after 1560 miles. We hiked together for about an hour, chatting the whole time.

I stopped for a snack break on a ridge but my new friends decided to keep going. We said, “Farewell” not knowing if we would ever see each other again. This is part of trail life, running into people and then never seeing them again because you have different schedules, town stops, hiking pace, etc.

As I sat on the ridge, I noticed the clouds in the distance–thunderheads looking miles high and growing darker. I pulled out my phone and turned it on. Much to my surprise I had coverage (a luxury)! I clicked on the weather app and . . . 100% chance of thunderstorms the rest of the afternoon and into the evening.

Nope. I couldn’t do it. Not one more afternoon alone exposed on a ridge with lightning all around me. If I had been hiking with people the past few days I probably would not have hit this “I’m done” moment. I didn’t have many of these moments on the trail but being alone in these storms had been hard. It wasn’t that I wanted to quit the PCT, I just knew I couldn’t do another day like this by myself. I needed people around me this afternoon. I quickly packed up my backpack and started hiking. I wasn’t sure how far ahead the couple from Switzerland was but I was determined to catch up.

I caught them about 45 minutes later. They looked at me, surprised. This is what tumbled quickly out of my mouth, “I’m sorry. I’ve been alone in these thunderstorms the past few days. I don’t like it and they make me nervous. I don’t want to be alone this afternoon. We don’t really know each other but would it be okay if I hiked with you?” There, I said it! I was scared and lonely and asked for help . . . From strangers.

11 Trinity Alps Storm Clouds 4x6

Storm clouds brewing in the Trinity Alps on the same day I met my friends from Switzerland.

Not only did they welcome me to hike with them, one of them also assured me of her own dislike of the stormy weather we had been having. No judgment. No looking at me like, “Really? You’re 36 and you can’t handle a thunderstorm by yourself?”

We hiked together the rest of that day and the next day. They shared their delicious Swiss chocolate with me and we hitchhiked together into town. We stayed in contact for the remainder of the trail, checking in and finding each other in town stops. They even came through Portland after finishing the PCT and we got to hang out. And, we had some of the best life-giving conversations and I feel like we got there faster simply because I let them in on my secret of feeling alone and afraid.

I don’t know where it came from in my life, but the story I tell myself is that I have to be strong. I shouldn’t show people my weaknesses or uncertainties. That my life needs to look put together and mistakes are a reflection of my failure. Maybe it’s growing up with two older brothers and wanting to always show I could be as tough as them. Perhaps it is because as a woman I feel like I constantly have to prove myself as a capable leader in the workplace. Or possibly that growing up in the church there is so much emphasis on making right choices that I still struggle with the potential of making the “wrong” choice.

If I’m honest it’s a combination of all those things and more. As I have become more aware of my modus operandi, I am working on telling a new story. A story where vulnerability and authenticity become a natural choice. I have seen and experienced the freedom and deep connection that comes when I have the courage to say, “I don’t know”, “I struggle with that, too”, “I made a mistake”, and (insert whatever statement is vulnerable for you). The truth of vulnerability is slowly starting to sink into my heart: freedom, joy, community, growth, self-awareness, and grace. All things I cherish and want in my life more than the appearance of perfection.

Vulnerability is still a daily challenge for me as I step back into life off trail. Am I offering people my authentic self? Am I allowing myself to be fully seen? That’s what I want to do, that’s the goal. And the reminder of how I was shaped on the trail by practicing vulnerability gives me the courage to continue embracing the challenge.

Back to my mentor, who totally pegged why I didn’t want to share publicly what I was writing about. He was one of the people that I asked to give me a quote to memorize for my discipline of study. The quote he chose? Brené Brown’s definition of authenticity from her book Daring Greatly. Perfect for me and my lifelong journey as a recovering strong-willed perfectionist!

I’m going to let Brené bring this blog post home because she says it much better than I do. I’ll only add that vulnerability is worth it. It’s worth the risk and unknown because it brings life and depth and freedom to be authentically you.

“Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we are supposed to be and embracing who we are. Choosing authenticity means:

  • cultivating the courage to be imperfect, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable;
  • exercising the compassion that comes from knowing that we are all made of strength and struggle; and
  • nurturing the connection and sense of belonging that can only happen when we believe we are enough.

Authenticity demands wholehearted living and loving – even when it’s hard, even when we’re wrestling with the shame and fear of not being good enough, and especially when the joy is so intense that we are afraid to let ourselves feel it.

Mindfully practicing authenticity during our most soul-searching struggles is how we invite grace, joy, and gratitude into our lives.”

Cultivate your courage to be vulnerable. Exercise compassion when others are vulnerable with you. Nurture your sense of belonging. May you know the grace, joy, and gratitude that are part of wholehearted living and loving.

If this is a topic you sense you want to dive into a little deeper I encourage you to start by watching Brene Brown’s TED Talk on vulnerability. I re-watched it twice in one sitting a couple weeks ago simply because I needed the reminder and motivation to continue on the journey!