Hiking in the dark and setting up my tent alone was easy. Making my first “just add boiling water” meal was easy. The first full day I hiked with my backpack was like a shortened version of pregnancy: exciting, tiring, emotional, exhausting, draining. And I still loved it.
My lack of hiking experience became apparent within a half mile of rigorous hill-climbing. I didn’t have the same pace as the more experienced hikers. Fortunately for me, Larri, the same woman I’d driven up with, was interested in photography as much as the trail and she was happy to have someone keep her company. She was also a very experienced hiker, pointing out flattened grassy areas where deer had slept, looking for footprints and signs of passage when we weren’t sure we were on the right trail, and showing me how to spot deer and elk skat and the difference (size) between the two. I didn’t realize the trail was marked with blue blazes on the trees but once I learned, I happily went ahead on my own, watching for swaths of blue paint until it became second nature. Larri gathered wintergreen leaves for tea after dinner. Watching me on the rocky sections of the trail, she found two sturdy branches for me to use as walking sticks.
We fixed our lunch when the sun was overhead. I was still highly entertained by the thought of walking across a remote wilderness with my world on my back. In other words, I still had energy and expected to catch up with the rest of the group in short order. I didn’t conserve my water, counting on getting to the meeting point where we could borrow a water filter and replenish our supply. Rule number one: if you don’t take a water filter, at least keep some purifying drops on hand. (There were at least 6-7 water filters in the group and my friend was one person who decided to leave the extra weight back in the car. I was filter-less and drop-less, having agreed to depend on someone in the group.)
The day wore on and we talked less. Larri took pictures of bear claw marks on the trees and I found a circlet of birch bark that I wore as a bracelet. Watching for blue blazes was as natural as breathing.
I ran out of water.
We knew we were on the right trail, we just couldn’t tell from the map where we were exactly. When there’s nothing to do but walk, all you can do is keep walking.
I resorted to counting to 100. That’s what I do when I’m out walking with my dog, adding up miles as part of my marathon-walking training program. When I can’t fathom continuing and stopping is impossible, I can handle the time it takes to count to 100. I counted over and over again. My walking sticks kept pace with the numbers, left, right, left, right.
Up and down rocky hills. Walking on narrow wooden planks elevated above the marshy bog. Watching my step through a tangle of exposed tree roots far below the thick tree-tops that would have otherwise seemed enchanted, had I felt comfortable enough to look around.
Larri let me drink some of her water and we both commiserated about leaving the water filter behind. She was about to run out as well.
By now I just followed where the trail led, without thinking beyond my legs moving forward. My mind turned inward. I wondered if I would be able to make it to camp. I knew there was no way to stop. One, two, three, four …
Larri now felt as close as a sister and I depended on seeing her ahead of me. I watched for the flash of her backpack, knowing she was where I would be also.
It seemed impossible to keep walking. But I knew that anything less than optimistic cheer would take my focus from finishing. I had to depend on myself to keep pushing me. Then I tripped on a rock and fell over on my back. Frustrated and tired, I’d shrieked like a little girl and Larri came back to help. I’d already unstrapped my pack, feeling too much like a turtle stuck on its back, and she watched as I stood again, shifting my pack back into place and re-attaching the straps.
“Remember when I told you there would come a time when you’d have to dig down and push through? This is that time.”
I wanted to cry but I laughed instead. “I know; I can tell.”
She turned back to the trail and I followed. I lost track of time. I wondered if I would just walk until I dropped, and if I dropped, what would happen then. Mostly, I counted.
We finally found the rest of the group. It happened suddenly. We were on the path and then there they were, tents and a campfire and a relaxed somberness in the trees. I couldn’t run. I couldn’t even hurry. But I definitely accepted water and a couple ibuprofen before I set up my tent. We fixed dinner and I had wintergreen tea. I had another day ahead of me and I was ready to crawl into my tent.
But for now, I’d survived.
“You know, I knew you could do it. When I told you it was time to dig deep, I could tell you wanted to cry and you smiled instead. I knew you had it in you.”
I nodded. I’d tested myself and proven that I could be counted on not to give up.
What have you done that you weren’t sure you could finish? What did you do to make it happen?