All the Zero Days

Going Fast vs. Going Far

There’s a quote that goes something like this: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” That quote was in my head when I began last weekend’s 26-mile trek in southwest Virginia over Sinking Creek Mountain, Brush Mountain, and Dragon’s Tooth – my first “semi-solo” hike on the Appalachian Trail.

There’s another hiking axiom I’ve heard, as well. “Hike your own hike.” Ever since I started hiking again three years ago in 2014, I’ve struggled with hiking my own hike when I’m in a group of hikers. Sometimes, I am capable of keeping up with my companions, but more often I have a slower pace. My natural tendency is to think I should just go alone rather than hold anyone else back.

Fortunately, others don’t feel the same; on my first long distance hike from the Pennsylvania/Maryland border to Harper’s Ferry last fall, the group leader stayed at my pace while the others took the long miles in stride and out-paced us by at least a mile. He was happy to do it but I felt guilty almost every step of the way. He could have gone faster if he had left me alone. But I wouldn’t have made it over the mental hurdles that hiking alone would have thrown at me on that trip. I’ve had a lot more practice and conditioning since then, and I thought I could handle “alone” just fine this time.

So, this weekend I got a taste of both alone and together, and my ultimate lesson is that alone has a bitter aftertaste when it equals fast.

My plan was to meet my group (who had already been hiking since dawn Friday morning, and some of them since Wednesday) at the shelter where they planned to camp. The closest parking area was about three miles down the hill, which means I had to hike up three miles, alone, to the Sarver Shelter. (Side note: Google “Sarver Shelter” and you’ll find several stories about the ghost that supposedly haunts the ruins of this homestead.)

Those three miles up, alone, were lovely. I was truly hiking my own hike, getting a sense of my own natural pace, resting when I needed it without the shame I often feel at getting winded faster than the more seasoned hikers. I stopped and took photos at scenic overlooks, or interesting wildflowers, knowing I wasn’t irritating anyone with my camera. (I’ve been on hikes with people who do get irritated by that sort of thing, especially if it keeps them from maintaining their steady pace.) Being alone meant I wasn’t carrying the burden of someone else’s judgement.

However, I was carrying the extra unnecessary weight of something else – my own ego.

Three miles alone is very different than 16. And as often happens, there were aspects of my physical hike that mirrored the mental one. I was physically carrying my ego, in the form of a 2 lb, 1 oz bear vault. (That doesn’t count the weight of the food.)

Ounces equal pounds, pounds equal pain – another trail axiom. After three miles uphill on day one, I didn’t feel the pain. But after about seven miles on day two, I felt that pain for every one of the 10,000 steps I took to catch up with my group, alone.

Why on earth would I add two extra pounds to my gear? The reason made sense at the time; I didn’t want to hang a bear bag, which for me requires the help of other people. The canister would afford me complete freedom from waiting for everyone else to be awake to get my morning food. (Also, the last time I tried to be the one to get bear bags down, I cut off circulation in my finger. So it scares me.)

Thanks to the bear vault, I could wake up early without disturbing anyone else, and could get an early start on the trail alone, so that I wouldn’t lag so far behind at the end of the day. That was my plan.

It was a sucky plan.

I got about a 30-minute head start on the rest of the group, and the first wave of them overtook me at about 2 miles, while the second wave caught up with me at 3.5 miles. Downhill from that point, I flew down the mountain to our next stopping point, earning my new trail name “Hopper” because the guy following me – trail name “Rudy” – had to jog to keep up as I hopped over the rocks.

If you want to go fast, go alone. But expect to get blisters. Expect to get winded. Expect that bear vault and ego to get heavier with every step. At the bottom of the hill, not only was I winded and ready for a good, solid snack, I needed a serious break, and something for the hot spots on my big toes. The extra weight and speed gave me a pain I’d never experienced before, and I wasn’t adequately prepared to handle it.

Fortunately, Rudy was. He generously offered me some of his KT Tape to wrap my potential blisters. It’s like a medical tape, and it works great to keep friction from forming a blister on your feet if you use it before you have a problem. After wrapping my toes and having a snack and refilling my water bladder, I still needed more rest, so as the group went on, I stayed behind, alone, to relax, to receive “trail magic” (an orange, from a couple who does trail maintenance), and to hike my own hike.

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The next 2.5 miles were the most brutal I’ve ever hiked. After a short downhill stretch, it was a 1,500-foot elevation gain. Also, the weather was unseasonably warm for April, reaching into the upper 80s, humid, not a cloud in the sky or a breeze in the air.

I thought I could handle it. I thought it would be no different than the 1,500-foot elevation gain I’d accomplished the day before as I’d hiked alone into our designated meeting spot. I thought wrong.

I made it up that mountain checking my GPS every half hour or so and being depressed at my slow progress. My pace had slowed from a 20-minute mile to something more like a 90-minute mile. The ache in my shoulders was indescribable, and nothing I did to adjust the pack helped. I was sweating and stopping to catch my breath every 50 feet. I was praying a lot.

I was thinking about when my son was born: 36 hours of the most physically grueling experience I’d ever endured. I had wanted to go drug-free, which I did because I was so committed, and I told myself, if I could birth three babies drug free, I could make it up Brush Mountain. With a quarter mile left to go, I jokingly said to God, “If this is like labor, I’ve gotten to the point where I’d be begging for an epidural!” I rounded a turn and started another steep climb, and as I looked up, I saw Rudy, sweating and smiling.

He had heard the clicking of my hiking poles and had come down to help me carry my pack the rest of the way to the top. I almost cried.

According to Rudy, my pack weighed more than his (and he’s a big guy) – around 30-35 lbs. If his estimate is correct, I was carrying at least a third of my body weight.

There’s no weight limit that’s set in stone, but guidelines used by most backpackers are that individuals in good health should be able to carry about 20% of their body weight. A more experienced backpacker may be able to carry 25% of their body weight, and a very experienced and well-conditioned backpacker may be able to carry as much as 35%. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Gender and age make a difference even when a hiker is in really good shape.

I had about 5.5 miles left to go carrying that pack, despite the brief reprieve. Sure, it was mostly downhill. But even downhill miles are heavy, and hard on the feet and knees. I rested on the top of the mountain while Rudy and our leader, “Flops,” went on ahead to catch up with our other two companions. I put one foot in front of the other and trudged down, doubting myself more with every step. Then I ran out of water.

I was trying to figure out the logistics of quitting. There was a parking area and road at the bottom of the hill, about a mile from our designated camping spot. Maybe I would have cell reception and could call a shuttle to come pick me up. There was no way I’d be able to make it up the next hill to the shelter. Sweat was pouring out of me; my clothes were soaked. My tape-wrapped toes were starting to ache again. I couldn’t even imagine having energy to set up my tent and cook my dinner. I kept thinking about the next day, and climbing the dreaded “Dragon’s Tooth” peak. It wasn’t as long a hike, but the way I was feeling in that moment, I didn’t believe I could safely climb the summit and climb back down. Not with 35 lbs.

I had made up my mind. According to my map, there was a small camping area and stream near that parking lot. I would stay there for the night, and hope that one of my companions came back to check on me when I didn’t get to the shelter. Just as I’d made that decision, the area came into view, and the sound of rushing water urged me onward. And there were tents. Familiar tents. Familiar shirt colors. “Is that you guys?” I yelled? I didn’t wait for the answer. “I love you!!!!” I shouted as I nearly ran down the hill with a big grin on my face.

That afternoon, I baptized my sweaty, soaked body fully clothed in the creek. “Hopper” came up from the frigid water a new woman, refreshed by the spirit of community. I changed into dry clothes, and ate whatever snacks I wouldn’t need the next day, starting with that heavy orange. I expressed my doubt about being able to continue tomorrow, and Rudy said, “Well, you don’t have much choice.” He was right. There was no cell phone signal there in the hollow. “Don’t worry,” he said. “You’re going to sleep like a log and wake up feeling like a million bucks.” I hoped he was right.

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I considered leaving my heavy bear canister and some of my gear behind, hidden by the side of the road; I could come back for it later. I considered leaving my wet clothes and Jetboil stove and fuel as trail magic for a hiker in need. One of the other hikers, “Inferno Man,” offered to carry the bear canister. “Nah, I packed it. It’s my responsibility to carry it out,” I said. He was visibly relieved.

After replenishing my calories and enjoying our companionship by the fire, I crawled into my tent. I left the flap open and stared at the stars. Rudy was right; I did sleep like a log. I did wake up feeling like a million bucks. I wasn’t even sore. I replenished my water, ate breakfast, and started to pack up as the others started out. Vlad, who was prepping for a hike in Europe requiring the ability to carry 50 lbs, offered to carry my Jetboil and my stuff sack of clothes. Inferno Man took my sleeping bad. I had eaten some of my weight the night before, and burned much of my trash. My once-heavy pack was now a reasonable weight and felt more like a day-pack.

The hike up and down Dragon’s Tooth was not easy, especially the rock scramble down. There was a lot of cursing. But I was not alone. This time, I hiked with Inferno Man, who was nursing a sore calf muscle, and our conversation made the miles fly by quickly. We climbed the rocks at the top, which I would have been unable to do without him spotting me and guiding my feet. His presence on the rocky path down gave me the encouragement I needed. About a mile from the end of our multi-day trek, we caught up with Flops (so named because she had hiked in flip flops due to the ugly blisters on her heels.) She jogged down the last stretch of the journey and I speed-walked to catch up with her. I was like a horse headed back to the barn. Flops stopped about a mile from our final destination to change into her flip flops, and I pressed onward, leaving her and Inferno Man behind to keep each other company. I started running down the hill like the trail runners I had seen. If you want to go fast, go alone. I made it to the road, a half mile to go, and there, at the base of the shelter, was a the hostel shuttle, dropping off two hikers.

He offered me a ride for the last half mile to the hostel, where Rudy and Vlad were waiting for us. I jumped in and didn’t even take off my pack. I couldn’t believe I had made it! I was so pleased with myself! My homecoming at the hostel was glorious.

Until it wasn’t.

While I was reliving myself on an actual flushing toilet, Rudy had gotten in his car to pick up Flops and Inferno Man. As they pulled up the driveway, Flops shouted out the window, “Next time you get a ride, wait for the folks behind you!”

A double serving of humble pie.

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

I want to go together. I really do. As much as I enjoy my solitude and solo activities, I’m desperate for companionship, encouragement, comraderie, support, shared memories. I love being of service to others when I can get out of my own head for half a minute and see those who are around me. I guess years of believing I’m not good enough, that no one could ever actually want to be my friend, have warped my basic social sensibilities. I hate that.

But fortunately, I learn from experiences. I learn from pain. Last weekend, I learned that I need to lighten my pack. I learned that I don’t have to try to be a super hero. I learned that we all have liabilities, whether it’s a heavy pack, or blisters, or a pulled calf muscle. I learned that people are worthy of trust. I learned that I need to focus on being trustworthy and reliable to others.

I learned that I can go far, if I go with others. If I wait for others. If I ask others to wait for me.

Next time, I will have at least two less piece of gear – my bear canister, and my ego. Hopefully the lighter load will be a little more manageable, for everyone.

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Tending the Temple

The Loneliest Bayou

Last week I went on the first vacation I’ve had since my son was born almost 13 years ago. (I don’t count the family trip to Disney two years ago as a “vacation;” that was more of an “event!”) My fella Floyd took me to his home state of Louisiana for five days, to do some sightseeing in New Orleans and visit his big, beautiful extended family.

To get to New Orleans from the Lafayette airport, we had to drive over the Atchafalaya Basin (yes, I CAN pronounce it!), which is the largest wetland in the United States. As we embarked upon the almost 20 miles of bridge through swamp and cypress trees, he looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and asked, “Do you know what is the loneliest bayou?” A brief pause, then both of us exclaimed in unison silliness: “Bayou Self!!!!”

I’m not in the habit of traveling with other people. In thirteen years of being a parent, I can count on two hands the number of overnight trips I’ve taken with my kids, and still have a few fingers left over. In nine years of marriage, we had one week of honeymoon, one week of a beach vacation with friends, and one long weekend in Pennsylvania Dutch country. I went to a three-day conference on church stewardship in the middle of Kansas, and a three day direct sales conference in Las Vegas in July, pregnant. After my divorce, I took a long weekend to Washington, D.C. That is a woeful lack of time off.

Before I got engaged in 2000, I booked a two-week solo trip in Ireland which remains the gold standard of vacations to which all others will be compared. Two weeks of glorious solitude, away from my stressful advertising job, with a week of taking public transportation to hand-picked sights well off the beaten tourist path: the tiny town of Bunratty, the even tinier town of Kilfenora, the Poulnabrone dolmen, the seaside music town of Dingle, the Aran Islands, and a week of intense horseback riding in Adare. It was all about me and my interests.

When people I met along the way learned I was recently engaged, they were surprised I was making this trip all by myself, which should have told me something. But I couldn’t imagine having a traveling companion during those hours walking the countryside, or waiting for the sun to set so I could get just the right lighting for a photo of a rock wall. Being alone was, and still is, my comfort zone, and the way this introvert typically recharges.

Still, when I got married, I had fantasies of us vacationing together, and vacationing with our children, just like I did when I was a kid. I grew up with a family that travelled to see grandparents, and I loved family vacations. When married life didn’t deliver, I assumed it was because he didn’t like to travel. But after a few years on my own with only one long weekend out of town, I’ve had to take a long, hard look in the mirror.

The visit to Louisiana was not my first trip with my sweetheart. We planned a weekend trip to the mountains last fall, to see if we could handle a whole weekend of uninterrupted togetherness without getting sick of each other. I was nervous for days leading up to it, but we had a fantastic time, and found a new level of intimacy (the kind that develops when you learn more about each other’s bathroom habits and you let him watch you curl your hair and apply makeup). So when Floyd told me he wanted to take me to Louisiana (and promised no surprise “questions” or “jewelry” associated with said questions) I was excited and ready for a real vacation.

Or so I thought.

The Big Easy was not quite so easy for me. Uncomfortable emotions hit like unexpected tidal waves. When a client had a quick graphic design correction that turned into more than an hour’s worth of work, I was worried he’d be angry at me for wasting our precious vacation time. When we didn’t have a plan for our day, I felt anxious we wouldn’t make the most of our limited time there. When I was tired after a full day of walking and could barely keep my eyes open at 10 pm while my heart wanted to be out enjoying the night scene, I felt guilty. I felt sad we didn’t get to take a carriage tour of the French Quarter. And when I met his family at the end of the week, I was worried they wouldn’t like me, and PMS didn’t help. To top it all off, I felt shame for all the craziness going on between my ears.

I feel a bit crazy just admitting all of that now, and I’m seriously debating whether I’ll ever let this post see the light of day, except I know there’s probably someone else out there who might also have a touch of social anxiety, and maybe, just maybe, my sharing will give you courage to step outside of your comfort zone.

Because here is what happened, in spite of my dis-ease:

My fella didn’t get mad at me for working on vacation.

Although we didn’t even scratch the surface of what we could do in New Orleans, I saw Bourbon Street and ate a beignet at Cafe du Monde, I rode the streetcar and walked through the garden district and sat on the limb of a beautiful live oak and drank my first Bloody Mary (with breakfast!) and ate crawfish and slept really hard every night and woke up refreshed every morning.

I didn’t bother to curl my hair, I wore only lip gloss, and I got stuck in the mud 4-wheeling on his brother’s farm. I learned I love roasted oysters and that kumquats are to be eaten with the skin on. I felt truly welcomed by all his brothers and sisters and in-laws at a big cookout at the Hollier home (yes, I can pronounce that, too!). I listened to his father reminisce about his mother, and I felt the loving presence of her spirit in the house Floyd grew up in, and in the souls of all the people who made him into the man I now get to hug and kiss and hold hands with.

If I had taken a five day vacation by myself, I’m sure I’d have had a relaxing time. I would have captured many wonderful photos and seen plenty of sights, and I wouldn’t have been plagued by the insecurities of traveling with another person after so many years of flying solo or not at all.

But now that I’m back at home, what I realize is this: for much of my life, I’ve been living in a self-imposed loneliness that has become my comfort zone. Solitude may have been a source of creativity and rejuvenation, and it certainly served a useful purpose in temporarily protecting me from the pain of rejection, not just in recent years, but going way back into childhood. Being alone has been an integral part of my identity for 40 years. But maybe I’m ready to let it go in favor of connecting more intimately with the people closest to me, instead of trying to escape from them.

While driving through the swamp, we could catch a glimpse now and then of a shack on stilts, where some Cajuns still live off the “land.” Floyd told me if you go wandering in there and don’t belong, there’s a good chance you won’t come back out. Those folks are serious about keeping to themselves and being left alone.

I don’t want that to be a metaphor for my heart. I don’t want to be the loneliest bayou anymore. I want my heart to be a big Louisiana-style outdoor kitchen, with more than enough seats for everyone and all their cousins, with kumquat trees and live oaks filled with tree-climbing youngsters, and three generations grilling together.

Ça c’est bon! And, merci beaucoup, Mister John Floyd. For weeks I’ve been thinking the reason I haven’t been able to write is because I haven’t had enough “alone” time. Turns out, all I needed was a good vacation, and you delivered!

Single On Saturday

Single On Labor Day

It’s Saturday, I’m single, and I’m calling into question beliefs I didn’t even know I had until they were revealed by the events of my Labor Day weekend.

Perhaps you’ve heard the following words coming out of the mouth of a self-righteous office manager, or your ex. Maybe you’ve said it yourself. “Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” It’s a snarky, judgmental thing to say, isn’t it? I don’t think I’ve ever said it, but I’ve certainly thought it, especially in my past professional life working at a stressful magazine advertising job.

I didn’t realize until last weekend that I’ve attributed this very common human attitude to my divine Higher Power.

Last Sunday afternoon I headed to the mountains to join a backpacking Meetup group from Washington, DC. I thought I knew where I was going. I didn’t read the directions, much less print them out. We would be camping and hiking in Shenandoah National Park, and I knew how to get there. I felt totally confident winging it. I even left early.

Unfortunately, what I didn’t realize is the parking lot for our camp site was NOT in the park. It was about a 45 minute drive from any park entrance. And I didn’t discover this critical detail until 6:30 pm, the time I was supposed to be joining them.

I could have tried to find the lot on my own in the setting sun and hike in the dark for a mile to the campsite, but that didn’t seem like a very safe choice. The park ranger who was helping me with the map suggested I just stay there at the campground in the park; after all, there were plenty of open sites, and it would be dark in an hour. I’ve never camped solo, but I didn’t really want to drive all the way home, either; after all, I’d come ready for sleeping outside in a tent. So I decided to stay, do a little writing, go to sleep early, and drive to my group at dawn.

I was pretty humbled by a hard lesson in preparation and thinking I know more than I do. Being solo was my divine punishment, I reasoned. I’ve never truly believed in a “punishing” God in the traditional sense, but rather a God who doesn’t stand in the way of the natural consequences of my mistakes. Clearly, I had made some this time, and I believed I deserved to be alone, “sent to my room” as it were, to think about what I’d done.

I did not believe in a God that blesses someone who makes a mistake in judgement. The God I believed in would have said, “Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” The God I believed in would have left me to reap what I’d sown. And this was the God who, until this past weekend, I was attempting to trust? No wonder I had difficulty!

The God I believed in would never “reward” me with a serendipitous invitation to an bluegrass concert in the nearest college town with two interesting strangers who showed me the best night I’ve had in years.

Fortunately, the God I believed in is not the God who showed up at that camp site Sunday night. And because the God who DID show up did indeed bless me with a serendipitous adventure the likes of which I’ve never had, I’ve decided that’s the God I’m going to believe in from now on.

But buried within my distorted belief about God were some even more distorted beliefs unconsciously operating for some time.

1. Being alone is punishment, or at the very least, a natural consequence.

I’m not sure where this belief originated, but it’s an old one, and it has been reinforced by countless experiences where isolation and rejection were the natural consequences of being my awkward, imaginative, open hearted, genuine self. Over time I’ve developed some skills to avoid this consequence – becoming a chameleon, intuiting other people’s desires, giving them what they want, being someone they are comfortable around. These tools have served me well professionally, but at the cost of remembering how to be myself.

2. If I’m alone, obviously it’s my own fault and I’ve done something wrong to deserve it.

I’m an introvert and I do like some solitude now and then. I definitely prefer working independently rather than as part of a group. But I crave regular social connection. Introverts get lonely, too.

Prolonged loneliness has done its share of damage to my sense of self-worth. There’s nothing more human than to ask, “What have I done to deserve this?” when I’m in pain, and loneliness is painful. But that kind of self-pity is just a subtle attempt to control the uncontrollable. The truth is, I may not have done anything wrong. Rejection is not always about me; sometimes, it’s about the other person or group, and sometimes it’s God’s way of protecting me. Obsessively trying to find fault in myself, and then twisting myself into a pretzel to change, is about the most self-centered approach I could take to loneliness, and it has definitely added more pain to my life.

3. I deserve to be alone.

Obsessive fault-finding naturally leads to this ridiculous belief. This is resignation, not acceptance, and it is patently false. What I deserve is healthy relationships and a balanced approach to solitude and sociability.

4. Being alone is unsafe, or at the very least, difficult.

The people who invited me to the bluegrass concert were both Shenandoah National Park employees in their twenties. They were seasonal workers living there in the park. And when I told them I was nervous about camping there by myself, they both brushed it off. Melissa, age 23, said, “I love camping by myself. There’s always lots of other people and families around who will get to know you and include you.” Matt, age 27, said, “You’re never really alone in the park.”

It is true. When I had been there with hiking groups, everyone walked at their own pace, and I ended up walking by myself a lot, which was lovely. I passed other people on the trail, and made brief connections with other hikers who were not part of the group. The trails are well marked, and there are frequent sign posts to direct you. So I decided I didn’t need meet up with my D.C. group on Monday morning. I picked a nearby loop trail, got myself a paper map at the visitor’s center, and set out on my own.

I rediscovered solitude. I didn’t worry about keeping up with people who hike faster than me, and I didn’t feel the need to slow my pace to keep an eye on the stragglers behind. If I wanted to climb down a rocky ledge to get a better view of the waterfall, I did it. If I wanted to take pictures of the valley or return the calls of a crow flying overhead, no one was around making fun of my bird noises.

For three years of being a single parent, I’ve been focused almost entirely on the limitations of flying solo. I can’t just go to the grocery store when I need milk. I can’t keep my house as clean as I could when I had someone else to mow the grass. I run late a lot, and family outings are a lot harder with only two hands instead of four.

One Saturday this summer I took the kids to see fireworks with another single parent who has two kids. Five kids between us, but the extra set of hands to carry drinks and snacks, those shoulders to carry my little one when the walk got too long, the second set of eyes when the girls had strayed from the picnic blanket too far, and mostly having someone else to enjoy watching our kids be kids was like a cold glass of water after being in a desert.

I found myself feeling deeply depressed that it was only a temporary relief from the limitations of being single. Single on Sunday sucked. But two months later I can see it is my long-term aloneness that gives me such deep appreciation and gratitude for a simple moment of togetherness. I never had that gratitude when I was married and had partnership every day. And as difficult as being a single parent can be, being a married parent was even more difficult in some ways.

Life is hard, single or not. It’s my experiences of isolation and fear of rejection that have made me capable of unconditional love and acceptance of the people who do cross my path now. Some of them are quite different from me, but they have become the truest friends I’ve ever had. I may not share my home or my bed with any of them, but I do share my emotional life, by burdens and joys, and my stories of adventure and lessons learned.

Being single, whether as a parent or on the trail, may have its limitations, but nothing is more limiting than operating under old beliefs that do me more harm than good. It’s my attitude that is my greatest limitation. I’m so grateful for my mistake last weekend. It forced me to face some of those old attitudes and try out some new ones.