First Steps

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On the summit of Wittenberg.

I camped by myself for the first time when I was 23. It was in Phoenicia, NY, nestled in the Catskill Mountains, the closest one can get to New York City and still feel connected to threads of wildness. My plan was this: leave work early, drive three hours, camp, summit three mountains, and then drive back to the Poconos exhausted but content. I had no expectations, no greater hope. I just wanted to be outside, and this is what I had come up with.

I learned a lot in college, including if you want to get outside you don’t need anything fancy. Leaders in my school’s outdoors club always told us that all we needed for food was a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter. That would last us the entire weekend. Of course that didn’t stop people from getting fancy with their tinfoil meals cooked over a fire, or backpacking with an entire bag of Franzia strapped to their pack. But the essence was clear:  the outdoors is accessible with minimal gear requirements if you’re willing to forgo creature comforts.

Over the years, I’d collected my own stash of stuff–down sleeping bag, insulated sleeping pad, hiking boots–but besides the new acquisitions, I’d pillaged my dad’s inventory and made do with what I already had, including an EMS backpack I’d purchased in middle school that was quite literally falling apart.

So off I went. On my own. To the mountains. For the very first time.

The weekend went smoothly. Better than smoothly. As I was checking in to the campground, two women overheard that I was by myself and invited me to their campfire that evening. And I went, even though I intended not to. They introduced me to their partners, and we spent the night drinking, eating, and exchanging stories by the fire. Two of them had met in the Marines and had married after three months of knowing each other. One was a chef who worked at a five-star restaurant. They told me about their lives in Virginia (interesting). They asked me if I was scared of bears in these parts (no). They were suitably impressed with my itinerary for the next day (nearly 20 miles, and no, they didn’t want to join).

I cannot find a beginning to this wild, meandering, sunlit life of mine. I cannot trace it back to its origins. How I got here. Who specifically inspired me. There is no clear path, and sometimes I think my life would’ve evolved into this organic, pulsing knot no matter what steps I took. But that weekend in the Catskills is a clear pivotal moment, one of countless beginnings.

Being a beginner is a special kind of joy. I recently started playing around with watercolors, picking up the supplies at a craft store on a whim, and it’s been fun albeit challenging. I don’t know what different brushes do, or techniques for using the paints. And it’s hard not to compare my work with others. But I’m trying.

This past year I have been a beginner more than ever before. I’ve lived in five different places, had five different jobs, and have met more people than I can count. And I wonder if my life feels fuller partially because there is so much newness. That the discomfort of beginning becomes the glow of success, and I constantly reap the rewards of struggling, learning, and growing.

A recent goal for myself is to be a beginner more often. To try and do and fail as often as I can. To accept being uncomfortable or scared and to push ahead anyway. Often the first steps are the hardest. The rest is just free fall.

(Want to read about other people I met on my Catskill adventure? Check out a previous blog post here.)

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My campsite in Phoenicia. (My beloved EMS backpack is on the right. RIP.)

Memories Are Stronger Than Bone

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I met a guy in Moab, and I can’t remember his name. He told me about how he was airlifted off Mount Whitney  along with the body of a dead girl, a girl who went hiking with her fiancé and came down with AMS, but instead of following her down, her fiancé chased the summit and she wandered back alone. They found her in a frozen waterfall, crashed through the ice.

I can’t remember his name. The guy who told me that. I can’t remember his name.

He had a dog, and a Subaru, and worked at a bike shop on the main strip in Moab. He’d moved from Vegas two weeks earlier, leaving behind a wife and a pile of debt. Her pile of debt. I didn’t know about her loans, he told me as we sat in the desert, his voice whisky strong. I didn’t know.

I can’t remember his name.

I can’t remember the name of the guy from Québec I met at the Grand Canyon whom I talked with for two hours in the parking lot. He showed me his renovated van, and we discussed Trump, and California gas prices, and where the hell the closest showers were.

I also can’t remember the name of the woman I met at Lake Tahoe. It was the only time on that trip that I got lost while hiking, and we stumbled our way back to the correct trail together. She was mid-50s with a sparkly blue nose ring and a daughter about my age. How do I become like you, I thought as she talked about rowing on Lake Tahoe in the early, sun-bitten mornings. Her nose ring caught all the light. How do I become like you?

Maybe it’s OK that I can’t remember. After all, names only mean so much. Words too have shortcomings. Because when I say, I loved every minute of it, what I mean is, I’m a different person. And when I say, I’d do it all again, what I’m actually telling you is, None of that’s behind me. 

I think about that guy from Moab often. Is he back with his wife yet? Is he still sleeping in his car? How hung over was he after his night of confessions? I think about him, and everyone I met, and how even the bad days were amazing, and how my skin and muscles felt like home.

This is just the beginning. The adventure continues. I’m chasechasechasing the life I want, and I hope you are, too.

Women of the Wild

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I didn’t get a picture of the actual grizzly because I was busy getting the hell out of there. So here’s a sign.

“Where’s your boyfriend?” a man asked me on the summit of Slide Mountain, the highest peak in the Catskills. It’d been a bad week, so I’d left work early that Friday and escaped to the mountains, my go-to move when the world’s feeling extra heavy. This was my third summit of the day, and I was still feeling great.

The man wasn’t alone. Both him and his male friend were in their late 40s and donned expensive hiking gear. They went on trips together as frequently as they could. The Presidential Traverse, Devil’s Path, most of their hiking was in the East, but they hiked out West and abroad when they could.

“Who do you hike with normally?” one asked as we hiked down the mountain together.

Sometimes my dad, I answered. Occasionally friends. Mostly myself.

“Someday you’ll find a boy who can keep up with you. Shame you live so far away. We’d invite you to hike with us once and a while. Take you under our wing, you know.”

Men and women approach my outdoors aloneness differently. Women are instantly supportive. Even if they don’t understand why I want to forgo showers and porcelain toilets for several months, they are excited and proud that I’m doing it. Good for you! cheer the older women with a nostalgic gleam in their eyes, thinking, perhaps, how this reality wasn’t available to them 40 years ago.

Men approach me with questions. Why are you here? Why are you alone? They see my aloneness as an aberration, a question in need of an answer. They look for explanations when I don’t offer one. Maybe I’m a slow hiker. Maybe I’m really fussy and no one wants to put up with me. Maybe I’m running away.

I’m not sure why women alone in the wild makes men uncomfortable. But I have a few guesses.

Flash forward a year from my encounter with the two men in the Catskills and I’m hiking alone in Glacier National Park. Copious signs warn about bear activity in the area. Hiking alone is something they strongly advise against, but besides that, I’ve taken every other precaution. I carry bear spray in the side of my backpack. I clang my poles together. I sing the new Harry Styles’ song as I walk. Noise, the signs and videos and brochures tell me. Make noise.

So I do.
And then something stirs on the path ahead of me.
It’s small and brown. But then it moves and it gets bigger and bigger.

A grizzly!

It had been sleeping with its head on the trail and its body in a copse of bushes. I know it’s a grizzly because of the distinctive hump between its shoulders. I also know it’s a grizzly because I’ve seen black bears before and ohmygod this is not one of them.

It’s massive.

I keep making noise and backing away slowly, not taking my eyes off it as it continues moving. My entire body has gone cold and my heart races. Slowly, slowly, I creep back the way I came. Not running. Never running. I walk ten minutes until I encounter the family of four I’d passed earlier. I tell them about the grizzly. We decide to approach it together and see where it has moved to. We’re only three miles into an 18 mile hike, and neither of us wants to turn around and call it a day. Between the five of us we have two cans of bear spray. Just in case.

The bear has moved off into the bushes, but we can still see it from the trail as we approach. The little boy in the family threatens tears. We make noise and can hear it moving through the undergrowth. Toward us or away from us, it’s hard to tell. All of us keep our eyes peeled for cubs. No sign.

Eventually it disappears completely.
We hike onward.

I’ve been on the road now for a month and a half now and my encounter with the grizzly was the scariest moment I’ve had so far. But it’s also the one that makes me feel the most pride.

There are countless valuable lessons for girls and women to learn from the wild, but there’s something unique to be learned by being alone. To feel empowered by your own mind and within your own body. To believe you can survive no matter what the world throws at you. To taste, even if only briefly, what the world is like with no fear, only strength.

There is no shortage of things to be fearful about—spiders, darkness, creepy campsite dudes—but we can’t let that stop us from exploring and getting our hands dirty. It’s OK to be scared, and there’s a fine line between actions that are bold and actions that are stupid, but instead of teaching girls to be afraid, we need to teach them to be brave. To face the darkness, the grizzly, the guy who tells her she shouldn’t be here alone.

Toward the end of my hike in Glacier, I meet a park ranger who is guiding a private backpacking trip for a family of three. The girl isn’t older than five. Her parents carry all of her things.

“You did the whole loop by yourself?” the ranger asks me as we make small talk.

“I did.”

“I’m very impressed,” he says.

As I turn to finish the last three miles, I hear the ranger say behind me, “See that, Mariana? You’ll be just like her someday.”

I beam.