It's my birthday, just after midnight. I tried to force myself to fall asleep early, and it almost worked, but my brain will not. fucking. turn off.
I can't sleep. I read an entire book. It's good, it distracts me, but now it's done. It's now five in the morning. Light is creeping in through my blinds. I'm fucking losing it. Not knowing what to do, I pack up some things and leave the house, fill my car up with gas, and head to Indian Peaks Wilderness.
I get there at around seven. The weather is shit. It's overcast and raining and at 12000 feet that's kind of an issue. Whatever, I don't care. What's the worst that could happen? I could die. Big deal. I open up my umbrella and start walking.
My brain still won't stop and about the time that I hit treeline, the clouds start to part and by the time I hit the Continental Divide the sky is filled with puffy, dark clouds, but it's mostly clear. But I know thunderstorms are on their way... I look over Arapahoe Pass and down at Caribou Lake, see some tents in the early morning light.
My mind still won't quiet, but endorphins are on my side and they're like little warriors, going to fucking war with my darkest thoughts, countering them in ways that I would never be able to.
I take one last look at the dark clouds coming over the Divide, damnit, and turn around.
I'll be back.
Exactly one week later:
Fight with a ranger at the forest service about getting a permit for Caribou Lake. "You won't make it on time." It's about 2:30 p.m. at the time of this conversation. The trailhead is an hour away, the hike is four miles, 2000 ft up, 1000 ft down. I'll fucking make it. She reluctantly gives me the permit and tells me, "You know you need to let someone know where you'll be."
I look at her and smile, "I just told you. See ya."
What I don't tell her is that I plan on going over 20 miles the next day, climbing the Continental Divide twice, over 5000 ft of elevation gain.
Park at the trailhead. It's about 5:00 pm. Start cruising. The weather is brilliant. Much better than last week.
Wildflowers everywhere. Waterfalls. Snow banks clinging precariously to the sides of the Divide in the waning summer heat.
I pass a group of backpackers. Huge packs, maybe eighty pounds each. The last one is carrying a rope in her hands. Not on her back, not in her pack, but in her hands. Weird. It's not paracord or any sort of nylon, nothing so reasonable, but like heavy duty gonna fuckin' climb some shit rope. So I ask, "I gotta know... what's the rope for?"
She looks a time and says, "Oh, bear bags."
I think about it for a half a second... camping at 11,000 ft there aren't exactly any bears, but I guess there are chipmunks and pika and marmots... but there's no trees, at least certainly not one big enough to hang a bear bag in a way that it's supposed to be hung. But I say nothing, smile and move on.
6:30 p.m. and I'm at Caribou Lake. "You won't make it on time," yeah, fuck you too. 6:45 and my tent is up and I'm eating dinner. Chips and a Tasty Bite... a Colton classic thruhiking meal. About this time I realize that Caribou should more accurately be called Mosquito Lake.
I walk to the far end of the lake and watch the last of the day's light play a show against the mountain backdrop and hop from rock to rock in my clunky maximal trail runners. Meanwhile the "backpackers" I passed earlier are tiny specks against the switchbacks leading down to the lake. They should be here soon.
I'm wrong. It's 10:00 p.m. and a line of headlamps make their way past my tent as I read a China Mieville book on my phone. "What is that?" "I think it's a tent." "No way, it's weird." "It's too small." "Is someone in there?" "If they were they'd have said something by now."
I listen to this go on for a minute then surprise them all by popping out from under my tarp. "Hi yeah, there is someone in 'here'. Y'all looking for a campsite?" They are. Since it's dark as fuck out I inform them that there's a few small sites up ahead. They're not pleased, they inform me that they are all going to camp together so several small sites won't work. I shrug, not too terribly concerned and crawl back under my cuben fiber home and try to fall asleep.
I spend the next seven hours laying awake in my tent. This is not an exaggeration. I cannot sleep. My stomach is fucked. My head is on fire (altitude sickness, ha). Remember the fucked up sleep schedule? Well, I guess being outside doesn't miraculously fix the problem. Occasionally I go lay on the ground outside of my tent and stare at the cloudless sky. The Milky Way is just visible behind a dense blanket of stars, and I try to feel lucky. I can't. My mind. It is fucking torture.
"Where were you when I was lonesome,
Locked away with freezing cold,
Someone flying, only stolen,
I can't tell this light so old..."
In a house (I say A house and not "home" because I don't really have any sort of home right now... I sleep at my dad's most nights, pretty cool huh?) when I can't sleep and my brain is going a million miles an hour, I can open up a book or turn on a tv or channel my thoughts into any number of distraction activities. Out here, there is nothing. I need to save the battery on my phone, so I don't read. Periodically I put my headphones in, turn on Moby - When It's Cold I'd Like to Die, and do my absolute best to just. not. think.
"I don't want to swim the ocean..."
It's fucking futile. I can't stop it. What makes it worse is that being in my own mind, especially whilst hiking/camping has always been something I enjoy. I used to love having so much time to just think and focus on thinking. I have conversations with fictional characters, I talk to myself, I think about my goals and aspirations and all manner of future adventures.
"I don't want to fight the tide..."
Tonight my thoughts are in control and they go to some dark places. Places I don't want to talk about. Places I don't want to think about. I dive deep into despair. And suddenly I feel alone. Betrayed and alone. And I'm mad. I'm mad at my friends, at my family, but mostly I'm mad at myself. I'm so fucking mad that I'm sick. I fight nausea and the urge to throw up. My stomach contracts in violent muscle spasms and I convulse on the ground. Alone. On the spine of the world.
"I don't want to swim forever..."
I want to scream. I want to scream at the sky, at the mountains, at myself. I want to scream at everyone and no one. I just want to fucking scream. But I can't, it would make me look, ha, crazy? Right? So instead I cry. Feeling more lost and alone and afraid than I ever have in my life, I lay in the moonlight at 12,000 ft and just fucking cry until I pass out.
"...when it's cold I'd like to die."
7:00 a.m. and I hear people walking around. I look out of my tarp and see the other campers getting water. They'll be there for the next hour and a half, presumably getting water for their whole party, whilst I pack up and eat. I made up my mind at some point last night that I would hike the four miles back down to my car, drive to my dad's, go to sleep, and try to forget about what a fucking miserable failure this hike was.
I start climbing up the switchbacks out of basin that Caribou Lake sits in, and before I make it to the top of the 1000 ft climb something happens.
It might be endorphins, but I think it's familiarity. I realize I love what I'm doing right now at this very second. I realize that walking straight up a fucking mountain is my thing. I realize that pushing my body way too hard across way too many miles is my favorite thing in the world. And I haven't had it in so long...
So I change my mind and I find myself going over Caribou Pass, rather than back down to the car. I'm on three hours of sleep. I feel like total shit. I don't know if I'll make it. But fuck it, what's the worse that could happen? I could die. Like I said before, who fucking gives a shit. Is suicide by overexertion a thing? I'll have to look into it.
But I have a destination, I have a goal, however short term. I love those fucking things.
It's like someone hits a fucking switch, and I start crying. Sobbing. I'll admit that it's a little bit dangerous going over this pass not being able to see clearly because I'm crying uncontrollably, but it is what is is. I can't tell if I'm sad, or angry, or upset, or happy. I can't fucking tell, because maybe... maybe it's a little bit of everything. And now I'm able to focus my thoughts. I'm talking to myself as if I'm in front of a crowd giving a motivational speech. I'm yelling the words, the same compulsion I had last night, but in my solitude this morning, I'm able to indulge myself.
I tell myself that when you give up, when you're at the point that there's nothing left to lose, you have to search within yourself and find those... those fucking moments. Those brief but bright moments of joy. Pure, undiluted joy. The ones you've experienced by yourself, and the ones you've held with others. Those are magnified tenfold. And suddenly I'm apologizing. To my friends, to my family. Even to myself.
I'm telling myself that you have to search out those moments. Those fucking moments! You have to fight for them, and string them together, and hold onto them when all is lost. When life is as dark as the deepest cave you have to let them shine through like a fucking lantern. You have to swear a fucking oath to fight like hell to find more. And my lantern suddenly becomes a star, burning bright in my palms, and I realize... I realize I've had so many moments. So much joy. And this period of... darkness, it can't last forever. It won't last forever. I won't let it.
My legs move forward with a fervor I haven't had in months. Over the pass, down into the valley and onto the High Lonesome Trail (CDT), up Devil's Thumb Pass, dodging afternoon storms, crawling over snowbanks, past turquoise alpine lakes, through forests of aspen and pine, unsure if my body is suited for this endeavor.
My legs are fried, my stomach is on fire, my mind is... mostly settled by the time I make it back to the car. I collapse into the driver's seat right as a heavy rain descends, pelting the windshield. I turn the stereo on and let the words wash over me...
I don't want to swim the ocean,
I don't want to fight the tide,
I don't want to swim forever,
When it's cold I'd like to die...
I smile... and then begin to laugh like an idiot.
I'm still alive.