If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through. 1) We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.
2) We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. 3) We will comprehend the word serenity and 4) we will know peace. 5) No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. 6) That feeling of uselessness and self pity will disappear. 7) We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. 8) Self-seeking will slip away. 9) Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. 10) Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. 11) We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. 12) We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.
Too often, people take the 9th step promises out of context, calling them the “AA promises” and ignoring the condition that precedes them. The “phase of our development” that requires we be “painstaking” is amends — Steps 8 and 9. As I’ve written elsewhere, sloppy amends are worse than no amends at all. By sloppy I mean done too soon, before we’ve really had a psychic change, which can lead to all sorts of blunders, including revealing harms unknown to the victim: “I slept with your partner; I never really liked you; I told so-and-so you were a liar.” No, no, no! That’s why we go through Step 8 with a sponsor, to figure out what will set things right for the recipient rather than cause new pain.
Anyway, the reason the Big Book authors placed the promises after Steps 8 & 9 is that to seek out the sheer awkwardness, humble pie, and admission of wrong-doing entailed in these two steps is something no ego-driven person would do — especially not hardcore bridge-burners like active and dry alcoholics. “Did I wrong that person? Fuck that, they wronged me!” This was the pre-steps attitude that produced more and more people to avoid and more thoughts to shove to the back in our minds, with drinking needed to mute them.
By contrast, after a psychic change, we’re trying to live by what’s right and good or, in other words, to show up as god and our own spirits would have us be. I remember several instances of sitting in my car cramming from my 8th step notes before I stepped off what felt like the roof of a skyscraper to meet people I’d wronged. I did so because I trusted god. And in each case, I walked on air: I calmly spoke the truth, and recipients warmly forgave me.
Many years have passed since I completed my amends, but I continue to live in the frame of mind that supported them. As a result, I get to live IN the 9th step promises! Freedom and happiness, for starters, characterize my sober life. Sick voices still sound off in my head, but they project poorly, and I’ve learned to roll my eyes at them. I focus instead on what I want to do with my life — with this one-time amazing journey of living in the world.
For example, I love climbing mountains. In July, friends and I made a bid for the summit of 14,411′ Mount Rainier – the most prominent peak in the contiguous US and 5th highest. We started too late (midnight) and had to wait repeatedly for the teams ahead of us to pass through areas where they’d trigger rockfall on us, then wait again when a ladder laid over a crevasse partially collapsed, so a number of my teammates got hypothermic and we had to turn back. Even so, it was a huge, gorgeous, thrilling experience — the kind of adventure I used to fantasize about while drinking.
Despite having lost some of my left lung to radiation for breast cancer, I power-breathed to 13, 200′; and despite acrophobia and balance issues, I walked over boards laid on a ladder across a deep crevasse — not to mention daring this stuff at 59. We will try again next year, having learned from our mistakes.
And yet… and yet… during the exhaustion that overtook me on the long descent to base camp, a voice started up in my head: “No one likes you. You’re an annoyance to everyone. Everything you say is trite and boring so everyone wishes you’d just shut the hell up.” Freedom was the insight that my alcoholism, which survives in my mind, was taking advantage of my fatigue to get some good punches in. Freedom was replying to that voice, “You’ve been saying that since middle school. Fuck off.” Then I deliberately bellowed some dumb jokes most people couldn’t even hear (because we were still on ropes and too far apart), just to piss off the voice.
Last week, I hiked 82 miles with my friend Sally, retracing only the best parts of the 127-mile hike I soloed last year. This experience outshone any fantasy joy, because love for god’s beauty in the mountains absolutely saturated my consciousness for days.
And yet… and yet… addiction was with me. I’d needed a tooth extraction the day before we were to leave for this trip and, at the oral surgeon’s insistence, delayed a day for healing, then brought along antibiotics in case of infection and 12 Vicodin in case the socket clot came out or some other intense pain developed. As it turned out, the socket felt fine, healing gradually. But my knee did not. One night I couldn’t sleep for the knee pain, and sharing my tent was the Vicodin. “Take it!” said my addict. “You have pain — a perfect justification — so cross Go and collect $200!” I responded, “That Vicodin is for unendurable nerve pain, not some nagging knee pain that keeps me awake.” “Whatever!” said my addict. “It’s for pain! It’s right there – no more pain! Much-needed sleep! Just take it!”
Midnight, 1:00 a.m., 2:00 a.m. passed by. I don’t remember praying, but what came to me were the words of my dear friend Rob: “Yah know, if I’d of known what I would become after a few Vicodin, I’d a shoved them up my doctor’s ass!!” Rob, originally a purebred alcoholic, got hooked on opiates as a result of a prescription and died from overdose in 2016. He seemed to remind me that my own sobriety, despite its 24.5 year length, was equally fragile. With the help of Rob’s memory and several more ibuprofen, I eventually fell asleep. The next night, I asked Sally to keep the pills in her tent.
Really, the principles that free me to live the life I love are the same ones that carried me through my amends: love, humility, and faith. That’s why realizing the promises is contingent on a “painstaking” completion of those steps.
I made this video of our hike. If this ain’t living happy, joyous, and free, I don’t know what is!
Tag Archives: hiking
Newly sober alcoholics are crippled. For years or decades we’ve relied on a tool for navigating life — an easy exit to that buzzed state where problems shrink — and suddenly we’re robbed of it. How to live in this bald, unrelenting world without escape? That’s the impasse we face day by day, even minute by minute during the first weeks and years of sobriety.
The short answer is faith. And faith sounds like jack shit to most newly sober drunks. Because the irony is, it takes faith to build faith. We’re used to considering evidence first and then weighing whether an action is likely to work in our favor. Faith means we step out knowing nothing and see what happens. Our actions are based in trust rather than reason.
Eventually, faith gets easier to muster as it builds up evidence of its own: I acted in good faith and was taken care of. I ask god to help me stay sober today, and I’ve not had to drink/ use/ act out for X days/ years. Faith works! Gradually, witnessing as much firsthand over and over, we begin to trust faith — perhaps even more than we trust our practical minds.
The Faith to Adventure
I had a dramatic experience with faith last week in the middle of the Mount Baker- Snoqualmie wilderness of the Cascade mountains. As some of you know, I’m an avid thru-hiker (hike –> camp –> hike). This year, at kind of the last minute, my friend Sally had to drop out of our planned 8-day thru-hike from Stevens Pass to Rainy pass on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).
I decided to go it alone. The trail covers 127 miles, gaining and losing 26,000 feet of elevation. It’s known as the 2nd toughest section on the entire PCT (the toughest being the JMT). I found it much, much harder than I’d anticipated to cover 17-20 miles a day with a 40-lb pack (which shrank slowly as I ate food), climbing/descending sometimes a vertical mile, day after day. I’m 58, BTW.
But I did it.
Many women have asked me how I can hike alone in the wilderness. They fear predators both animal and human, exposure to heights, creek crossings, and the sheer self-reliance of solitude too much to try such a trek. How can I feel safe, even happy, out there in the wild?
My short answer, again, is faith. But it’s also love. I love the wilderness so intensely, there’s just no room in my heart for fear.
True, I felt a little lonesome until I got outside the range of chatty, clean day hikers and entered the true backcountry. There I shifted my focus away from humans, instead talking out loud to critters, plants, trees, and god. The glow in my heart grew stronger and stronger, as did my faith that other living entities could sense it. To take this timed selfie, for instance, I pinned back a shrub blocking my lens. I’d finished and was just starting to hike on when I ran back, unpinned it, and said, “Sorry!”
But even loving hearts need boundaries, whether for toddlers or wild things. I love bears (two years ago I surprised one who graciously ceded the trail) and mountain lions, but even so I sang a lot and kept a trekking pole with me constantly. I radiated a boundary: Don’t fuck with me. You may win, honey, but not til I’ve made sure you regret it! I meant it. I knew no creature would attack me, animal or human, unless it was mentally ill. Besides, humans who victimize others rarely have the guts or stamina to hike far into the wilderness.
A Miracle on the Trail
Such was my mindset when my right knee gave out about 60 miles into my trip, with about 60 miles left to hike and no roads near. I’ve made a video that covers the barest facts of this experience – that I began to get flashes of intense, crazy nerve pain flaring in that joint, first intermittently and then repeatedly, making me gasp and cry out.
I could not walk. I stopped. I was carrying an inReach satellite communicator to check in with loved ones each night, loaned by a friend, which featured an SOS beacon. I could toggle to emergency, push a button, and wait however long it took for rescue to arrive.
Instead, I shifted to the world of spirit.
In front of me stood a huge grand fir – a type of evergreen with roots entirely underground. It was as though our eyes met — the tree’s and mine. At this high elevation of 4,500′ where trees grow slowly, I knew it had to be a thousand years old. Also flashing through my mind was recent research finding, for instance, that matriarchal trees send moisture along their roots to sustain neighboring seedlings, exhibiting far more “consciousness” than humans have understood.
So I approached this tree as a matriarch who had channelled god’s energy for a thousand years. With a humility possible, I think, only to someone crippled after four days of solo hiking, I put both hands on her trunk, touched my forehead to the surface between them, and called to her silently, “Are you there?”
Into my consciousness came the tree’s energy — I am.
I’ve had enough post-NDE experiences to distinguish thoughts sent to me from those I generate. You can say “bullshit,” or you can trust that I’m not a moron and keep reading.
Tears were streaming down my face. I thought to her, with a reverence for the millennium she’d witnessed as opposed to my own brief and absurdly self-absorbed life: “Can you ask god to help me?”
The response was instant, but not what I wanted. It filled my mind as a knowing, an unchanging principle, just as vibrations of a tuning fork fill the air:
Every life must ask directly.
I countered as if in conversation with thoughts of my shyness, unworthiness, and that I’d gotten myself into this predicament. The tree “heard” none of this. It continued to emanate at the same frequency, unchanged: Every life must ask directly. Of the three elements in that principle — life, asking, and directness — the last seemed to linger longest.
I thanked her. I tried to walk on, oh so carefully. I’d made only a few steps when the pain blared again — WAAAHHHHH!!!! — and with it came a realization of my own: “I’m totally screwed!”
I didn’t take off my pack. I didn’t sit down or even close my eyes. I just stood there on the trail, gushing tears as I always do in prayer, and spoke inwardly to god. To be totally honest, I felt like a child braced for the same disappointing response all my terrified acrophobia-on-the-mountainside prayers incur: “You got yourself up, child; you can get yourself down.” That, or maybe something blunt like, “Use the beacon, silly!”
Even so, I reached for god with my tenderest heart. I apologized first that I knew all this was my own fault because ego had played a role in getting me here, but I also “reminded” god how intensely I loved the living beauty of the wilderness, how much this trip meant to me. Then I asked, directly, as the tree had instructed, Can you give me some guidance?
At almost the same instant that I asked, my mind began to fill with instructions, as if they were downloading from some external source. I got so excited! I knew so many things in that second that I’d not known the second before!
None of this information came in words. We all know our physical bodies well, so the references were to my own conceptions of these parts. I had strained my inner thigh. “No I haven’t!” came from my brain. “It’s fine — doesn’t hurt a bit!” God reminded me of a move I’d made in my tent that morning that had hurt in that spot — and there was so much love with this correction, with each instruction: love, love, love! I was told to put my foot up on a rock or log and stretch it gently.
To my amazement, I found my adductor muscle so tight at first that I (a ballet dancer) could not raise my leg more than about 2 feet. I was also told to use my trekking pole to put pressure on another spot. No words — just my familiar idea of the dent under my kneecap on the inside. I was told to stop and repeat both these actions frequently — what I decided meant every 500 feet.
There had been a third instruction from the outset, but only when I’d stretched and pressed about 6 or 8 times, walking between with zero pain, did I “hear” details of how I should follow it. This idea pertained to a little velcro loop I’d packed for no reason. It might have originally come with my air mattress to keep it rolled up, but in any case, I’d decided at least twice not to bring it. Somehow, it ended up in my pack anyway. At various camps I’d pull it out and roll my eyes: “Why did I bring this?!”
THIS is why! god seemed to answer, referencing all the above with love, love, love. Wrap it on that spot, tightly but not too tightly.
My brain thought, “That’ll do nothing!” Duh! I’d used knee braces many times on lesser injuries; they helped only to the degree that they immobilized the joint, whereas to descend from this elevation, I’d have to bend my knee to at least 90 degrees hundreds of times, with my weight and the weight of pack crashing down as many times amid rocks, fallen trees, and rough terrain. What could a little mattress roll-up holder possibly do to mitigate that?!
But my spirit was told, You will be healed. The knowing came that this band would act similarly to kinetic tape, except that while tape attracts attention from the brain to heal a given area, this little band would attract spiritual attention, my own and god’s, to heal my knee miraculously.
My brain disbelieved, but that’s what I heard, a promise my spirit dared to trust. You will be healed. You will be healed. The knowing echoed like a mantra every time I confronted a challenge — a two-foot drop on the trail, a fallen log I had to jump down from, a slip and arrest.
My knee, my spirit, my god, and that little velcro band kept on descending and descending over the next hour and a half. No pain. Before I knew it, we’d reached Milk Creek, elevation about 3,000′. I took this photo to commemorate the miracle.
Over the next three days, I hiked 60 more miles on that knee. I never experienced pain again. Sure, it throbbed like mofo at night, but so did my feet, ankles, hips, neck, and shoulders. I had to take a lot of ibuprofen just to sleep. But never again did it pain me me on the trail. Not once.
My message for alcoholics and addicts of various modes is that we can all experience two conflicting convictions at once. The brain can insist, “It’ll never work!” while the spirit resolves to act as though perhaps it will — on faith — and see what happens. At every step of my recovery from alcoholism, I doubted: “Faith is nothing but pretend! The steps are nothing but mumbo-jumbo! I’ll never not want to drink, never stop feeling less-than and judgmental and scared of life!”
And yet, I ventured ahead in faith and courage to follow the advice of sponsors and old timers from AA meetings, just as I reached out to a tree for help, just as I bracketed my doubts of god’s guidance and did precisely what I was told. We don’t have to believe it (with our skeptical minds). We just have to do it (with our spirit’s courage). The miracle will happen.
We can be guided toward growth and sometimes even healed. Because god is real, and god does stuff for those who ask — directly.
Video telling the story. Also available at https://youtu.be/McRi8zbW0TY
Photos from my trip:
I come from a long line of alcoholics, pioneers and midwives and professors who knew they didn’t want to drink as much as they did, yet were sucked down into the bottle time and time again. I’m cut from the same cloth but haven’t had a drink for twenty-two years. What’s up with that?
When I used to dry out between binges I was an insecure, socially phobic, jealous, frightened, depressed woman who would pretend to be whatever might impress you. Anticipating drinks brought me hope. Starting to drink steadied me. Rolling through drinks, I found courage and gusto and release — sweet release! — in the dopamine flooding my neurons. Some day, I’d pull off great feats!
At first, sobriety robbed me of a desperately needed escape. I’ll never forget a certain unremarkable morning in ’95. I’d been dry about six months without a spiritual program. My partner was driving us along a curving freeway ramp while some implacable panic rose higher and higher in my chest with every breath I took and every random object that struck my brittle brain — building, guard rail, pavement, cars.
I thought-screamed, I CAN’T STAND IT!!!!!
But today, I flourish. My brain is happy, and I’m living a life I love. What’s up with that?
Here’s me day before yesterday:
I’m on the right. This is a photo of a frickin’ miracle. I’ve recently turned 57. I’m standing at 9,800 feet at 5:00 a.m. beside the hissing, venting crater of a live volcano with my best friend wearing frickin’ bikini tops in temperatures close to freezing. We are… the Baker Birthday Bikini Bitches!
I got here through hard work. The work of healing a broken brain and twisted psyche is extensive, yet all compacted down into 12 simple, trite little steps listed in Chapter 5 of AA’s Big Book — steps I dismissed as worthless at my first AA meeting after reading them off the wall in less than a minute.
It takes a good sponsor, one “armed with the facts” about him/herself, to unpack those steps and open up each like one of those expandable sphere toys so that the sponsee is confronted again and again with the challenge of either seeking greater honesty or cycling through their tired lies again.
I’ve worked these steps not once, not twice, but through enough iterations that their perspective has become the lens through which I view everyday life. To express that in detail, I’ve surrendered all illusions that I can drink normally (1); I recognize that alone my thinking is warped (2); I ask god to guide it minute by minute (3); I seek out the selfish distortions in my interpretations of people, places, and things (4); I tell on myself to trusted others, increasingly with humor (5), and pray for the clarity to quit thinking/acting that way (6-7). If I’ve offended, I own it and amend it (8-10), because I want to meet my god without defenses every day (11) so I can be useful to others (12). That is how I effing live.
How does that get me up the mountain?
There is something. You can call it whatever you like. Currents of energy course through and radiate from everything that lives, and their frequency is affected by each loving or fear-based thought that every one of us generates from one moment to the next. And those currents converge in some nexus of intelligence that loves far beyond our brains’ comprehension and yet is not beyond us, because we are of it. We are a shard, a fragment, a ray of that immensity, and when we ask, it resonates within us, filling what was empty, healing what was hurt.
The kicker is that condition: when we ask.
And we can’t ask just once — like for a piece of gum or something: “Hey, god, this deal sucks, can ya help me out?” Nope. We ask in layer upon layer upon layer. We ask every frickin’ day, in everything we do: “Help me. Be with me. Move my heart and mind toward goodness and beauty.”
And if we do this long enough and sincerely enough, do you know what happens?
So many miracles, I don’t know where to begin! Living by the 12 Steps has brought me to a place where I can be my authentic self among worthy others and trust that I am loved.
Daily honesty with god has given me the mindset to become the person I longed to be — to quit smoking, stop over-eating, cease tolerating abuse; to pay the bills and provide for my kid; to really get it that, if something’s going to improve in my life, I have to try for it (a lot easier when you know god’s there to catch you).
Humility has let me accept that if I want to do something immense, like climbing a mountain or writing a memoir or opening a business, I have to start with measly, pathetic little steps… and keep at it.
And beautiful things unfold as a result. Here we are again from a different angle.
Are we in good shape? Sure. But this photo doesn’t show what’s really there: the strength of LOVE. The love between my friend and me lets us speak of anything — anything! — and frees us to laugh about much of it. I know of my friend’s horrific childhood and years of cocaine addiction. She knows the compulsions that warped my past.
There’s also the love of fellow alcoholics who taught us our mountaineering skills, much as sponsors taught us life skills. When we started up at midnight from our base camp, where our third friend stayed behind with her ankle sprained from a creek crossing, we felt small and scared. The hulking glow of Baker’s ancient glaciers loomed a mile above us in the moonlight. It was just we two roped together to arrest falls as we wended our way by headlamps among yawning, deep crevasses, sometimes cussing like sailors.
We did it. We’re sober miracles. And, for each of us who gets there, for every alcoholic who reaches that precious freedom granted by true sobriety, it all began with that first little word of AA’s First Step, the first time it really sank in: We.
A few more images (click to enlarge)…
Throughout my 20s and early 30s I drank almost daily and blacked out at least weekly because alcohol made all my lies come true. Not my dreams – my lies: I wanted to be right in everything that I got, and wronged in everything that I didn’t. Alcohol made that possible.
Until it didn’t. I was loath to admit the light was growing dimmer, that more and more shit was seeping in through the seams, but the day(s) came when life felt unbearable – with or without alcohol. Suicide and AA being a toss-up, I tried them out in the only order possible. I went to an AA meeting January 29, 1995, and I’ve not had a drink since.
But when I heard you guys quoting the line from the Big Book, “we are sure God wants us to be happy, joyous, and free,” it sounded like a crock. Me – happy?
First off, by “God” you had to mean some kind of authority figure, some “He,” some tyrant of righteousness – which I mentally flipped off.
Secondly, only stupid people were happy. You guys lacked the guts to acknowledge life’s futility, the grim jest of being born into this harsh world only to suffer endless loneliness and disappointment. You preferred buying into Barney-the-Dinosaur style clichés and niceties.
Anyway, you AA people were never going to brainwash me with your spiritual drivel.
But you did. Turns out I needed brainwashing pretty badly – given that my every thought was thoroughly toxic.
Hiking 100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail is how I spent last week – Section i of Washington, southbound. I went with a sober friend 22 years my junior, and we had the time of our lives. After making only 8 miles the first day, given our 40-lb packs laden with a week of food, we stepped up our pace to climb and descend 15- 17 wilderness miles daily, passing perhaps 4 to 6 fellow hikers per day. Almost every night at camp, we held a two-person AA meeting. The first nights we futzed around with reciting “How it Works,” but we soon said screw it and just used the Serenity Prayer.
We shared formally, no one else around for miles:
ME: “I’m Louisa and I’m and alcoholic.”
KACIE: “Hi, Louisa!”
Our shares let us remind each other that all the happiness, joy, and freedom we were reveling in were contingent on our sobriety, and thus on god. I cried more than once: the emotions of loving the beauty of this world and awareness of mortality were so strong I could hardly stand them. For instance, I met a highly enlightened spiritual guide on the trail.
What happened was that, high on a ridge in strong wind, I rounded a rock outcropping to see a huge black bear beside the trail. The size of a dark refrigerator, he was sitting on his rump in an alpine meadow of wildflowers about 30 feet distant, contentedly chewing some vegetation with the wind at his back. Thoughtfully he lifted his great head as if to say, “What a wonderful day to be a bear!” I felt no fear – only a strong sense that my choices were important. I turned to Kacie: “There’s a bear.” We walked behind the rock where we held a bellowed conversation about our hopes the bear would move. When we came back around the rock two minutes later, he had vanished.
As a self-conscious human, I’ll never be as at ease in the world as that wild creature. But letting god into my life has brought me a tiny bit closer every day. I want to know that I am meant to live, as that bear knew: that I belong to the earth, to nature. I want to know I’ll be provided all I need. I want to understand that, even when I have the power to trump others – in the bear’s case to kill effortlessly – choosing peace and simplicity is almost always the wiser course. The faith and confidence to be fully and unapologetically Louisa while harming no one – that’s the goal of my sober life.
If I could go back and tell that AA-scoffing Louisa of 1995 what I understand today, I might say this:
- “You think “God” means someone outside you, some entity confronting you. You’re wrong. The very ember inside you that wants to live, that loves life and goodness and others – your “you-ness” itself is god!! You are a drop of god transforming matter to life in every cell of your body. To know god is to delve deeper in your life-force and discover it’s the same power that interconnects all life. To trust god is to understand that all who’ve lived and died are nano-parts of a tremendous, intricate unfurling.
Along the way, Kacie got slowed down by a terrible blister, so at a spur trail to a water source she sat down on a log to change to sandals while I went off to filter. By the time I returned she was chatting with a through-hiker who’d started off in Mexico. He’d already said goodbye and was 20 feet down the trail when something moved me to call out: “Can we give you some food?” He halted in his tracks. We filled a Ziplock with all kinds of yummy stuff that thrilled him. THAT’s when we learned he, too, was an alcoholic. Kacie had even visited his homegroup thousands of miles away in Key West! Blown away by that “coincidence,” he shared with us how he’d relapsed at the last outpost of civilization and was nervous about the next. We listened. We said we’d pray for him. And we did.
I would tell 1995 Louisa:
- You think happiness comes from getting what you want, impressing people, winning stuff. But true joy comes from giving, from reaching out and helping others. It’s only selfish fear that blocks you from channeling god to others. The more you trust, the more god frees you from the mire of self-centeredness, so loneliness can be replaced by an endless flow of love – for the world.
Life is so damn good today, you guys!
How do I find the courage to step out on a wilderness trail, armed with only a stack of printed maps, and head for someplace I’ve never even seen 100 miles away? Easy. All I have to do is take one step. Then another. Same as staying sober. And whether I meet up with a bear or a fellow drunk, I’ll ask god to guide my course.
VIDEO VERSION OF OUR HIKE: https://youtu.be/5vio7oDjhsQ
I want to describe a moment of insight, but to get there, I’ll have to take you on a little odyssey with me. The Enchantments are a chain of lakes carved out by glaciers in Washington’s Central Cascades – a series of cirques in pale granite amid jagged peaks so lovely you need a very elusive permit to visit in summer. But this year, with the snow level so low, I decided to seize the chance to see them before permit season began.
I invited along a friend who recently completed the Camino de Santiago Pilgrimage, walking 500 miles from St. John, France, to the cathedral of Santiago, Spain – with virtually no money. I chose Kacie not only because she’s sober and a skilled through-hiker, but because her connection to God is knowledge rather than faith. Though she’s Christian and I’m non-religious, our spiritual convictions align perfectly. At 33, she’s an absolutely beautiful soul. Here we are, starting out our trip at Colchuck Lake.
I wanted Kacie with me not just to help me tackle this trail, but because I knew she could help me along a second, inner trek. Maybe I’m trying to tell too much in one post, but for me, this trip was more about healing than hiking. I recently posted about having discovered that for two and a half years my alcoholic boyfriend concealed an ongoing affair with an alcoholic girl half my age – named KC, ironically enough. Though I’m glad to have escaped with my sobriety, there’s much grief to process in losing someone you thought you loved for nine years.
Early on, I asked my Kacie for her take on my “happy” memories from those deceit-filled years with Grayson – our teasing as we played ping-pong, comparing cloud pictures as we lay in the sunlit grass, decorating our tiny Christmas tree. She answered straight up: “You need to let go the lie before you can embrace the truth. That was manipulation, it was false, it was poison – every minute of it.” I knew she was right. Her words solidified the ones hovering in my thoughts for weeks: emotional robbery, abuse, even molestation. Because, yes, to con someone into prolonged intimacy, fully aware the truth would both horrify and repulse them, is that bad.
We hiked on. I’d heard a lot about the dangers of climbing Aasgard Pass, with its 2,000 foot near-vertical gain. We didn’t reach the base of the chute until 4:15. There’s no trail per se; you scramble amid sliding talus and scree; you search above you for cairns – stacks of rock people have left to mark a course – praying nothing falls on you. Chest-high boulders with divot toe-holds demand you heave yourself up them despite the 35 pounds on your back and hundreds of feet below you to fall.
We climbed for an hour. Two hours. The wind picked up, and we began to encounter pockets of ice and snow. There were times I thought I’d lost the way completely, boxed in among boulders, until I’d sight a cairn someplace seemingly impossible to reach. Then I’d pray, find handholds, pretend I wasn’t exhausted, and heft Louisa + pack one more time. Ten minutes later, repeat. Finally, three and a half hours into it, a moment arrived when I rounded a rock face and recognized from the outlines of slabs against the sky that we were nearly there. To Kacie, over the whipping wind and cataract tumbling to our right, I shouted, “We’re almost there! We’re gonna fuckin’ do it!”
That’s when the tears came. Thank you, god. Not just for getting me here, but for showing me I have what it takes to do this. In the past, on all our toughest climbs, Grayson led. But no one led me this time, not even a frickin’ trail: just god and the bright life it kindles in me.
While the sun set amid 20 mph winds and the temps dropped below freezing, Kacie and I made camp at about 7,ooo feet. Kacie was so chilled she began dropping things, getting confused. Our stove wouldn’t light at this altitude and the winds snapped at the tent as we pitched it. But we were never scared – not really. I gave Kacie all my extra clothes and released enough gas from the canister to blow up a small dog before my lighter finally ignited it. Once the water boiled I told Kacie to go eat inside the tent while I made her some hot water bottles and picked up for the night.
Neither of us slept much because the elevation throws you off, but in the morning we encountered this, along with the delicate music of snowmelt everywhere running down to Aasgard Lake:
and lots of these guys:
After breakfast, we packed up and set off again, like this:
We covered about 10 miles that day, talking on and on about god, about how god has built right into us our capacity to see, feel, and appreciate beauty as a spiritual language to connect with Him/it. Here’s are some glimpses of what we saw, did, and loved:
Among the many things Kacie said that struck me deeply was this: “The only thing God asks is that we participate in the relationship. It’s like if I were going on this hike saying, ‘Hmm… Louisa might be with me on this hike. That might be her I see ahead of me, that could be her voice…’ but I ignored you the whole way because I wasn’t sure you were real. I mean, what’s more hurtful than just ignoring someone who loves you?! We do that to God all the time, and yet He just keeps loving us. He keeps saying, I’m here when you’re ready.”
Eventually we began our descent to Snow Lake, where we’d spend our second night. That’s when I felt something welling up in me, stronger with each step I advanced between the huge rock escarpments toward the meandering valley below. Thoughts churned. Why did it still hurt that Grayson had ignored my love? Why was it so hard to love myself ?
Here came the revelation: I understood, as I started bawling silently, that to love god in these mountains was to love god in me as well. So I began saying silently to each beauty, however tiny or vast: “I love you, god. I love you in this flower. I love you in the tops of those trees. I love you in that tremendous and intricate stone wall above me older than I can conceive.” Each time I sent out this energy, whatever came back seemed to redirect my inner periscope just a tiny notch or two – away from Grayson’s insult and toward my own wealth of spirit, away from the story of what happened and toward the openness of whatever might.
I crossed some threshold. I saw my journey was on course, that god had sent me a precious gift through every person I’ve ever loved – including Grayson. In the thousand-plus miles we covered together, he taught me most of the skills that embolden me today, skills that let me dare to venture out and meet my god in the rough and dangerous beauty of the wilderness.
What a gift! Not just for me, but now through me to Kacie. “Churches are like big, fancy worship bathrooms,” says Kacie. “I want to be here. God’s Cathedral is here.”
The next day we were met at the trailhead by kind, sober friends who drove us back to my car. The minute I got home, I showered, threw on a dress and heels, and drove to a downtown restaurant to celebrate another sober friend’s 50th birthday. We sang to him as he blushed. Love – that same echo of god’s goodness – rang in our voices.
“God is such a show-off!” I remember Kacie saying as we hiked. “He is! Because He has infinite beauty to show off! Fucking infinite! He pours it into the mountains, into this stream, into us! He wants it a-l-l to be felt!” We joked about the fears that make us check our inner share of god’s beauty, like a bird halting in mid-song for fear of fucking up. This blog is part of my song. I’ll show off, I’ll sing, I’ll fuck up, and I won’t apologize. Because god put inside me what it wants me to share.
I drank because I was maladjusted to life, and to a certain extent I still am. So are you. Life’s not entirely comfy for anyone, no matter how selfish or spiritual, because we constantly bump up against a reality that doesn’t suit our expectations. Even Kim Jong-un, supreme leader of North Korea who can send any annoying person to prison with a snap of his fingers, probably has a list of reasons to be pissed at the end of each day. The Dalai Lama, when I heard him speak, told about a fussy toddler on the plane whose mother kept trailing her up and down the aisle until he reflected, “I’m the Dalai Lama, and this woman has more patience than I do!”
One solution is to drink. Drinking doesn’t change the world, but it dulls our reactions to it, granting us a temporary peace. But notice that it’s our reactions to life, not life itself, that cause us pain. And to go even further, what I called “life” by the end of my drinking was a conception thoroughly skewed by my distorted thinking.
I once worked with a sponsee who kept relapsing because she “needed to take the edge off.” What was this “edge?” I would ask her. Together we worked out a definition as “tension that mounts incrementally as I am untrue to myself.” She felt her job forced her to simulate relationships and attitudes she did not really have, but rather than examining her reactions to people and situations, she A) suffered then B) medicated.
For me to react authentically in life, I have to know who I am and what I’m feeling – a feat easier said than done for a codependent adult child of an alcoholic. (How do codependents greet each other? “Hi! How am I?”) Hiking alone is, for me, one of the most powerful ways to arrive at this knowledge – especially longer thru-hikes that entail a week or so on the trail. In 2012 I did the Wonderland Trail, about 100 miles and 22K’ of climbing/descending, and in 2013, still recovering from radiation treatment, I did a section of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) covering 75 miles and 16K’ of climbing/descending. Hiking alone, the only interactions are between you and “nature,” people who’ve made or walked the trail before you, and the present-day hikers you meet. Many, many hours are spent in your own company. Incredible beauties are witnessed. Countless decisions are made. And each day brings a few hazards that call for courage.
The first days, in my case, are about purging. On Rainier, I found myself crying for two days. This was my first major hike after breaking up with my boyfriend, who had taught me nearly every trail skill I knew. But beyond that, I was coming to terms with the passing of youthful illusions that life stretches on and on. How did I, Louisa, get to be 52? Who was this lined, graying woman I’d become? On the PCT, I expected tears again, but instead met with fear. I’d begun by traversing Stevens Pass ski resort, and when the trail dropped from there into woods and rounded a hillside to a wholly new vista of indifferent, towering mountains through which I would pass, I got scared. “What the fuck am I doing?!” I thought. “What if a bear comes? Mountain lion? Rapist? What if I fall and no one even knows?” It took me a day or two to realize my deepest fears centered around cancer. It had struck me, it seemed, out of nowhere, threatening everything I love, forcing me through a prolonged nightmare of treatment from which there was no escape.
In both cases, I had nowhere to run from these feelings. I had to walk in their company, trudge in their muck until I truly got to know them. In both cases, I came out on the other side to delight in a freedom so airy and light, I can’t possibly describe it. The grief for all I’d lost turned to gratitude for the immense wealth I still had – these stunningly gorgeous surroundings plus the strength and know-how to travel though them. The fear of cancer and all other scariness turned into a reconciliation with god. Cancer happens, but I could choose to love all the cells on my team striving to protect me from it, and the many generations of medical experts all working to cure people. I would choose to put my trust in goodness.
There’s nothing cozier than your own little camp, bedding down in your own tidy one-bitch tent, when you know what you’re doing. You look at the map and see what’s coming up tomorrow. Few moments are more empowering than, after passing warning signs of a high creek or a trail damaged by landslide, you gather your gumption and do what you need to. Amid the roar of rushing water you choose your stepping rocks with care, plant your trekking pole and orient your balance to push off toward the next stance until, somehow, you’re across. Or refusing to look down on the now tiny creek that wends far below, you focus on the narrow strip of trail that remains and keep moving. Once you’ve passed these obstacles, they’re behind you. Damn right, they are! You don’t look back and analyze; your attention, buoyed by accomplishment, is all for what’s to come.
Finally, on both trips, I acquired an unexpected companion – both young men who loved the wilderness and had cobbled together from REI displays an idea of what they needed to get through it. How could my pack be that small? Why was I not wearing boots? Why no Mountain House food pouches? They asked to hike with me a few days and bombarded me with questions. In each case, I developed love for a total stranger – one a butler to the most glamorous movie star couple alive, the other a Taiwanese Christian Electrical Engineer – sharing a grubby, spontaneous sincerity unimaginable in normal life.
The moral is that if I can practice all these skills on a daily basis – know what’s really going on with me, take each challenge as it comes, and love others by sharing whatever I have to offer – I am in tune with life. And for as long as that is true, I will not develop an “edge” I need to “take off” by self-medicating. There are ways to be free within the confines of our own skin.
Emerald Ridge, Wonderland Trail 2012