Tag Archives: wilderness

Of Mountains and Miracles

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:

Crater of Mount Baker at dawn

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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?

CRAZY SHIT.

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.

Bikini bitches! (click to enlarge)

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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.

 

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A few more images (click to enlarge)…

Mount Baker from a distance – second most heavily glaciated in the contiguous 48 states

 

Baker halfway up – crater our revised goal after Sally’s injury (originally the summit)

 

Me crossing where Sally slipped – 40lb pack doesn’t help!

 

Base camp self-timer shenanigans

 

Supper at 4, in bed by 5, wake-up at 10:30pm, geared & climbing by midnight

 

About 2,000 feet above base, dawn approaches. Canadian climber’s lamp a few hundred feet below

 

Mount Baker’s enormous dawn shadow cast across mountains and sound to the horizon

 

Me beyond a crevasse – but now at least we can SEE ’em!

 

K. approaching the crater after 4,000 feet gained in 5 hours

 

Descending – I’m just past a snowbridge between two crevasses.

 

Homeward bound – car and big fat beanburger, here I come!

 

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Filed under AA, Alcoholism, Recovery, Sobriety, Spirituality, Twelve Steps

Solo Hiking as an Alcoholic’s Inner Journey

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.

PCT Section J

click to enlarge

Josephine Lake Wonderland

 

The first days, in my case, are about purging.  On Rainier, I found myself crying for two days.  My boyfriend, who had taught me nearly every trail skill I knew, and I were broken up at the time.  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.

PCT J Camp

Dusk – I’ll tidy up! Clothesline strung behind my tent – wash in a large ziplock, dump away from source.

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.

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Emerald Ridge, Wonderland Trail 2012

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Filed under Alcoholism, Drinking, living sober, Recovery, Sobriety, Spirituality