This Wild Life
As time hurls me through the air at warp speeds, I’m able to focus my eyes just long enough to see the giant cement wall directly in front of me. It’s clearly marked “40.”
Time has a way of showing us who’s boss and ripping any sense of control from our hands. Most days, I close my eyes and allow it to carry me like a leaf in the wind, but when I open them back up and see where I’m headed, it shocks me anew each time.
“Mid-life” is a very real thing you can’t quite understand until you’ve arrived. The recognition that there may be less good years ahead than behind you is perhaps the most vulnerable of feelings and, dare I say, SCARY.
It’s feeling there is still so much undone with limited time left to do it. It’s a desperate urgency to start getting things right when you’ve spent so many years getting them wrong. It’s being surprised by each new wrinkle in your reflection and witnessing the loss of your own youth in tiny increments you can’t stop.
It’s your formerly fearless self being slowly encroached upon by the “what if” monster and feeling as though you’re being swallowed by time. And it’s lonely.
But my almost-40-self is just now learning that feeling lonely isn’t the same as being alone. It’s a significant realization because I have always struggled with feeling I was somehow wrongly different, that my trials were greater, that my pain was more painful, that the hand I had been dealt was always stacked against me and in favor of everyone else.
The truth is, I spent years surrendering all that is me to an idea someone else had for my life. I chased dreams of others and allowed them to mold me into a person I didn’t even recognize which only made me feel empty and alone. I became a person who made decisions solely with the intent of filling that hollowness inside of me, only to be left starving for something more.
I followed my father’s instructions to be a leader, to be the first to graduate college, and led myself down the path of every dream every other person ever dreamed. Does this make me a leader or a follower? I wonder if perhaps neither exist. Perhaps there are only doers.
Some doers appear to be born to this earth with a clear understanding of who they are and what they are supposed to do. But the majority of others, like me, trudge through each day’s muck searching for meaning in every face but our own, constantly seeking just one way we can set the world’s eyes on fire. Some call it purpose or destiny but in reality, we are all simply searching for validation that we are of use. To someone. For something.
I feel as though each day of my life is a piece of the map that will hopefully lead me to that place, the place of peace I have been searching, the place where I know I have arrived to where I belong.
But lately, I’ve been feeling too disconnected to even see the dots on my map. Recognizing this, I suddenly felt a need to be in nature, to experience the healing feeling of dirt under my feet, the smell of fall’s freshly fallen leaves, the rush of water in my ears. I knew I needed to escape the daily grind and go in search of something to fill me up.
As someone who relies heavily on intuition to guide me, I am generally less of a planner than a feeler. I operate on a “figure it out as we go” mentality and do not like to get bogged down with details. Wake up and feel like seeing the beach today? Let’s go! It’s only an 8-hour drive. We’ll find a place to stay when we get there!
It’s for this reason that when I decided to escape alone to the West Virginia mountains, I initially didn’t give much thought past finding the perfect spot and checking the weather, but as the week progressed, my staring-40-in-the-eyes self allowed the “what ifs” to sneak in a bit:
What if I fall off a cliff and die? What if I get kidnapped or eaten by a bear? What if my cell phone battery dies?
With my new fear guiding the way, I purchased a portable charger and pepper spray and then made sure a few of my closest people knew where to look for my body.
I woke up that morning, got dressed and searched my jewelry box for hike-appropriate earrings. For the first time ever, I was drawn to the back where I keep all the items I never wear and then to a pair of purple glittery heart-shaped studs made for a 12-year-old that I inherited from my great-grandmother.
For a reason still unknown, those earrings called to me this day. I put them on, packed my bag with essentials, laced up my brand-new hiking boots and headed out.
With a 3.5 hour drive ahead of me, I had decided I wanted to leave around 5:00 a.m. and when I got into my car, the clock read exactly 5:00 a.m. So far, on plan!
I plugged “Endless Wall Trail” into my GPS and as it pulled up coordinates instead of an address, I began to wonder if my lack of detailed planning was a mistake but decided to push forward anyway.
The drive was illuminated by a full moon against black sky and as it shone through my window, I imagined what it would be like to breathe in pieces of it, each morsel lighting me up from the inside, one-by-one filling and conquering the darkness of emptiness.
I arrived at the trail and was greeted by leaves containing hues of red, brown and amber that popped against a backdrop containing several shades of green, the color of hope. It was only 10 steps in when I became overwhelmed with emotion and allowed the trees to hear my tears. In ways I couldn’t put to words, I felt at one with the majestic forest, almost as though I was wrapped in its arms. I slowly continued along the path, intentionally taking in the scenery along my way: large trees that had fallen with walls of roots higher than my head, rhododendron bushes by the hundreds, birds and squirrels, a rushing creek. I felt each harmonious piece fit together perfectly like a puzzle until I came to a tree so unique I had to stop.
Tall enough to touch the sky, its branches grew only at the very top and twisted around as if they had gotten stuck while swaying in the wind. I ran my hand down its thick and beautiful patchwork bark, appreciating the intricate detail, wondering if there was any chance the tree felt my presence the way I felt it.
How can something stand out so much and yet fit in at the same time? So unique, but still belonging.
I continued up and down hills, across a stream and over bridges before coming to the cliff. Suddenly, I was standing on the edge of the Endless Wall of rock and vast expansiveness of mountain peaks and valleys below. I felt on top of the world and it took my breath away.
I first stopped at a giant rock overlooking the cliff and perched myself there. I set up my portable tripod and snapped some photos before getting out my journal to try and capture this unspeakable moment with words. As I searched my mind, my hand seemed to take over on its own. The words I wrote, perhaps a mantra, a reminder, a realization, or even a healing message to myself I had never felt before, simply stated:
It’s ok to be alone.
Line by line, I repeated these words and for the first time felt them in my soul, with the last two lines reading:
It’s ok to be.
I didn’t fully understand their power in the moment, but spent some time just sitting and breathing, allowing myself to just be for the first time in ages.
With more ahead of me, I packed up my gear and continued on until I came across an intriguing area. I found myself staring down a metal ladder built into a cliff between rocks with barely enough space for a normal human body to squeeze through. If attempted, the ladder would lead to the bottom where you could view and explore the vastness from below before climbing back up.
I stood at the top of that ladder staring down the cliff for about 5 minutes, calculating each risk, considering each disastrous possibility and weighing it against every desire of my mind. Then I kept walking.
It wasn’t far ahead when I began to feel the creeping regret. Why had I just passed the opportunity to explore, something I so desperately need that I was drawn to this trail in the first place? I had made the decision not to climb out of fear. I knew I could physically do it, so the only remaining obstacle was my mind.
I continued forward, never forgetting about that ladder.
Next came Diamond Point overlook, appropriately named as the crowning jewel. On top of a mountain overlooking the Endless Wall for miles, sky close enough to touch and the river gorge below, it was simply unspeakable beauty.
As I stood on the edge of that cliff, it occurred to me how easy it would be to fall and, for a few seconds, how easy it would be to jump.
I’m not sure if it was the thought itself or the fact the thought entered my mind, but I felt a sudden chill in my body that caused me to step back a bit. Perhaps it was a sudden loss of trust in myself.
I sat down and ate nuts and berries, feeling oddly like a bird missing its wings, then laid down on the rock and imagined myself sinking into the sky. I felt completely at one with the trees and dirt, rocks and water, the sky and sun.
It was there, in complete solitude, that I felt less alone than ever.
I packed up and headed on and, as the trail looped back around, I decided to take a second trip.
This time, I stopped again at the ladder. But this time, I decided to climb. I white-knuckled each cold metal step on my way down as though my life really depended on it. By the time I was far enough that turning back wasn’t an option, my body was trembling; but, fear soon turned to exhilaration as I stepped my foot off the ladder at the bottom. This doer had done it!
And just like that, I trusted myself again. As I explored my new view, it became clear how different things appear when we look at them from a new angle. When I looked up, the once dangerous cliff I feared falling from now appeared as something to conquer.
I made my way around the rugged rocks and soaked in all I could before beginning the ascent to the top again. The key, I’ve heard, is to never look down.
On my way up, I could see the Endless Wall, unlike that cement wall I’d been headed towards, isn’t at all marked by its age, but instead by timeless beauty. I made a mental note of how much more peaceful it felt.
This part of the hike was not at all in my plan, but it certainly turned out to be a highlight.
None of us has a life that followed the exact path we mapped out, but it’s the unexpected twists and turns, the detours, the rugged terrain, the valleys and mountains that are all a part of this beautiful mess intended for our life. It’s only when we face our fears and surrender to all the ways each piece comes together to complete our puzzle, that we can truly find peace and fully be whole.
As I made it back to the trail’s end, I reflected on the beginning.
That morning when I walked in, I didn’t know exactly what I was searching for but just a few hours later, walked out having found myself.
I now realize there is simply no amount of planning that can prepare us for this one unique and wild life.