Saturday, August 11, 2012

Day 13: backpacking with our kids - the 200 mile summer: on fear

“I am just a tiny person…but there is a place for me and for everybody, to sit down on this earth and touch it and call it their own.”
Mma Ramotswe in The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency

Day 13: Sandpiper Lake, 0 day and 4-mile cross-country day hike into upper Sandpiper basin

“Come quick Cade!  It’s a toad!  It’s huge!”

“Holy cow mama!  Look at the moon!”

These are declarations of wonder of normally overlooked treasures.  It’s our 13th day out here.  13 days of watching the sunrise and set to make way for the waxing moon.  We are now aware of and synced with the natural cycles of light and dark.  We wake with the sun and crawl into our tents when it sets.  I marvel at how city-dwelling life protects me so much from nature that I usually have no idea of what stage the moon is in and where it sits in the night sky.  We don’t see the toads hopping by or what the local ants are carrying to their nest.   Out here, we have watched the moon each night wax, getting slightly larger each 24-hr period to now be as bright of a spotlight at night as the sun is during the day.  Only it casts a blue/white illumination over an otherwise pitch-black land.  We have watched little ants carry large flies over long distances and even play dead.  Yes, we have now learned that ants can play dead.  If you don’t believe me, plan a backpacking trip with your kids!

When we marvel at the night sky, speckled with more points of light than the brain can comprehend, it can make one’s existence seem so insignificant.  I have slowly moved from these initial feelings stirred as I am in the grandeur of this massive creation to a deep awe that I have been given the privilege and honor to exist at all, to have this opportunity to wonder.  Grateful that God choose to breathe life into me.  My thoughts actually take a full 180 turn and serve to make me feel very significant.  I am.

Two days ago we left VVR and since then have hiked 16 miles and climbed 3000 ft.  We left the JMT highway for an 11,000 ft, high mountain lake named Sandpiper.  This basin is off the beaten path and is spectacular.  My favorite location so far, by far.  With 360 degree views of 12,000 ft plus peaks, multiple lakes, and a delightful stream that meanders through the basin, connecting these waterways and culminating in a waterfall at the edge of the basin, this basin wants for nothing.

To get here was taxing as it required boulder hopping over a few miles of cross country route finding. It triggered some hidden fears in me as a mild headache hung in the backdrop for a few days.  As our bodies get used to the daily output of calories burnt and sweat produced, it is very difficult to eat and drink enough.  The body is simply not used to processing gallons of water a day so in these early days, you drink a lot, and pee a lot.  We have incorporated coconut water into our regime which has essential electrolytes, but the heat on this west side of the range is at least 15 degrees warmer than we have hiked in so far, and my body isn’t keeping up yet.

So as the pressure on the right side of my head increases throughout these 2 days of hiking, so does my anxiety.  Fear is one of the barriers that keeps people from getting too deep into a wilderness, preferring a day hike or not hiking at all.  Let’s face it, fear has the power to keep us from many things.  Its grip is strong and convincing, often guiding our life decisions. 

Backpacking has been a key force in fighting my personal fears.  Let me explain.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more unlikely backpacker candidate than me. I was born and raised just outside of Chicago.  Nice size yards, set back sidewalks, and large trees lined our cul-de-sac and convinced the locals to stay put for their entire lives.  Family is to the Midwestern what adventure is to the Western.  Weekends are full of BBQs and pig roasts.  A wilderness adventure is the furtherest thing from one’s mind.  Why leave the city?  All the stores, clinics, people, and medical personnel are right where you need them.  So adventures are built out of hunting for matching purses to the outfit that was bagged the week before. 

I remember my Spanish grandma.  As we passed through a small grove of trees that had somehow not succumbed to industrialization, in our car on the way to the mall one Saturday afternoon.“Ay mia!  No me puedo creerlo! (I can’t believe it!)  She went on in Spanish with a rising tone of frustration, how horrific it was to have all these trees here.  What a waste of valuable space and how dangerous it was to not have civilized this piece of land.  Where I saw a nice break in the endless Chicago sprawl, she saw a missed opportunity that created a danger for the citizens.

My first ventures into the woods unnerved me to the core.  Were there perpetrators lurking?  Were there wild animals prowling?  Upon learning that the NW was home to the actual mountain lion, my evenings attempting to sleep were fitful as I am imagined wild cougars or bears charging into my tent and grave injuries happening during the day – all outside of any cell phone range. 

Stepping into the woods and out of the blanket protection I thought the city provided me was no small feat.  Clearly I was a good candidate for California beaches, populated resorts, and quaint cafes for my getaways.  I should have just pulled out a map and picked my vacation options within the circled the areas that included AT&T’s service areas.  No wilderness areas need apply.  Yet somehow, despite huge fears, the Wild called me – or maybe that was just my husband calling, as he couldn’t be anywhere else but in the mountains come July and August. 

And then, four years into my mountain faith journey, the unthinkable happened.  During the tail end of our honeymoon, we had arranged a 7-day backpacking trip with college friends in the eastern Oregon Wallowa Mountains.  It is a gorgeous, rugged country that we have spent many trips exploring.  Right before lunch on the second day as we climbed over a rise, Cory waved hello and headed to greet his college roommate of four years, Mike.  He turned around to find me skidding down the mountain on my stomach, unconscious.  Apparently my brain decided to check out as the 8500 ft in elevation change I had subjected my body to was clearly the final stress.  I was having a grand mal seizure 8 miles in from a trailhead.  Over the next 5 hours I’d have at least 3 more, each time rendering me more and more lifeless.  My fever had spiked to 106 degrees.  My brain had rebelled against my body and was slowly dying and suffocating. 

My time had not come yet (thankfully) as a band of forest service workers were coming through the area on horseback, carrying a Hamm radio.  This device saved my life, as it was the only way we could call for help.  By this point, I was basically unconscious.  Within an hour, a Life Flight Helicopter landed and administered necessary first aid to stop the seizures and then whisked me away, leaving my husband of 2 weeks on the ground floor, wondering if I’d live.  It took him all night, with Mike by his side, to hike out on a dark, moonless night and drive the 5 hours necessary to the hospital I was at.

The hospital staff knew exactly who these 2 dirty, exhausted men were coming to see. With bloody legs from falling during their dark hike and tired eyes Cory asked.  “Is she OK?” wondering, truly, if I was alive.  When he heard that I was doing fine, great even, he broke down in tears and followed the nurse to my room.  I greeted him with a confused smile as I had not been conscious long enough to have been told what had happened.  Doctors concluded that I was not epileptic, but that I had simply reached my personal threshold, which we all have, and went into seizures.  While I recovered in the hospital, a friend, who is a Naturopathic physician, did research and found that the birth control pill, which I had been on for 1 month, has been known to cause seizures.  So theories as to why this happened included low blood sugar, altitude sickness, and messing with the natural state of the body with a powerful, hormone altering drug.

Needless to say, the incident has scarred me.  I am not on anti-seizure medicine nor have I had another incident since, but in the summer after the seizures, I found every excuse to avoid the trail.  Realizing that I was living under the tyranny of fear, I decided I needed to face it, which meant heading back in.   We waited another summer before we did so and when we did we went to the very place the helicopter had landed and climbed to the very peak in Eastern Oregon that I missed out on when I collapsed a few hundred feet from the top.  To this day the picture we took on that spot sits in my library reminding me every time I look at it of that victorious moment.

Ten years later, I found myself gripped with fear again as we planned our first kid free high altitude trip into the high Sierra Mountains in California.  Hiking in lower elevations and staying relatively close to the trailhead is one thing, but as we stood at the entrance of a 40-mile hike that would take us over 12,000 ft in elevation, I could hardly breathe.  Granted, we were standing at 8,500 feet, so that could have been a part of the breathlessness, but the truth was, I was terrified.  Terrified or not, we were standing, backpacks ready, at the trailhead.  I couldn’t just roll up in a ball and refuse to walk. 
Still intimidated by the thought of cougars and bears, I was now realizing I was also scared of my own body.  I broke the trailhead barrier and took those first steps scared.  I realized, as I prayed and walked, that sometimes in order to conquer fears, you simply have to do the fearful thing anyway, you just do it scared.  How would I ever know if I could do this very thing I had grown to love?  I could live a safe life, never any further than a phone call from a Dr, or I could LIVE life, free.  I wanted that. So I walked. Scared to death. But I did it.

After a few hours, I snapped out of my internal dialogue and started to look around.  I was looking at some of the most dramatic scenery I had ever beheld.  Just outside Mammoth, CA, we were heading to Ediza Lake, perched at 9,800 ft, it was like nothing I had ever seen – massive granite peaks, dizzying waterfalls, a pristine alpine lake, and vibrant meadows filled with Sierra wildflowers. 

Sometimes in life we have a moment of amazement, a turning point, a tangible moment in time that permanently changes us.  Such a moment happened for me on a day hike out of Ediza Lake up to Iceburg Lake, which is a stark, high altitude, small, deep blue colored lake, perched at over 10,000 feet.  It was here, as I sat down on the granite slab feeling the slight burn in my lungs and warmth of the air that I realized, once and for all, that I need not fear my body any longer.  I was at high altitudes and I was conscious!  I was beyond conscious: I was vibrantly alive.  As I sat there, totally consumed with both the beauty of what was a gorgeous high mountain lake and the evidence of God as he fully and completely changed my belief system about my body, I felt a 12-year tyranny on my life lift. 

All because, the day before, I hiked: scared.

Even so, when dizzy spells and headaches threatened yesterday’s carefree enjoyment at altitude, some remnants of past fears surfaced.  We are deeper into the wilderness on this epic trip than past trips.  As we sit at this off the beaten path location of Sandpiper Lake, with not a soul in sight for the last 24 hrs, I have to force myself to go back to Iceburg Lake, where I left these fears.  I have to intentionally choose to not let fear rob me of today.

As I watch our kids climbing over boulders and balancing on exposed trail with a backpack hanging off their shoulders, I recognize a 4th fear: my kids could get hurt out here. 

Yes, I am sure that fear is one of the barriers that keeps families from backpacking.  It threatened, very loudly, to keep my on the city side of a trailhead.  The unknown seems unsafe, but pressing into these fears might bring forth victory, freedom, and an unparalleled adventure. 

Pushing through yesterday’s fears allowed us to venture off the JMT, which has some extra measures of safety in the high numbers of people that are on it, to arrive at one of our best campsites so far.  The kids have swam for hours, including a spontaneous morning stream hike that stretched until lunch, where we all walked in ankle deep water that followed the bubbling stream as it curved and meandered over rocks and small waterfalls.  We enjoyed a route finding afternoon as we set off cross-country up to the upper lakes of the Sandpiper basin while the kids asked us to tell them, again, the story of how we met and the years leading up to getting married.  A true, glorious, off the beaten path that few ever see.

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