Backpacking distills everything down to its most intense essence. The mountains are bigger and the food tastes better. What is in your head and your heart is bigger and louder as well. Joy, peace, and contentment are wonderfully overwhelming, but distress, pain and anger wash over you as well. There’s no Netflix to drone out the self talk and on a solo trip there are no friends to act as sounding boards.
The volume of my anxiety and OCD on this trip surprised me a lot. It was the longest I’d ever been out on the trail sure, and I was flying solo, but I was well prepared and hiking a popular trail that was certain to have plenty of people on it should I need help in any way. While I wondered what the effect of so much solitude would be, I was genuinely looking forward to the trip and wasn’t nervous. I’d gotten into the car camping site just fine the night before and was well rested. So when I stepped away from my car at the trailhead, I couldn’t understand what brought on the sudden wave of anxiety. Just in case it was a subconscious warning that I’d forgotten something essential, I went back and checked everything in my car multiple times to make sure a compass or headlamp hadn’t fallen out. NW Forest Pass on my rearview mirror: check, wallet contents in my pack: check, map in my pocket: check. There was nothing I hadn’t thought of.
It’s opacity is by far the most nerve wracking thing about anxiety for me. While I don’t want to go too far into the territory of magical thinking where thoughts in and of themselves can make realities spring to life, in truth my anxiety has always been my intuition tapping on the glass to tell me that something is amiss. Usually this is something that I’m ignoring or creating beautifully spun excuses for, and my intuition is not so gently telling me to knock it off. However, knowing this about my anxiety doesn’t make it any easier to identify which thing my intuition is directing my attention towards. There’s an elephant in the room, sure, but it’s in one of the infinite rooms in my head and there are trapdoors and secret tunnels and going looking for it, even with a Marauder’s Map, is a fruitless task. It only makes the anxiety worse. I know without a doubt that I will find the elephant sooner or later (it is an elephant, after all), but I’ve learned that I have to go about my business until the day that I open up the third floor library looking for something else and run smack into it. Mischief managed.
In this case, there was nothing I could do but keep walking down the trail. I did actually entertain the idea of going back, wondering if my anxiety was warning me that the trail wasn’t where I needed to be for that week. Did someone or something need me at home? There were fires burning all around the Pacific NW- was I walking into danger? None of these thoughts gave me the peace that I gain from following my intuition. I was running all over the second floor looking for the elephant, when he was probably banging around the attic like an asshole. I had to go about the business of putting one foot in front of the other.
As I continued walking, my anxiety began to abate. The things that I like about myself were also distilled and made bigger, and would not be ignored. I love my strength in carrying a pack weighed down by Lara bars (so many Lara bars) for miles. I love the devoted nerd in me that carefully carried a huge hardcover version of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods” because well, it’s the book I happened to be reading when I left for the trip, and books are home. I love my [pretty much Joan of Arc level] bravery in getting up to pee in the dark of night. I love that I stayed out in the dark of night because the moon is full and the stars are bright and I had to breath in the sweet smell of a moonlit meadow at night just one more time before going back to sleep. The challenges and the sweeping scenery were grand, and I reveled in them.
I wish I could tell you that my anxiety left me as I kept walking, but that would be lying and you can’t lie on the Internet. When my OCD really presented itself mid-hike, I looked like Indy spelling out “Iehova”. It was in turns frightening and infuriating. At times my anxiety and OCD faded into the background for a bit. It was very valuable, actually, to experience joy, peace and contentment showing up to the party even when anxiety refused to leave. Still, I needed to face some of my most intimidating demons, and I needed to do it by myself. My two hour per day allotment of podcast time helped some. Journaling and reading helped as well, but I couldn’t do either of those while I walked, and the tome of “American Gods” was the only book I had out there so it had to last. I tried talking to the Universe about it, I tried telling myself that it logically didn’t make sense, I tried repeating mantras and breathing deeply. The anxiety would retreat, but then I’d catch myself looking for the elephant.
The last night out I was camped at the junction where I had first turned North to start the loop, which meant I only had to hike out five miles to where my car was parked at the trailhead. I had woken up in the night to rain pattering on my rain fly. It stopped when it was light enough to get up, but rain clouds were still looming so I packed up quickly. I was looking forward to getting off trail and was very much ready for a shower and a real cup of coffee, but as I started to walk away from my last camp the anxiety hit in a huge wave just as it had when I started the trip. I kept walking forward but in my mind went over all of the places I had put things at the campsite (tree, other tree, rock, different tree) to see if I’d forgotten to grab anything. I didn’t have that much stuff and I had noted everything as it went into my pack that morning. I kept walking. The forest around me offered little joys or comforts. About a quarter mile from where I’d camped began the burn area from a 2012 fire that had devastated a section of the wilderness. I had also walked through it the first day, and that day expanded my two hours of media per day rule to four, because walking through a burned out forest is like walking with ghosts. It’s haunted and just very very dead. It’s draining to walk through in a way that no amount of elevation gain will ever be. However, I was determined to walk my last couple of hours in the forest without the digital balm of media. The ghost forest was silent, and my demons were howling. I tried everything I had done before to calm them, but they only got louder.
Then I remembered something I’d read about healing difficult emotions by loving them instead of pushing them away or running from them. I also remembered this quote by Maya Angelou about forgiveness of self. As I was walking, I decided to try to something I’d never done before. I decided to try holding my anxiety. Not to feed it or indulge it, but just to love it and to forgive myself for having it. I needed to forgive all of the times my anxiety has made me leave a situation awkwardly when I “should” be there and having fun. I needed to forgive the times I’d lashed out at someone I care about in a fight or flight response (I’d long since apologized to them, but never to myself). I needed to forgive all of the times I’d called myself crazy or broken. To do this I needed something to hold…and then all of a sudden I knew what it was. I could see, so clearly, what my anxiety looked like. It was a little tawny cat with short fur the color of dust in the desert, its nose and the backs of its ears dark brown. The tightness I felt in my chest was just the weight of her, curled up into a little circle of cat right over my heart. The fluttering of my heartbeat was just her purr, thrumming under my breastbone. She was warm and soft, and I held her close. I buried my nose in her fur while I tried to forgive myself for the above list of trespasses. I can’t reach out to a howling demon, but I can accept the presence of something small and soft and warm, even if does sometimes use its claws and teeth. And as I held it and told it that it was okay that it was here, it uncurled, stretched a cat stretch, jumped down and…walked away, taking the constant knot in my chest with it. I watched it go, then kept putting one foot in front of the other.