I drove to church this past Sunday (I’ll spare you the list of excuses I have, both reasonable and un-, for driving instead of biking), and on the way home, “Float On” by Modest Mouse came on the radio. I’ve operant-conditioned myself (I’m taking an intro psych class right now, ok) since 2004 to crank the volume whenever I hear that drum riff at the beginning of the song, and the reward has been immediate and consistent every time in twelve years: good feels.
The sky was doing that November-in-Portland, could-rain-at-any-moment-but-right-now-it’s sunny thing, and I drove through the intersection in northeast Portland where I was hit by a pick-up truck on my bike in 2008, and I thought about how little that event negatively effects my life now, and how big and horribly important it felt to me at the time (and for a long time after). We’ll float on, right?
I thought about getting divorced a few years ago, and the friendly happy-birthday email I’d sent my ex-husband just the other day. We’ll float on.
This feels like some cheesy bullshit, but please don’t mistake it for positive-thinking crap. Those things both sucked a lot at the time. Like, a lot. But eventually, they stopped sucking and became learning experiences and new opportunities. At the very least, they stopped hurting as much.
So I thought about these things while the song played, and cried a little, and when the song ended I turned the radio off and drove in silence the rest of the way home.
More recently, I met J for lunch tacos before work. We were chowing down as a line formed at the counter, and I commented that, at 1:30 or so, it was late for a lunch rush. We chatted inanely back and forth about lunch hours, and then I said: “At my last job, I used to wait as long as possible before taking lunch, so that I’d have less time at work after my lunch was over.” J kind of looked at me for a moment. “Yeah… I shouldn’t have stayed at that job for so long.” I can’t believe, in retrospect, how stuck I felt, and how long I let myself stay in a job I hated, feeling worse and worse at it and worse and worse about myself and my prospects.
I mean, I can believe it; I’m grateful that I got the opportunity to shake myself out of it (thanks Mom), but I’m not exactly in the awesomest of financial positions now (to say the very least), and I’m more than a little daunted by the next few years of my life. I’m moving out of my studio apartment this month and into my parents’ in-law unit; I’m working a low-paid, part-time job; I’m about to be enrolled in school half-time, with student loans.
I’ve been thinking with a lot of intention about my priorities since I quit my job in July, and I’ve been encountering my priorities in my every day life, too. When I first got back to Portland in September, I stayed with my folks while my subletter found a new place to live. I made a few trips, each separated by a couple of weeks, to my apartment to bring things back to my folks’ place so I’d have access to them.
First priority, the day I got back: my cats and their accoutrements. (My loved ones.)
Second priority: A couple duffel bags full of clothes, ‘cause I’d been wearing the same three damn outfits all summer. (Publicly-visible self-expression?)
Third priority: Art supplies, a few books, boots, cozy quilts, my winter coat. (Warmth?)
I enrolled at PSU as a postbac student, registered for the one class it wasn’t too late to register for (intro psych, as mentioned), sent out a bazillion job applications, and eventually landed pretty much the perfect half-time job: working as an aide at a physical therapy clinic. Here’s what I am doing for the next few years: I am completing my prereqs (all the science I didn’t take in college), getting in some observation hours, learning about the field, and hoping to start applying for Doctorate of Physical Therapy programs in a year or so. Let’s go student loans, let’s go!
I feel sort of shockingly good about this, and a little surprised at how easy, in retrospect (y’know, once I actually got a job offer and wasn’t just throwing resumés out into the void with no feedback), it was to get on this path. I did it by acknowledging that the things I had tried so far, as far as my career is concerned, had not worked and were not working. So I rearranged my priorities, and instead of assuming that the things I’d always thought I wanted, like “creative expression,” would eventually magically somehow lead to other things I’ve always wanted, like “financial security” and “the ability to support a family,” I took a good hard look at my strengths and weaknesses, and then I started from “financial security” and worked my way down.
Here’s a truth about me: I suck at hustle. Two years in marketing, four years as a wedding photographer — these things have shown me that I straight up do not have what it takes to mold my dream job out of the new economy, the internet, my creatives skills, et cetera, the way I kinda always thought I eventually might.
In August, I sat across from Elana at a breakfast place in New York, telling her about my thought process so far and the paths I was considering that might get me where I wanted to be, and she looked up from her pancakes and said, “have you thought about physical therapy?” and I said, “huh. No” and I thought about it.
Being a PT requires schooling, but not so much hustle. It is a fairly well-defined title with a well-defined role. Starting salaries post-degree are good. I am good at school. Being a PT requires creative problem-solving, which I love, and working directly with people, which I also love. Unlike many other healthcare workers, PTs get a lot of one-on-one time with their patients. There is always more to learn in the field. It’s evidence-based, but with lots of room for personal experience and trial-and-error. There’s both variety and routine. Some PTs specialize; others work with people of all ages who are rehabbing from injuries and traumas of many different types. I have benefitted from physical therapy myself, and I love the idea of helping people exist more happily in their bodies. I will get to exist in my body while working, too.
So, when I stopped looking for what I felt like I wanted to do and started considering what I want my life to be like (how I want to be when I grow up, vs. what I want to be), I found something I’m actually really excited about.
I wish it hadn’t taken me so damn long to figure this out. On a bad day I feel downright despairing about the way I “wasted” my twenties. At thirty I should be grown up, with a career and a family, not divorced, broke, going back to school to take all the science classes I should have taken in college.
But in the days after I got hit by that pick-up truck in 2008, unhappy and in pain and horrified by the swollen lump over my left collarbone where the bone was broken into several jagged pieces, I flipped through my boyfriend’s copy of that crazy/wonderful book by Ram Dass, Be Here Now, and stared and stared at this page:
It’s not that the caterpillar doesn’t have control over her own destiny. It’s that she can’t possibly see what’s coming. In Stehekin this summer, Paint Your Wagon, in that overheard conversation, taught me another thing about butterflies: in order to be the beautiful, flying creatures they were always meant to be, they need to struggle. Scientists who tried to help by cutting them out of their cocoons discovered that “it doesn’t work. The struggle pushes fluid into their wings. They need to struggle to break the cocoon to be strong enough to fly. Strength comes from the struggle.”
I wish I could find a source for this that wasn’t a feel-good allegorical retelling just like this one, but I can’t. But: it sure does feel useful to think about struggle in this way — to give it meaning. But: that’s got to be some kind of logical fallacy — there’s got to be a word for it — narrativizing the past in such a way that it just has to have arrived at the present with some kind of intention. So I can say: I had to spend my twenties wandering from job to dissatisfying job, in order to learn what I needed to learn about myself and the world to find and recognize a better path. I believe it, I feel it, and I chafe against it. I feel so angry at myself. So impatient.
When I was breaking up with my ex-husband, I felt incredibly ashamed. I judged myself for my failed marriage because I had always judged others for theirs. So when I finally told my friends, and they said, “it’s okay, we love you,” and I finally told my parents, and they said, “it’s okay, we love you”… that experience was powerful. The experience of being understood and forgiven made me a more empathetic, forgiving person (eventually).
All of these lessons are two-steps-forward, one-step-back deals. But there’s forward motion. Maybe a narrative arc. Or a narrative fallacy. Whatever.
This is gonna be a strange leap from there, maybe, but — I’m trying in some kind of long-winded roundabout way to write about my conversion to Christianity. It feels weird to write that, because I still don’t feel unhesitant to claim that identity. I have a doctor’s appointment coming up, and the clinic sent me a bunch of paperwork to fill out, my health history and so on — and some demographic information, including a little blank for “religion.” I left it blank.
I can’t stop reading The Toast’s Convert Series ’cause I’m trying to figure out where and how it happened for me. There wasn’t one moment. It was a series of moments, I guess, spread out over many years.
In 2012 I did this project I called “holy daze” wherein I studied Christianity and kinda sorta followed the church calendar. I intended to do this with other religions, too, one year at a time, but then I got divorced instead. I left the Bay Area and my UU church in Oakland and put a lot of things on hold, including religion, though I continued to go to UU church on Christmas and Easter and cry during the hymns about Christ.
Over lunch yesterday, my mom asked me, “Why Jesus? Why Christ? Why not Buddhism or Judaism or something else?”
I said, “Cultural context?” and spoke a bit about how I feel culturally connected to Judeo-Christian culture, and how Judaism would feel appropriative, and all those things are true, but mostly it’s because I cry at Christmas and Easter services while singing about Jesus Christ.
Maybe if I still lived in the Bay Area, I would still be more or less happy at my UU church in Oakland, which I loved. (And, doctrinally speaking, I will be a universalist forever, if not a unitarian.) But I was a member of that church while I wrote all this, while I looked for meaning in the trinity and sin and salvation. I reread all of it the other day, an hour or so before I had a meeting over tea with the pastor of the church I’ve been attending for a few weeks now. I was taken by surprise, a little, by some of it… I was reminded that this really has been quite a long time coming. In the last “holy daze” post I wrote, I talked about digging wells, looking for water/truth. Maybe I feel the ground getting moist in this one; to mix my metaphors, it feels like good soil. Maybe it doesn’t matter which well I choose to dig in, and maybe I’ll really be sort of agnostic my whole life. But I can tell you with certainty that it’s possible to be two things at once: an agnostic and a believer. Picking communion bread out of my teeth with my tongue, and overwhelmed by and grateful for the sacrament and for God’s forgiveness.
I quit my ride over a week ago now, and have been back in Portland for almost a week. Backup (should I go back to calling him J. now?) and I spent several days at Smith Rock doing a little bit of climbing and a lot of hanging out. Our second day there, I worked for a couple hours moving rocks for a nearby homeowner, feeling like an awesome dirtbag climber, at least until I smashed my pinky between a couple big rocks (it’s still bruised). On our last day there, I hangdogged my way to within a couple moves of the top of a 5.10a, and then I bonked mightily on a 5.7 and had to get Backup to lower me so I could sit on the ground and cry for a bit while I stuffed food in my face. I made up for it by scrambling up to the top of Asterisk Pass (class 4) for the beginning of the sunset, and then we drove into Bend and drank some beers. Two nights in Bend (with lots of eating in between), and then we drove home to Portland.
I’m staying with my parents for now, in their guest room with my kitties (who are as wonderful as ever). My subletter is staying in my apartment for the immediate future, and when/if she finds another space, I’ll have to decide then what kind of living situation I really ought to have. I’m applying to jobs and also to school — not sure I’ll be able to register for classes this late, but if I can, the term starts on the 28th — and am I ready to do that, to be a student again? I have a bunch of prerequisites to get done for the path that’s floated to the top over my last few months of mental exploration. We’ll see.
The room is full of outdoor gear. I’m ready for any kind of wilderness adventure, but I don’t have much in the way of city-appropriate seasonal clothing. The evidence of my aborted journey is everywhere, in boxes of resupply food and piles of maps. Listen, I don’t feel great about it. I miss the trail. I don’t feel entirely ready to be home, but here I am.
A few weeks ago I wrote up some mini-reviews of the gear I carried through Washington; you can read those here. When we first got off trail in Trout Lake, I wrote up some tongue-in-cheek trail stats, as follows:
blisters: still zero (Altra and Injinji! love)
nights under a roof: eight
nights in a tent: 26
nights under the stars: zero (shameful)
showers taken: ten (four of which were in Stehekin. After that, I settled into being dirty)
gear failures / wear: holes in socks and shoes, leaky Evernew water carrier (but I used it as my dirty water bladder with my Sawyer Mini and squeezed it a lot, so)
favorite snack, hands down: peanut M&Ms. They melt in your mouth, not in your stuff-sack-full-of-snacks-for-the-day! “Sharing size” please, but I’m not sharing.
surprise hit snack: cheese sandwich crackers
energy bar I’m somehow still not sick of: sierra trail mix Clif bar
energy bar I never want to see again: peanut butter & chocolate chip ProBar “meal” bars
best vegan jerky (I bought a sampler pack): Louisville Vegan Jerky Company
I learned a ton about being in the wilderness. Logistics: what to carry. What to eat. My weekend trips are gonna be awesome. But also less easily-explicable things about forward motion and pikas and darkness and pain and beauty and berries and patience. I want to get deep into the wilderness and learn more, which with limited time to do so will mean going fast and far. Another reason to do the thing I’ve been wanting to do since my first trail race in 2013 and start training for ultramarathons? Maybe. My mom signed herself and me up for a 10k trail race in November, so that’s a start. I am still healing my tendons from what I put them through on the trail and then on my bike. But trails trails trails. Hiking wilderness trails spoiled me entirely for my bike trip, which is probably part of why it was ultimately so (regretfully?) easy for me to quit: who wants to travel along highway shoulders after hiking through alpine wonderland? I thought a lot while hiking, dreamily, about the ease and convenience of biking, but once I started biking I just missed the trail.
I feel like I have some good momentum, but I can also feel myself falling into familiar bad habits. Procrastination, anyone? A few weeks ago, I wrote this in my Little Red Book of a Better Life:
get outside more
So I should probably get on that.
In the morning we spend some time waking up while a mystery helicopter circles over and over again nearby. Search and rescue? Firefighters? Eventually the noise chases us away from the campground, and we head to Smith Rock, with a stop in Sisters for late breakfast.
Backup kindly brought me my hiking gear, my climbing gear, and a duffel bag full of clothing and stuff I thought I might want in San Diego when I finished the trail. At Smith Rock I sort through it all to find my climbing stuff, and then we head out to find some routes. It’s mid-afternoon by now, and it take us a while to find an area that’s not too crowded and has some lines we feel like we can tackle. Neither of us have done much climbing lately, to say the least, and I’ve never lead belayed (though I know the theory) and have only cleaned an outdoor route (following a lead climber, removing gear along the way, and rappelling down) a couple of times.
We finally settle on a 5.7 called Easy Reader, and I successfully belay Backup up it and lower him back down. Now I have to climb it — all his quick-draws are up there, and it’s my job to pull them down as I climb. I regret that I’ve committed to do this almost immediately. The crux of the route is in the first few moves, and it takes me about a million attempts and lots of panicked yelps of “take!” just to get to the first bolt. Backup did this part entirely without protection, since my belay was useless until he’d clipped into the bolt. Now I’m on top-rope, which limits any falls I might take to very short ones, but I’m still breathing hard and my legs and arms are almost vibrating with tension.
Past the crux, the climbing is a tiny bit easier, but the height is harder. A guy climbing nearby offers me encouragement on his way down as his partner lowers him. “You’re doing it!” he says. “I always kinda freak when I get up here too. Like, why am I doing this? Why do we do this?”
“It’s kind of a ridiculous pursuit,” I agree, clutching the rock.
“But it feels so good when you get to the top!” Backup calls from below. For me, usually it starts feeling so good once I’m all the way on the ground again. For now, though, I’m only halfway up. But I make it. I even power through a couple tricky sections, moving from hold to hold quickly and purposefully, mentally high-fiving myself when I get to a spot where I can rest.
Finally I’m at the anchor at the top. I clip in with my personal protection and yell at Backup that I’m off belay. He takes the rope out of his belay device so I can pull it up and set up my rappel. When I toss the end of the rope back down, it tangles — I’ll have to stop midway through my rappel to untangle it. Oh well; rappelling, at least, I have practiced dozens of times, though I still let myself down very slowly and carefully, walking backwards down the rock.
Terra firma. Yeah, that climb felt good. Backup is pumped and wants to keep climbing; a really popular line nearby, Five Gallon Buckets, is open and unoccupied for the first time since the heat of the day. It’s evening now, and as I belay him up, the sun fades away, and a few bats swoop through the air chasing insects. I’m not climbing this one in the dark, so Backup rappels and cleans the route himself on his way down. We walk back to the bivy area — Smith’s super cool walk-in campground — and make dinner, then find a spot to pitch a tent and sack out.
I think a lot about quitting today. Do I really need to quit? Is my knee really that bad? I don’t even feel it walking on flat or only mildly sloping ground, and I climbed on it okay today. (But it hurt both up and down stairs, and on anything more than a very moderate incline; chances are that continuing to ride on it would only make it worse.) And my subletter says she’d help me look for a replacement. (But would she find someone I could trust to care for my cats?) On some level I feel ready to come home. I have some next steps to tackle in my path towards a rewarding livelihood, though they’re still a little hazy and intimidating. The sooner I get started, the sooner I’ll get where I want to be. Somewhere I want to stay, I mean — not the border monument in Campo, where I’d just be passing through to celebrate for a minute.
I wanted to take this long north-to-south trip for a lot of reasons. To see beautiful places, to challenge my body and my mind, to meet interesting characters, to accomplish a big goal. I wanted time to think about what I want from my life, and I have done a lot of that. I also, frankly, wanted time away from relationships. I wanted to be forced to put romance and sex on pause, to let prospects move on without me if that’s what should happen, to be alone for a few months. I’ve been historically bad at being alone, and, sometimes, at listening to my best self instead of my lonely self in my decisions. That part, the being alone, I have not done on this trip, not really. I hiked across Washington with Backup, my ex-boyfriend, and it was rewarding to travel with someone who knows me well in that way, but also difficult and complicated. I have not really been alone or all that self-reliant. I asked Backup to come meet me here in central Oregon, and he did. Before that, my parents drove me to Trout Lake, and then across the Hood River Bridge, and before that, my mom picked us up at Trout Lake, and before that, she dropped us off at Hart’s Pass. She mailed the resupply boxes we packed. Anne picked us up at Snoqualmie Pass and helped us get ready for the next section of trail. And so on and so forth…
At the end of my cross-country bike trip, I visited my grandparents in Maine, and they asked me to do a little presentation about my trip at their church. One of the things I talked about was the support I got on that trip from friends and strangers: “I did it alone, but I couldn’t have done it alone.” I think there are very few things that we ever really do alone, and I think that’s a good and beautiful thing about being human. I feel like we as humans (at least, we as WEIRD humans) have these warring instincts, to be part of community and also to differentiate ourselves from the people around us, to “get in touch with ourselves,” to imagine, however irrationally, that our choices and paths are uninfluenced by the people around us. I guess I don’t know what this all means about the desire I had — have — to go be alone in the mountains and the desert, but it’s a thing I’ve been thinking about. Why do I think that “finding myself” mean being alone and separate? Is that how it should be? Can I find and know myself while finding and knowing others? If not, why not?
I’m going home and I’ll try to figure this stuff out. I mentioned “Galileo” the other day; today I have another Indigo Girls song stuck in my head:
there’s more than one answer to these questions
pointing me in crooked line
the less I seek my source for some definitive
the closer I am to fine
I wake up, roll over, snuggle back into my warm fluffy sleeping bag. Eventually I convince myself to wiggle out into the chilly morning, and I pack myself up and head down the road towards the small town of Detroit. I want some eggs and coffee! It’s all downhill to town — my last downhill for miles and miles, until the top of Santiam Pass.
I stop at a diner and get a huge cup of decaf coffee with cream and sugar, hashbrowns, toast, and two eggs over easy. I eat it all, and then I walk my bike a block down the road and sit on a log bench in the sun in front of a coffeeshop to check my email and check in with friends and family and, let’s be real, procrastinate on starting the long, long climb up to the pass.
My knee is still hurting this morning. Googling my symptoms turns up a couple possible diagnoses: patellofemoral pain syndrome or quadriceps tendinitis. Both are overuse injuries that can be made worse by weak or tight quads. Hurray!
Then I get an email from the woman who’s living in my apartment. I got two subletters for the time I’m traveling; one lived there and took care of my cats through August, and this woman moved in at the start of Reed’s fall semester (she’s a current student). Well, it turns out she’s allergic to cats. Between this news and my knee, I feel pretty defeated. Is this a sign? Should I go back home and start my next life? That’s sort of how I’m thinking about it: life, part n. The part in which I get my shit together.
I get a cinnamon roll at the coffeeshop and call my mom. I need to take care of my cats and I need to take care of myself. I want to be running and hiking and climbing and biking as much as possible for as long as possible, so I don’t want to be injured. And maybe I need to get on the road (the metaphorical road, instead of the actual one I’m on) towards building the life I’ve been writing about in my little red notebook.
Here’s the plan I come up with. I’m a day or two from Bend, which is a part of the world I like a lot. There’s lots of great hiking and climbing to do near there, and plenty of places to camp. Backup just bought a car and is itching for a roadtrip. He’s suggested coming down to meet me on the road. So, I tell him, yeah, come on down. We can hang out and camp and adventure for a few days in central Oregon, and then he can drive me home.
So, that’s it. I get on my bike and roll out towards my last-hurrah climb. Cars and trucks rush past me. The shoulder narrows to maybe eighteen inches. And then I’m going uphill. My knee hurts. 37 miles of this ahead of me to the top of Santiam Pass. I stop. I turn around. Why am I bothering? Deep breath:
I pedal back into town and sit down in front of the coffeeshop again. I ask Backup to come pick me up here in Detroit. I pass the afternoon by reading, writing, and people-watching, and when Backup shows up in his shiny new car, we drive up the road to a campground, make dinner, and drink a few beers.
I laid out my sleeping pad in the corner last night and fell asleep with my earbuds in, listening to music while the Outhaus kids caroused. I sleep just fine, and I wake up early, but I can’t really get the engine started. I laze around in my sleeping bag eating oatmeal, and somehow the kids are up and out the door before I have my panniers packed. I stick around to help clean up a bit, and then I roll out into the day. The sun is well up, but the good news is it’s also out. No more rain!
I have a glorious downhill to start the day. It’s so nice and easy, I don’t even care that I’m on 26, with cars and RVs rushing past. And hey — there on the shoulder is a perfectly intact bungie cord! I lost one of mine before I even started riding in Hood River, and two is better than one for securing my stuff to my rack. Nice!
I’m glad to turn off of 26 onto a quiet forest road, though. A little later, the road narrows to one lane — that’s how little traffic there is. A few cars, mostly pick-ups and Subarus and a few Vanagons, do pass me, but from time to time I feel wholly alone. I experimentally add my voice to the quiet sounds (birds and insects) around me. Almost always when I do this, I sing “Galileo” by the Indigo Girls.
There’s more climbing today. I’m still so slow at it. My right knee is hurting, in the same way it would hurt on tough downhills sometimes when I was hiking. I’m nervous about it. I try to push down mostly with my left foot and just use the right one to get the pedals around again. It helps a bit. When do I start feeling stronger?
I pass a couple PCT trailheads, which makes me feel good, like what I’m doing isn’t totally unrelated to what I was doing last month. A few cyclists — roadies, not tourers — pass me on one of the nice long downhill stretches and greet me cheerfully. I watch fireweed seeds blow across the road and catch the sunlight. I pull over at a clearing by the side of the road where someone’s built a fire ring and sit on a log to eat a snack and read a chapter of my book (currently: Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler). I coast down long descents and struggle up long climbs. I pass two snakes wriggling across the asphalt and one roadkilled beautiful coyote on the shoulder. I resist the temptation to follow the sign to Breitenbush Hot Springs at the turn-off. I stop at the next campground instead, and choose a spot close to the river, where I can fall asleep to the sound of the water. The campground host stops me putting the usual fee in my fee envelope, and charges me half price since I’m on my bike.
I set up camp and make dinner as the sun sets. It’s my first night of this trip camping alone without cell reception. I feel annoyingly lonely for a bit, but it feels good to snuggle into my sleeping bag in the dark by myself and read my book. Tomorrow morning, town, and maybe a cup of coffee, is just a few miles away.