what i’ve learned.

yesterday I celebrated my 24th birthday.

my alarm went off at 4:30am. I popped out of my sleeping bag with a cloud of feathers. it’s actually my mother’s sleeping bag. it’s a shade of light blue that matches her eyes. it’s been stitched up from ash holes and washed MAYBE twice? she bought it in the late 60s? sometime in the 70s? much more than 24 years ago. she carried it on trails with a metal framed backpack through lightning storms and up hillsides. she slept in it on the side of the trail too tired to go on (because of all the beer she was carrying, obviously). it was hers until it was mine and my brother maybe had it a little somewhere in-between.  I’ve since carried it on almost every trip I can remember. it’s seen all of the beautiful places. it’s smelled all of the dirty feet. it’s had cute little puppy dogs sleep curled up in the bottom. it’s laid under the stars and inside of tents and in forts and on top of questionable sheeting in hostels of countries that speak other languages. for being inanimate, it’s had a full life.

at 4:51am we got in the car and headed 1 1/4 miles up the road. my mother drove me to the trailhead, though I could have walked from camp. she could have slept in, not up for climbing yet another 14er with her wild daughter, but she decided to take me the small distance I needed (not wanting to add another almost three miles to my planned 11 mile trip). we pulled up to one other car in the lot just before 5am.

the South Mt. Elbert trailhead sits outside of Twin Lakes which sits outside of Leadville. it’s one of a slew of mountains sitting in the area that towers above 14,000 ft elevation. the mountain is the tallest in Colorado by just 7-10 feet, slightly above Mt. Massive to the North. the 1st trailhead lot is paved and holds maybe 12 cars. 2 1/4 miles up a bumpy dirt road is the “2nd lot” which is really just open clearings among aspen trees. that’s where most of the hikers start for ease of mileage and maybe ease of mind.

with the car turned off, we looked to the road I was supposed to walk up. it was dark out. really dark. like “don’t go up that road alone, you stupid girl. ah look, yep. that’s exactly how you get murdered” horror movie kind of dark. I already knew that my headlamp was out of batteries (having learned so at camp the night before). I had a back-up but couldn’t for the life of me remember the last time I had changed its batteries, either. I decided to wait a few minutes and see if another car pulled up. maybe I could follow other hikers until the sun woke up.

5:07 two cars drove up to the lot, passed the lot, and headed up the dirt road.

5:10 no one.

5:14 dark silence.

sure the light was growing with each minute, but all it was really doing was lighting the sky enough to see that there were clouds. lots of clouds. the kind of clouds you want to start hiking before 5:00am to avoid meeting at the top of tall mountains.

to be clear, I wasn’t scared of axe murders or serial killers or cannabalists or even nudists. I was concerned about black bears, but I was terrified of mountain lions.

I recently read an incredibly truthful article regarding the problems of being a “petite girl.” #13: being constantly afraid of being unnecessarily picked up. if relatively domesticated humans think it’s ok to just pick me up and move me across the room (yes, it happens), what do you think a mountain lion would do? I’ve said it before, I am to a mountain lion what the road runner is to the coyote (with not nearly the wits or supply of ACME iron bird seed). I am burger size. I am delectable. I am dinner. if for some reason, I am not dinner (too knobby-kneed or something), then I’m an intruder. either way, I must die.

around 5:15 I swallowed the emptiness in the back of my throat and audibly said, “I’m ready” as if I was going into battle or heading toward Mordor or about to walk into a Justin Bieber crowd. without allowing myself to think about the fact that I waited until perfect dusk to start hiking (think of dusk as the same time Country Buffet offers their “senior discount.” it’s time to eat) , I opened the door, pulled on my pack, pulled up my tutu and headed up the road.

my headlamp went black in less than 1/4 mile.

hiking alone has become one of my favorite things. it’s not that I don’t like hiking with people. I love that, too. I’ve literally fallen in love with people on trails. I’ve learned more about my parents, my siblings, my best friends, and complete strangers on a hike than any other time. there’s no way to get distracted by a tv across the room or the buzz of a cell phone or the food finally coming. awkward silences don’t exist because they’re replaced with blue skies, fresh air and grasshoppers. but when I hike alone, I’m getting to know myself.

I spent the 5 1/2 miles up thinking about my 24 year old life. I thought about the seven different people I feel like I’ve been since I turned 20, just four short laps around the sun.

in the quickest way possible, here’s a taste: I lived in two states, four cities, five apartments. there were times when I had no address at all. I backpacked 500 miles from Denver to Durango. I summited five of the 53 14ers. I traveled to Chicago, New Orleans, Nashville, Yellowstone National Park, Santa Fe, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Yosemite National Park, Disneyland, Mt. Rushmore, traveling for work or for pleasure or for something in-between. I spent countless weekends exploring tiny towns and giant trees in Colorado and Northern California. I road tripped from Spokane, WA down to a free bluegrass festival in San Francisco, CA, sleeping in my car outside of Portland and on the beach somewhere else I can’t remember. I volunteered with two organizations both supporting at-risk youth outdoor programs. I hitchhiked. I held more than nine titles at six different companies, all thankfully within my industry of apparel design and manufacturing. I spent a wet season training to be a white water raft guide. I spent a month traveling in Peru, dancing with accented strangers and chasing condors above 15,000ft. I found my religion with the Pachamama (Mother Earth). I met John Fielder. I lost my Dad to stupid, rude, unannounced heart disease and learned how to find happiness without him (but always with him).

for being 24, I’ve had a full life. I have very few regrets and honestly, the few I have are usually related to boys (sometimes I regretted sleeping with them, sometimes i regretted not. both options of which I’m not losing any sleep over now.) like the light blue sleeping bag, I’ve seen all of the beautiful places. I’ve smelled all of the dirty feet. I’ve had cute little puppy dogs sleep curled up at my toes. I’ve laid under the stars and inside of tents and in forts and on top of questionable sheeting in hostels of countries that speak other languages.

there are a million things I’ve learned and a million wonderful people to thank. I have plenty more to see and do and feel and be.

I’ve learned even when your headlamp goes off, you should always keep hiking.

the view from Mt. Elbert 14.433 ft on my 24th birthday.

the view from Mt. Elbert 14.433 ft on my 24th birthday.

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