Fiery Gizzard Trail: an overnight backpacking trip

After discovering Fiery Gizzard and realizing that one of the best and most diverse trails in the country was only about an house away from Nashville, it was only a matter of time before this hike was under my belt.

Fiery Gizzard gets it’s name from legends about a turkey gizzard, Davy Crockett, and an Indian Chief but it probably really had to do with an experimental blast furnace in the area. So either way, it sounds pretty awesome.

This scenic trail clocks in at just under 13 miles. It’s a point to point trail that can be hiked from either way, the Tracy City side, or the Foster Falls side.  Traditionally it’s done from the Tracy City side, but who’s to tell you what to do? I’ve hiked it from both ways, though not all the way from both sides, and I do prefer starting on the Tracy City side, but I digress. A downside to a point to point hike is the need for 2 cars. One to park at the trailhead and one driven to the end. Also, a tip, don’t leave the keys to the car at the end of the trailhead in the car at the beginning of the trailhead like my friends and I did one time… Thanks to the park rangers for giving us a ride back)

Fiery Gizzard is part of the South Cumberland State Park, which is really just a scattered collection of trails and recreational areas. But, some of my favorite hikes in Tennessee are encompassed in this state park network.

The trail starting from Tracy City is accessed by the Grundy Forest Day loop, which, in itself is a great day hike if you are looking for something shorter. It starts from the Grundy Forest State Natural Area picnic shelter. You’ll see signs driving in and it will seem like you are winding around to someone’s driveway. But, you aren’t. It’s back there.

When you get to the trailhead, make sure to fill out the camping permit. Hopefully, the rangers actually check the cars that are there to make sure you haven’t been gone for 5 days. There are 4 campsites along the way, each with 5-6 separate areas. So, there should be plenty of room at each site even if there’s many people using the trail. There is one near each trailhead, the CCC on the Tracy City side and Father Adamz at the Foster Falls side. Raven Point campsite is 4.5 miles in from Tracy City and Small Wild campsite is 10.5 miles in.

If you are doing the trail in 2 days, which is totally doable and recommended, you’ll probably want to stay at the Raven’s Point campsite, about 4.5 miles in from the trailhead, which leaves about 7 miles for the next day.

The first 4.5 miles to Raven Point are definitely more challenging the the back 7. Almost all of the trail is just rocks and by rocks in mean boulders, not gravel. You are precariously stepping from boulder to boulder hoping that it won’t move under you.  It’s quite exhilarating, actually! You’ll obviously need good sturdy hiking boots. No Chacos on this guy. Which, by the way, if you a re backpacking with Chaco’s on, kudos to you. This part of the trial is challenging enough to please hikers of any level, yet somehow doable if you are still new to hiking.

There are a couple of waterfalls and swimming holes near this end of the trail if you’re feeling like a swim. Sycamore Falls, just over a mile in, has a great little swimming hole if you are so inclined.

About a mile before you reach Raven Point, the trail begins one of its arduous climbs. But, the view from Raven Point is well worth it.  I will venture to say that it will be hard to find a better view in Tennessee outside of the Smoky Mountains. At Raven Point, you are allowed to view sweeping Fiery Gizzard Creek Gorge. I also recommend taking breakfast and/or coffee out there the next morning.  The Raven Point campsite is about .5 mile from the overlook.

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There’s no water source at the Raven Point campsite. You’ll have to walk a bit farther along the trail to find a small creek to filter water. But, it’s an easy walk to the water. Also, right past the creek, Anderson Falls. You can climb a staircase down to the base of the falls. It’s a nice little detour and worth seeing.

After staying the night at Raven Point campsite, you will make your way across the top of the Cumberland Plateau for most of your 7 mile hike that day. It’s an easy and fast hike, except for .3 miles where you sharply drop into the Laurel Branch Gorge then immediately climb back out. I suggest having lunch at the bottom of the gorge. It’s a bit cooler down there and shaded. There’s plenty of huge rocks by and in the stream to relax.

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As you round out your last miles, be sure to stop at the overlook near the Small Wild campsite. The view rivals that of the Raven Point. The Small Wild campsite has a water source just north along the trail, if you need more water, or have chosen to stay the night there.

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Before you get to the Foster Falls trailhead, there’s a climbers loop that offshoots from the main path. There’s 2 access points for rock climbers, which is really neat. I don’t personally own climbing gear, but I’ve heard that it’s some decent climbing.

Foster Falls comes into sight and marks the end of your hike. It’s a nice view to end with and you can also hike down to the base of the falls, which includes a decent swimming hole, if you are so inclined.

Fiery Gizzard is one of my favorite hikes because it’s so diverse in terrain, close to Nashville, challenging, and has gorgeous views. I’m a fan.

 

a love story

I leaned down real close and made him look me straight in the eye. “Luke, can I please take you to the hospital?”

I uttered those words to him after a week of a downward spiral of pain and suffering. The most emotionally draining week of my life, that is, until the next week.

Luke got hit by a car while riding his motorcycle. She didn’t see him and three seconds later he was smacked to the ground with his lower leg basically broken in half. The doctors set his leg, threw in a rod and a bone graft and sent him home to heal. But, his leg never quite seemed to be healing right, even 5 months later. His road rash wounds still weren’t healed. His leg still hurt him, more than it should that far after the accident.

But, finally, the day came; he was cleared to walk without crutches. He could walk with his boot and by the end of the month the boot would be off and he’d be back at work. It was the best news he’d had in all of those 5 months. It was the best news I had gotten in our short time together. Finally a sign that things were progressing.

Just two days later, he was in pain, which was pretty normal for a person walking on a leg that hadn’t been used with severely atrophied muscles. This pain was debilitating but, he had nothing to compare it to. He’d never walked on a previously broken leg that hadn’t been used in 5 months. Thankfully, he found a leftover prescription for Percocet to help curb the pain. He said it would only really kind of work for one hour and the pain would only come back with a vengeance. Very early Tuesday morning of that week, he felt something more serious might be happening and took himself to the ER. After a quick once over, they determined it was just sever muscle pain and sent him home with a prescription for a muscle relaxer. This news only slightly put me at ease. I was not completely convinced that he could be suffering that much pain from sore muscles. His leg was starting to get really swollen and his road rash wounds had opened up once again.

At this point I felt so helpless. He couldn’t really get around. He seemed to be in a slight daze and he would mostly just sit and try not to focus on how much pain he was in. I was frozen in what I should do. I felt I had to take care of him and there was literally nothing I could do for him. I had to believe that he was going to be fine because it was just too much to think of the worst.

On Wednesday, I was surprised when he still wanted to go through with plans to have dinner at our friends’ house. He hadn’t been out of the house in 4 days, and he said it was the best thing for him. It was painful to watch him struggle to walk with the crutches that seemed, previously, like natural extensions of his arm. Also, it was just hard to see him back on crutches after he was told he could stop using them. He gingerly lowered himself into my car and the whole ride there, I was fighting back tears. Tears that are the culmination of the already emotional week. My eyes stung as I tried to ferociously stare at the road so that he wouldn’t see my cry. He didn’t need to be bothered with my insecurities right now. I had to be strong for him.

Dinner was mostly just me talking and him dipping in and out of sleep, sleep induced by his extreme pain most likely. I never quit worrying. Things only worsened on Thursday when his text messages started not making sense. One text would be all jumbled up, but the next would be a totally normal, coherent sentence. I was equally confused and worried. I was doing my daily check up on him and I asked him about the weird texts. He said his hands were shaky from the pain. I believed him, because why wouldn’t I? I left still feeling uneasy. A slow dread started to creep in. I cried silently to myself the whole way home, feeling as helpless as ever. My pleas to God were for peace and humbleness.

Friday was another day of jumbled texts and half coherent Luke. Why wasn’t he getting any better? He asked me to get some things to dress his wounds before I stopped by that evening although, I wasn’t even convinced that he really needed these things because of how weird his texts were. That night he couldn’t even come and open the door for me. He was lying in his bed in the dark. His body laying unnaturally under the covers. It was a painful and truthfully emotional scarring sight. I sat down on his bed and tried to muster some words out of him to no avail. Literally what the hell is wrong with him, this is not right at all. I stayed for about thirty minutes just lying my head on his shoulder while leaning over his pain filled body. He told me to go home. He needed to sleep and rest and it was hard to do that with me there. It felt a sharp pain right in my heart. The only thing I could do to not feel helpless was to sit with him and now he didn’t even need that. I left in an emotional puddle.

As soon as I burst in the door to my apartment, I lost it. I was face down on my floor heaving with sobs. I don’t know if I’ve ever cried that hard in my life. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that helpless in my life. I was at a complete loss for everything. My cries to God felt fake even though they were the most genuine they have probably ever been. My whole life was operating on a slant.

After a restless night, Saturday came. I made my way to The Anchor for our church-wide conference. I don’t know why I thought I could manage to go and listen and focus. These all escaped me. I felt outside of myself. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I didn’t want to engage. I drew back within myself. After a few more seriously confused texts from Luke, I decided I had to go by soon.

I walked back to his makeshift bedroom that used to be the dining room. I don’t think he had moved in the 21 hours I had been gone. I knew this was bad and serious and scary and out of my hands. His “healing” leg was slopped off the bed. It was the first time I’d seen it in days. He hadn’t changed his wound dressings. They were soaked through with blood and puss and who knows what else. There was a terrible smell and he was the most confused he had ever been. He could barely lift his arm to eat the bananas I had sliced for him.

This had to be taken out of my hands. I asked his roommate if his pain was ever this bad after his original accident. He said this was exponentially worse. That’s when I leaned down into his face and pleaded with him to let me take him to the hospital. His delirious mind reluctantly agreed. I started to realized the severity of the situation when he could not even lift himself up to a sit. I sat down next to him and somehow managed to sit his dead weight body up. Next step: pants or rather shorts. There was no way we were getting pants over his leg that had swollen to one and a half times its size. The shorts barely made it on because he was too weak to lift himself up. Trying to put his leg into his walking boot was comical. He insisted that I put a sock on his bloody swollen leg, which was just not going to happen. I finally convinced him out of it after he insisted I was being “too forceful” with him. After inching himself slowly to the edge of the bed, it was time to stand up. He could not even support half of his weight on his good leg. There is no way I was personally going to get him to the hospital.

I’m going to have to call 911. What the heck? I had never done that. How were you supposed to act? What if this wasn’t THAT serious and they laugh at me for calling in an emergency?

I left the room and my hand shook as I dialed the numbers you were never supposed to even pretend to dial. I calmly answered all of the responder’s questions and moments later an ambulance was coming to us. I started gathering things together. His pain pills, his water bottle, jacket, keys, phone, wallet. I was in crises mode. I had to make sure I had it all. Five minutes later, the EMTs showed up five deep. As soon as I saw the worry in their eyes, I knew calling the ambulance was the right thing to do. It took 3 men to get him into the stretcher. They rolled him out of the house and down the road to the Vanderbilt University hospital. I followed the ambulance in my car. The only emotion I felt in the moment was relief. A complete release of all of the burden I had placed on myself the past week to take care of him.

I sat in the ER waiting room and texted my parents and a few friends who we were both close with. Brad was the first to respond and let me know that he was on his way. No questions asked. I was so relieved to just have someone with me during that crazy frantic time. Someone who would calm me down and be there to bounce words off of. I might have gone actually crazy if I were alone in all of this.

Twenty minutes later, I was allowed to be with him in the ER room. I have rarely felt more stressed and insignificant in my life. There were dozens of people buzzing in and out aggressively asking questions like, “Who was responsible for his wound care?”. And immediately the guilt and shame began. His brain was in and out of delirium. He really had no idea where he was or what was happening, which actually was probably the best thing for him. Doctors and nurses threw around words like ‘amputation’ and ‘septic’ and the dread only worsened. But, I just thought they were reasoning through worse case scenario and tried not to take them too seriously.

I grabbed his phone and knew it was going to be my responsibility to call his parents and let them know what had transpired over the past week. I had never even met them before. I paced the ER back hallway my hands subtly shaking and my feet unable to be still. From the other end of the phone, his mom greets me as if I were him, “Well how are you, baby?”. I can’t imagine the panic she must have felt when she heard my voice on the other side of the line. As I was speaking, I don’t think I knew the words that were coming out of my mouth. I tried to sound as calm and collected as possible as I explained that Luke was in the ER because his leg was hurting him really bad and the only thing I could think to do was finally take him to the hospital. It was a short call and at that point in time, neither of us realized the severity of the situation.

In an amount of time later (I had no idea of time reference that first 24 hours), all the news we received was bad. His leg was severely infected, like really really bad. Amputation was an actual threat. His delirium only worsened. His previously healed leg wounds leaked like never before. He was getting sicker by the minute. The infection was most likely raging through his blood. The ER staff looked worried. This is never a good thing. I knew I had to call his mom back and let her know that this wasn’t just a short trip to the ER with a solution of a prescription for pain meds.

The next phone call, I couldn’t even pretend to not be freaked out. My voice shook and showed all the fear that was stuck inside my body. Lori, his mom, could tell. I could hear the fear also in her voice, trying to be masked by calmness. I tried to convey to her just how serious things were and I think she got the picture. She had a flight booked for the next morning to be in Nashville. A second wave of relief in this emotional cluster-cuss.

I think we spent about 3 hours in the ER. That’s three hours of him not receiving any antibiotics, not receiving any treatment, just people walking in and freaking out. It was beyond frustrating. When he was finally admitted to a room, we were taken to the 9th floor of what’s called the Critical Care Tower, called the Surgical Intensive Care Unit or SICU. We had barely settled in to a room when they moved us down the hall. (We later found out that the room we were placed in had more attentive care and was for severely sick patients.)

He was hooked up to about 10 different IVs immediately and was finally getting some form of treatment. Brad and I were mostly speechless. We tried to talk with him, but the delirium was heavy and he was barely stringing words together much less making sense. We knew we both could not leave him that night. He could not be alone. Little did I know that when I left my house at 10am on Saturday, I wouldn’t be returning until 9pm on Sunday night.

I have never had a worse night’s sleep, if you can even call it that. Nurses were constantly monitoring him. Any noise that he would make would send me shooting up out of the couch turned bed and over to him. Brad nodded off and on in a chair. At 6am the next morning, they whisked him away to surgery. Surgery to open his leg up and survey the damage that had been done. This type of surgery is called debridement, a cleaning of infected tissue. We found out post surgery, that there was a lot of dead skin and muscle and tissue. The infection had gotten worse over night. They hadn’t worked fast enough to prevent skin and muscle from dying. This infection was so aggressive and relentless. The situation worsened so quickly it was hard to even know what was happening.

During the first surgery, Brad and I, barely able to speak, made our way to Fido to try to eating something and definitely drink coffee to ward off the effects of the most stressful night of my life. We ate mostly in silence, staring aimlessly out onto 21st Ave in the dreary and cold Sunday morning. I’m sure that people thought we were either on a really bad first date or in the middle of a huge fight. If only they knew what was really rolling through our minds that morning.

After returning to the hospital, we anxiously awaited Luke to be out of surgery. When they finally wheeled him back in, we found out how serious the infection was. His orthopedic surgeon said that they had lost a lot of tissue. The infection was everywhere in his leg, his knee, his ankle and all over his lower leg. The metal rod was completely compromised by the infection as well as the bone graft and both had to be removed. He was most definitely septic, the infection was circulating through his entire blood stream.

He was intubated and on a respirator, he was still hooked up to an ungodly amount of IVs and was sedated. This was the state his mother first saw him. When she walked into the room, I thought for sure she was going to pass out. I quickly grabbed her into a hug to prevent this from happening.

Now, you have to realize, this is really the first time that we have really met. We had been introduced previously, but for all intents and purposes, this was our first time interacting. Luke and I had only been dating for two and a half months. This was a huge thing for all of us. A crazy, crazy huge thing.

In that moment, she realized just how serious the condition of her son was. It was extremely painful to watch and be a part of. After the initial shock wore off, I attempted to fill her in on the of the details that she missed from the past 24 hours. It was all just a blur and I found it hard to grasp how to even explain all of this to her.

The rest of that day was filled with exhaustion and anxiety. I hadn’t been home yet and still found myself in the same clothes stained not only with hospital, but the terrible occurrences of the day before. His mom and I quickly bonded over the tragedy we both found ourselves in, mostly fretting over what was to come in the next few days, hell, the next few hours.

I finally went home that evening around 9:00 and all I could do was barely make it through a shower and flop into my bed and try to fight off the terrors inside my head every time I closed my eyes.

Monday morning brought another debridement (clean out) surgery of removing dead tissue from his leg. Despite Dr. Obremsky’s (his orthopedic surgeon) positive outlook on the whole situation, we all couldn’t help but be devastated. I spent the rest of the day updating people with both my phone and Luke’s phone. I was the central command station, furiously updating everyone I could, transferring contacts into my phone, all while distracting myself from what was actually happening. I couldn’t even begin to comprehend all that was happening, so I just kept myself very distracted.

I was at work all of Monday morning and afternoon. I would run to the back every fifteen minutes checking the phones, getting updates from his mom and responding to the overflow of texts to each of our phones.

As soon I was done with work at 2 pm, I raced straight over to Vanderbilt (which would become my routine for the next 3 weeks) for the rest of the night. Right after I got there, we found out that the infection in Luke’s leg was staph, MRSA, to be exact (methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus), which is a nasty bug. It’s resistant to almost all antibiotics, except a magic little drug called vancomycin.

The next few days were a blur of surgeries and sedations and delirium.

I could barely tell the days apart. We would get some good news, but it always seemed to be coupled with something else that went wrong. He maintained a fever for almost 2 weeks, his heart rate was high and his blood pressure low for a good portion of his stay in the hospital. The infection decided to hang out in his lungs and he got pneumonia. So, not only was he intubated, but he also was coughing constantly. Hearing someone cough through an intubation tube is a very painful thing to watch.

Wednesday and Thursday of that first week were some of the hardest of the entire stay. His delirium was heart wrenching to watch. He was extubated and could “talk” and by that I mean he could speak in a harsh whisper. He didn’t make any sense, he was saying very mean and terrible things to people he loved, he was having severe hallucinations and made up stories about the craziest things. Honestly, at times, the things he was saying were actually funny. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry so I chose the infamous cry-laugh.

Every day was a new struggle, yet it felt like I was reliving the same day over and over again.

Now, remember, we had only been dating for about two and a half months at this time. I was scared, yet it made me strangely calm to choose him even in his sickness. This basically “forced” me to choose him over and over, which was one of the easiest decision of my life. I was in it for the long haul. Before all of this sent our lives spiraling, I was constantly looking for signs that I should keep pursuing this, that it was worth it, when really I knew it was so worth it all along.

That weekend, his dad came. Lori warned me that the first thing he would do when he saw me, was bury me in a hug. And that he did. I walked into the hospital room, he turned around, and before I could get a quick hello out, I was wrapped up in a hug. Now, I don’t know under what circumstances you have met a girlfriend or boyfriend’s parents, but this was something special. I felt a strange and lovely peace through all of this knowing that Luke was loved so deeply by his family.

Saturday January 26 was a special day. Luke was finally over the delirium, which he started coming out of the day before. He was in his right mind and we got to finally have a bit of a conversation. That evening, I was about to leave the hospital. I was leaning over the side rail to his bed and had my ear leaned in close to him. He voice was barely audible from the hoarseness that the many intubations from surgery caused. I was about to pull away and stand up to go. “Hey!”, he said, and he kind of grabbed me back as much as he could. I leaned my ear in real close and he said, “When I’m all better, can we take walks?” “Oh my gosh, of course!”, I replied. Right before I was about to stand up again he whispered into my ear, “I love you”. My heart stopped and leapt with the most joy I have felt up to this point in my life. He started saying something like “And it’s not just because you’ve stuck around and you are helping take care of me…. etc, etc.” but I didn’t really hear any of those words. I just sank into his words and whispered back, “I love you too. So, so much.” as I kissed his forehead over and over.

Now, let me put this into perspective. He was laying in the surgical intensive care unit with a feeding tube up his nose, a million IVs connecting to him, a voice so hoarse from multiple intubations, and a body that was severely infected. This was probably one of the hardest and lowest point of his life and maybe mine. And I loved him. He loved me. Everything was going to be ok.

As I left his room and made my way down to my car, I couldn’t stop smiling and skipping and feeling like I was going to burst from complete life changing joy.

Luke had 7 surgeries over the course of about 2 weeks.

The last and final surgery was the skin graft and muscle flap to replace all the skin and muscle that died from the infection. The surgery took over 8 hours. It happened the day before my 26th birthday.

Luke got out of the hospital about a week later. And since then, it’s been the excruciatingly painfully slow recovery process. Some of those first weeks out of the hospital were the hardest emotionally. I was finally beginning to let myself process all that had happened. My brain was consumed with empathy and beginning to realize this was a long, long road.

And so continues my life lesson in patience, and more importantly, love.

an answer

When faced with tragedy, our plea is for an answer to our desperate prayers for healing, a miracle.

But, what if the tragedy was itself an answer to prayer?

The past few weeks have been some of the most emotionally exhausting and painful in my life. After healing a broken leg for 5 months, my boyfriend drastically and quickly spiraled down a dark hole that is a severely infected leg. MRSA to be exact. And that MRSA got into his blood, which means it got into everything in his body. He was a severely sick boy. Death could have easily been around the corner.

The pain that I empathized myself into feeling was suffocating. The pain I saw him experiencing forced my eyes away from him, not in shame, but in helplessness.

While still in the hospital, but on the side of recovery, we started the process of grasping what we experienced the past two and a half weeks. It was spoken mostly in hushed tones, not because we feared being heard, but because his voice was so raspy from being intubated seven times in ten days.

“You know, in some strange way,” he said, “this whole thing was an answer to pray in some ways.” “This boy is crazy,” I thought, “Maybe there’s still some delirium hanging around in his brain.”

Here was a man, bound to an ICU bed for the past 17 days, having been through 7 surgeries and what felt like a lifetime of suffering and medications and catheters and respirators and IVs who was telling me this all was an answer to prayer.

But, then I thought back to the words and pleas that consumed my prayers the past few months. Peace, patience, the ability to be still, to listen, to slow down, to be present in the moment, for “signs” that he was the “right one”

He was absolutely and irrevocably right.

Every single one of those requests were granted fully in my life in the past 2 weeks. I can sit for hours upon and hours and simply be. I can patiently wait each day for the next because that means things will be healing and get better. I can barely think about the next few hours much less the future. I am more present in this situation than I have ever dreamed I would be. I have no question in my mind that I want Luke to be in my life.

He brought this beautiful part of my life through a man that I can’t even begin to express my gratitude and respect and love for. He made me strong enough to be strong enough.

God has created so much healing and growth in the midst of sickness and suffering. I am utterly blown away by the ways that He chooses to bring answers and fulfillment to my life. He never ceases to pursue me and in the most curious of ways, the only way, if I’m being honest, that I would have it.

It makes me wonder why I ever doubt that God has released me from his grip.

Suffering can be an answer, not just a means to an answer.

walking: far & long

I think I’m finally figuring myself and this whole life thing out.

Just kidding, that won’t ever happen. But, I do appreciate stories and people that make me feel not so insane.

While listening to NPR the other morning, a story came on that immediately caught my attention. It was about Paul Salopek. He’s walking 21,000 miles. Yes. Walking. 21,000 miles. He calls is the “Out of Eden” walk because he’s following the path of human migration, from Africa to the Middle East, through Asia, down through Alaska and to the tip of South America.

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He. Is. Insane. And I mean that in all the best ways. Something about the way he thinks about life just makes sense to me. I have that insane thing built into my brain as well.

But, he said some things in the interview that really resonated with me, just made a whole lot of sense. It was about walking. About how magical it is, how intrinsic it is into the human body.

“On a psychic l level, it [walking] really builds confidence in your body. By and large after 10 months of walking, it is about the most natural thing in the world to get up at dawn, have a cup of chai and then plot a course to the next well, about 20-25 miles away.”

“There’s something about moving across the surface of the earth at 3 mph that feels really good; it feels normal and the landscape kind of sliding by your shoulders as you turn your head left and right. There must be something limbic about it, it must not even be cerebral. It’s in our backbones. It just feels like the right pace to be absorbing the landscape and information. So, its been a joy most days.”

Maybe this is why hiking feels so natural to me. It’s just what our bodies want to do, in a way. Out brains want to absorb, anything and everything.  And, most of the time we are moving so fast and have one zillion things on our mind that it’s prevented us from actually absorbing anything. The more things we can cram into our days, the more “productive” we feel like we are being. But, for me, my days are so full, I rarely have time to absorb the moments as they are happening.  Sometimes, I don’t think I know how to keep something in my brain for longer than a fleeting moment.

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Being removed from the normalcy of my day to day life, I realize that slowing down and absorbing rarely happens. Only when I’m surrounded by trees and lakes and mountains, do I realize that I am, in fact, capable of absorbing. To take in, to assimilate what’s happening at a  precise moment in time into my permanent mind bank and reflecting and molding myself because of the experiences I’ve had.

So, my challenge to myself is to walk.  To keep on walking and hiking and exploring the world around me at a slower pace. To step forward and realize how wonderful life is.

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Pseudo-backpacking Dawson-Pitamakan (an adventure narrative)

Cities call–I have heard them. But there is no voice in all the world so insistent to me as the wordless call of the Rockies. I shall go back. Those who go once always hope to go back. The lure of the great free spaces is in their blood.  –Mary Robert Rinehart

One thing I was adamant to do in Montana was backpack in Glacier.  When bear sitings and fully booked backcountry sites made this pretty unlikely, we decided to camp at a front country site and blast an entire 19 mile, 3,000+ feet elevation gain hike in one day.  It was a pretty lofty goal, but sheer will and determination made it possible.  This is the story of pseudo-backpacking in Glacier National Park.

I went to Montana mostly because two friends (Josh and Cara moved across the country to work with a YWAM base in Lakeside) had made the move from central Indiana to northwestern Montana and Mackenzie, Sam and I were curious. And we wanted to hike and explore and climb.  Also, it was the opportunity to spend time with some of the best people life has to offer. People that understand life the way that I do.  And that makes me feel not so crazy for a brief moment in time.

After a week of day hiking in Glacier with Sam, the best of day hiking companions, the weekend brought more serious hiking endeavors to be conquered.

Josh, Cara, Mackenzie and I rose early Saturday morning from our campsite at Apgar, though not nearly early enough for our 2 1/2 hour drive through the park and a 19 mile “day” hike. After a quick breakfast of instant oatmeal and coffee, we were off twisting along Going to the Sun Road on our way to the Dawson-Pitimakan trailhead at the Two Medicine entrance of Glacier National Park.  I was especially excited because I’d never quite done this type of hiking, so long and so diverse.  I was more than ready for the challenge. But let’s be honest, I’m always ready for a challenge, for pushing myself past what I think I can handle. Tackling a 19 mile hike in a day with significant elevation gain was exactly the kind of adventure I wanted from this trip.

We laced up our hiking boots, adjusted our trekking poles, and filled our packs what would hopefully be enough food and water for the entire trip. The trail started off relatively flat and spirits were high and my nervous excitement to be hiking a “real trail” was almost bursting. We passed through wildflower fields dotted with ruby red and sunny yellow buds, secretly hoping we’d catch sight of a grizzly (from very far away preferably).

The first parts of the trail follow Two Medicine Lake, a 3 mile long lake that butts up against the Two Medicine campground, one of the quietest and most scenic frontcountry campgrounds in the park.  We noticed a difference in the people here, they were hikers, not just tourists. Most of the other parts of the park we visited were overrun with families and people of all ages and sizes.  I still enjoyed every bit of these hikes, but the air here at Two Med was different.  Campers there buzzed about scrambling up Flinsch Peak  (elev. 9,225 ft), near Dawson Pass the day before or their encounters with Grizzlies.  This was real Glacier.

As we continued on, the trail rounded around the base of Rising Wolf Mountain, we saw Dawson Pass, looming far ahead in the distance, and the uphill ascent began.

We passed Upper Two Medicine Lake just as the ascent began, which we could have camped at were it not for an insane amount of bear sitings in the days before.  Beautiful and teal-blue crystal clear, like all of the lakes in Glacier, this lake was a reminder that the mountains aren’t the only thing that Glacier can boast about.

We were about 6 miles in, and the first twinge of pain was beginning to radiate from my feet, but we hadn’t completed even a third of the trail. I was, of course, not pacing myself and if I wasn’t careful, I would be sore and dehydrated. I distracted myself with the scenery that was becoming a new normal in my life.

Stopping at a bend in the trail, we took our first break, Clif Bars and gulps of water all around. We were still mostly excited and the task of having 2/3 of the trail left didn’t faze us, yet. We packed up and continued pushing forward.

Moving along slightly slower than when we started, mostly due to the ascent up to the pass, we passed No Name Lake and its backcountry site and for the first time, I realized that this wasn’t just a hike, it was a backcountry excursion. We were just crazy enough to do it in one day. For portions of this uphill climb, I forgot about my feet and the friends I was with and was actually completely present. Finding moments like this are very rare in my life and my brain, so I did’t let them pass by unnoticed. I am convinced this hike changed my life forever.  Maybe this sounds dramatic and crazy and pathetic, but something inside me felt at peace for the first time in a long time.

Looking back at what got me to this point, my mind swims with memories and feelings that are hard to sort out. Family vacations to the Smoky Mountains, growing up near the Indiana Dunes, having a dad that adventured in the Boundary Waters wilderness, quitting Pharmacy school, moving to Nashville, moving back to Indiana, making friends that shared my passion for adventure, my unending strive toward challenging myself. These things and so much more led to this time in my life.  And from that point on, I looked at all of these memories through a different lens. Maybe I was created to do this forever.

Pausing to glance backwards, I realized the progress we had already made.  We had gained enough elevation that we could see where we had come from, a tiny indented trail snaking through trees.  I could no longer see the campground or Two Medicine Lake, only the mountain pass that loomed above our heads and mountain peaks surrounding us. Also ahead, snow. Yes, mid-July snow. Thankfully this trail was traversed enough that a path was cut out from this snow field. But, at least three feet of snow was packed up along the trail as we trekked through, gaining elevation in each step.

The elevations in Glacier are lower than in places like Colorado.  Glacier peaks are in the 9,000 and 10,000 foot range, where you’ll find 13,000-14,000 foot peaks in other parks of the Rocky Mountain range. But, the starting elevation is much higher in Colorado.  Estes Park sits at around 7,500 feet. The areas surrounding Glacier are at about 3,000, so the mountains look just as high in Montana as they do in Colorado.

The 1 1/2 miles from No Name Lake to Dawson Pass are the steepest, but the closeness of the pass urged me on regardless of my already throbbing feet tightly strapped in my dusty brown Merrell hiking boots. Talking between our group had drastically decreased.  We were spread farther out along the trial and focused on our next pit stop at the top of Dawson Pass. I stopped just shy of the top and waited for my friends, so that we could reach the pass together. A few more steps and we were drilled with whipping wind.  We had arrived at Dawson Pass.

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Trying to convey the scene with words or even a picture seems a pathetic attempt to capture greatness. The wind forced us to layer on fleeces and jackets as we were completely engulfed in mountain views. Directly in front of me was a steep rocky drop into Nyack Valley. Dawson Pass is the lowest point between Mount Helen and Flinsch Peak, at an elevation of 7,600 feet. I was straddling the Continental Divide. Off in the distance to my left is Mount Saint Nicolas, the most technical mountain to climb in the park, with deep gashes cut out of the rock near the peak. In front of me lies lies Mount Stimson and Mount Phillips, and the remains of Lupfer Glacier, which technically isn’t a glacier anymore. As I spin around, I see the trail that brought us up here, Rising Wolf Mountain and Pumpelly Pillar. The wind is fiercely whipping my body as we huddle together to take photos of our accomplishment. We celebrate for a short minute, then retire to a small boulder in the middle of the pass to eat lunch.  This boulder is barely large enough to block the wind from the four bodies that are hidden behind it, but we really had no other choice.

We pulled out our PB&J’s (prime hiking food), trail mix, granola bars and the like, and filled our calorie deprived stomachs. We chattered with renewed excitement. Most of the uphill ascent was over, but less than half the hike had been completed.  Somehow, we didn’t care about this, and I’m glad we weren’t fretting about what was to come. We packed up what we had left, adjusted our boots, clothes, and poles and readied ourselves for the rest of the hike. Then, the trek to Mordor had begun. (I only wish, but this was really the only thing I can liken the next couple of miles hiking to, trekking along a mountain pass).

As we set out from Dawson Pass, our feet traveled on a path about a foot wide.  Flinsch Peak shot up sharply to my right and plunged  below to my left. One foul step on the rock and shale path would mean a very not fun, though I can imagine quite scenic, tumble down to the bottom of the valley. Even though these conditions demanded watching every step my feet would take, I couldn’t manage to stare straight down.  My eyes were drawn every which way, except where they should have been.

Continuing along the Continental Divide, we deviated slightly off the well traveled path and scrambled up an offshoot with a flattened top.  We stood with our feet mere inches from a ghastly fall, feeling on the edge of some kind of mountain world. I felt completely limitless and fearful at the same time. I have yet to replicate that feeling anywhere else.

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As we rounded down off of the Divide, we were faced with a snowfield. It was a very tiny and mild snow field, and also pretty well traversed, but we had to cross snow nonetheless. We had a 3 second lesson on how to attempt a self arrest with our hiking poles, just in case the worst happened. We all crossed safely and I reached for my cell phone to take a photo only to realize that my phone was no where to be found. It could be anywhere, at the bottom of the valley, covered in rock and shale, or it could just be at the top of that flat precipice where we sat for a couple minutes. Thankfully, it was the latter and Josh graciously volunteered to make the 2 mile roundtrip trek back along the path we had just traveled. Of course I would leave my phone sitting on top of a mountain. After the phone was safely in my hands, we continued on towards our next mountain pass.

We came upon Pitamakan Pass fairly quickly. The saddle through the pass was thin, and gave way to mountain and lake views all around. Because it lies along a thin ridge, both sides of the pass and their valleys make for another stunning view that words fail to describe. Leaving there pass, our downhill descent began.

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In front of us was a layered zig zag of switchbacks. In the next mile, we descended close to 1,000 feet. My trekking poles became my knees’ best friend. Each step was lightened with the help of my poles and my eyes could drift upwards to see Oldman Lake dip behind Rising Wolf Mountain. By this time, my legs and feet were finally beginning to realize the torture that I was putting them through. But, I was getting a bit delirious from not eating nearly enough and exerting myself that past 11 miles. Mackenzie and I bounced our craziness off of each other and cancelled out our aching feet with fits of giggling. We were planning how we would use our trekking poles were a bear to attack us, singing about subjects that can’t be remembered, yet still marveling at the environment we found ourselves in.

The next few miles were all jumbled together. We were trying to beat the sunset because, remember, we started later than we planned for doing a 19 mile day hike. I remember passing through a very thick huckleberry patch, half expecting to see a grizzly with every glance. At one point, I remember standing and slowly turning myself about in a circle taking in everything.  Among the short grass and huckleberries, I paused to stare at Pitamakan Pass, now far off in the distance, appalled that I actually crossed a mountain pass. We passed through meadows reminiscent of scenes I’d only seen in my dreams. The terrain quickly changed into thick forest hiking, the smell of pine, a lovely intoxication, my favorite scent in all of the land. We ducked in and out of forests and meadows until finally the campground came into sight. Despite thinking we were almost done, we still had over 2 miles left, which may have very much been the hardest 2 miles. I had seen the end, my mind and body thought I was done, so it stopped pumping adrenaline.  Those last 2 miles felt like 15.

But, alas, the bridge crossing over to the parking lot found our feet. Finally. We were relieved. We had made it well before sunset and all had went as planned. But, at the same time, I was sad that this adventure was over.  I knew I would never experience something exactly like this again with 3 close friends trekking mountain passes, meadows and forests.

After stripping our boots off and letting our feet breathe for the first time all day, we climbed into the car and sped off to find food.  We all wanted one thing, meat. Meat to replenish our bodies and muscles, especially after eating only nuts and oats and fruit all day.

The drive back “home” to Lakeside was one of tired excitement. Conversation was a faint buzz of the leftover adrenaline. It was probably one of the most gratifying times of my life. I wasn’t over thinking anything. I was present. I was there fully experiencing that moment. All of those things are hard for me, yet in that moment, it all came so easily.

My trip to Montana, and specifically this hike changed my life.  That sounds dramatic, but it really was a turning point in the way I view my experiences. I spent a week with some friends who are so close to my heart. I explored the mountains. I hiked 45 miles in one week. I actually relaxed on a vacation. (Yes, despite the 45 miles of hiking…) My pull to the mountains and the outdoors grew and was even more intertwined into my life. I’ve learned to be thankful for the outdoors that’s close by in Nashville, but still long for those white capped peaks every day.

I can’t quite explain it all even 6 months later, but I know I feel different. I’m trying to decipher what this means for the course of my life. I haven’t quite figured anything out yet, but I’ll let you know when I do.

“Lead me spiritually,” said every Christian girl ever.

I had a close friend tell me that a girl told him that she didn’t really want to date him because he couldn’t “spiritually lead” her. This is an a example of something really shitty.

And before you get all judgey on me, yes, I have thought that before about guys. And don’t get me wrong, sometimes that is a “problem”. But the problem this time is that my friend is a pretty solid dude. He’s challenged me mentally, spiritually, personally. I’ve had some incredibly meaningful conversations with him. We’ve walked and talked through many “life things” together. He’s been like a brother to me. So, it hurt to hear people think this way about him. So, this led me to thinking about how quick girls are to judge the hearts of potential beaus based on, well basically, nothing. Or at least things that don’t matter.

Growing up in the sometimes distorted Christian “fairy tale”, young preteen, pimply faced girls got told that they are worth it. And they are, we still are totally worth it. But, back then, they took this idea and ran with it. They deserve this exact, specific type of hyper-human/God mash up in every guy that they even consider looking at. We were told, “Don’t settle for anyone who doesn’t (fill in the blank: treat you like the princess that you are, love you unconditionally, give you a million back rubs, play worship songs on his guitar, etc, etc).” One thing that is usually on the list, something to the effect of, “He can spiritually lead me”.

I’ve come to hate these words, especially when spoken out of hurt or hatred or insecurity. I’ve been there. I’ve said that and meant it and sometimes I still mean it. But, the problem is that being a “spiritual leader” is so vague, yet so defined at the same time.  Each girl has a different little idea dreamed up in their head of what a spiritual leader is. Then, they proceed to judge every guy, and harshly, on their spiritual leader meter (1 being Satan himself, or Voldemort and 10 being some glorified form of human with the face and voice of Justin Timberlake, the mind of Jesus himself, and the body of, I don’t know, somebody with really nice muscles, but, like, not too much because that would be gross). And then, every girl gets disappointed and angry and cynical about all the guys in the world because no one can measure up to their ridiculous standards.

I’m talking to myself here too.

We’ve all been there, struggling to justify what’s inside our tiny little heads. Scrambling for any excuse to make ourselves feel better about the truths we were taught to believe.

We make judgements based on people we really barely know. I’ve known some people for over a year and am now finally just beginning to really understand who they are and why they do what they do. Friendships and relationships take so much time and frankly, most of us just don’t have time to bother with it and really do it properly. So we pick and choose who we deem “worthy” of this time. Now, this isn’t a bad thing. We obviously can’t pick everyone to be our BFFAEAE (best friends forever and ever and ever, for those not in the know), but why do we both intentionally and unintentionally sabotage some friendships or relationships?

We’re scared. We’re tired. We’re over it. We just can’t possibly spend the time and energy to put into ANOTHER person. I know I’ve been there on all accounts. But, why?

Instead of seeking what God has to say about it, they look to these fantasies, both in seeking friendships and relationships. Each person has such a different picture of what a relationship should look like and everyone is placing these on everyone else and then we get ourselves into this cluster-cuss (Fantastic Mr. Fox shout out) of relationship messiness.

But we have to cut the crap with these hard and fast rules and lists of what we think we deserve. We have to shift these expectations to God because he’s really the only one that we can expect anything out of or anything that promises us that we deserve anything. If we quit focusing so much on another person, maybe we will finally see that God was furiously vying for our attention the whole time.

re: passion

I watched the documentary 180 Degrees South, which tells the story of a few people taking a 6 month sailing journey down to Patagonia in Chile to climb Corcovado, while learning from the founders of The North Face and Patagonia.

Before I even realized what I was doing, I started Katy Perry: Part of Me, which tells the story of Katy Perry’s music, career, love, and heartbreak by following her year long ‘California Dreams’ tour.

I chuckled at myself for the irony of the two juxtaposed one after the other. I thought to myself, “Seriously, who am I??! Climbing deadly mountains straight into pop music about teenage dreams and fireworks.” Just as I was in the middle of composing some clever tweet about how I’m “so weird” because I somehow managed to absolutely adore both documentaries, I stopped and thought (which, by the way, I should do more often before I tweet things).

Halfway through Part of Me, I realized that the sentiment behind these two seemingly very opposite things weren’t actually opposites at all. I watched Katy fight through whatever was thrown at her to keep her dream alive, to have her words (in the form of songs) heard. A few record labels didn’t believe in her or tired to make her something that she wasn’t, so she left them, or was dropped. She desperately tried to keep a failing marriage alive, but also knew when it was time to cut ties. She has a very distinct picture of what she wanted from herself and for herself. From what I can tell after watching a short 90 minutes of her life, she never strayed from that picture. “Thank you for believing in my weirdness”, she screamed at a crowd at one point during the film. (Just stay with me now, ok?)

I thought back to the previous 2 hours and connected that very drive and passion to Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins, founders of Patagonia and The North Face respectively, and their dream to both explore and save the Patagonian wilderness. In the 60’s, they first traveled to the raw wilderness of Patagonia, and their lives were forever changed. They said, “It wasn’t the apex of their lives, it was a turning point.” Both men have explored those mountains extensively and have contributed to preserving the wild in Patagonia to this day, despite push backs  from the country of Chile itself, and probably a whole slew of other people who thought they were crazy. Their intense fervor for wilderness and climbing more than overcame the adversity they faced, both physically and mentally.

And I think that’s why I can connect with both situations, because what’s behind their dream, that raw passion that no one could ever imagine ripping from them. I am an extremely passionate person. I am driven by an extraordinary belief in myself to do the things that I feel will make my life more meaningful. I may not always be sure of exactly what that dream is, but that doesn’t keep me from running wildly and blindly towards it.

I resonate with people like Yvon, Doug and Katy because they made something that seemed nearly impossible, come to fruition. I often find myself complaining that people don’t understand me or getting frustrated when I think friends don’t see life the same way I do. I imagine this is the burden of all dreamers and fighters not willing to compromise any part of the person they made themselves to be.

I have worked very hard on the Jess you see today. It’s part of who I am to work on who I am. I have laughed, cried, adventured, wrote, read, climbed, ran, and loved my way through the almost 8 years I’ve “been on my own”. Although some of my hobbies and desires have changed, one thing strings them all together: I want to make something real and true out of the things that excite me.

Because I feel strongly about living life this way, I both intentionally and unintentionally surround myself with people who also want to make their lives look this way. I have friends who are extraordinarily real writers and storytellers (Banana Damage), friends who both climb mountains and love God fervently (In Search of Mountains), friends who are teaching English halfway around the world (The Adventure), and friends who run meaningful nonprofits (Red EarthTrading Co.), and so many more that it would taken me hours to name them all. I have crazy wonderful friends that only further my desire to make reality out of my dreams.

Now, the only thing I have left to figure out is what ‘thing’ I am going to chase.  And that thing has changed far too often in the past 8 years for me to even begin to pick one. But, that’s my burden to bear.