I understand now that I am not a mess, but a deeply feeling person in a messy world. I explain that now, when someone asks me why I cry so often, I say “for the same reason I laugh so often – because I’m paying attention.”
I love these words of Glennon Doyle Melton. I am a deep feeler – I laugh and I cry often, maybe too easily, at least when it comes to the crying part. But at 30 years old I was setting new records, sobbing a disproportional amount of time and feeling that both myself and my world were a total mess. As I began loosing the faith of my childhood, my otherwise perfect little world turned upside down. I was a lot of things… a daughter, sister, wife, mother, friend, teacher… but most of all, I was feeling completely lost. I couldn’t deny that every major past life decision was heavily influenced by this faith tradition I was now questioning. I spiraled into a full blown identity crisis as my big picture crumbled – everything from how I viewed the world, to things I believed about the past and the future, to how I made decisions, to my understanding of all the how’s and the why’s, to how I wanted to raise my children – I panicked in the face of how little I was sure of anymore. I was questioning who I was, what I was doing, why I was doing it. I was angry, confused, disillusioned, resentful, deeply sad, even borderline bitter at times. Everything felt so heavy; I didn’t recognize this person. Loosing myself when I had three beautiful little people counting on me to have things figured out, was overwhelming and terrifying.
Fast forward three years and I was in a very different emotional place – I was peacefully, and formally, leaving that organized religion of my past. I was finally able to feel such gratitude for the influence it had on shaping this life that I love, while calmly accepting that it was no longer my path. In hindsight I’ve started calling those three years my “return to the mountains.”
At the time I wasn’t intentionally returning anywhere. It’s as if my soul – the deepest, most raw and honest part of myself – knew I needed something that was real, something I was sure of in the face of feeling otherwise so confused and powerless. As I began to conclude that I was wrong about so many previously held beliefs, it was next to impossible for me to stop questioning, “what else was I wrong about?” But I knew my love of the mountains was real. My memories of countless Uinta trips – Cuberant, Ibantik, Cliff, Amethyst – more lakes than I can recall all the names of! – with my parents and sister were magical. Backpacking trips to King’s Peak with my junior cross country ski team, and later Red Castle with a dear college roommate were priceless trips in formative years. Later, Divide Lakes, Notch Pass and Bald Mountain with my own little family. I have often thought my heart may burst with joy at watching my own kiddos fall in love with those mountains. Such happy and emotionally charged memories I’ve always had of that particular mountain range; the Uintas will forever have a special place in my heart.
The handful of the 14ers I climbed during my time in Colorado were spectacular; I remember standing at the summit of Handies Peak with my beloved cross-country ski coach, Ingrid. I would go on to name my first daughter after her. Then there are the Wasatch Mountains that I grew up on and felt so accomplished at conquering: Nebo, Timpanogos, Olympus, Pfeifferhorn. My now-husband and I got to know each other on trails of the Bear River Mountains; he proposed on Mount Naomi. A decade later, as our marriage struggled under the weight of two individuals attempting to navigate a big transition, our time together in mountains has continued to prove a reconnecting force. I am forever grateful to my parents for all the trail time they always made a priority when I was growing up. They modeled such love and respect for the mountains and trails; it was contagious. The sense of belonging I’ve always felt in the mountains feels so real to me it’s almost tangible, and also arguably the biggest constant of my life. I suppose it’s natural that I returned to them when I felt my sense of self unraveling.
As I started hiking and trail running again, I quickly noticed that, even at my lowest points, I never failed to find hope and feel peace on the trails. They didn’t care if I didn’t have my shit together, they didn’t get uncomfortable if I sobbed in their presence, they didn’t get impatient with my questions, they didn’t judge me for not having all, or sometimes any, of the answers. Returning to the mountains also resulted in me finding my tribe, my soul sisters – dear friends who love and accept as quickly and unconditionally as the mountains. Some of my closest and most treasured friendships have evolved on the trail.
These women and I have bonded over our shared love of the mountains and adventure. I’ve run and biked, laughed and cried, listened and talked over countless miles with these trail sisters. We’ve stood atop dozens of peaks and experienced feeling so small, and also incredibly lucky together. We’ve braved extreme temperatures, crazy weather and been repeatedly humbled at all that our bodies and minds are capable. These sisters and the trails we cherish – together we’ve been through some of the best and worst of times; I’ve been privileged to hear their stories, and validated by their similar experiences of loosing themselves. Whether it be in the midst of motherhood, religious responsibilities, work, mid-life, or just life in general; while our stories are of course different, there has been an ever-present theme of searching for authenticity, best expressed by Brene Brown:
“It’s time. All of this pretending and performing – these coping mechanisms that you’ve developed to protect yourself from feeling inadequate and getting hurt – has to go. Your armor is preventing you from growing into your gifts. I understand that you needed these protections when you were small. I understand that you believed your armor could help you secure all of the things you needed to feel worthy and lovable, but you’re still searching and you’re more lost than ever. Time is growing short. There are unexplored adventures ahead of you… The time has come to let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are.”
For many years I had worked on perfecting who I was supposed to be. I was finally ready and wanting to embrace the “real” version, just needed to find her. I won’t pretend that upon returning to the mountains I found any quick or easy answers. The soul-searching time I spent on the trails (including lots of trail talk/therapy sessions with my girlfriends) lead to a number of gut-wrenching realizations about who I was, and wasn’t. It took me a long time to acknowledge the existence of lives I didn’t choose, knowing that without the influence of all the “should dos” and “should wants” I’d adopted, there is a good chance I would have done a number of things differently. It took me even longer (and, full disclosure, with the help of an actual therapist at this point) to grieve some aspects of those sister-lives. I understand now and can rationally remind myself that this is a normal and important step in working through any identity crisis, but the guilt I experienced in that space of acknowledgement was heartbreaking. I was so ashamed to even think about, much less mourn unrealized goals and dreams of another life when the one I ended up with is so beautiful; it felt painfully ungrateful. Cheryl Strayed articulated this dilemma well. “I’ll never know and neither will you about the life you didn’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.”
It is okay to acknowledge and salute those alternate futures from the shore, it doesn’t devalue or insult the life you did choose; if anything I believe it allows you to ultimately better recognize and appreciate how beautiful and important your own, current path is. Long distance runner Kara Goucher has said, “Your greatest runs are rarely measured by racing success. They are moments in time when running allows you to see how wonderful your life is.” Without a doubt, my time in the mountains and on the trails helped me gain that perspective and find the truest version of myself. The mountains offered a beloved connection to my past and a hopeful bridge to the future when I desperately needed one. I know I am not alone in believing the trails are sacred – they continue to teach and heal me; they are absolutely a core part of who I am and I feel beyond blessed to get to enjoy them with so many of my favorite people – family, and friends who are more like family, aka, Trail Sisters.