The Secrets of Returning

During our junior year of college, my roommate, Tiffany, made a short film for her digital arts class as a first attempt at video editing. Knowing my penchant for acting foolish, she asked me to be in it. The film was titled, “…It Was Okay,” and chronicled two women’s very different days—one terrible and one fabulous.

Tiffany played the role of the woman who had a terrible day. She ran out of milk after already pouring her cereal. She tripped and dropped her books and papers for class all over the floor. Her boyfriend broke up with her in a text message.

I played the woman whose day had been the best day ever. I aced a test. I had a great solo dance party while joyously eating homemade cookies. My boyfriend showed up with flowers just because.

At the end of our days, we each sat down in the living room and asked each other the typical, “So, how was your day?”

Upon reflection, we each responded, “…It was okay,” and quickly moved on with our lives, never stopping for deeper understanding.

This past September, I boarded a plane to big sky country to head into the wilderness with four other women as part of the Wild Sage Summit, an annual celebration of influential women in the outdoor industry. As we hiked into Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains on the first day, the trip went pretty much as planned. Five unique women forged bonds with each other and took in the beauty of their surroundings. That night, we slept under the stars. When we awoke, we ate, packed up, and headed out for our shorter day, ready for some nice time lounging by mountain lakes.

The real adventure always begins when the trail ends. On day two, the trail ended.

We knew that our second day’s stretch wasn’t a maintained trail, but we had made the appropriate calls and done the research to know that it was still manageable. But “manageable” means one thing when you’re talking about it with other IMG_3418people in an environment organized by roads with street signs and houses with addresses, and a rather different thing when you’re out in the wild.

On day two, five women spent 12 hours bushwhacking through a rugged Montana landscape.

Thick brush scraped our legs. Steep climbs in and out of gullies tested our balance and strength. Bridges-turned-mirages and game trails placed as red herrings questioned our sanity in a forest that felt increasingly endless. The sun that had already said its goodbye called forth our mettle as we continued to march ever forward. Most importantly, our allegiance and respect for one another grew clear as we encouraged and supported each other onward through games, songs, jokes, honest check-ins, shared snacks, and at least one aptly timed, “FUUUUCKKK!”

That night, we sat by the ominous darkness of our campsite’s lake, and filled ourselves with a warm dinner and the shared laughter of our day’s journey.

Two days later, I found myself in a rental car driving through the darkness of Montana’s nighttime interstate on my way to Bozeman after a full day’s botched attempts at trying to catch a standby flight home out of Missoula. I was exhausted. My next steps weren’t certain. It was a struggle. But I was pushing forward. I was thinking good thoughts for the morning flight out of there that looked like it had plenty of open seats. It was extension of the adventure, I reasoned to my cloudy mind.

As I drove, I remembered when I landed in Miami last March and drove through the dark to Everglades City, a darkness where everything and nothing was known. I thought about what it was then like to leave the Everglades after spending a week kayaking by myself through its wild waters.

Samuel Mandell, professional listener and husband of the Wild Sage Summit’s co-founder, Liz Song Mandell, recently wrote about his experience of watching Liz leave for a solo backpacking trip, and his beautiful understanding of how the wilderness affects people struck a chord with me. He writes:

Backpacking and the wilderness changes people, especially when they are alone. There is more room for the wilderness to enter in, invade and conquer, and to inspire and uplift. Emotions are amplified in the wilderness, without the trappings of busyness and society to contain them. I wonder what emotions and thoughts will be amplified for her. Who will she be upon her return. The same woman that left no doubt, yet somehow altered, shifted, if even by only several days. I will meet her briefly as a stranger, searching for that newness in her, looking to make my acquaintance with it.

When I returned from the Everglades, it was so hard to fully communicate to others what that trip had done to me, the extent of what it had meant, what it had initiated for me. In the end, the experience and the perspective it gave me seemed to strongly alter some of my interpersonal relationships from before the trip. Over time, I made my acquaintance again with some of the characters of my life from before those moments in Florida’s sacred waters, but with others, we struggled and seemed to remain strangers.

Miles flew by on the interstate as I IMG_3361sped toward Bozeman, thinking about my next return and how hard the Universe was making it for me to go.

I worried of being overtaken by city stress and about trying to share my trip with others. Would I do it justice? Would they understand? Could I remain who I’d become after I’d left? Would I lose some connections as I had after the Everglades, but would I also gain some?

I whispered to myself the lines I could remember from an essay written by P. K. Price titled, “Navigational Information for Solo Flights in the Desert,” in the compilation by Susan Fox Rogers, Solo: On Her Own Adventure:

“Avoid going home at all costs. It is too dangerous. Stay out there. Stay with the desert wherever you go.”

When I finally made it home, I finished reading that passage, letting my connection to the words hold me close for a moment:

Even if you must remove your body and cart it back to the city. Leave the river in your blood, the bloodstains from being lost on your legs, the copper sun of full moon on your skin, the reverence for juniper in your litany. Remember your manners.

You must be careful when you return to the city. There is no safety for womanness there. You will have to go about your way veiled in order to protect yourself. You will be stronger and more vulnerable than when you left.

It is best to remember not to speak of some things you have seen and done while alone in the desert. People will misunderstand what you say. It is difficult to explain. If you try, your listener will miss the point. Perhaps be inattentive or interrupt your story. This person and many others you thought you knew will not know about desert manners.

I was happy to return to D.C., as I have a community here that I’ve grown over four years, and it gives me a sense of place that I appreciate more and more. However, after a peak experience like the Wild Sage Summit, it can take time to find the right pace again.

Over the next several days, I tried to pick back up where I’d left off, but more so, I tried to hide. I wanted to share my trip with those who would ask about it, but there was so much still percolating inside me that I hadn’t processed. I needed time, and so I tiptoed home, hoping to remain unseen just long enough to gather my thoughts and become familiar with this heightened strength and vulnerability within me.

I rested there until solitude and stress eventually beckoned me to the forest one night after work.

With the last bit of light of the day, I ventured into Rock Creek Park for a quick walkabout. Things started off normal. I was on a definite trail. But when I saw a “sort of” trail that veered off to the right, I paused. Something in my core pulled me toward that path, as if my soul was longing to return me to that state it found in the State of Montana.

Next thing I knew, I was connecting various “sort of” trails, jumping over creek beds, scaling the earth back up out of the creek beds, and realizing that the light was rapidly disappearing. I eventually found myself back on what was a definite trail, and power walked my way through the dark until I turned up back at the point where I’d entered.

IMG_3379I exited into the night light of the concrete world with dilated, wild eyes, knowing I wouldn’t be able to tell the passersby of the secrets of the forest, knowing I was just a little different for having done it, but feeling excited to keep walking along and meeting each of them where I was. The bright stars of Montana were still faint in the D.C. sky despite the light pollution.

I was ready to face the inevitable, “So, how was your trip?”

“…It was good,” I now reply, and the images of branch-scratched calves, lush autumn hills, and victorious group hugs fill my sight. Upon reflection, the sounds of a treasured water source, an early morning bull moose, and the wild’s gentle stillness fill my ears.

From there, I may let my listener get to know a little of the story that now rests within me, but other times, we may just quickly move on with our lives.

The beauty rests in that moment of reflection when the question is first asked; when I can pause with my smile of the secrets we can only tell when we’re out there. And in these moments, I return to the great gratitude and solace I found in a community of five women who knew who we were and also who we became—in the wild.

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