Bookending the sandwich of last week's truly weird week for women, I took two of the most challenging yet rewarding hikes of my very short and very limited hiking career. Like seriously, up to this point I've climbed Sugarloaf mountain and had my mother-in-law kick my ass on a "moderate" Shenandoah trail. But there's something about hiking, the sport of it, that responds to my need for constant self-improvement. I'm not a physically gifted person - my parents put me in ballet class when I was young with the hopes that I'd become more graceful but my true klutzy nature endured about one recital's worth of first, second and third position before calling it quits. I was born with misaligned hips, I'm slightly bowlegged and carry a lot of weight in my chest and butt making my center of gravity shift, circle and change from one moment to the next, depending on what activity I'm doing. And I have really short legs - a fact that I am never more aware of than when climbing up and down a rocky ledge.
But hiking appeals because it's a physical challenge I've proven I can do. My only competition is the ugly governor inside my head who likes to pepper me with thoughts - 'you're too weak, too fat, you'll pass out, you're going to throw up, you can't take a step that far down because of your short squatty legs, your back will give out, your knees will give out, you're too old, you should've started this in your 20s, who do you think you are?' It's this voice that keeps me charging forward for there is nothing I love more than getting to the crest, taking in the most fantastic and well earned of views and giving that voice my most graceful and delicate of middle fingers. Proving to myself that I can do this, is proving to myself that I can do anything and in a week when I was triggered by the news of the Stanford rapist and abuse at Profiles Theatre, forced to relive a trauma I've worked really hard to put behind me, my hikes up to Emerald Lake in the Rockies and FortyNinePalms Oasis at Joshua Tree relieved me of the inner sickness I'd been feeling and brought back an amazing sense of empowerment. For a moment, I stood on a rock at Joshua Tree looking out toward Yucca Valley, the sun blazing down and the breeze whipping at my cheeks and took it all back for us ladies. I made silent thanks to all the strong, smart, brilliant women I know and all the good men in my life who are the best of allies. I inhaled the hot and increasingly heated air, let it fill up my lungs and moved forward -- up the next rock, onto the next ridge, headed for the oasis.
Joshua Tree National Park takes no prisoners
But before my time becoming acquainted with the strange and distant planet that is Joshua Tree National Park, I took a first hike through the Rockies. It was our last day in Colorado so Josh, Sam, Ellen and I made the short trip from Denver up north and west to Boulder thinking we'd hike in and around the city. While stopping to fuel up on hash, eggs and bacon at Foolish Craig's, we researched trails a little further ultimately deciding the 1 hour drive up to Estes National Park would be worth it. There was a trail with four Lakes - Bear, Nymph, Dream and Emerald - that combined everything we wanted to see and do. We all voted yes for waterfalls and a moderate climb.
The drive from Boulder to Estes was beautiful. The skies bright and the day clear, we curved around the mountains and followed a roaring creek up 7522 feet to downtown Estes. Traffic at the park entrance was predictably backed up - Coloradans making the most of their sunny spring weekend - but we were seen through, entrance fee paid and on our way to the trailhead at Bear Lake in about 20 minutes.
Proof of passage
And there it was -- snow at the trailhead! Oh so novel and adorable at first, it would later prove to be the biggest challenge of this 3 and a half mile round trip journey. Sam and Josh quickly made pace but Ellen stayed behind with me. I worried at first that I was holding her back but she promised she was fine and enjoyed the company. She is a stronger hiker than me and proved to be a great support as we climbed the 650 foot rise from Bear Lake to our final destination.
650 feet doesn't sound like a lot but elevation at Bear Lake and the trailhead was 9475 and I was still adjusting to altitude. Initially, I was taken in by the climb just from Bear Lake to Nymph Lake, stopping to rest and feeling celebratory to make it that far. How little did I know. As we moved on, the trail steepened and narrowed with snow steadily inching its way over the path as we climbed. It wasn't long after we passed Nymph Lake and its roaring waterfall that we encountered the first of many ice sheets -- the entire landscape covered in white, sunbeams gleaming and dancing off the surface.
The waterfall was soon followed by nothing but snow and ice
Ellen and I caught up with Sam and Josh at Dream Lake - they were on their way down. Neither seemed to mind their inevitable wait at the trailhead (in fact, we were later treated to video of Josh, jumping off a rock into the very cold waters of Dream Lake, so we know how they used their time in the interim!) and encouraged us to keep going, the view at the top was worth it. That became the line of the many hikers we would encounter, working their way back down. As they passed Ellen and I, we heard time and again that Emerald Lake was frozen solid, that it wasn't much further, keep pushing, if they could do it we could too. The reward was near. We soldiered on.
Slipping and sliding often, there were times where we had to make finger holes in the snow to catch a grip. We made one temporary wrong turn in search of the mystic frozen lake but soon figured out our folly and got back on track. The trail was hard to find precisely because there was no trail, long erased by snow and ice. If there had not been gobs of people out taking advantage of this sunny June Saturday, I would have been more worried for us. As it was, we were all in this together, passing so many on the way up and down. We weren't lost for long.
We hit Emerald Lake around 4PM. It was, like all of Colorado, spectacular - something from the heavens. Ellen and I rested on rocks, caught our breath and enjoyed the young couples and groups playing around, taking a billion selfies and shared in their pride at having reached the destination.
We wouldn't stay long, however. There was the matter of the sun's rays starting to dip beneath the horizon and the fact that we had about 2.5 miles of ice sheet to traverse before making it back to dry land. And the way down was the way down - time to put that one time only skiing lesson into practice.
"Make a pizza, make a pizza," I kept telling myself as my boots slid along the surface. I fell more than once, my butt an icy uncomfortable mess. At a certain point, we learned from the laughing children in front of us, there was nothing to do but sit on it and slide - one long icy chute taking us down the mountain.
My hip, injured somehow before I left for tour, started to ache, my back following suit. Ellen was patient and kind, always looking behind to make sure I'd made it down our most recent rock, stopping with me so I could stretch, breathe, readjust. She took my frustration in stride. I really could not have gotten down without her.
We found Sam and Josh at the trailhead, compared adventures and marveled at the feat. Then, with Josh driving like he was born to star in car commercials and the new Radiohead album ushering out, we were treated to a herd of elk at the exit. The sun sinking ever lower, transitioning from late afternoon to spring twilight, it was feeding time, and the gang had arrived for supper. Majestic like the mountains around us, they were the perfect ending note to our strenuous climb. I felt rewarded and ever more in love with the state of Colorado.
A view from the top
My next hike would come almost a week later, at Joshua Tree National Park, and this one I would take solo. Venturing out by myself wasn't my first choice but no one on the team was available or interested in the excursion. The prospect of a solitary journey did not deter me for there was NO WAY I was missing this. Back when I first started planning the tour and knew we would stop in L.A., a hike in JTNP was one of the very first things I'd decided was a must do. Up to this point, I'd never seen the desert. I had to go. It was imperative.
I arrived around 11AM and by the time I'd stopped at the visitor center for water, a bathroom break and my passport stamp, it was nearly noon. Not the most reasonable time to start hiking - I had to decide quickly where I would go and what I would do. I'd entered at the Western Entrance Station, then turned around and drove back out when I realized there was no water or food available in the park - two things I had to have before subjecting myself to the elements. Once I made it through the visitor's center - where water is stocked aplenty - I rechecked my map and made note of the different hikes that were appealing. I'd read up a little prior to my trip and recalled the FortyNinePalms Oasis hike was "only" 3 miles long and seemed doable for me. Plus, there was an oasis and, really, what's a trip to the desert without laying eyes on this mythical entity?
Driving east on highway 62, skirting the northern edge of the park, I turned down Canyon Road and soon found the parking lot and at last, the trailhead. I was greeted by signage and warnings that people JUST LIKE ME have died in the park. It was around 12:15 and the sun was beating down. The temperature in the parking lot clocking in at 97 degrees. My level of trepidation probably wasn't quite high enough because without too much thought I slapped on sunscreen, loaded my backpack with three water bottles and secured my large brimmed hat to my head. The ascent began almost immediately.
It was cute at first. I made sure to stop every 50 feet or so, chug some water and take in the view. I was mindful that once I was halfway through the water, it was time to turn back. That meant I had a bottle and a half to get me to the oasis. I savored the isolation. Just me, the desert and a nice breeze that kept me pushing forward. I thought about my life, about my people, about my career, about the tour, about what was to come, about who I want to be, about turning 40, about my family, probably about you, dear reader. It wasn't until I was over the third ridge, or so, that I realized the voice in my head had become my voice out loud. My brain was already fried - despite the hat, despite the water, despite the sunscreen. I was in a weird kind of drunken state. Almost giddy - part of me knowing what was happening, the other part already in surrender. I may have recorded some of these heat drunk thoughts into my phone. Listening to them now, nearly three weeks removed, I can quickly determine they are not meant for public consumption!
Two ladies passed me on the way down. They were encouraging, telling me I was through the roughest parts. They offered me some of their water, but I had enough - the pack was already heavy - so I turned them down. We talked for a minute more and I watched them, almost enviously, as they made their way back to the lot below. It was nice to see fellow women and I felt revived by their kindness. Onward I went.
For the next few, yet eternal, minutes, I was out of sight of both the parking lot and the oasis. Tucked in between a series of ridges, I could not even see out into the valley. I'm not sure I've ever felt more alone in my life. This was more than a test of my physical strength and stamina, this was a mental feat - gymnastics of sorts as I balanced on the edge of sanity and pondered the view from the other side.
Finally, I turned a corner and there it was - the promised land of shade. 49 of the tallest and loveliest palm trees I'd ever seen in my life beckoning with their guarantee of rest, comfort and cool air. The palm is admittedly not my favorite of trees but this day, these 49 beauties would become my best friends. I rushed toward them with a speed I did not know I possessed.
Dear Bono, I found what I was looking for
I sat there for nearly an hour, knowing the way back would be long and hard. The oasis even provided a healthy 4G signal and I was able to reach the outside world in this moment of isolation. I checked Facebook, admired the view and tried to ignore the squawking bird of prey circling above me. I was not dead. Not yet.
It drew time. I had an evening engagement back in Los Angeles and the day would soon come to a close. Very reluctantly, I packed up, said goodbye to my new best friends and started the trek back. Maybe it was because I was already so beat up or maybe because the way back started with a climb or maybe because my expectations had been mismanaged by the kind ladies who told me I was done with the hard part, but I was only about 20 yards into my trek when I felt more worried than ever. It was hard, very hard. I had to stop every 10 steps, rest, breathe, drink water. My energy was depleted, sun sickness setting in. My stomach churning, my breathing labored, my head spinning with thoughts of collapse, knowing I still had so much further to go, I considered turning back around to the oasis and waiting it out til the sun started to set. But I was afraid of running out of water, worried I'd pass out and wake up after dark, my phone signal long dead, so on I pushed. One step at a time, one foot in front of the other.
I was saved about a half mile from the end by what I will forever know as Shade Rock. That's the name I bestowed on this beautiful boulder perched on the left side of the trail, providing one human body's worth of shade. It was the only shade available between the oasis and parking lot. And it was not there before - the sun had shifted just enough while I convalesced that Shade Rock's magical powers had been activated. I sat for 20 minutes, resting and not dying, knowing the trail head was within reach. I managed a signal on my phone again and connected laughing at the irony that while on this hike where I almost died, I received one of the biggest emails of my life; an agreement, a contract, a new beginning, affirmed. One more step to making a dream come true. Shade Rock was truly a magical place.
This email got me moving. I had work to do and that work occupied my mind most of the way back - keeping me motivated. About 20 seconds after I muttered out loud, "where is the damn parking lot??" I came over the final ridge and saw it. Even more exciting than the oasis, there was the car whose air conditioner I would blast at top level while coming down from this crazy, sanity-risking adventure through one of nature's most inhospitable lands. The thermostat in the car read 107 degrees. But I was safe. And alive. With things to do and plans to make. I had done the thing. I texted RR. I was proud. I had temporarily conquered the ugly governor and proven I was capable and strong.
The trepidation I had before embarking on this tour seems small and silly in retrospect. As I sit here in Cleveland, wrapping up and marking my final days on the road, I can look back on these two hikes with a strong sense of achievement. They will become touchstones in the days, weeks and months ahead - days that will present many challenges of a different sort. When the going gets rough - and it will - I will think back to the ice sheets of the Rockies and the scorching sun of Joshua Tree and find that I can, I must and I should believe in myself. I may be small, stout and a little physically challenged but I can do it - I can do the thing.