As I write this, I’m shoeless and sitting in the back of my Jeep with my feet on the center console eating a whole-wheat English muffin with organic almond butter and thick slices of banana that are sitting on my topographical map of the section I just hiked on the Superior Hiking Trail. I’m sipping my second round of coffee made from my REI special outdoors-edition French press. I’m also smelling fumes because a buster crew of 4-wheelers rolled in and they’re loading up a trailer. There are two F-150s and four 4-wheelers running right next to me—just sending toxic fumes off into the earth. I’m literally looking at them as I type this. My door is open.
During my hike, after having an assortment of random thoughts such as: How much more difficult is raising kids than raising a dog? I was probably South African in a past life. Do all big choices in life come with a trade-off?
Along came this one: Am I a fashionista?
I never thought that I was a fashionista until I watched Anna Wintour’s Masterclass on leadership, where she takes you into the—oh, thank GOD, the 4-wheeler people are leaving—anyway, Anna Wintour takes her masterclass men and women into one of her meetings. Wintour is the inspiration behind the film The Devil Wears Prada, because of her fierce, unapologetic, and stern direction of Vogue magazine. I hiked by a mushroom with a large top that someone had plucked over and now it laid on the ground upside down revealing pleated white lines like silk & satin. I thought, my, wouldn’t that be a pretty skirt? Close, tight white pleats on a floor-length skirt that’s high-waisted and paired with a light, rose-colored cashmere tank? Just stunning.
And then twelve minutes later, I was barefoot in the back of my Jeep using my plastic spork to spread almond butter onto a whole-wheat English muffin. I don’t know anything about fashion, but I’m inspired by it—and then I thought of all the things in life that have been either/or for me. Like you can be a hippy or a professional. You can be a solo traveler or a wife and mother. You can be a writer or a business owner. You can be a barefooted person in the back of her Jeep or you can be a 4-wheeler person that wears Polaris jackets. You can be an outdoorsy person or a fashionista. But you cannot be both.
The most challenging part of either/or clauses is that I have the hardest time deciding which camp I belong in, and then if I do make a decision, I’m likely to curse myself for making that decision. Let’s take the two campsites at Egge Lake, for example. I hiked to one and there were three people sitting there in silence not talking to each other and, though it was a beautiful spot, I was like SEE YA, awkward folk. I went to the other one, four people were there. Two couples. They were all very nice. I camped there for the night and then the next day, this is where my Big Decision came—do I continue hiking the next 6 miles to the forest service road and take that the 9 miles back to my car? Or do I hike back the 4 miles from here to my vehicle?
I could NOT decide what I wanted to do and these other two couples were so damn put together with their hiking itineraries and collapsable bowls. They also have babies at home; who is taking care of the babies?? They have babies!! Both of them! And yet, here they are—out here in the wilderness cool as cucumbers hiking on a pre-autumn day with matching packs. It was a lot for me to process. I felt like a homeless hum bum. One couple went north, the other couple went south. They parted ways with smiling faces and waving hands. And then it was me with my mind that’s way too loud and my struggle to make decisions. I went north.
And then I was hungry so I ate a peach (sorry, Anna, I meant to pack my apples on the counter but I stole your peach) and I was disappointed with myself about that. A whole COSTCO size bag of apples was sitting there and I somehow accidentally packed the ONE peach? I sliced the peach with my army green switchblade knife and pulled out my maps, the same ones I’m eating my almond butter English muffins on top of, and realized that was a lot of hiking plus the almost four-hour drive back to Brainerd.
So, I turned around and headed back south. I smiled a happy, free smile because I’d made a decision! The opposite of my first decision, but still, I made a decision! Of course, I wanted to complete another section, but this trip was different. I stutter-stepped my way into it, unlike the last time I was on the Superior Hiking Trail. The last time, I was just sticking those hiking poles into the forested ground happy as a Lark. This time, I stopped in Duluth on the way to the trailhead and called three places to see if they had any hotel rooms available.
I decided the trail was my fate, even with my not-so-excited attitude. After about twenty minutes turning back south towards my car, I decided the competing voices inside my head needed to be put in time-out. I found a flat spot by the lake and made my first round of coffee that morning. The lake was like glass reflecting the transforming tree line with splotches of red and yellow. I played my yoga meditation music and sipped my coffee until I heard footsteps coming up the trail. Instantly, I stopped playing my music and untwined myself out of sukhasana to sit like a normal human would sit and not a yoga-freakazoid.
Another perfect couple. I swear they were Patagonia models.
“Hey,” the girl said in a shy, soft-spoken tone. “Are you doing a thru-hike?”
“No,” I said. “Just two days.”
“Oh, we’re just doing five and think we’ll stop soon.” She gazed over at Patagonia-boy and they stared at each other like they’d just met and fallen in love right here at this moment. “Think so, Hunny?”
He started back with an equally as sickening gaze filled with love and awe and said, “Yes, let’s stop here for the rest of the day.”
And then they took their packs off and walked down to the lake, happy with their decision. I sat there like you’ve gotta be kidding me. You two can just make your decision that easily? They sat down by the lake giggling like school children and I was amazed.
I decided to pack up and trek on to my finish line, which was the same as my start line. My mind was everywhere but here in the present, with extreme pain that I’m not sure how to process? Sometimes I fear that my body will shut down from the amount of pain it has experienced in this past year. Like an iPhone that's in direct sunlight too long and it just says "Temperature! iPhone needs to cool down before you can use it again," with the little red thermometer. Or when anything technological reads "system overload," and then it just shuts down. Sometimes, the pain is so intense in my chest and stomach that I fear I will pass away in my sleep.
I’m not even kidding.
On the drive back to B-town from Duluth, I listened to Brené Brown’s podcast featuring Ester Perel, British psychotherapist and New York Times Best-selling author of the book Mating in Captivity. It’s about polarities. We as humans crave security, but we also crave freedom. We crave structure, but we also crave spontaneity. It helped me feel less alone in my polarities—from desiring companionship to desiring freedom. While I was on the trail with all those happy couples, I felt completely alone. And awfully in my head about this concept or either/or and polarities, and why I can't seem to find the balance that all these other Leprechaun-lucky couples have.
But everything is not always as it seems. We peer into each other's lives through a 5-minute conversation, an Instagram photo, a caption on a Facebook post... and assume that their lives must be going so much better than ours. It's so much easier for them!
I guarantee, if I would've whipped out therapist Em during my short intersections with these couples, I'd discover more about their lives. I'd learn about their losses, their pain, their ache, their regrets, the confusion, the pull towards one thing, and the tie to another. The polarities. The either/or clauses.
The two co-exist- both love, happiness, laugher, and freedom mingle with grief, hurt, pain, loss, and confusion. We are both light and dark. And if we try to shut out the darkness, the side of us that makes the light so bright, we're doing a disservice to our
selves and humanity as a whole. We are both pain and beauty. This is perhaps why I love scars so much, I really do think they're beautiful. They heal, but they don't ever quite go away. They reveal the pain of the past, an event that happened and is now in the past, but not forgotten. It won't just go away and return to the same color as the rest of your skin, it stands out, stands apart, because that scar was a moment of darkness and pain. And if used as it's supposed to be, can bring a whole new level of gratitude for life and patience for love. It will stretch you, and never let you forget the pain that was necessary for the lesson.
When I returned back home and others asked how my backpacking journey went, I'd say, "it was easy physically and challenging mentally."
I had to recognize my new scars of loss. Losing someone so close to you is a scar that will never fully heal. The initial sting of the cut might lessen over time, but the scar remains. It becomes a conversation starter and holds a host of memories.
Just like my scars from falling out of the tree, they remind me of the most physically painful experience in my life. The scars of losing my brother will remind me of the most unbearable loss in my life. Both of them have changed me. I am grateful to have cared for and looked up to someone so greatly that it would shatter me this intensely.