Trusting My Wings

Prior to coming over to Australia, I had determined that this trip was going to be a life experiment in letting go. If I could let go of my expectations and trust that the universe would provide everything I needed, then I’d be happier. But as with every experiment, there is the potential that the trials may yield different results.

As I now sit here in Cairns, waiting to in the airport to depart for home at the end of my Australia adventure, I believe there is an added variable in play that I did not anticipate in my original hypothesis. Although I still think that my original theory, letting go and putting trust in the universe, is accurate, I’d like to amend my original statement.

It was about a 3 months ago that I had this epiphany that came in the form of a conversation with my work exchange host, Steve, with whom I was working to renovate a rental property that he owned. On one of our daily drives back from the property, I was explaining to him my decisions for coming to Australia.

It was in that moment that he pondered what I had said, and formulated his response. Steve, being an avid traveler and vagabond in his younger days, had traveled around Asia, Europe and America, living dollar to dollar, picking up odd jobs and renovation work wherever he could to supplement his travels. His response was based in his years of experience cheaply traveling the globe, but it was so profound that I determined it was the missing component of my now seemingly incomplete hypothesis.

“I don’t think it’s a matter of trusting the universe, I think it’s about trusting yourself in your own abilities,” he insisted.  To explain his point, he proceeded to tell me a story about a bird, who found himself on a weak, unsteady branch. “Now this bird has two options,” Steve continued, “he can trust that the branch will hold him, or he can trust his wings and his ability to fly.”

I was so dumbfounded by Steve’s response that I sat in the car speechless. He was right. All the bird needed to do was trust his wings, not the branch. Maybe I didn’t just have to trust in the universe to provide all that I needed, but more so I had to trust in my own abilities to go after all that I needed and wanted.

The rest of the afternoon I reflected on this new way of thinking, and checked to see if it had applied it to my travels on my Australian adventure. Undeniably, there had been moments when the “branch” fell out from under me, in the form of missed or canceled flights, miscommunication or tension with a host, last minute plans falling through, cancelled tours, and rearranging travel plans in the aftermath of a major cyclone. But at the end of the day, I persevered, pushed through the awkward, uncomfortable or stressful situations and ensured that things worked in my favor. Despite having the branches fall out from under me on numerous occasions, indeed I did fly.

Therefore, after months of research into my life experiment in letting go, I can amend my hypothesis to be more accurate. To live a life filled with happiness, I do need to let go and put trust in the universe to provide all that I need. But, when the branch does inevitably fall, thanks to the multiple tests and trials I faced in Australia, it is with deep faith that I can now trust my ability to spread my wings and fly.

Reflecting on my Year of No Fear

As 2015 winds down, it is only natural for people to reflect on the year that has been and gear up for the year that will be. Many of my friends who have been following my adventures have seen my Year of No Fear hash tag. What most people don’t realized that what started out as a simple hash tag, was actually first a mantra/promise I made to myself in early 2015.

During the Winter of 2014/2015, I was going through a depression that crippled me both mentally and physically. Although I was able to keep up an act at work, on the weekends my act crumbled around me, as I succumbed to the pain, sadness and emptiness that permeated through me. I secluded myself from friends and family who were worried about my wellbeing. My once adventurous and out-going attitude faded behind my ever-growing self-doubt. One day, at my worst, doing everything in my power to overcome a vicious urge to take my own life, I made a promise to myself. “Stop living a life of fear,” I told myself. Fighting back tears, I wrote those words on my mirror with crimson red lipstick. I strategically placed that mantra in a place where I could see it from my bed. I repeated it over and over, growing louder until I was screaming it at the top of my lungs, as if trying to expel the pain and sadness from my bones. It was in that moment that I promised myself that I would live without fear, or “Live Fearlessly”, my final edit to the mantra on my mirror.

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My first snow bike ride. #yearofnofear

It wasn’t until February 16th, 2015 that my #yearofnofear made it onto my social media page. I had used the hash tag as motivation to help me get over my fear of biking to work. Although I became a bike commuter in the winter out of necessity, not choice, I knew that this first triumph over one of my fears was just the beginning. While biking home that night I contemplated how my life would change if I forced myself to do everything that scared me.

Looking back, I can say that my life as I knew it changed that day. I made a conscious effort to change my attitude, which in turn changed the way I decided to live my life.

One thing that changed during my #yearofnofear was the amount of things I was able to accomplish. Whitewater kayaking. Sailing. Rock Climbing. Biking. Backpacking. Making new friends. Traveling with strangers. Traveling to Iceland. A month long road trip. Visiting Texas, Vermont, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Virginia and Utah. Visiting Shenandoah, Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Reestablishing a relationship with my father. Online Dating. But the biggest reward wasn’t the amount of things I was able to check off on a list, it was the amount of confidence I gained while doing things I had otherwise thought was impossible.

Learning to roll my kayak. Punching through Cucumber Rapid on the Youghiogheny River. Ascending a 5.9 route with an overhang. Solo backpacking for a week. Traveling without plans in an unknown city. Traveling alone. Being homeless for a month. Living on a boat for a weekend. Biking to work for 4 months. Having a one night stand with no guilt. Making peace with my father. Solo Snowboarding. Applying for a new job. These were all examples of things that I considered impossible for me to accomplish. Yet, as I was able to overcome each one, an overwhelming feeling of confidence would come over me. Slowly, as my accomplishments added up, I began to own that confidence. Soon I felt more comfortable in social situations. I was able to hold more meaningful conversations and I noticed the type of person I was able to attract into my life. These were people who also had some ambitious plans, goals, or were just down for more spontaneous adventures. They were more genuine, wore their emotions on their sleeves, more willing to help you out with little to no expectation of having the favor returned. I was becoming the person I had always imagined, and that was the biggest accomplishment of all.

Along with the accomplishments and the confidence, #yearofnofear allowed my friends to follow my adventures, and to even keep me motivated. I had a lot of fun talking with you, answering questions, hearing your admiration, and even being heckled for some of my decisions. “Come on, Bigs, it’s your Year of No Fear,” as I was being called out by my roommate for not confessing my crush on a male friend, was one of the best heckles of the year!

Even though 2015 is coming to an end, my Years of No Fears just began. I’ve decided to continue conquering my fears as it’s become my way of life. My list of things to accomplish has grown. Singing in front of a crowd. Skydiving. Hang gliding. Ice climbing. Exploring my sexuality. Posing for pin-up photos. Dating. More sailing, backpacking, rock climbing and kayaking adventures. Hosting house parties. Connecting with friends on a more personal level. Allowing myself to become vulnerable. Overcoming my emotional ties to my parents’ divorce and my father’s abandonment. Living in a foreign country. Finding my sense of home. These are the things I hope to experience in 2016, and you will see it posted with #yearsofnofears.

So what’s next? In addition to #yearsofnofears, I have decided that this will be the Year of the Empress (#yearoftheempress). It’s not as catchy as Year of No Fear, but it has a deeper meaning. The Empress refers to a chakra archetype, one that relates to pleasure, well-being, abundance, sexuality and a strong emotional sense of life. These are concepts that, for the longest time, I felt unworthy of knowing or experiencing. With my increased self-confidence, I now feel that I can and should experience abundance, well-being and pleasure, and have it come easily.

What will the Year of the Empress look like? It will be deeper connections with friends and strangers. I will allow myself to enjoy life, unrestricted and uninhibited. It will be opening myself up to opportunities to experience abundance in material, financial and emotional forms. It will also be a time where I will focus on what I need most, quiet the distractions, refine my character and hone in on what I am meant to do in this life.

This is also the year where I will be telling my story. I will be divulging the unknown chapters of my Year of No Fear, I will be compiling my stories of the road and of my adventures both from 2015 and years previous. I think I have some interesting things to say, and I’m hoping that my friends, family and visitors to my page will concur.

As I begin to prepare for the new year and new adventures, I will leave you with this lesson that I have learned from my Year of No Fear in hopes that it would inspire you:

Fear is but a mindset. Fear is singlehandedly the thing that will hinder you the most in your lifetime. In trying to overcome it, you’ll  learn so much about yourself, and when you do conquer it, it’ll lead to a feeling of ecstasy and self-confidence. Anything is possible, especially when you change your mindset. That is exactly what I did that day, in January 2015. When I wrote those words, “Stop living life out of fear,” I made a decision to change my mindset. And in changing my mindset, I changed the entire way in which I continue to live my life.

Happy trails and adventures to you, where ever they may lead you in 2016!

Without Reservations

“Where are you staying?” My mom asked over the phone.

“I don’t know yet,” I stated confidently. The prolonged silence let me know that she was worried and carefully wording her next sentence so as to not offend me.

“And you fly out Thursday??” Her intonation alone provided enough evidence to know that she was passing judgement on my travel plans.

I was accustomed to this scenario by now, time after time, telling my mom my plans for a trip or an adventure and reassuring her everything was going to be okay. The truth is, I often travel without any real plans, which makes my mom nervous. To most, like my mother, it sounds like a crazy and irresponsible way to travel. But if you are able to actually experience traveling without a set schedule, you might find it as freeing and exhilarating as I do. For this trip, I was flying into Dallas for a friend’s wedding. I had nothing planned except for a round trip flight to Dallas leaving Thursday and returning Monday, a rental car I was going to pick up at the airport when I flew in, and a wedding on Saturday night at the Dallas Aquarium. The only thing I brought with me was a day pack filled with two day outfits, one dress for the wedding and a Panda onesie. Everything else I was leaving up to chance, fate, circumstance, destiny.

Throughout my trip, I was able to reflect on the reasons why I take pride in traveling without a detailed itinerary. Hopefully, my reasons will prompt you to give up some control and travel without reservations on your next trip.

It All Works Out

For many, traveling without reservations is a hard concept to implement simply because they have this need to be in control. Without control, there is the unknown. The unknown is frightening, especially while traveling; if not careful, things can go wrong at the most inopportune times. But I have found that the more you leave things up to fate, the more things work themselves out without the added stress. For example, before landing in Dallas, I had this overwhelming urge to visit Austin. To satisfy this urge, I had booked a car in preparation for this mini road trip to Austin which was a 3 hour drive from Dallas. A friend had told me I was crazy, saying it wasn’t worth the drive. If I was thinking rationally, he was probably right. Although for some reason I knew I had to check out Austin. The sights, the music, the food, the culture; I just needed to check it out. When I got to Austin, my high school friend Alex FB messaged me that a friend of hers, Joanna, whom I had met previously, was coming into Austin for a mini vacation. For a night I met up with Joanna and her friend Eva. We had a blast checking out different music clubs around East Austin and late night eats at one of Austin’s food truck pop-up gardens. Joanna and Eva were gracious enough to let me crash in their hotel room for the night. The next morning we walked around Lady Bird Lake and took in the incredible views of the city before we parted ways. The unexpected meet up was one of the highlights of my trip and it was all by chance that it happened.

You may be thinking that it was just pure luck that I met a mutual friend in Austin. I would agree with you, BUT the universe had something planned for my stay in Dallas. As I was driving back to Dallas for the wedding Saturday afternoon, I got another FB message from an Ultimate Frisbee friend, Dan, who had moved to Dallas a year prior. He asked about my plans for the weekend, and where I was staying. I chuckled as I sent him a message back stating I had no plans nor a place to stay. Immediately, he asked if he could host me for the rest of my stay in Dallas, and of course I accepted. I was grateful to have a place to sleep, shower, and unwind comfortably in an unknown city, as well as the conversation, company and suggestions for things to do. It was great to catch up with Dan and get his input on my life’s pressing issues. Again, fate was in my favor as everything fell into place.

Open Up to New People

Traveling without plans allows for ample opportunities to meet new, interesting people. After the flight into Dallas my friend Obert, whom I had flown with, and I, went to Buzz Brews, a carefully crafted mix of an eclectic dive bar and 24 hour diner. While there, we met Christian, a flamboyant and charismatic server who provided us with a list of top things to do in Dallas. He took great pride in formulating the list, with some phone-a-friend assistance and compiled it on a guest check receipt. We made such a positive impression on him that he comped us a serving of chips and salsa and a piece of red velvet cake for the road. His list was our guide to discovering Dallas, and it did not disappoint!

After the beautiful wedding ceremony Saturday night, some of us Frisbee folk went to explore Deep Ellum, a diverse, grass-roots breeding ground for the art and music scene in Dallas. Just walking down the street was enough of a cultural experience. Taking in the street art as we listened to the different genres of music amplified out into the street, and navigating our way through the crowds of hipsters, pan handlers, concert promoters, and bystanders was enough stimulation for my senses. In Deep Ellum we entered a Salsa bar at the request of my friend Marie. After ordering a drink and surveying the scene, I decided to go dance. None of my friends followed me to the dance floor, so I decided to dance with a few older women and chat with them. One women was Rayshell, who lived outside of Dallas. She told me about her adventures on her farm, spending the weekends off-road mud jumping on her quad and 4×4 vehicles. She showed me pictures and shared her stories and was kind enough to give me her info in case I came back to Texas. If I did return, she guaranteed I’d see the real Texas and she promised to take me off roading

Christian and Rayshell were just two of a handful of people I was able to meet on my trip to Texas. The quick friendships, or small-talk acquaintances I made in Texas helped me to find deeper meaning and definitely added value to the adventure.

Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

There is nothing more exhilarating to me than stepping out of my comfort zone and trying something new. The rush of confidence is increased ten fold when I am able to overcome a challenging task, especially if it was something I never expected I could accomplish. The entirety of this trip was out of my comfort zone to say the least. I hadn’t planned a trip like this since I had studied abroad in London and couch surfed around Europe, where I was leaving it up to fate to decide where I was going to stay each night. Europe seemed a bit more forgiving when it came to rambling around aimlessly. The United States, a little less so, as people are more likely to think I am homeless than a traveler. In addition to the lack of sleeping arrangements,  my belongings were limited to the size of my small Camel Back day pack. I was flying with Spirit Airlines, and their allotment for a free travel bag was much smaller than I was used to. At first the thought of traveling without a place to stay and limited baggage in a unfamiliar city made me second guess my decision to travel to Texas. Even up until the flight out of Philadelphia, I was unsure that traveling to Dallas was the right decision. Yet, I conquered the doubt inside my head, and listened to my inner conscience. I needed this trip, for the confidence I gained after was worth all of the anxiousness beforehand.

 Getting Started

If you think you are ready to take on the experience of traveling without reservations, here are some tips that will help to prepare you.

  • Start Small- If you have a hard time giving up the detailed itinerary, then I wouldn’t suggest throwing caution to the wind. Reserve a day or two and leave the itinerary blank. See what happens when you leave your travels up to fate. What new experiences might you be able to encounter? What new people and places will you discover? As you become more comfortable, continue to decrease the amount of plans for future trips.
  • Be Flexible- The ability to be flexible about travel plans and sleeping arrangements is key to traveling without an itinerary. There have been times where I have had to sleep in airports, bus stops, train stations, and even once on a park bench. Where those locations my preference? No. But I couldn’t change the circumstances so I had to roll with it.
  • Confidence is Key- Having confidence and a positive attitude is crucial to traveling without plans. You must trust yourself that you can figure out the next step especially if expectations fall short. And if things don’t necessarily work out as you had hoped, being able to brush off the disappointment is beneficial. Having confidence and a positive attitude significantly decreases the chances of things going awry.
  • Be Observant and Resourceful– Traveling, with a detailed itinerary or not, things can and will go wrong. Especially when traveling alone, as a woman, and without concrete plans, I increase my chances of being a victim to crime or misconduct. Yet, through my experience I have learned to be very observant of the environment and people which surround me.  I analyze every situation, weighing the risk versus reward. If I feel that the situation presents a dangerous risk then I will move on. If I do find myself in an emergency, I have already planned where I can go or who I can seek for help. Despite not always having a primary plan, I always have a backup in case something goes seriously wrong.
  • Trust Your Gut- The skill of listening to my inner conscience is invaluable, especially while traveling. It is a very hard concept to grasp and even harder skill to master, especially when logic is involved. But for all of the times I have listened to my gut, and threw logic out the window, it has never steered me wrong. 

 

“Tell me all about your trip!?” my mom inquired enthusiastically as I got into the car from the Airport. I knew she wanted to hear about how I managed to travel around Texas, especially without a planned place to crash each night.

As I shared with her the details of my trip, I could tell she became more and more thankful that I was home safe.

“You really do put yourself out there,” my mom stated with concern, “without any reservations!”

She was right, both literally and figuratively, I travel without reservations.

Absolute Freedom While Confined to 33 ft

With a view like this, it is hard not to feel free.

Keep it together, Britt, just fucking breathe, I thought to myself  as I inhaled and exhaled with fervor. I was desperately trying to prevent the inevitable dry heaving that was to come with every rock of this 33ft floating hellhole. Hitting the three foot waves head on, added with the whipping wind, splash of sea water and frigid cold was enough to send me below to deal with this agony. As I continued taking one deep breath in and one extended exhale out, I kept replaying the picturesque sailing life I had always imagined. This certainly wasn’t what I had anticipated, curled up in the fetal position below deck in the quarter berth breathing in the methane and exhaust fumes and trying to prevent an upchuck reflex.

A photo from my family vacation, 8 years ago.

I can remember when I first entertained the thought of learning to sail. I was a teenager, glancing over some yacht and sailing magazines while on the deck of a cousin’s refurbished boat. All of the glitz and glamour of these excessively tricked out boats interested me. Reading stories about families who just picked up their lives and sailed with the tides, teaching their children through life experiences rather than a text book really appealed to my adventurous nature. My fascination continued when I was 20 years old,  on a summer road trip with my mom going up the New England coast to visit family friends in Maine. We took a detour to Cape Cod, and Martha’s Vineyard. While eating brunch by the water in Cape Cod, I could see the sailboats bob in the water with the ebbs and flows of the waves. I watched the water glisten off the hull of the boats as the mainsails and colorful spinnakers opened to their fullest capacities in the wind. That morning, I imagined what life would be like on a boat, sailing open, turquoise waters, the sun soaking my body in its warmth and discovering exotic destinations along the way. Right then and there, I knew I wanted to learn to sail, and dreamed eventually I would have my own boat.

Yet, here I was, the furthest thing from my dreams, in the cabin of the boat trying to prevent seasickness. How did I get in this predicament? I was asked to crew on my friend Craig’s boat, to bring it back up to Philadelphia from Solomons Island in the Chesapeake Bay. I jumped at the chance as I couldn’t wait to practice my newfound sailing skills. But, if I couldn’t hack it in the first hour of being on the boat, how the hell would I be able to fulfill my pipe dream of eventually retiring on a sailboat. My sailing dreams were deflated, my ego dejected and I was so exhausted from deep breathing and waking up at the ass-crack of dawn that I fell asleep.

“….the sun peaking through the wall of clouds.”

An hour past. I woke up mentally preparing for the continued anguish to come. But to my surprise, when I stepped out of the cabin, the sun was shining, and the wind and waves had died down. I looked back from where we had come from and I could see the sun peaking through the wall of clouds. Relieved, I started to take in the salty air and settled down on the deck.

For the remainder of the day, I did soak in the sun, slept a bit more, took over navigation and continued to take in the sights and sounds of the bay. As much time as there was to sit back and do nothing, I was never bored. I had more time to daydream about early sailors who would navigate these waters without GPS, or even electricity. Craig, the owner of the boat, and I had long conversations about coastal navigation and the nearly abandoned light houses, relics of the past, that were strategically scattered along the shoreline.

 

 

Opening up the mainsail.

Being out on the water allowed me to be fully present and aware of my surroundings. At one point in the near distance we could see a school of fish synchronized swimming, skirting their fins across the surface of the water. This sight continued until a seagull took notice and disrupted their rhythm in desperate search of lunch. When we finally came to Annapolis, the bay was full of enormous boats with inflated, vibrant spinnakers floating across the water. Craig and I sat with a heavy stare watching boats vie for best position, quickly dropping their spinnakers in hopes to be first in a race around a buoy. As we sailed toward the Delaware Memorial Bridge, the sun began its descent below the horizon. The orange glow on the geometric lines of the bridge captivated my attention long before and after we had passed under it. We ate dinner at twilight, still under power in an effort to make it to the intended anchoring point at Cabin John Creek. As the sky became dark, an eerie melancholy air came over the canal. Lights flickered in the distance on the shore line and danced across the water as we moved towards them. At that moment I felt the urge to move to the bow and take in the void. I had never before felt so free, so peaceful and yet so alone. I was so focused on taking in the emptiness that I almost didn’t see a barge, its giant, stalking silhouette silently creeping up on us. As we settled into the mouth of Cabin John Creek and lowered the anchor I couldn’t help but feel content with the day.

The next morning we pulled up the anchor and continued along, chasing the rising sun through the narrow C&D Canal. As the sun rose, the light entangled with the fog to create a fiery mist that engulfed any boat in its path. When we turned into the Delaware River, the fog cleared and Craig and I were able to take turns napping in the afternoon sun.  While I navigated the Delaware, Landmarks like PPL park, the Navy Yard and the abandoned warehouses along South Columbus Blvd were obvious signs that we had entered the city limits. Although I have seen these landmarks numerous times before, typically en route to the airport, a sports game or aimless wanderings, I was able to see them through a different lens, a different perspective.

I began to reflect on the adventure and not only did I have a different visual perspective, but I had a different philosophical perspective, more specifically on sailing and the concept of freedom. Before this trip, I felt my freedom was limited to my physical surroundings. Yet, during this trip, as I was being physically confined to a small space, I was able to feel a sense of freedom that I had only dreamed about. I realized that my surroundings didn’t dictate my independence, or lack thereof, and that my personal autonomy is only reliant upon my mental attitude. Granted, it’s hard to feel free when stuck in a meaningless job, in a dead-end relationship or constrained to the expectations of family, friends or society as a whole. That is why I find myself physically, and now mentally breaking free from it all, to reconnect with myself. All the waves, wind, rocking, sickness, dry-heaving, and shivering cold this life throws at me can’t disrupt my personal quest for sovereignty, because I know that precious feeling of freedom is worth the chaos, even if experienced on a 33ft floating hellhole.

*Special thanks to my friend Craig, who allowed my to “crew” on his sailboat, and provided great company/conversation along the way. Hopefully, his experience was as rewarding as mine. I’m sincerely grateful for the opportunity!

To Hell and Back

Hiking Hekla Volcano, Iceland June 2015

“Shit” I exclaimed, shivering in the whipping wind. I was on the verge of tears, but I couldn’t let him see me cry. “I guess we are in for a long night.”

It was at that point that I realized I might have been in over my head. Unprepared. Naive.  An over inflated ego. What ever you call it, I was feeling it as we both came to the same conclusion.

We had been hiking for over five hours now on Hekla, one of Iceland’s still active volcanoes, once thought to be the gateway to hell. Two days before the hike I had decided to hike Hekla by myself. After traveling in Iceland for 11 days with a friend, my last two days I was alone. This was the perfect time to try something new, adventurous, a bit crazy. I wanted to push myself and prove I could do it. Year of no fear, right?

The day before, without an exact location for the trail head, I decided to go and search out the volcano. From the main road it was a visible giant looming over life below. I thought I’d keep it in my sights while driving, and eventually with enough searching on dirt and gravel roads I’d find a sign that might point me in the right direction. Unfortunately, time and fuel passed by as I continued perseverating about hiking Hekla. By 3am I was still without a destination and running on fumes. About to give up and head back towards Reykjavik, out of the corner of my eye I saw a sign that said The Hekla Center. I quickly swerved into the driveway and realized it was an information center. An immediate feeling of relief came over me as I realized I could sleep in the car for the night and ask for directions to the trail head in the morning. I took one last look at Hekla’s summit as I curled up, exhausted, in back seat of the car.

The next morning, I inquired at the front desk at the information center as to the location of the trail head.

“Are you all by yourself?” the hostess questioned cautiously. “Will you be hiking by yourself?” again questioning with a nervous gaze.

“YEP!” I said with an overwhelming amount of confidence.

“Do you have the Iceland Emergency App?” she replied. I could tell she was trying to balance the fine line of being helpful while not deflating my enthusiasm.

This was not the first time someone had suggested this app. The day prior I was telling a gas station attendant my plans and he had asked the same question. I figured if the universe was telling me twice, then it was something to pay attention to. I asked about the app and she helped me download it to my phone.

“There have been a lot of people who go out on a hike and end up needing an emergency evacuation. Tourists keep emergency personnel busy this time of year,” she mentioned with a scornful grin.  Her words immediately reminded me of my mother, who told me not to die on my 21st birthday. I didn’t die but I was damn near close after getting my stomach pumped. She was putting negative thoughts out into the universe, and I didn’t want it to come back to haunt me. I thanked her for the app, got information about the trail head and headed to the car. Before I could leave the building a colorful poster caught my eye.

Copyright of this image belongs to Icelandic Civil Authorities (Almannavarnir).

Keeping the advice and warnings in mind, I made my way to the trail head. After turning off the main road, driving the single lane, winding and rugged dirt road through the ominously barren landscape was almost enough to make me turn around. Year of no fear, year of no fear, I kept thinking to myself. Finally, after a half hour of driving while debating if I should continue, I reached the starting point. Luckily, I wasn’t alone.

 

I pulled up to find one other brave soul parked next to the trail. We caught each others gaze for a split second, nodded and proceeded with our preparations. After peering at his gear, goggles, gloves, backpack, hiking boots, I felt a bit unprepared and nervous. I started to second guess my decision for wearing my Nikes and wool socks. Maybe I wasn’t ready for this?

When he started to hike, I decided to get rolling and stay near him. If anything happened, he would be close in proximity to help if needed. Upon further inspection the whole trail seemed to be covered in snow. I was regretting my decision to not buy hiking boots, but that thought wasn’t going to help me now.  I trudged on.

The trail itself was narrow, steep, and slippery, iced-over from the repeated thawing and refreezing. My Nikes weren’t cutting it, I was slipping and having to catch myself every other step. My goal was to keep the other hiker in my vision, he was my carrot, my motivation. If he could do it, so could I. Hiking boots be damned.

There came a point when the trail plateaued, and the hiker stopped to catch a drink. I hurried my pace to catch up with him and I did. We introduced ourselves briefly and went on our way again. At first it seemed as if he had no interest in hiking together as he hurried along ahead of me. But to my surprise he turned to me and asked if I would mind trekking together. I was relieved, but kept it hidden and responded with a simple, “Sure.”

His name was Peter, a forestry service worker in Germany, located in small town outside of Berlin. He told me of the occupational hazards and moving up through the ranks. Once he almost cut off his foot with a chainsaw, but all he could think about was how expensive his boots were to replace. He has since become a driver, a far less dangerous position. Peter was also traveling around Iceland on his 4×4 vehicle. He had it shipped over from Germany for the trip so that he could get through all of the F roads (interior, gravel roads that are usually impassable by regular cars especially in the Winter and early Spring). We bonded over our adventures and love of the outdoors. He told me of his adventures in Norway and the Swiss Alps, and I shared with him my solo backpacking hike with my dog along the AT in Shenandoah. We also talked about the possible eruption, and the 30-80 minutes window to get off the mountain. We joked that if we experienced seismic activity, we’d be rolling down the mountain to escape.

 

As we got closer to the top, our conversation was interjected with breaks to catch our breath, drink some water, take in the view and scout out the best route. By this time the trail was covered under feet of snow and we were improvising our way to the top. We were now looking out for signs of loose snow, hidden fissure and unstable footing. In order to get any kind of footing, we were both digging our shoes into the snow and using all four of our extremities to get to the next spot.

After about an hour of digging and climbing, we reached the summit! It was exhilarating to catch a peek at the surrounding landscape through the fog, knowing what it took to get here. Peter knelt down to touch the ground. It was warm. We took some summit selfies and bragged about how fast we got to the top. It only took us about 2 hours to reach the summit when the guidebooks said it would take about 3-4. The hard part was over. Or so we thought.

Orienting ourselves on Peter’s map proved more difficult to do. The fog was pretty thick, and it was hard to identify the surrounding features below us. He had a GPS, but it wasn’t working. We looked around for our tracks leading back down the mountain. A snow covered trail meant we had to rely on keeping our original footprints in sight to get back to the cars. We decided on the direction and picked points on the slope as our guide. Quickly, I realized this was going to be the most challenging part of the trek.

Even though we could see footprints, we were second guessing if they were ours. At one point, Peter and I were torn on whether to head the left around some crags or stay right down the slope. I had this gut feeling to stay left, but I trusted his judgement so we went right. About an hour on this path and we realized right wasn’t right at all. We took out his map, tried to orient ourselves again, picked a point to the left and trudged on. A half hour later we came to red markers and we followed them down the mountain. I was comforted to be back on a marked trail. But Peter wasn’t convinced this was the way back to the cars. He convinced me that it was a trail to the main road and that we should head to the right, up over some hills and we would catch the trail to the cars there. Against my better judgement, I followed.

In the distance, we could see a trail marker, a long white stick protruding out of the snow. Despite being exhausted and cold, this marker gave me added energy knowing that once we reached that marker it was an easy path down. By this time, Peter and I were silent. I was trying to calm my breathing and keep my thoughts positive. We stopped about 100 yards from the supposed “trail marker” only to find that the reflection and shadows at a far enough distance deceived us. I started to think about that lady at the information center and the Iceland emergency app. Goddamn foreshadowing or law of attraction, which ever it was didn’t matter and wasn’t going to help me now. I debated whether to send out an emergency signal with the app. My stubbornness prevented me. I didn’t want to become one of “those tourists” the woman had talked about with disdain. That was going to be my last resort.

Now, the sky was indistinct due to the heavy fog setting in and the wind was picking up. A light rain started to fall and panic set in. The wind penetrated my layers and my toes were starting to go numb. Peter took out the map one last time in hopes of orienting ourselves with some possibility of recovering the trail. After about fives minutes of deliberation, he suggested we start hiking towards the main road. It was the safest bet, instead of wasting more energy to find the trail. We could see the main road far off in the distance. At this point I knew that this day hike was going to turn into an overnight “adventure.”

“Shit” I exclaimed, shivering in the whipping wind. I was on the verge of tears, but I couldn’t let him see me cry. “I guess we are in for a long night.” It was at that point that I realized I might have been in over my head. Unprepared. Naive.  An over inflated ego. What ever you call it, I was feeling it as we both came to the same conclusion. We had been hiking for over fives hours now. I was mentally and physically exhausted but I knew I had to prepare myself and accept my fate for the evening.

We lumbered on silently. In my head I let out a little prayer to get us back safely and efficiently. We had now been hiking Hekla for six hours. As we stumbled up over a little hill, I saw the red trail markers. We agreed to follow it down, as we had originally thought it would lead us to the main road. Now the road was our new destination. We walked down around the hill and to our amazement we could see a car. My heart fluttered a bit. The car didn’t belong to either of us, but it gave us hope. We pushed further around another hill and there in front of us were our cars.

I jumped for joy while letting out a sigh of relief. We were both so excited that we hugged each other. It didn’t matter how cramped, or achy or cold my body was, I could see the end of this hike in sight and I was oh so relieved to see it. Peter and I looked like little kids skipping down the mountain. A few times we almost rolled down as we forgot, nor didn’t care about the icy trail. Within 30 minutes of finding the red trail markers we were back at the car. In total, we were on Hekla for 6.5 hours.

Peter and I said our goodbyes and wished each other safe travels. I was extremely glad I found him on the trail, as I could have experienced the possibility of being lost and alone on the volcano. I had planned this hike with the expectation of adventure for my last day in Iceland. Man, did I get it and more.

When the Perfect Doesn’t Work Out Perfectly Part 1

View from second vista on Giant Mountain

“You’re doing what?!” my mom screamed through the telephone.

“I am going backpacking on my own, with B-dawk in the Adirondacks,” I reiterated,  pausing because I knew what was coming next out of her mouth, a list of all the different things that could possibly go wrong.

“How will you get around? Do you know what you are doing? What if something happens to you? Do you know the kind of people that are out there? And what they are willing to do to a pretty girl like you?”

Silently, I thought of each answer. Walking. Kinda. Well, I guess I’m screwed. Hippies and adrenaline junkies. And no, what are they willing to do?

“Mom, I’ll be fine. Stop worrying.” a half-assed attempt at reassuring her, obviously to no avail. She continued on her tangent of worried thoughts, explaining that she has lived longer, has more experiences to pull from, and that I wouldn’t know how she felt until I became a mom.

I love my mother, but after a certain amount of time listening to her ramblings, her voice transforms into the teacher from Charlie Brown, incoherent utterances of something resembling words. My mind just blocks everything out until I hear a question or statement in which I need to respond.

“Hello, you there?” She questioned.

“Ah, um, can you repeat that?” Shit, she caught me.

“When will you be back?” Repeating her initial question.

“I’ll be coming home Monday. If you haven’t heard from me by Monday night, then you have something to worry about.”

My mother wasn’t the only one who thought I was crazy for embarking on this trip. My co-workers and friends all tried to talk me out of going, stating some of the same reasons.

I just have to do it, I thought to myself. I have something to prove to myself and to everyone else who thinks I can’t or shouldn’t do it. But the reservations of the people around me started to eat at my confidence. What if something DID happen? Would I be able to handle it? Questions about basic survival skills bounced around in my brain. By the time Friday came around, my nerves were working overtime. I had tripled checked the route in which I was taking, shared my route with a few key friends and family members, maniacally reviewed my supplies repeatedly until I was sure I hadn’t forgot anything.

My dog, BDawk and I, at the trail head before we start our hike.

I left for the Adirondacks after work, on a Friday evening, the sun setting,  an eerie start, almost like foreshadowing, to the adventure. It took six hours to get up to the Chapel Pond Parking lot, where my dog and I were going to spend the night in the car. When we got there, it was one o’clock in the morning and I had barely kept my eyes open the past two hours of the trip. My phone had lost service an hour ago, but luckily my GPS had continued to work despite the loss. I pulled out the blankets and cozied up in the back seat. My dog, who by habit sleeps next to me in my bed, had trouble trying to find a spot that was close enough to me. He struggled to find a comfortable position as I had trouble with nodding off to sleep.

In the morning, I was startled by the sound of French Canadian hikers, readying their caravan to start the day’s trail. Now was a good a time as ever to start, I thought to myself, despite having had an unsettling night of sleep due to the constricting nature of my car and the cold temperature.  I readied my things, double, triple and quadruple checking I had all of my gear and supplies for the trek. I grabbed my dog, asked the friendly Canadians for a quick picture, and we were off on foot.

For the first quarter to half mile, I was surprised to find that I was scrambling up rocks, definitely huffing and puffing, quickly realizing I need to get in better backpacking shape. This realization did not help my nerves. “Am I going to be able to make it all the way?” I scrutinized every detail of my experiences hiking, my present athletic condition and my current mood, as I climbed. Out of breath, I staggered up to the first vista. The first vista point was a nice place to re-energize, take some pictures and reflect. BDawk and I were able to look down and see Chapel Pond, the parking lot and the starting point to the trail.

“This is actually happening, I am doing this all on my own,” I thought. Although, I would have preferred some company, I wanted to do this hike all by myself. I just had to prove to myself that I can do it.

I heard the French Canadians getting closer, so I decided to continue on. At this point, I let BDawk off the leash.

After the first overlook, we came to a lake serenely sitting among the backdrop of trees on the mountains in the distance. The reflections of the fallen trees and debris caught my eye. After taking some pictures, we crossed a man-made bridge and continued to scramble up more rocks.

Although I was wheezing for air, things were going smoothly. I felt confident about the day, and the trip thus far.

Then BDawk and I arrived at the second overlook point on the trail…..

When the Perfect Doesn’t Work Out Perfectly Part 2

In order to get to the top of the second look out, there was a massive, steep, and polished boulder that needed to be passed. BDawk couldn’t and didn’t want to try and pass it. He had become spooked of steep boulders while hiking the AT in Virginia that summer. It was evident that the experience in Virginia had a profound effect on his willingness to climb. I continued to encourage him to climb on his own, thinking he would try to get up the rock if he knew I was up there. I even tried to help him, but his lanky legs resisted every inch. Suddenly, he became so spooked and agitated that he darted off into the thick brush, disappearing within seconds.

“It’s okay,” I reassured myself. “He does this on trails at home and will always make it back to me.”

Five minutes passed.  I continued taking pictures with my phone from the top of the vista.

Ten minutes passed. I walked around the trail and vista point to see if I could find him.

15 minutes passed. I sat, panicking, at the top of the vista, thinking about my mom telling me, “Make sure you don’t lose BDawk!” Damn, her and her fucking comments.

20 minutes passed. An old, stocky, weathered hiker asked me if he has a bear bell on him. “The bear bell would at least alert the bear, before he could sneak up on it.”

21 minutes passed. I’m frantically thinking about BDawk’s lack of bear bell and how that could prove fatal.

28 minutes later, I hear the jingle of his collar. A sigh of relief came over me, as I had just resigned myself to the notion of coming home without a dog. I tried one more time to get him to go over the boulder, to no avail.

“What the hell am I going to do,” I questioned myself. That was the only trail I had considered, my only option. Quickly, I started to trouble shoot. Thoughts of abandoning the trip popped into my head. “I’d feel like a failure if I quit now,” I thought. I still had something to prove to myself.

My mind immediately thought of the trail split, at the lake a quarter mile back. I took out the map to evaluate my options. At the lake the trail did split, the trail to Giant Mountain (which I was on) went right and to the left a trail to Roaring Brook Falls. “It is the only other option,” I sighed, disappointed that I couldn’t follow through with the original plan. But  seeing that I didn’t have any other options besides abandoning the hike altogether, I decided to go with it.

The hike down the trail seemed more difficult than I had expected. The steep incline of the trail seemed exacerbated by the fact that  I was heavy with emotions of anger, disappointment and anxiety.  I hadn’t anticipated my dog not being able to complete the trail with me, what could go wrong next?  In addition, each new group of hikers we passed seemed to rub it in that I wasn’t going to reach the very top, a subtle yet still painful dig at my self-confidence.

We returned to the lake and I took a minute to take in the beauty surrounding me, while trying to regain composure over my emotions.

I started thinking about my hiking partner, my ex-boyfriend who had been on all of my previous hiking and backpacking trips. He always kept me in a positive mood. But this time I had to rely on myself to keep my emotions in check. This time I had to rely on myself for every aspect of the trip. Fuck. I took a few more pictures to quiet my mind and to remind myself that I am surrounded by pure beauty.

We continued on the trail towards Roaring Brook Falls until I found a decent place to set up camp. After setting up the tent, I emptied the gear, organizing the necessities that I would need for starting a fire, setting a bear bag, making dinner and feeding B-Dawk. I was able to put up the tent and bear bag  effortlessly, a small victory since I had never been in charge of either task on my previous trips. These small victories kept me positive for the time being.

Finally settling in at my “campsite” for the night, my mind continued to race with thoughts of my incompetence. Swiftly, in a desperate rush to avoid the negative loop, my mind shifted to another thought.

“Fire! I must start a fire!”

I thought if I could start a fire and keep it going, then maybe I would feel less incompetent. To me, keeping a fire going was a matter of my survival for the night. The ground was wet and there was a damp, chill in the air. I was skeptical that I would even get a spark to catch, yet I scavenged around my campsite for any kindling that was remotely dry.  Then in the distance, I spotted a Birch tree shedding its bark, in large, papery stands, perfect for starting a fire. I grabbed two handfuls of bark, and returned to the kindling I had scavenged. Methodically, I broke down the tree branches into more manageable pieces, continuously thinking about how to start the fire. I decided to lay down the largest piece of bark on the ground and tear the other pieces into thin strips, easy enough for any spark to catch hold of it. I put the meager pile of strips down, hoping that my logic would work. I took out my zippo lighter (yea, I cheated, you backpacking purists) and struck the cog. Instantly the spark started to smolder and caught hold of the bark, creating a tiny flame that continued to consume the thin strips. Immediately seeing the flame, I felt a simultaneous feeling of accomplishment and urgency.

“I can’t let that flame go out!” I told myself. In my mind, letting the fire go out would add to insecurities and incompetence. I hurriedly yet strategically placed the kindling over the flame, hoping it would grow. Slowly it did.

For 3 hours I sat staring into the fire constantly thinking about life: my recent breakup with my ex of 5 years, a failed attempt at dating a coworker, a run in with a crazy man who threatened me and my dog with a knife 20 feet from my house, a recent car crash that totaled my car, an unstable father and his ailing health and the various emotions that went along with all of that. As much as I was nervous to go out backpacking by myself, I felt like I needed this time. It was time I needed to escape the crazy, to sit in silence and reflect on what had happened, what was happening and try to figure out what needed to happen next.

I started thinking about what all of these recent events meant. I started second guessing my breakup. Maybe I really did want to focus on a family, settle down and that traveling was not as important to me like it once was. I sat by the fire and let the warmth surround me. I hoped it would fill the emotional void I had in the pit of my stomach.  As the darkness consumed the light of day, the fire died down and the kindling ran out. I decided to go to the tent and read to quiet my mind.

I took out On the Road by Kerouac and started reading. I was temporarily comforted in knowing that Sal, Kerouac’s protagonist, would have been able to relate to my fear of being alone despite my quest to find solitude. I read until my eyelids became heavy and then disappeared into my cocoon of a sleeping bag to go to sleep.

Although I was heavy with emotions, I slept lightly. The mixture of the cold air, hard ground, and my own anxieties did not provide a good night sleep. In addition, B-Dawk, who was not equipped to sleep on the cold ground without a crash pad, was shivering profusely. He huddled next to me to absorb any heat from my sleeping bag. Eventually, I ended up giving him my jacket to use as a blanket.

In the morning, I made breakfast, gathered our things and decided to head back to the car. The three day adventure was cut down to one night. My emotional state and lack of gear to keep B-Dawk warm at night prevented me from wanting to stay any longer. We returned to the trail, taking in the beauty one last time before returning to our car. The remaining time, I decided to take a trip to Lake Placid, see the Olympic training center, and then over to Lake George just to say I saw it. I was disappointed that I was unable to finish the trail, get to the top of Giant Mountain and spend a few more nights out on the trail.

When I came back home, friends and co-workers had asked about the trip.

 “It was great!” I replied, lying through my teeth. It was better than telling them the truth, I thought.  No body wanted to hear the truth. I didn’t even want to admit the truth.

 REFLECTIONS ON THE TRIP:

It has been two months since going to the Adirondacks. Reflecting back, I can say that if I had been in a better state of mind and not dealing with all of the emotional crap, I would have enjoyed the trip. I have later realized that the trip was not as bad as I felt while there. The disappointment of not finishing the trail was the most painful part of the trip, but I have decided to try again in the Spring.  Most importantly: I SURVIVED! I was skeptical that I would even survive a night alone in the woods. I also learned some valuable tips about backpacking/hiking that I only could have learned through experience. Talking to other more seasoned hikers, it only gets easier with experience. In addition, looking back, it was a trip that needed to happen. I needed the growing pains as I learned a lot about myself, about what I want out of life, and my limits physically and emotionally. In the end, the trip wasn’t as perfect as I had expected it to be, but such is life, imperfect. It is the imperfections that keeps life interesting. Here’s to more life experiences full of imperfections, mistakes and the knowledge, strength and courage to overcome them!