From “Impossible Dream” to “Why Not”?

I’ve never been much of a group person. I do things alone and sometimes with one other person. The most group-ish thing I do is dance class. I used to go out to lunch with a group, but those people don’t lunch together anymore. I used to walk with a group a couple of times a week, and I even hiked with different groups on the weekend, but the walking group is pretty much disbanded, and I found hiking in a group to be frustrating and dangerous. Groups HIKE. I s a u n t e r. They go fast and purposeful. I go slow and stop frequently to smell the air or take a photo or enjoy a particular vista. Then I have to hurry and catch up. Sometimes they take a break and wait for me, and then as soon as I catch up, they continue along the trail, leaving me with no break. Often, they bring their dogs, and sometimes the dogs harry me or try to push me over a cliff. (True.) One dog wore a bell that about drove me nuts. Why go out to the wilderness to listen to the quiet and be assaulted with the constant tinkle of that dang bell? Even worse, if I hesitated at a stream crossing, people would try to help and I would always get wet. Or they’d try to pull me up an incline even if I didn’t ask for help. Or yank my arm if I struggled to stand after sitting to rest instead of letting me find my own purchase.

Nope. Too dangerous.

I realize there are problems with hiking alone. But there are problems with living alone. Sometimes we simply have no choice. We do what we can.

Before I took my cross-country road trip, people told me I shouldn’t do it — my car was too old, I was a woman alone, it’s too dangerous, etc. etc. etc.

Well, I did the trip. More than twelve thousand miles in five months. And yes, the car broke down — one time the battery went dead, another time a piece of fuel line that was supposed to have been replaced hadn’t been and all the gas leaked out, and a third time, the VW mechanic who changed my oil in Wisconsin put in the wrong grade — it was way too thin, and my car kept vapor locking when I drove through hotter climes.

The most traumatic thing happened when I was with someone — I fell down the stairs backward and scalped myself — but it wouldn’t have happened if I had been alone.

Now that I’m talking about a solo backpacking trip, people are again telling me I shouldn’t do something. They remind me about my destroyed arm. Well, yes, that fall did happen when I was alone, but it was in the middle of the city, and I wouldn’t have been in that dangerous parking lot if it weren’t for other people. (Left to my own devices, I do not go out at night.)

Oddly, the arm thing makes me more determined on a solo backpacking trek, maybe because I have proof of how quickly one’s life can change. If I had someone to go with, I might not go alone, but if it’s a matter of going alone or not going at all, I’m going. What else am I going to do? Hide in my room lest I suffer another injury?

Besides, the point is to be out there alone. To connect with the world, to see if I can handle the immensity — a sort of spiritual journey or vision quest.

My eventual goal is to do one of the iconic hikes, probably the Pacific Crest Trail since I know someone in each state along the way who might possibly be able to help. From what I hear, though, there are so many people on the trail now that it is almost impossible to hike alone. And there are trail angels along the way, willing to help PCT hikers.

Meantime, a three-day solo journey, accompanied by a satellite phone connected to people who would come rescue me if necessary, is as safe as it’s going to get.

All this is still in the maybe, could be, possibly stage. And yet, I can feel the change in me, the change from “impossible dream” to “why not”?

Years ago, when I first thought about hiking one of the long distance trails, I thought it would be so uncommon that if I wrote a book about my experience, the story would propel me into bestsellerdom. Unfortunately, the trails have become so common and the stories so ubiquitous, that the only way to get noticed is if I were to screw up and embroil myself in a lot of drama, and I have no intention of doing either.

With enough research, preparation, and luck, my book would be just a ho-hum story of a woman who decided to hike the PCT and did it.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Rainbow-Colored Mysteries

I read once that to be happy you need to narrow the distance between expectation and reality. The article was about happy marriages, and the premise was that unhappy people had unmet expectations, and the greater those unmet expectations, the greater the unhappiness. The closer the reality was to expectation, the happier the people were. The solution, then, was not to stop expecting, but to temper one’s expectation to reality. For example, if you envision life as a perpetual dance and your spouse is a klutz who can’t follow a beat, you can either hold to your vision and be miserable, or reevaluate your expectations and find a more realistic vision.

This expectation-to-reality formula works in other ways. For example, if I looked only at my expectation of the Petrified Forest to be an actual forest, my visit to the park would have been highly disappointing because a few pieces of tree trunks is not my idea of a forest. Yet, when I gave up my expectation and just enjoyed what that visit brought, it was a wonderful side trip on my drive across Arizona. For one thing, the Painted Desert, the scene of the Petrified Forest, was totally unexpected and simply stunning — panoramic views with many hues. For another, the individual tree rocks were spectacular in their own way. (Oddly, there is way more petrified wood outside the protected park than inside, so anyone who wishes to own such a piece of geographic history can easily obtain a piece or ten. In fact, the museum/gift shops at the gate give away small chips as a come-on to get you inside the shop.)

Painted Desert

The mysteries of the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest weren’t the only rainbow-colored mysteries of my drive across Arizona, but first, let me set the scene.

As I drove to Flagstaff after I left the park, I felt sorry for myself because although I was looking forward to journey’s end, there was no joy in the expectation. I would be able to take care of a few matter such as getting my computer fixed and my car serviced, and I would be able to visit friends and take dance classes again, but I wasn’t going home to a special someone, wasn’t going home to a special place. I was simply going.

And then, as if the very heavens took pity on me and wanted to send me a bit of encouragement, a streak of emerald flashed in the sky. I leaned forward and peered up over the steering wheel to get a better look, and the sky lit up with drapes of horizontal color. For a second I thought I might be seeing the aurora borealis, but there is no way the northern lights could be seen so far south. I watched, amazed, as the emerald gave way to peacock blue, and the rainbow swathe grew crayon bright. I pulled off the highway as soon as I came across an exit so I could get a photo, but by the time I finally was able to take the picture, the bright rainbow had faded to pale sunset colors, though the peacock blue still held true.

fire rainbow

Apparently, what I saw was a rare fire rainbow. (Fire rainbows are formed when the sun, high in the sky, shines through cirrus clouds made up of hexagonal ice crystals.)

Awesome. Unexpected. And totally joyous.

You’d think that the message of the heavenly sign (if a sign it was) that things would be okay would sink in, but no. The next day, as I drove from Barstow to Apple Valley, unexpectedly, I started to cry. Then it occurred to me what those tears were about: this was the first time I had driven that road since my life mate/soul mate’s death. On that previous trip, I was on my way to visit my father, and Jeff was still alive, waiting for me back home. It’s amazing to me that no matter how long it’s been since Jeff’s death, “firsts” still can freshen the sorrow.

I did learn something from my Arizona drive, though. Don’t expect what isn’t. Instead, accept what is.

Now I just have to put the lesson into practice.

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(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

Deep in the Dismals

Several people have contacted me, wondering if I were okay since it’s been a week since I last posted.

Yes, I am okay, or as okay as one can be with more than fifty mosquito bites and a particular sensitivity to the horrific little creatures. I have tried every salve on the market and every home remedy. So far, nothing works to stop the itching, so I just have to grit my teeth and try not to scratch.

I’d been staying with friends during much of that missing week, mostly catching up on the volunteer work I do with my publisher. It’s hard for me to write or even think when I am with others, and besides I wanted to make the most of what I thought would be the final visit of my journey. Since I don’t know anyone along the I-40 corridor, I figured I would be on my own most of the time during my return trip.

When I left my friends, and to be honest, even before I left, I was beset by sorrow for no reason I can fathom other than that I would be returning without having found what I was looking for. (My visit to the East Dismal Swamp seemed a fitting place to have such an attitude, though a little hike on the wooden walkway temporarily dampened my personal dismals.)

People had told me of a sign outside Wilmington, North Carolina, where I-40 begins. The sign gave the mileage to Barstow where the highway ends (and not far from where I had been hanging out) so I went in search of the elusive sign. I found the beginning of I-40 with no problem, but didn’t see the sign. Unlike most highways I am familiar with, in the east, often there is no on ramp corresponding to the off ramp, so there is no easy way to get back on the highway. Sometimes following signs that were supposed to get me back on, led me far from my destination, which made circling back to look for the sign a tiring task. I finally gave up and headed north on East I-40, but the next day I went back and tried again to find the sign. I even stopped at the nearest gas station, but no one I asked about the sign had ever seen it. I finally realized the sign must have been removed.

That little episode (four hours of circling back on the labyrinth of highways) seems a metaphor for this journey: driving endless miles only to find that I am searching for something that isn’t there.

Don’t you have to know what you are looking for, though? I don’t know what I am looking for, so perhaps I did find it after all, and just don’t know it yet. I had been looking for adventure, and that I have found, even if all the adventures weren’t felicitous.

When staying with my friends, I tagged along to dinner at a restaurant. One guy asked about my trip, and after I told him a few of my more memorable experiences, he asked, “Was there anything you did like?” I was speechless for a moment. Do all experiences have to be likable to have meaning? Part of my desire for this trip was a need to pit myself against the world (and embrace it), to find inner resources and a deeper sense of belonging. (A reason for my sadness, I am sure, comes from the feeling of unbelonging I get when I stay with others, especially couples. No matter how kind they are to me, no matter how much they want me, no matter how at home they make me feel, I have an awareness of being in someone else’s orbit, of encroaching on their space.)

I have to count both my allergies and these mosquito bites as experiences that I didn’t like, but they came as collateral damage to things I did like, such as camping on the outer banks. (The furthest stretch of this journey was down to Cape Hatteras where I got all the bites — I used repellant on my exposed skin but didn’t think to spray my clothes. All the bites were in unexposed areas.)

I have much to ponder in the coming weeks, such as where to go next and what to do with my life, but as long as I can see to the next curve in the road, I will be fine.

I hope you didn’t waste too much worry on me, but thank you for caring.

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(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

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All these photos were taken in or by the East Dismal Swamp. The lake is Lake Phelps, the second largest lake in North Carolina.