My friend had been missing for three days and we didn’t know if he was alive or dead. I stood alone on the John Muir Trail, looking west toward Crabtree Meadow, back the way we had come. For the first time in three days I allowed myself to think about the possibilities. I pictured his drowned body, broken and battered, trapped against boulders in Big Arroyo. Maybe it washed down to the Kern River, and would be found by hikers weeks from now, trapped under a bridge. If he was alive, but injured, he would be cold and lost.
In reality, as I allowed the worst possibilities to flood my mind, he was okay. His body and ego were bruised, he had spent a few miserable nights wet, cold, and alone, and he had lost his phone (and with it his only maps) in Big Arroyo, but he was alive. He would be found, hobbling back towards the trailhead, by hikers that had been alerted to his disappearance. They in turn notified Park Rangers. We would be made aware of his safe discovery that evening, eight hours later.
Weeks prior I had imagined standing in this very spot, the massive wall of the Sierra at my back, Mount Whitney and Discovery Pinnacle towering over me. Guitar Lake was as I pictured it, a perfect mirror of the cloudless azure sky. I had thought I would look up at the highest peak in the lower forty-eight States and feel triumphant: weary and trail-lean, but ready to summit the world. Instead I felt complete and total failure.
Three of our group had flown over 5,000 miles from Germany to write a story for their magazine and it looked like that idea had been shot to hell. Another team member had twisted his knee in the Kern River Valley the day before, and had wisely opted to be airlifted out by the response team that had flown in to interview me about our missing friend.
We had foregone planned rest days in order to make it to Lone Pine in time to get the Germans to LAX for their international flight, and we still had to make it up and over Trail Crest in the next hour or risk hiking down the icy 99 Switchbacks in total darkness. My breath caught, and I felt cool tears on my sunburnt cheeks. I had never felt this utterly defeated in my life. And I had never felt more free.
On our last morning together, we gathered at the Alabama Hills Cafe not as a group of dejected, sunburned failures, but in ecstatic, joyous reunion, brimming with love for each other. We had experienced what we would all agree were eight of the most mentally and physically exhausting days of our lives, and we wouldn’t change a moment of it.
It was precisely because of those trials, the weariness, the fuckups and poor planning, that I was able to discover the freedom that exists just beneath the surface of our workaday lives. In the midst of that exhaustion, in the center of the most breathtakingly beautiful landscape I have ever seen, having done all we could do with no recourse to further help, the only option left to me was to surrender. Surrender to my own mortality and to the futility of worry. Surrender the false sense of control we fight so hard to maintain in our daily lives. Surrender the egocentric idea that this world, this planet and universe, this reality, life, is unfair. Because it is decidedly not unfair. But then again neither is it fair. It is not cold, nor cruel, and it doesn’t play favorites. It just is. Sic vita est.
Already, seven months since returning to my “normal” life, I find myself slipping into old routines. The chains of social convention aren’t dropped on our shoulders all at once. If that were the case, we would be crushed under the weight, or immediately rebel. Instead we build them ourselves, one link at a time, and fasten them around our own necks.
What can you do when you feel the oppressive weight? Travel. Set aside the shackles for a moment and open yourself up to possibility, to being uncomfortable, to being scared, to meeting a stranger on the road and recognizing that you are meeting yourself for the first time. And the more you travel, the less you will want to pick up those chains when you return. For every journey must have an end, but each end is only a new beginning.