I want to write this now, while I am sweaty and exhausted. Before my feet stop tingling, before I take a shower and wash off all of the stink of hard work, fear and pride. There is salt dripping from my forehead into my eyes, and that’s the way it should be at this moment.
I want to write it while I am still full of endorphins, still brave. Legs covered in dirt, t-shirt damp and clinging to my abdomen.
It would not seem like much to most. Not to Señor Aventura, my true love. Not to the three Aventura children, the lights of my life. They are all so outdoorsy, so bold, so strong. They could have accomplished this goal with ease… made it seem tiny, insignificant... even delightful. (They are like mountain goats, but skipping and frolicking along the way.)
Today I conquered a trail though, a really steep and forbidding trail - and I did it alone. There was no-one ahead of me, no-one behind me, and no-one by my side. I spent a harrowing hour alone on the side of cliffs, hiking in 90 degree heat and at times I was not sure I was even still on the trail.
I passed an ancient bridge and paused to take photos. I climbed up a cliff face so steep, I’m still amazed I was able to go up it without places to grip with my hands and feet.
In the end, I made it to the charming little town of Rodellar… where I sat trembling in the shade of the church and gave silent thanks.
Why is this such a big deal, you will probably ask. Thousands of people, millions of people even, climb trails alone every single day of their lives. They think nothing of it.
Why is it a big deal that one city slicker, a woman who still thinks of herself as a girl, someone that prefers lattes and movie theaters to camping under the stars… has done such a simple thing?
Is it because I’m now 41, an adventurer entering midlife?
Am I a living, breathing cliché? (“Hey world, don’t be afraid to try new things!”)
Do I want my daughter to see that women are strong and powerful?
Or how about this...
Stanford, 1994. April? May? I’m a freshman with a crush on a boy in my dorm, someone who kisses me from time to time late at night when he’s stoned and we’re talking in the dark about philosophy or music. He has a kind face, looks a little bit like James Spader with a strong chin and a dimple in his cheek when he smiles.
I throw on something, who knows what - something I hope will look pretty, and pack my backpack full of books, papers, a large soft blanket to sit on with an embroidered sun and stars. It’s one of those machine woven blankets popular with students right now. It is my very favorite; I wrap myself in it at night to feel warm and safe now that I am far from my childhood home.
Off we go!
I am smiling at this guy, and laughing at all of his jokes. Except, the trip is turning out to be not that romantic after all. I’m in the back seat, his brother in the front. As we drive my friend holds up a a ziplock bag of magic mushrooms; he tells me that he and his little brother will take them at the beach today and have an adventure.
“Oh, sure,” I smile awkwardly, disappointed.
“Do you want some?” he asks, probably trying to be generous.
“That’s okay,” I shake my head and smile. “I’ll just stay and work by the ocean.”
We park on the side of a road. Next to the road there is a field, and from the field a trail down to the beach. The ocean looks beautiful below the cliffs, and I’m heartened by the sound of waves crashing and sea birds calling.
I spread out my blanket, pull out all of my political science books and papers and begin to study for the upcoming final exam. The boys take their mushrooms and go on walkabout.
“Have fun!” they grin at me, as they walk away.
An hour passes. I’m alone, but pretty happy. The water is really beautiful here in Santa Cruz, and I’ve got snacks and a lot of work to do. The sun is shining. It almost feels like my home in San Diego.
I’m still thinking about the boy, a little. 'Maybe he likes me?' I think/hope. 'As a girlfriend, maybe? He wouldn’t have brought me to Santa Cruz, out of all of the girls in the dorm, to meet his brother, if he didn’t. Right?'
Suddenly there’s a blot on the sun, a shadow falling directly over me. I look up with a smile, expecting to see my friend and his brother.
Except it’s not. Standing in front of me, completely naked, is a tall thin man. I have never seen him before, but he has clearly seen me sitting alone on this beach.
He is muscular and has dark, wild hair and an intense look in his eyes. He is only feet away from where I am sitting, and I am all alone. I have never seen a naked man in person before, but everything is right there now at eye level on full display.
He says nothing but begins to move toward me.
“Nobody will even hear me if I scream,” I think, and find that I cannot find my voice. There is no scream in me. Not one! My voice seems to have curdled like spoiled milk.
Then I do the only thing that seems sensible and natural. I ran a lot in high school, and heck, it’s been less than a year since high school. Fight or flight kicks in. Big time.
Off like a shot, I run. I know the guy is following me, I can hear him behind me, and when I turn my head I can see him… but I run hard and fast. I have an advantage… I am wearing shoes, and he is not.
I am literally running as fast as I can through the foliage toward the place I think we parked our car, up at the top of the cliffs on the side of the road. I am running toward civilization. I am running toward a small blue car like it is my salvation.
I run and run, sweat pouring from my body, and think to myself, “Why am I here? Why did I think I was safe as a girl alone in the middle of nowhere? What the hell am I doing?”
As I run, I realize the absurdity of the situation. I am here by myself in a remote part of Santa Cruz because a boy I like (and wanted to impress) feels like taking drugs and wandering aimlessly by the sea shore.
I have left myself open to danger... and with relative ease, it seems to have found me!
Panting and shaking, I pull myself out of the dense tangle of foliage and out to the street where I see our car. I am in tears. I am covered in dirt. There are scratches on my arms and some of them are bleeding.
I huddle by his car on the driver’s side and remember I have nothing. No keys, no backpack, no food, no books. Everything, even my wallet, was left down by the water.
But I am here! I am still here and I am breathing and the man seems to have disappeared. So I stand in the most visible place I can, next to our car, and I pray.
In a little while (was it ten minutes? an hour?) I see my friend walking up the road. He and his brother are smiley, loopy. They’re having the best time. They’re seeing things I don’t see. They're walking and talking sloooowwwly.
“Woah!” he says to me, looking me up and down. “What happened? You look like you’ve just come out of World War III!”
His little brother looks at me as though I am an alien, and spontaneously they both begin to giggle.
I explain about the naked man chasing me through the brush. In the end we go together, the three of us, back to the shore where I’ve left everything.
“I wonder if he took your wallet,” they say as we climb back down.
The backpack is still there though. So are the books, course readers, papers and surprisingly even my wallet. There is only one thing missing. That large sun, moon and star blanket is gone. That blanket of comfort and safety has literally been pulled away.
“Bummer, dude,” says my friend to me, laughing. “Maybe the guy was cold.”
I look at him, so goofy and relaxed when I am on cortisol-overdrive, having perhaps just prevented my own assault, and suddenly wonder how I could ever have found him attractive. I realize in an instant what a poor match we would be. We are both kids pretending to be grown ups.
“I’d like to go home now,” I say, gathering my things and trying to hold my voice steady. On the way back to Stanford I curl up in the back of his car without talking. I’m exhausted, and ready to sit in a hot shower; to call my best friend and cry.
I’m eighteen, and suddenly I cannot be alone in nature. Every time I find myself alone on a rustic path - anywhere - my heart begins to race fiercely and there is ringing in my ears. I am not afraid of the wilderness; no, not exactly. I am afraid of who may be lurking in it.
Nearly 24 years later, I remember this experience like it was yesterday… most of all when I’m hiking. Thankfully though it’s now just a tiny memory, one that surfaces once in a blue moon. Hard to believe nearly a quarter of a century has passed since that odd Spring day.
I live a life blessed many times over. It took eight more years to meet my perfect travel companion, the brave and good man known as Señor Aventura… but meet him I finally did, and now we cross the globe with our Scientist, Soccer Dude and Little Angel.
Lovely Little Angel is (amazingly!) closer than I am now to the age of eighteen. We are raising our eight year old daughter to be strong and fearless.
We are raising her to jump into deep natural pools, rappel down cliff faces and slide through waterfalls.
She’ll be a surfer, a swimmer, a hiker, a climber, a camper. She will not walk through this world scared to be alone in nature.
I’m so proud.
Today when she gets back from canyoning with her dad and asks me, “What did YOU do today Mommy?” I will tell her:
Today I clambered up cliffs and crossed canyons. I wandered where there was no clear direction and kept going, even when I was shaking and unsure that I would ever find the road or town.
Today I put one foot in front of the other on a narrow path no more than six inches across with a vertical drop straight down into a deep, dry creek bed.
Today I walked where nobody could hear my voice.
Today I faced my fears and at the moment when I was most scared, I grabbed a large rock (warm from the sun) and held it in my hand for comfort and for strength as I continued to climb.
Today I turned around to see if anyone was following me, and realized that I was blessedly alone ~ and safe.
Today I walked through the wilderness… and in the end, I found my way, all by myself, back to civilization.
Disclaimer: In this post I have tried to recreate events, locales and conversations from my memories of them. In order to maintain their anonymity in some instances I have changed or omitted the names of individuals and places. I may also have changed some identifying characteristics and details such as physical properties, occupations, and more.
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