How my dog Cooper and hiking changed my life, helped me battle self-doubt and get out of my own way.
“Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it, and eventually the confidence will follow.” -Carrie Fisher
Here I am, again. Sitting on the bathroom floor in my brand-new house with my hands gripping the granite countertop that I just had to have. Every time I cried harder Cooper would head butt me, pushing his weight into my lap and letting me know that I wasn’t alone. I had adopted my puppy Cooper just a few months prior to that night, and came home to find him in the kennel, soaked in urine and shaking in fear. I immediately took him to the bathroom to clean him up and buried my face into his fur crying. The constant yelling from behind the door rang through my ears. “You are choosing a dog over me.” I sat on that cold floor with Cooper for a long time that night, replaying things in my head as I tried to count what number break up this was for us. I had a choice that night, like I had so many nights before. But this time, I was different and I wasn’t alone. I could see the scenario like a movie playing out before me if I didn’t change. Was I even participating in my life? Would I peel myself off of this cold tile floor and into my new king bed and continue this toxic cycle? Would I post a picture of us smiling on Facebook to assure the world how “happy” I was as I curled up alone, my confidence even lower than it was that morning? The truth is, I didn’t feel courageous or confident or brave. I was scared, anxious, unsure and embarrassed. I could’ve stayed. In this beautiful new house. We could go to Apple Bees for date night. I could chug from my 2nd 22oz beer and listen to the same sentence I had heard so many times before. “There is nothing wrong with a simple life. What is wrong with you that you are always craving more?” That night, on the bathroom floor something in me changed. My fear of leaving seemed so small compared to my fear of continuing this cycle for the rest of my life. What was out there for Cooper and I? Where would we go? How could I afford anything else on top of this mortgage? Would I end up going back, again? I didn’t have an answer to any of those questions, but I was ready to find out.
I packed up some things and gave Cooper a pep talk. I told him that things were going to change, but that we would be ok together. In reality, I was just trying to convince myself of this as I desperately pretended to ignore the gut-wrenching fear that was slowly starting to take over my body. Trying to stay numb, I got in my car and drove to my sister, Danielle’s. She welcomed me, as she had so many times before. Without question, or judgment. I tried to assure her that this was the last time, that I was really done and I wasn’t going back. Maybe she believed me, maybe she didn’t. That’s the beauty of my sister. Whether I went back or not she would be there for me just the same. Supporting every choice, I made, whether I felt like I deserved it or not.
Danielle was living with her girlfriend at the time. They had a small attic apartment that they graciously let me stay in without question. She led me up the small creaky steps, with Cooper barreling behind us in his typical “bull in a China shop” fashion. She went downstairs, and I sat on the bed alone with my thoughts as Cooper paced back and forth, noticeably nervous and all too aware of my sadness and panic. I started thinking about all of the unknowns. The bills to pay, the joint bank account, the furniture, our dogs. How did I get to this point? The more we broke up and the lower my self-esteem became the more I clung to the idea of us being a happy family and the terror I felt being without him.
I couldn’t handle how I was feeling, so I simply decided to ignore it. I switched my thoughts to that upcoming weekend. How could I keep myself busy without being around too many people? Because, god forbid I let anyone know that I left, yet again. And that we had failed, just like they said we would. My mind almost immediately leapt to thoughts of the Adirondacks. The Adirondacks are a 6.1-million-acre state park just two hours north from where I was. I grew up there on weekends at my parent’s camp. Driving north and seeing that sign “Now entering the Adirondack Park” gave me a euphoric sense of peace immediately. “Of course, I would go there!” Where else could my broke ass go to escape this anxiety and forget about this massive construction my life was currently under. But I couldn’t just go without a plan. My type A personality can only handle so much unknown. I needed to feel in control of something other than deciding which pair of leggings I can pull off as dressy for the office that day.
I desperately craved solitude with just Cooper and I, and the mountains were the place to get it. I knew the area like I knew the Taco Bell late night menu, but I never really explored it. I was like those awkward people at weddings who just nervously watch everyone having fun dancing, not quite knowing how to convince my brain to tell my legs to get up and join them. I needed to ignore my brain and just get out there. I couldn’t stand on the side lines anymore.
It was winter at the time. And winter in Upstate, NY is as brutal as it gets. But I couldn’t let that stop me. I needed to move my body, to get out of my own head before more panic set in and I drove right back into my very own hell. I thought about the high peaks. The Adirondacks are home to 46 high peak mountains over 4,000ft, and the 46ers are a badass group of people who have hiked them all. At the time, I didn’t know anyone who had completed more than a couple of these peaks. I had never been hiking alone before, let alone in the winter. I didn’t have any proper gear, or money to purchase it and if you handed me a compass I would have tried to use it as a coaster for my beer. None of those things mattered to me though. I was clueless and naïve, but I was determined. I sat in that cold attic, Cooper still pacing around me, and I decided. For the first time in my life I made an active choice instead of just following other people’s narratives. I had no clue what it entailed and frankly I didn’t care. I had decided, and that was enough to hold on to for now. I drifted off to sleep that night with Cooper’s shuffling paws against the wood floor like white noise in the background, and for a fleeting moment felt a sense of proudness that had been lacking in my life for years.
After some reading, I had decided on Phelps and Tabletop Mountain. Round trip this would entail 12 miles of hiking and over 3,800ft of elevation gain. My inpatient mind was convinced that if I was going to do all 46 peaks I better commit and start by knocking two off the list. You know, for my first time, in winter, without the best gear. Smart call Brecka. I spent the rest of the week preparing for this hike. What is the trail like? What would I need? How do I keep my beer for the summit from freezing? I read trip reports, blogs, and books. I tried to piece together the gear I could get away with without spending any money. Quite frankly, I obsessed. I allowed it to consume my thoughts so much that there wasn’t room for anything else. When I felt a panic attack coming on, my brain went all Bear Grylls into its own type of survival mode and focused on the weekend ahead instead.
When Friday evening came, I left work at 9pm, picked up Cooper, headed to my most favorite gas station, Stewart’s and stocked us both up on apple fritters and snacks for our big adventure. It was just about midnight when I crossed by the old covered bridge in the small town of Jay and pulled into my parents’ driveway. That night seemed to last only a few minutes as I laid awake for most of it filled with excitement and nerves. When the alarm went off Cooper and I both leapt out of bed at 5am, grabbed our gear that was waiting for us at the front door, and headed to the trailhead.
I had read all week about the hike and had an old trail book of my dad’s in my pack. But a map? That would have been nice! I arrived at the trail parking lot in the dark that morning and it was not what I expected. The lot was massive, the sun wasn’t up yet and with no lights I couldn’t even find where the trail started. How can I do this hike if I can’t even find out where to freaking start! I was so annoyed with myself I almost just turned around and drove back home to bed. But when I looked in my rear-view mirror, I saw Coop’s goofy smile as his whole body was wiggling with excitement to get outside. I took a couple of deep breaths, parked near the only car there and embarrassingly walked up to a group of guys about my age to ask where the hell the trail started. They pointed me in the right direction while simultaneously laughing out loud and telling me good luck. As soon as we were out of sight, I gave Coop a big hug and told him ‘we got this’ as I tried to convince myself that was actually true.
I started off down the trail with my mom’s oversized and heavy snowshoes acting as the most perfect metaphor for how my life was currently playing out; tripping me up with each step forward. Just asking for a friend, but when you set out to hike ‘insert peak name here’ you totally expect to arrive at the trailhead and see a giant sign towards that mountain with arrows pointing you the entire way, right? Apparently, that is not always (never) the case. We were 3 miles and 1 questionable trail junction turn in before I saw a sign so beautiful, I could have jumped up and kissed it. ‘Phelps Mtn 1.0.’ It took me over an hour to hike that last mile. I slid back in the snow and ice with every step as Cooper stood beside me almost jumping with happiness. On a side note, if you have never hiked in the winter before do it now!! There is something so indescribably breathtaking about untouched pines covered in rime ice as you are approaching tree line. It is like you are transported to another world.
After reaching the summiting it wasn’t long before we butt slid our way back to that beautiful trail junction. One down! My to-do list loving brain mentally checked it off and began to focus on the next summit, Tabletop. But where was it? There were no other signs except leading to Mount Marcy, the highest mountain in NYS. I sat on a rock and desperately combed through my book from the 80’s looking for a clue. Finally, my very own trail angel showed up, took one look at my anxious face and asked if he could help. He showed my beat red face the way as I thanked him and rubbed my security blanket Cooper’s head to help calm my nerves. That marks 3 times I have almost turned around today.
So, my first time hiking alone in the winter. I am sure you are wondering how I am fairing at this point? The short answer, TIRED! I wasn’t exaggerating before about my big bulky snowshoes. They were heavy and awkward and could have defined the term “work harder not smarter.” Did I mention I didn’t work out prior to this besides a couple of short runs a week? My legs were burning with each slippery step and were almost working harder than my brains constant worry of if I was going the right way. I found out my pants and boots weren’t exactly winter material. I would have died for some hand warmers and a waterproof coat as the snowy trees soaked my jacket. The weird part is that during all of this, I could not stop smiling. I was the freak on the trail pointing out every beautiful tree I saw to my dog. I had the time of my life during that struggle city day and it is still one of my favorite outdoor memories.
I eventually reached the summit of Tabletop. I honestly couldn’t believe we did it! Coop and I shared apple fritters and lunchables and I took a moment to acknowledge that this was the first time in months I wasn’t desperate for a Xanax or completely overwhelmed. I thanked Cooper for once again carrying me through and being persistent and just so freaking happy when my self-doubt crept in. That is the great thing about dogs. You can feel anxious, or scared or be a total disaster and all they want to do is be with you and show you love. Coop was a resilient beast that day and I could tell that we were both changed after reaching that summit. And the best part? As we were hiking down Tabletop we ran into that same group of men from the parking lot. They were just nearing their first summit of the day. I told them to try and keep up next time as Coop and I raced down the trail, the both of us carrying the biggest smile we had felt in a long time. We reached the car, blasted the heat, and immediately thought:
Where to next?