I arrived at work early the following Monday. I practically sprinted to my cubical so that I could be sitting down before anyone else came in. Every decision I made during this time period was calculated based on my preconceived anxiety. I would arrive early. Get to my desk before anyone else. Have 3 separate bottles of water so that I wouldn’t run out and have to go to the water fountain. That literally terrified me. Just 2 days prior I had summited 2 high peak mountains alone when I had no business being up there. But walking to the water cooler at work? In the middle of everyone, where anyone that wanted could just walk by me, start chatting or god forbid be waiting behind me to get water themselves? I could die just thinking about it.
I had never experienced anxiety before and these feelings were so foreign to me. I remember during that time having to get groceries. I would sit in the car prior deep breathing trying to calm myself at the thought of having to hand my card to the cashier without my hand shaking. Or going out to eat and mindfully ordering a sandwich or anything that didn’t require utensils because I was so shaky with nerves it was humiliating. I would call my mom and be that rude person talking on their phone in public because if I didn’t have her telling me I was ok I truly felt like I could pass out at any moment.
I wouldn’t wish a panic attack on anyone. BUT here is what it felt like to me: All of the sudden you get this deep feeling in your chest out of nowhere. You start sweating and feel like your face could blend in with the red hat society. Your hands are shaking so uncontrollably. The noises around you seem muffled and distant. You feel dizzy and weak and like your legs could give out on you at any second. It is a terrifying and very very real feeling that you are dying mixed with embarrassment and humiliation. All of this is happening to you in a social situation where you are trying to appear normal and desperate to not draw attention to yourself. I have canceled plans, left work sick, abandoned grocery carts, you name it. I have sat in my car for an hour trying to convince myself to go do something only to end up heading back home out of fear, never having left my car. To not be in control of when my mind and body was going to bring this on only increased my anxiety. I got on a daily medication at the time to help cope and would take Xanax like candy. I refused to leave the house in the evening without having a couple of beers first. It was the only thing that made me feel relaxed at the time. I’m talking I pre-gamed for a Breakfast with Santa event for children. This was the most stressful, confusing and low time in my life. My anxiety was like a mind pimple and the more I tried to conceal it or pop it away the worse it became. My weekdays were filled with this drowning feeling. They were filled with crying and worry, meds, alcohol, and nightly fast food runs. But my weekends with Coop? That is where we shined! Every Friday night for almost 6 months I would pick him up after work and we would head straight to the mountains.
Next on our list: Mount Marshall.
Mount Marshall is 4,360ft 13.3-mile hike from a trailhead called Upper Works. It is number 25 on the list of 46 high peaks and would be our first herd path. And because at this point in time I had to google what the hell a herd path was I will tell you guys as well. It is basically an unmaintained section of a trail that has been made by hikers. No trail markers or signs. Which, during the summer this isn’t too much of a concern because of how defined the path is. Of course, because I always make good choices, I decided to hike this in winter after a fresh snow storm. Fresh snow = no footprints to follow and no sign of a trail.
There were 2 other cars in the parking lot when we arrived. Cooper and I shared a donut, I strapped on my pack and we set off! The beginning of the hike was calm, flat and beautiful. After a half mile in or so Coop came barreling around a corner on the trail and we both got so frightened by the loudest high-pitched scream I have ever heard! Have you ever listened to a 12-year-old girl at a Taylor Swift concert? Oh yeah, for sure me either since I am an adult. BUT you can imagine the sound I am talking about. The man then yelled “I thought he was a bear!” And started awkwardly laughing as his girlfriend beside him just shook her head. Someone just mistook my sweet goofy dog for a bear about to attack them and it was honestly quite a proud Dog Mom moment for me. To make it even better, or more awkward, depending on how you want to look at it, we spent the first couple of miles leap frogging this couple on the trail. We would pass them, stop for a moment, they would pass us and continue awkwardly on.
After what felt like forever, we finally reached the lean-to I was looking for. I pulled out my phone and held up the photo I had screenshotted of it to make sure it matched up. This was literally the extent of my outdoor skills. Do you think after the first hike I would’ve run out to purchase a map of the area? One would have assumed. Instead, I searched blog write-ups and took photos at each junction I could find online. A regular John Muir over here! Side note: Shout out to the blog Forty Six Ups And Downs for helping me out here and also encouraging all of the summit naps.
At this point in the hike Coop and I stopped at the lean-to for obligatory snacks before the real ascent would start. If you are hiking in winter and don’t take advantage of the fact that you can bring a whole block of cheese with you and it will stay cold and fresh then I really don’t think we can be friends! As we were snacking away the couple I mentioned earlier passed on by. We set out again shortly after, and just a few strides past the lean-to we crossed over a bridge and searched for a cairn to signal our left hand turn and the official start of the herd path. A cairn is a manmade pile of rocks that act as a trail marker. Cairns can be SO helpful for unmarked trails or when you are above tree line, but sometimes people can get sassy and cairns can just be a real bitch, so it’s important to not follow them blindly without doing your own research beforehand. Anyways, so here Coop and I are, searching for a big ‘ole pile of rocks in the middle of winter while standing on a shit ton of snow. Spoiler alert: we never found the cairn that was OBVIOUSLY buried in snow. Lucky for Coop and I we did find the magical footprints of the bear terrified man ahead of us.
It had just snowed a few days prior and we were all the first ones on the trail. If you have never been the first one out on a snow filled trail let me tell you what I have learned in 3 words; It.Is.Exhausting. Even with snowshoes, having to step in a foot + of snow with each step, pull yourself out of that heavy sloppy mess and repeat over and over can take so much out of you. Typically, people will take turns leading on the hike when you have to break trail. God bless Cooper and his little angel dog paws but they did shit to help us that day! We decided since Coop couldn’t do it for me and I’m not Mister T that we would hike a bit slower than we would have liked and allow the sweet couple ahead of us to do the dirty work. This was a calculated choice in the winter. It was nice and leisurely and we let them stomp down the trail for us as we goofed around, but moving slow in winter means you can easily get way too cold. If you were sweating and now stopping, that sweat can freeze. Nowadays, that’s not as huge of a worry for me because I always have a full change of clothes in my pack. But this day, the only thing I carried was a full block of cheese and an Ubu beer.
What Cooper and I lacked in skill, knowledge, safety, awareness, and all of the above necessities I would like to think we made up for with our perseverance and a bit of luck. I look back now that I know more and think of 100 mistakes that could have easily happened to us that day. And when I read stories of people making a mistake in the wilderness and the judgmental internet comments that go along with them, I can’t help but think if the people leaving those comment have completely forgotten that they were new on the trail once too. Yes of course there is a difference between being stupid and not even trying to prepare and just being new. You can try and prepare and still be unsure and out of your element. But can you imagine not attempting to hike, or anything for that matter because you aren’t good at it or because you may screw up? That is life people!! Just because you aren’t a child anymore doesn’t mean you have to stop trying something new, learning from your mistakes, and growing.
So here Coop and I are casually making our way up Mount Marshall awkwardly following the couple in front of us like those store owners trying to make sure you don’t steal anything in the most obvious way possible. We saw them stop a bit ahead of us and they didn’t seem to move for a while so we made our way up to meet and leapfrog again. As we were approaching them the most “am I in a movie” thing happened. Coop and I come around a corner on the trail and found ourselves smack dap in the middle of the most romantic snowy proposal. I am talking this incredible bear fearing man hiked this mountain a week ago alone, buried in the snow and frozen ground a gorgeous hand carved box, placed the engagement ring in that box and took his partner up there that day to find it. AM I IN THE NOTEBOOK!? Not only did we interrupt this beautiful moment, but it was also prime time for Cooper to empty his bladder right next to the dude. You guys! Did you read the first part of this blog about my social anxiety? About how the mountains were my therapist and the solitude and lack of any human interaction meant everything to me? This was not the case today! I couldn’t tell you what happened in the next 2 minutes except that I tried to get out of there as quickly as possible. We fumbled past them tripping through the mounds of snow. I put my head down and frantically apologized and congratulated them while Cooper dropped a stick in front of the women and barked, demanding her to throw it for him. Thanks Coop! A couple hundred feet past that mortifying encounter and we already lost the trail. The summit for Mount Marshall is completely in the trees. There is no dramatic moment of getting above tree line and having a 360-degree mountain view. You literally are walking in the woods for hours, find the tree with the Marshall summit marker, turn around and head back down. I don’t think anyone hikes this peak without the goal of completing all 46 high peaks. After passing that couple, Cooper and I were the first to reach the summit that day, but not before we circled around it aimlessly for 20min trying to find the damn thing.
I was anxious to not be in close quarters with the newly engaged again, so I snapped a few photos of Coop, we split our obligatory apple fritter and headed back down. The hike down was so much more enjoyable. We could mindlessly follow our footprints in the snow and butt slide down the steep sections. When we returned to the lean-to from earlier Cooper and I crawled into it to have some lunch. Cold and exhausted with a 90lb black lab drooling in your face as you try persistently to bite through a frozen cliff bar seems like a strange environment for some self-reflecting, but it was heaven for me. Sitting in that lean-to with dog drool freezing to my leg I felt indescribably proud of myself. I spent my weekdays physically feeling the heaviness of my life changes, panic, emotions, debt and anxiety. But in the woods, in that moment I felt free. After a few minutes of enjoying the silence in the outdoors and in my head, I rubbed Coop’s frosty face, we hopped out of the lean to hearing the loud crunch of the snow beneath us as we trudged along to the car, another summit down!
Where to next?