June 13, 2012 at 12:01 pm (Uncategorized)

I just finished reading Wild, a memoir by Cheryl Strayed about her life-changing solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail from California to Washington. When she starts on her epic walk in Southern California, her life is in shambles. She’s reeling from the death of her mother and the disintegration of her marriage. But she finds herself again in the wilderness and discovers a path to a new life.

It’s a good book. But it made me nearly insane with jealousy. When I first saw it on the shelves of the bookstore, I couldn’t stop myself from sniping to my friend, “That’s my book. I wanted to write that.”

Of course it’s not my book. Nor is it my story. I’ve always wanted to hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,650 mile back-country path that traverses some of the wildest and most beautiful land along the Sierras and Cascades between Mexico and Canada. But I’ve only experienced a small stretch of the trail in California. Jay and I hiked a hundred-odd miles on the PCT on two glorious backcountry backpacking trips. One of these was on our honeymoon. When we emerged into civilization we told each other, “Someday we’ll come back and hike the whole trail.” We even bought the trail guidebook that Strayed used, and did some semi-serious thinking about the logistics of the trek. But then we moved to Montana, and embarked on different adventures—living in Palau and traveling in Southeast Asia, bringing Andrew into the world, moving back to Montana.

And then I got sick. I didn’t lose my ability to hike immediately. Jay and I schlepped baby Andrew up many a Montana mountain. But vigorous backcountry hiking became difficult for me. I gained a lot of weight (a marvelous combination of high doses of prednisone and using food to soothe my anxiety). Sarcoidosis moved first into my joints, and then into my bones. My foot bones eroded from the inside out. I spent months in casts and boots trying to heal stress fractures caused by the sarcoidosis. Under stress from the extra pounds, weakened by prednisone, and damaged by disease, my ankle ligaments ruptured spontaneously on four different occasions. To make things even worse, the neurological problems brought on by sarcoidosis have made walking difficult and dangerous.

I tried not to dwell on what I can’t do—slip into the wilderness, with everything I needed to sustain me in my backpack. But I have missed my hiking time, especially my backpacking trips. We would go for days without seeing another person. Our daily routine was simple. We rose with the sun, walked and talked, cooled off in frigid mountain lakes, walked and talked some more, took breaks in shady glens, walked and talked, made camp where we wanted, built a fire and read aloud to each other, cooked something basic and nourishing, watched the stars fill the dark dome of the sky, talked a little more, and then slept beneath that never-ending sky. Some days we’d walk twenty miles; some days just a few. We walked beneath bald slabs of mountains and through fields of lacy wildflowers. We climbed to waterfalls and to windy vistas where we could see the land unfolding to the horizon. These trips were intense. I felt closely connected to Jay, to the sky, to the movement of the day, to the mountains and the dirt and the mosquitoes, and—most profoundly—to myself.

Our two trips on the Pacific Crest Trail were more than vacations or the chance to get away for a few days. Jay and I truly got to know each other on our first backcountry trip. Those miles of walking—and talking—bound us together more profoundly than an eternity of “date nights” could. And our time on the Pacific Crest Trail after our wedding cemented that bond. I also made some fairly important self-discoveries in the PCT. I decided to give the writing life a real try.

Another trek on the PCT is exactly what I need right now. I’m still trying to navigate life with a chronic illness, and I’m craving the silence and openness of the trail. I want to get away from hospitals and infusions, and worry only about how many miles are ahead of me for the day. It would be wonderful to feel so connected to Jay again. It’s been quite a while since we’ve had a whole day together with no distractions or interruptions.

Except I can’t do it. I’m not even close to being healthy enough or fit enough to walk all day long with a heavy load on my back. My ankles are too unreliable, and my vertigo too severe. There’s also that pesky thing called my real life between me and the trail. I have a kid, a house, a mortgage, and work I want to do. I simply can’t remove myself from my life so that I can gain perspective on it.

We all have full lives that require us to be in them. Such is the nature of growing up. It’s not chronic illness that keeps me here, out of the wild. It’s my gorgeous son and the crazy, full-to-the-brim life Jay and I have built for him and with him. But staying home doesn’t mean that I have to sit still.

It’s time for a pivot—that delicate turn from the grandiose to the possible. It feels like I’ve been doing more than my share of pivoting since I got sick eight years ago, but I’m beginning to believe that the pivot—done well—is the essence of intelligent adult life. I used to be a woman of extremes. I lurched from one absolute to another. But that’s not who I am anymore, thanks to my time in Chronic Town.

So if I can’t traipse off into the wild, what can I do to keep that dream and that part of myself alive? I can walk in the not-wild right outside my front door. Every night for the past couple of weeks, I’ve laced on my ankle braces and grabbed my trekking poles for balance in case of vertigo, and headed onto my street. I started off just walking a block. I’ve progressed to 1.5 miles. I admire my neighbor’s gardens. I breathe in the crisp scent of spring. I listen to the birds. I’ve even gotten to take in a couple of grand sunsets.

These walks are what I have now. Who knows what might be next?

Have you had to pivot in your adult life?


  1. Elaine Smothers said,

    Chronic back issues put a stop to one of the greatest joys in my life which was horseback riding. I’ve taken up kayaking instead, which is much easier on the back and joints, and also gives me that feeling of peace and freedom that riding once did. So does skydiving, but it’s a little more on the expensive, can’t-afford-to-do-that-often side! 😉

    When we lose the ability to do something that’s been such a big part of our dreams and life, it can be devastating. Sometimes though, our limitations lead us to joys undiscovered. May one be waiting just around the corner for you. God Bless!

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Thank you, Elaine! I feel like my neighborhood strolls are a joy that was waiting for me. I was so busy being grumpy that I couldn’t hike in my old way that I overlooked this wonderful new way to get out of my house (and my head).

      I’m so glad you found kayaking. When I lived for 18 months on a Pacific island, I discovered kayaking, and had some amazing, beautiful days on the water.

      I am soaking up your good wishes. Thanks for checking in here and taking the time to comment.


  2. Martha Kohl said,

    The downside is that you can’t (now, anyway) hike the length of the Pacific Crest Trail. On the upside, you aren’t reeling from the death of your mother or the disintegration of your marriage. That sounds glib–but I don’t mean it to be. Our lives are full packages–with the good (beautiful son, house, etc.) and less good (PTA meetings, mortgage, and in your case, the real kicker, illness). It’s easy to be jealous of what other people have/can do–harder to recognize the costs. Which is not to say that I don’t join you in hoping that you are well enough for long wilderness hikes sometime soon, I do, and think it is okay if you mourn their absence. At the same time, I am glad to hear that you are enjoying neighborhood walks.

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Hi Martha,

      True, true that I’m not having to endure the difficulties that put Strayed onto the PCT. I think perhaps I came across as self-indulgent when (for once) I wasn’t. I was trying to make the point that I caught myself in the early days of being jealous of her without thinking through her full situation. I was trying to convey the point that being a grown-up means stepping outside the self-indulgence and black-and-white thinking, and making the all-important pivot to something new–that fits with an adult life and a full set of obligations. I can’t hike the PCT, but I CAN walk around my neighborhood. Rather than just be grumpy I can’t have what I used to, I’ve found something that I can do–and that connects me with my old self. It may be tame, but it’s mine–and I love it.

      Good hearing from you here. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      Lots of love,

      • Martha said,

        I actually didn’t think you were being self indulgent. I thought you were being incredibly mature–more mature than I manage to be many days. It’s just that your essay made me think–about myself as much as about you.

  3. Ellen Gregory said,

    Wow, the Pacific Crest Trail — and your time spent on it — sounds amazing. I really hope you get back there someday. (And I may have to check it out myself at some stage!)

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Hi Ellen,

      Oh, you should check out the PCT. It is a truly amazing network of trails–a wilder version of the much more frequented Appalachian Trail. Less than 300 people make the whole distance every year. But it was a life-changing experience to spend just a couple of weeks on it.

      I hope I get back there too. But for now, I am enjoying my neighborhood walks.

      Thanks for checking in here and taking the time to comment.


  4. Amy Pridemore said,

    I understand the simple pleasures of a walking and talking along the trail. I look forward to hobbling around your neighborhood with you when I visit with the old terrier and my sore feet. The conversation is always the best and your neighborhood streets are quite nice with beautiful views of the mountains. Times change, but I am still so lucky to have you as my dear friend.

  5. Rebecca Stanfel said,

    Hi Amy,
    Times do indeed change. I won’t be barreling up a mountain with you any time soon, but, on a positive note, I also won’t have to take a smoke break when we are out together. I think of you nearly every time I take to my neighborhood streets, remembering all the wonderful walks we’ve taken together in so many places–and looking forward to what we’ll talk about on the next ones. I’ve been motivated by your upcoming visit to get out there a little more. Maybe I can outlast the Terrier, though I doubt it. Though old, she’s a force of nature. I can’t wait to see you both…SOON.

    Lots of love,

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