photo by Lorelei
We hiked into Sequoia National Park on the 8th of November, 2016. Election Day. Part of me wanted to stay and watch the election, part of me knew I didn’t want to miss Sequoia just because our time there overlapped. We planned to hike in and set up camp for three nights, going on day trips from our base. Because of this we packed more than usual, better food, more sleeping gear, because we knew that we wouldn’t have to carry it every day. Our packs were heavy.
We had 5 miles and 2000 feet of elevation to go before the first permitted camping areas. I was emotionally worn out already. There were five hours of daylight left when we started. Another pair of overnight hikers started off while we were still trying to pack. They looked light and energetic and excited. I was drained. Tired. And I could feel Simon’s anxiety for me, wanting me to enjoy myself and be happy.
We started on the trail and every step was effort. I felt dizzy from the elevation, just 7200 ft at the start, and my pack was heavier than at any other time we’d hiked. One foot in front of the other… though it felt far too early to be relying on mantras to get through. I thought of the extra things we had left behind and I was thankful. The climb was steady, and I was thankful for that too. Not too steep, not too flat, just steadily winding up and through trees. In some ways it felt hopeless to me. I felt I should be in reception, waiting for phone calls that would never come, searching for Craigslist or Ebay posts that I’d never find, waiting anxiously for an outcome that would never happen.
I was allowing us five hours to reach camp and I knew that meant we’d be getting there at dusk, and perhaps in the dark, trying to find a spot for our tent and cook dinner in the cold lightless night. It wasn’t appealing. I wasn’t strong enough. I never have been.
We talked a little and mostly my mind wandered. At this point, it had been 3 days since all my most personal and precious items had gone missing: my computer bag; my computer; my external hard drive; my journals; the small beautiful mementos that I had collected while traveling; all my photography and writing from 5 months of travel that I hadn’t yet shared; the personal moments with friends and family that I hadn’t put online; necklaces of deep colourful rocks that I carried even before through my diving work to make each new place I stayed feel a little like a home; my books, the words I carried from others that inspired confidence in me, inspiration, thought, that taught me things about the world and about life and about myself. All of it, gone. And how? I had closed the boot of the car, and we never left the car unattended. How was it that the boot was open and my bag gone just a couple miles down the road? How?! how how how how..
It felt truly as if parts of my heart had been ripped out, stolen from me, and then discarded carelessly somewhere I couldn’t get to them, thrown away as someone else’s rubbish.
I write because it is a place where I can break down and heal. I write because as I wander through the wilderness and the world they spin whirlwinds of words through my mind, and I have to let those words out. I take photos because I am so frequently floored by the beauty around me and I desperately want to share this with the world, with the person that might not know just how beautiful they look, with my future self who might need that beauty to fall back on some day. My writing, my photos, feel as much a part of me as my mind and body. And in their absence I was totally, utterly heartbroken. Broken down. Spilling open.
I sipped water as we walked, but it was hard when I was huffing and puffing. I always huff and puff at the start of exercise. My doctors have told me that I have small lungs for my height. Maybe that is why I’m never the strongest. Simon suggested stopping at the first junction and taking a wee break. It was roughly at the 2 mile point, and I agreed immediately. We reached it sooner than I expected, and I have to admit that this immediately made me feel lighter. The plan was to make a late lunch, but I realised that I wasn’t hungry yet after the snacks we’d had at the trailhead. And, we’d caught up with the hikers that left a half hour before us. I was secretly quietly ecstatic about this. My breathing returned to normal in seconds. It always does. That is how I know I’m fit for my body. The other hikers sat looking tired, but I dropped my pack and was relieved to note that I actually felt fine now that we were paused. We decided not to make lunch. Simon wasn’t hungry either, and we took out the map to have a quick look as the other hikers set off again.
There was another fork 0.3 miles down the trail, and both paths from there would lead to camp, but one of them was longer, and the shorter one climbed over greater elevation before dropping back down to the lake that we planned to call home for three nights. Looking at the contours we decided to take the slightly longer path past a spot called the Watchtower. We set off, passed the fork and headed left. It wasn’t long before we reached the two hikers sitting on the trail taking a break, and we passed them.
I could feel my confidence growing at this point. There is a small spark inside me that burns without end, though sometimes it dims to just an ember and it takes such strength to stoke it back up. I felt it there then though, and I knew as always that it still had life in it, that all it needed was for me to pay it a little attention.
I had been thinking about the process of letting go, letting go of all my photography and writing, my personal documents and my computer files, everything I had in the ‘work folder’, the ‘cv folder’, my ‘diving folder’. But I realised as we walked now that I had to let go of so much more. I had to let go of everything I had to do, all my plans, all the little parts of my life that I had wanted to share, the photos I was going to send to some of the crew from our Auckland Islands trip earlier in the year now that I finally had space in dropbox, the sailing photos I was going to send to my brother and his sailing captain for their team, the videos of my sister driving a raft full of people through some of the biggest rapids on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon that I had wanted to send to my family and her riverrat mates, the piece of writing about Hoh Rainforest that I had wanted to share with my life coach after she motivated me to start writing daily, the photos of my cousin and her baby girl playing in the seaweed and tidepools that I had wanted to send to her, all the little things, the thoughts that I had, the plans.. I had to let all of that go now.
But as we hiked, I realised too that some of the stuff I had to let go of, I was relieved to let go. Descriptions of every hike we had done and place we had been for the blog. When did I start to feel like I had to catalogue every little thing that we did, rather than share the writing that I felt called to share? The hundreds, maybe thousands of photos that I would ultimately delete when I finally had time to go through them all (something I have never done yet). The hundreds of photos from other people on my trips that I might carry around forever and never look at. I could let those go too. I didn’t have to carry all this extra stuff around any more. It didn’t have to occupy my mind anymore. I didn’t have to feel like there was something that I had to do any more. In fact, what I had was a whole lotta space, and it wasn’t just loss, it was room for new growth. I had a clean slate, although I wasn’t excited about it, and an opportunity to put focus on only the things that were most critically important to me.
We had only been hiking 2 and a half hours and we were well over half way in terms of distance and elevation. I was elated by this fact. My hips hurt under the weight of the pack, my legs felt oxygen depleted, but even while feeling at my worst, I was moving much faster than I had expected. And we had passed those hikers! I am strong, I thought, and the thought wouldn’t escape me. I actually am strong.
I had to ask myself then, lost in thought about my precious photos, my extremely personal writing, why am I doing this trip? This whole 6 month journey, why am I doing it? Is it just to collect photos and writing? Do my photos and writing define “success” for this trip? Or some other parameter that makes all this pointless without them? No, was the obvious answer, but the leading answer that would provide me comfort was still lagging. No, my photos and writing don’t define me. I am still here. Why am I doing this trip?
When I left Wellington I was trusting an intuition that told me to go. It told me I need space and time away from other people’s expectations of me so that I could better understand my own expectations of myself. There we so many paths I could follow, but they all were either hard, or scary, or so bright I didn’t consider they were even possibilities, or I was completely incapable of finding the trailhead for them. All I knew was to immerse myself in beauty and give my mind the time and space it needed away from other people’s expectations to try and sort some of that shit out.
That was why I was doing this trip. That was why I had saved so much to buy a brand new macbook before I left, why I carried 4 journals with me everywhere, why I hired a life coach and had just finished working through 4 months of discussions with her while on the road. I wanted to give myself editing and storage power for my photos. I wanted endless blank pages because they are one of the most beautiful and inspiring things in the world. I wanted to give myself all of the tools that I needed to build the next step of life, and then my whole future. My photography, my writing, my coaching notes might have been ripped away from me, but the critical thing was that I had actually done that work, I had been those places, taken those photos, written those words, had those skype dates with Ashley Paquin, I had shown up for every bit of practice, and every cell in my body knew that.
The days before we started that hike I had been thinking about starting again, rebuilding. These had been the words that carried me through because they inspired a sense of purpose, they felt positive. And I had to thank myself then for everything that I had given myself, because even if I was starting again, even if I had to rebuild, I was doing it from a place of great knowledge and experience. I had done the practice and the hard work. I still had everything I needed right there in me, and that ember was starting to burn again.
Eventually we stopped for lunch, but the hikers didn’t pass us. We saw them the next day camped further down the trail from us, and they had walked through the night to get there. We reached camp after 4 hours including at least 45 minutes of breaks and taking in views. It was subtle but powerful the accomplishment I felt knowing that I was much more capable than I had initially believed. I wasn’t starting from scratch there either. Simon and I have been out here for 5 months, walking and hiking and exploring. I am, actually, strong. Stronger perhaps than when I left New Zealand, and growing stronger all the time. Or, perhaps, maybe I always was strong, and I just didn’t realise it.
There was space then. I didn’t ask for it, and I didn’t want it, but it was there nonetheless, and I was learning how to cultivate loss and from it sprout new creativity. I was learning how to grow.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My bag was found. When we left Sequoia and arrived in LA to visit my brother and his wife, the man that had been holding onto my bag after it was found runover in the middle of the road finally tracked down my brother’s apartment from an address in my bag and was able to contact me. It has been returned now to my aunt’s house in Marin County, and I am heading back that way soon to take my broken electronics in and find out if any of the data is recoverable. My mother and sister went to pick up the bag for me, and mum said this – “the man that returned Jenny’s bag has completely restored my faith in humanity”. The extent he went to find me and return my belongings to me warms my heart, and I am extremely grateful for the efforts he made to track me down and give those little pieces of my heart back to me.