Colorado Trail: the Delight of Doing Hard Things

July 24

It rained relentlessly. I was happy to have a reason to explore the parts of my brain that delight in doing difficult things and spent most of the day in silence. The backs of my legs collected thick brown mud that turned crusty and gray as it dried out. The scenery was largely uninspiring but maybe the failure to be inspired was my own. The path underfoot was rocky, running with muddied rainwater that I imagined, in my ravenous daze, was chocolate milk. My shoulders ached immensely as I climbed upwards along soggy dirt roads.

At the top of a climb I found Matt sitting in a rare patch of sunlight, smoking a joint, and smiling sweetly in my direction. The weirdness between us had subsided. I hiked on and linked up with K along the way. She and I reached Baldy Lake, one of the only water sources in the area, just as the sky began to darken. A handful of hikers–including Big Spork, Sarah, Dave and Michelle–were camped in established spots flanking the water. I remember thinking to myself that if the rain continued, I wouldn’t want to be camped so low, so close to the lake’s edge.

I found a spot a bit higher up, encircled by fir and pine trees that I thought would provide some amount of shelter. Around 10:30pm, as Matt and I nestled into our cocoon of warm respite, a torrential downpour rolled down the mountain side and collected in a pool of standing water covering the entirety of our campsite. Nearly two inches had gathered beneath our sleeping pads, causing them to float as if they were pool rafts. Every item in our respective vestibules, including our backpacks and shoes, were soaked.

“Maybe we should move?” Matt suggested.

“Move where? It’s dark. It’s pouring. How are we going to improve our situation?”

Matt laughed, “Right…so, we’re just going to try and fall asleep? Hope our things haven’t been washed away by morning?”

We tried to store all of our loose possessions inside our packs, which were relatively confined by the vestibules, and therefore wouldn’t float away. The highest priority was trying to keep our sleeping bags dry. A wet sleeping bag is a bitch to pack. Once we reached the realization there wasn’t much to be done, we resigned to our hilariously unfortunate fate, and I found some peace in that. I felt grateful for Matt. Grateful that I wasn’t weathering this particular storm alone. I thought of the old adage that with company, joy is doubled, and misery halved.

July 25

If we had expected the morning to bring relief, our optimism was sorely misplaced. My waking moments were full of warmth and the remnants of sweet dreams, feeling Matt’s naked skin and sleepy kisses. Yet I noted the continual noise of raindrops and felt a creeping sense of dismay. We forced ourselves out of the tent and into the thickening mist which blanketed the forest and rolled off the lake. I felt oddly elated even as the storm continued into the morning. Considering I had spent the night sleeping in a puddle, I was adequately warm, reasonably dry, and well rested.

I hiked—fast—absorbed in a groovy metal playlist. For hours, I lost any sense of myself in the automatic motion of walking and in the sound of ambient, droning vocalists. I passed bikers, a handful of other hikers, and stumbled into trail magic hosted by two women named Jan and Poo.

It was the greatest surprise; blueberry pancakes, protein bars, and homemade lattes. An oasis of carbs and kindness. Secretly, I also enjoy the sand trap of hikers created by magic. Big Spork and I reconnected under a big tent while we drank coffee with Sarah, Michelle, and Dave. I knew Matt and K would show up shortly. These familiar faces were becoming fixtures in my days.

I left and hiked hard through rolling pastures dotted with cattle, thunder clapping intermittently overhead. The trail wandered through a river valley of relatively flat terrain and I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to move quickly. As hours passed without seeing another hiker, I appreciated how it felt to be alone with nothing to do but walk. Every now and then, I would stop for a break. Shake rocks out of my shoe. Retrieve a snack buried in my pack.

Each time I got to my feet and set off again, I was surprised no one had caught up to me. That Matt hadn’t caught up to me. I began to deliberate just how far ahead I wanted to hike. If I should try to catch up to my friend Katie who had started the trail a few days before me and was a bit ahead, or if I wanted to meet up with Patrick, a dear friend who lived in Colorado Springs and expressed interest in meeting me on trail. Or maybe I would hike hard as hell just to see what my body could do.

A small part of me wanted to separate from Matt though it’s hard to know why. Perhaps because he wasn’t pushing me to make big miles but pushed me in other ways instead. I felt anxious that our itineraries had slowly morphed into a singular plan without much discussion. Joining my hike to someone else’s hadn’t been my intention and I didn’t think it had been his either. Our hike had officially merged into “our hike” and that frightened me. In a strange way, it infuriated me.

Around dusk, I neared one of the only water sources for miles, a low-lying stream surrounded by cow pies. The roar of heavy rain built slowly like a crescendo echoing off the mountainous walls of the valley. The rain, following the path of least resistance, gathered in the lowest point in the valley. The stream darkened, turning brackish and mucky. I worried that if I even attempted to force that water through my filter, it would clog the hardware. Frustrated, dehydrated, and drenched, I crossed the stream to set up my tent beneath one of the only trees in sight.

As I waited for the rain to subside and deliberated whether or not to the next water source, I heard Matt and Sarah chatting amiably as they hiked toward me. Her laughter sounded through the air, coaxing soft chuckles from him in response. Something vicious and jealous flared inside of me. When they reached me, I greeted Sarah warmly and behaved coolly toward Matt, a reaction that felt instinctive and impossible to control. The three of us stood in an awkward huddle beneath the tree’s branches while we each tried to make a determination about the water and camping situation. Sarah decided to set up camp and walked in the direction of another set of nearby trees, leaving Matt and I alone with one another.

“Why did you stop?” He asked me.

“What do you mean?” I cocked my head.

“Why did you stop here?”

“I needed water.”

“Oh,” he sensed my strange mood in the terse quality of my response. “Did you get any?”

“No, it’s black with runoff from cow shit.”

He nodded in agreement.

“I don’t know. Maybe I should just keep going.”

Matt was silent for a second, peering out into the gently falling rain and avoiding looking into my face, “Yeah, maybe you should keep going.”

His nonchalance felt like a slap. He went on, “You know, hike your own hike and all that.”

My mind went slack. Numbness came over me as I engrossed myself in the task of erecting my tent in the rain. Without saying anything, Matt grabbed the other corners and began to help me set it up. My dry clothes became soaked. My hands became covered in dirt and cow manure. Without any discussion, Matt placed his belongings in their usual spots inside my tent. I was enraged, but outwardly, I remained carefully composed and unfailingly kind.

Big Spork meandered, through sheets of rain, up to our campsite. The flames of his orange-gold hair had been extinguished in the downpour and it caused him to appear deflated. He set up his shelter adjacent to ours so that the three of us could converse through the thin walls of our structures. I was grateful for his neutral presence to defuse the tension between Matt and I. Long periods of silence were punctuated by the crinkling of food wrappers, the scraping of sporks, or remarks on the shittiness of the situation. The overwhelming smell of shit in the air, the abundance of shit in our camp, or the traces of shit clinging to our shoes and gear.

It was only when Big Spork made an off-hand comment about how Matt was the “strongest hiker” that the heart of my jealousy became palpable and apparent to me. I hate being in any man’s shadow. I hated that I wasn’t remarked upon as the “strongest hiker.” I hiked ahead of Matt all day, nearly every day, all the while wishing he would catch up to me. Yet somehow the suggestion would continuously arise that Matt was unparalleled in his strength and speed. He was a powerful athlete, sure. But I was stronger and faster.

So why aren’t I farther ahead? Because I like spending time with him.

Upon that realization, my mind sprang into cost-benefit analysis mode. I contemplated why I was yielding my own autonomy on his behalf. I wondered what, if anything, Matt was sacrificing for me. I could sense that he had arrived at a similar point of questioning his own decisions. We laid side by side, saying nothing, with a great distance opening up between us.

The rain subsided as night fell. Having spent most of my life in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia, I unthinkingly anticipated a symphony of insects. Instead, the evening remained deafeningly quiet. I waited for sleep to come and wash the day away but it was impossible to ignore the tension I felt in my limbs. I extended a hand to Matt, feeling out his response to my touch, and spread my fingers over his chest. His hand came to cover my own and I shifted to rest my head on the crook of his shoulder. We spoke in hushed whispers but words felt evasive and I searched, in vain, for the precise proof of why I felt amiss. I told him that I was jealous of him, though my meaning was unclear. That jealousy was ill defined and lacking a focal point. Except for Matt himself. I told him I wanted more of him. I resented the power he seemed to have over me. I resented him because I cared for him. I resented myself for allowing him such influence over me, my decisions, and my hike.

Matt’s hand slid under my shirt and over my back.

“Isabella,” Matt paused, “Um, your skin feels really weird. Can I look at your back?”

Matt reached for his headlamp and I lifted my shirt to find the skin—sticky, filthy, sweaty skin—completely covered in hives. Red welts were forming across my shoulder blades, neck and face. My entire abdomen was peppered with the rash but I was too tired and defeated to consider checking the rest of my body. My heart rate was skyrocketing but the more anxious I felt, the angrier the hives appeared.

“Are you allergic to anything?” Matt asked with a composed, gentle concern.

“I mean, clearly. I know I’m allergic to bee stings, wasp stings, really any sort of sting. But I wasn’t stung by anything. I don’t know what else it could be.”

“What about food allergies?”

“No, none that I know of. I haven’t eaten anything out of the ordinary.”

I have never wanted so desperately to take a shower. My clammy, sweaty, hive-covered skin felt like it was constricting, as if my flesh might crack apart. My tongue was swollen and slow. Forming words was a strain.

“What if it’s a stress reaction,” I wondered, “What if I’m allergic to you?”

Matt pulled two Benadryl and his Garmin device from his pack. He passed me the capsules and started typing out a message muttering, “I cannot believe you’re allergic to bees and you don’t carry your own Benadryl.”

“I’m not that allergic. I’ve never experienced anaphylaxis.”

“Okay, well, your entire body is covered in hives. Even your face.”

“Actually, that reminds me that I have a Benadryl cream.”

I dug around in the sandwich sized ziploc containing all my hygiene products and first aid supplies while Matt continued punching buttons on his Garmin. Slathering ointment over my already disgusting skin was a revolting experience, but I was desperate to relieve the itchiness.

“My mom said you should take two more Benadryl.”

“You messaged your Mom for me? Wow, you must be really into me. Those messages are like ten cents a piece!” I teased.

“My mom’s a pharmacist,” He reminded me as he passed me two more pills.

“I don’t usually take drugs and I feel like this is about to fuck me up.”

“You’re already fucked up. Take your Benadryl.”

I lay in the dark feeling mad with the urge to crawl out of my own skin. Throughout the night, my limbs would spasm and jolt with unbearable itches. The itches were accompanied by intense contractions in my muscles and I felt like I couldn’t get enough oxygen. Once, I bolted upright and awoke to the sound of my own hyperventilations. Whenever I would stir like that, Matt would soothe me by telling me that I was okay. Eventually the drugs lulled me into unconsciousness and I found relief.

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