Relationship Status: It’s Complicated

Oh, Sierra… where do I begin? We were together for only a few short weeks, and yet in that time, I experienced some of my highest highs and lowest lows. There were many times when I didn’t know what to feel. Even now, weeks later, I still struggle to put my feelings for you into words.

“It’s complicated.”

I’m guessing that at some point, you gathered that “Sierra” is the Sierra Nevada (and not a person), but the complicated feelings I mentioned are no joke. I’ve been wanting to write this post for weeks now and have had the hardest time sorting through and writing out my thoughts! I didn’t experience any singular, traumatic event – I am incredibly grateful for a safe passage through the Sierra. In fact, it had much less to do with the physical terrain and much more with my internal landscape.

I clearly remember the day I left Kennedy Meadows to start my adventure into the Sierra. The new addition to my pack, my bear canister, felt awkward and heavy. That hardly mattered, though – I was about to set foot on the most spectacular section of trail! Feelings of excitement and anticipation enveloped me and propelled me down the front steps of the general store. I was off – this was really happening.

After a couple of days, I started to catch glimpses of snowy peaks and ridgelines. I began to speculate as to which of them could possibly be Mt. Whitney. The landscape continued to transform before me and my excitement as well. Everything felt new and shiny again, almost like how the start of the trail had felt. I saw a marmot as I approached the first of many alpine lakes I would soon begin seeing on a regular basis. I felt a great sense of happiness and belonging – I could hardly believe this was to be my home for the next 390 miles of trail.

Soon after experiencing heightened feelings of elation and joy, I began to sense the presence of another, less welcome emotion. It arrived seemingly unannounced, like a single dark cloud on a bright summer day. I tried to cast off the feeling, but as more clouds gathered and darkened, I accepted with a grim realization that my anxiety wasn’t going to retreat so easily.

I had gone over 700 miles without any major issues. Overall, my medication had been doing its part and I thought I had been doing my own part in managing as well.

Why now?

I don’t have an answer to that, but I can tell you that I wrestled with my anxiety in the Sierra and that it overshadowed much of the experience. It certainly wasn’t all bad; as I said, there were still highs amongst the lows.

I had the incredible opportunity to hike up Mt. Whitney at sunrise, which was more beautiful than I could have ever imagined. And I got to share the experience with one of my dearest friends. The following day, I celebrated my birthday on top of Forester Pass, the highest pass on the PCT.

Then, surprise – anxiety! There were logistical issues that came up regarding town day that I had to work through and then re-work. I had been looking forward to a full zero in Bishop and felt disappointed when I found out that would no longer be the case. I felt a little better after spending a night in town surrounded by wonderful company, but it was short-lived.

Sprout and I made progress in getting up and over the series of passes that followed Forester and Kearsarge, but there was anxiety there as well. We craved fellowship with other people and felt like this would be safer, too. So, we worked hard to increase our mileage for a bit in an attempt to catch up to friends. Once we caught up, I found that I was exhausted from pushing long days, and we both realized that our pace and schedule were too different from that of the group we had worked to catch up to to make it work.

We accepted the reality of the situation and made the best of it. We had some terrific photo opps on top of the passes. Snacks were shared and laughs were had. When motivation ran low, we even had an occasional dance party. We celebrated our successful and safe river crossings. It slowly dawned on us that while we would have happily welcomed a group in the Sierra, we were plenty strong and capable on our own.

When we made it to Vermillion Valley Resort, a popular resupply stop along the trail, I hit an extremely low point. I felt exhausted, as if the physical demands of the entire trail had all caught up with me at once. In my tired state, my anxiety found it all too easy to take hold once more.

On the verge of tears, I explained my state of exhaustion and shared my anxious thoughts with Sprout. I felt that I should take a zero to get some much-needed rest, but neither she nor anyone else I knew was planning on doing the same, so I would be a day behind everyone. Not wanting to be left behind, I pushed on and instead looked forward to a true zero in Mammoth Lakes – I could wait just a little longer. I did and it was good – I felt rejuvenated and ready to hit the trail again.

Then came Yosemite, which was beautiful, albeit buggy. I could hardly believe that before long, we would be finished with the Sierra. We had made it so far! I made a dedicated effort to renew my excitement and appreciation for the Sierra through the next (and last) week or so and finish strong.

Then came along a big misunderstanding – basically, Sprout and I lost track of each other at a river crossing, of all places. I grew incredibly worried, and even when the situation was resolved (we were both physically safe), I couldn’t “be OK.” I didn’t feel fully understood, and I became gripped by anxiety and the feelings of hurt and anger that accompanied it.

I tried to find solace in the space that we had established following our disagreement, but I wasn’t myself for some time. I wasn’t in the right headspace to be able to fully appreciate what it meant to reach Kennedy Meadows North, where everyone gets to ditch their bear canisters. We hiked together the last couple of days up until South Lake Tahoe, which officially marked the end of the Sierra, and as if the Sierra were putting on one final show, it snowed on and off and we experienced one last chilly night before town. Something that really resonated with me from that day is the phrase that Sprout shared with me – “I can do hard things.”

The Sierra – and the unique challenges that came with it – may be over, but I am quite sure that the trail will continue to invent challenging circumstances that I will face. My anxiety will come and go and I must face that as well. Mental health is messy and complex in general, and in my personal case, my anxiety is something that I will continue learning about and learning how to manage for the rest of my life. It is never going to magically vanish; it is a part of me. It is a part that is hard for me to love, but a part of me nonetheless. I do know that walking the next half of the trail will give me ample time and opportunities to continue to grow, accept, and love myself. Although more hard times will come, I know for certain that I can do hard things.

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Comments 4

  • Rammy : Jul 4th

    Keep hiking and writing storys about your adventure,your doing great!

  • Raymond : Jul 5th

    Great job kiddo, I live in Spring Creek near Max Patch backed up to Pisgah at 3200 feet.
    Don’t let the beast git ya. Anxiety can be all encompassing for sure. Good days and bad days. Sitting on the couch is a killer for those of us with it. You don’t know me but please know that I understand and am with you in spirit. Remember, the Boogie Man has no teeth.

  • Matthew Landis : Jul 5th

    Hi Rachel I’m Matthew Landis. Two time PCT hiker and US Air Force Veteran. I love your writing! Especially about the Sierra’s. So I’m filming a documentary with Gregory Mountain Products about the mental health benefits of extended adventures outdoors! It’s been my dream since finishing the PCT in 2019 to build a community for Veterans to connect and share lessons learned on trail back to our life in community. I’m especially proud to be filming this documentary on the PCT this year SOBO in Washington August 9-21 towards trail days! Although my focus is on Veterans, I’m super interested to see if you’d be willing to share more with me, specifically about your personal experience with the impact on mental health your hike is having. I was asked to be a guest speaker at Trail Days about this topic and would love to connect you with what I’m doing. Your very talented sharing your experiences and I think you could help this project alot. Lemme know your thoughts and cheers! Much love from Wyoming!

  • Kevin : Jul 11th

    Thank you so much for this article. I’m currently on a trek of my own, and the mental challenges of my depression and anxiety have been far more difficult than the physical challenges of the trail. It helps so much to know I’m not alone with these challenges.


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