I had planned this hike through an unexplored section of the Sierra Blancas some time ago, eagerly looking forward to traversing the high peaks. Yet as my month vacation in the mountains dwindled I kept putting it off.
It was a big hike – a longer, more difficult hike than any I’d done in months – and as August was wearing on it was becoming apparent that Abby, nearly 13 years old and with worsening arthritis, wouldn’t really be up for it. She could have, with enough time, done the distance and elevation but time – in the form of daylight hours – was potentially the problem if she were to need more rest. Rather than chance her comfort I had accepted weeks ago that I would do the route myself. Still I continued to put it off, wanting to spend my days with her, wanting us to be together. It was not until the last days of August that I made the decision to finally do the hike.
The route to reach the high ridge was via a known canyon and the familiarity of the trail combined with the not-insignificant effort of ascending allowed me to just Be, meditatively muscling up, up, up towards the backbone of the range. Because I was hiking by myself I reached the top of the canyon quite quickly and, feeling strong with the aftermath of exertion, I turned quickly into new territory. Before me spread endless grassy meadows adorned with stunted conifers clinging to the blustery 9,000-foot-plus peaks. There was recognition: this was one of my places.
Ascending the first small rise I could see for-seemingly-ever across the high country even as the white smoke of forest fire shrouded the lowlands to the west and the plains to the north. Though I felt the familiar deep feeling of peace at being in the high country it was at this point that I also became aware of anxiety bubbling below the the surface. I initially ignored it even as the intermittent nagging evolved into wild vacillations between contentment, awe, and discomfort. I don’t know how long I pushed the unease aside but when I recognized it for what it was I stopped to ask myself why. I pondered, gazing across the wide open spaces and distant peaks. I addressed the obvious first: It was not fear of physical limitation, for though I’d been hiking shorter distances and easier routes recently this was well within my capability. Plus, I was not tired.
I expanded my analysis.
I attempted to apply logic.
My conclusions: solo hiking pace would return me to my vehicle well before daylight would fade. I had plenty of water and snacks, and even warm layers and rain gear though there was no threat of anything but perfect weather. I was not afraid of the bear population inhabiting this range despite encountering one while hiking a few weeks ago. And for crying out loud I knew without looking that I’d even have cell service until just before the descent to the trailhead. There were literally zero threats. There was nothing but me and the meadows unfurling in all directions. I should have been in ecstasy, captivated by endless space across the sprawling mountains.
Yet I couldn’t shake the dis-ease nor kick out the partially-formed thoughts clambering around in my brain trying to catch my attention. Then out of nowhere it hit me: I’d forgotten how to be alone.
I had hiked thousands of miles by myself before Tom and Abbs and though many of my recent excursions had been absent of humans they had always included Abby: Abby who was experiencing the same moment in the same place, Abby who would acknowledge me if I spoke aloud, Abby who would listen to me even if I didn’t speak aloud, Abby who would not listen to me at all if she felt there was some more important dog-business to be attended to. Abby who would move through the same time and same space, next to me.
I reached a sudden conclusion: what was bothering me wasn’t that I was exploring a longer, unknown route by myself but that I was doing so without my companion, my best girl, my Abbadog. It meant I didn’t have someone upon which to to offload my thoughts nor someone to distract me from the questions rising within me. Literally and figuratively I didn’t have someone to walk with me.
It wasn’t until about 6 miles into my hike that I finished distilling my discomfort however. I had stopped to sit under a single tree at nearly 11,000 feet, barely started on the 700 feet of deeply etched switchbacks rising above me. I was still trying to catch myself more than catch my breath. And it was at that moment that I recognized that I had forgotten how to be alone, be present in a place. I recognized that despite the high meadows, the peaks stretching across the horizon, the expansive views, and the utter solitude afforded by the remote location, I was no longer able to appreciate them with the presence they deserved. Not without Abby.
It was a sad moment of acknowledging all that Abbs meant to me and everything she had given to me. Everything I depended on her for. I had a second sad moment when I conceded how much I had been avoiding and how much I’d been absent from.
I took a few minutes — perhaps more than a few minutes — sitting under the stunted fir mulling my new-found clarity before I looked around again, now more aware, more attendant to the awesome country around me. I breathed deeply. I settled. I’m sure I took a few more photos. And then I began walking again, committed to appreciating the land before me.