Grand Portage, MN – July 27, 2012
There is something beautiful about making the first footsteps in fresh snow. It feels like the world is all yours, a magnificent playground built for one.
Within a few hundred yards, a fox’s tracks joined me and I welcomed the imaginary company. Up we went, over a mountain and into a small valley, the two of us side by side on the northern end of Vermont’s Long Trail.
I sat down for a moment at the first shelter. Sunset was coming and I could already feel the frozen night settling around me, but my blood felt warm and the next shelter was only four miles away.
“Easy,” I thought.
I didn’t have a clue what I was doing in law school, but with a week off in early winter, I caught a ride up to northern Vermont, back to something I knew, something that felt familiar and clear, a trail to follow through the woods.
Three years separated me from the Appalachian Trail, but 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine leaves you feeling invincible.
I packed light so I could fly down the trail fast. This was my realm and I was king here. A few twenty-mile days strung together and I’d be back in time for classes.
The fox tracks abandoned me and left me alone to find the trail as I climbed up another mountain.
“Two hours,” I thought. “Two hours and I’ll be at the next shelter.”
I fought upward in the snow as more flakes began to fall. Ice caked to the bark of trees, covering the white blazes painted to mark the trail. The once recognizable path sunk deeper in the snow, becoming nothing more than a faint dip that wound between trees and up into the mountain.
I focused on that dip, a slight depression no more than a few inches, and followed. Two thousand miles gives you a sense for trails, clues your subconscious to the subtle signs of a path like a sawed off branch, the curves between a pair of trees, the way a bank slopes up from a frozen stream. I walked and followed that dip in the snow.
Each time I found a blaze painted on the icy bark of a tree, I had a quiet moment of joy. I could feel the cold creeping in around me. I didn’t have time to retrace my steps, not if I wanted to make it back for classes. I only thought of going forward.
One step taken, one step closer to the shelter, one step closer to warmth. The snow grew deeper. My legs punched through to the shins and knees with each step. Ice caked on my skin. My feet looked like little, frozen blocks. I wriggled my toes to make sure I could still feel them.
“Just keep walking,” I told myself.
One step taken. One step closer to the shelter. One step closer to warmth.
And, one step further from death.
The realization that I was there on the edge of death came over me quick, between one breath and another.
A moment before, I was simply cold, annoyed, and thinking about how far behind I was in a few of my classes. The trail was hard to find, the snow slowed me down, but that was all. It was an inconvenience.
Then death came. The possibility entered my mind. The world darkened with its arrival, turning shadowy and gray. I felt cold hands around my throat and my life flickered like a loose bulb.
I was suddenly mortal, just a frail piece of flesh and skin alone in an icy, icy world.
I yelled at myself, my voice loud in the still, white woods.
“Quit thinking about death,” I said as if I could scare it away.
I gripped my wild, frightened mind and pinned it to the ground. Fear spilled over the edges of my reach. I focused on the trail, on that thin dip in the snow. I couldn’t lose it, not now.
The ice won the battle against my feet and hands, turning them into frozen hunks of meat. I felt clumsy, almost drunk. I couldn’t feel rocks under the snow. I crashed and fell every few steps, the shock of cold hitting me, forcing air out of my lungs.
I stumbled forward only to collapse again, pull myself up and go on, conscious that my mind was losing control, that the cold was devouring me. My thoughts twisted in my head. I wanted to lie there each time I fell, to stop moving, to give in.
The cold, the snow, the impossible-to-follow trail. It overwhelmed me, flooded my mind, consumed it. Fear turned into a crisp revelation
I was not going to live. I was going to die.
I thought about my parents in Tallahassee and how they’d feel in a week when they hadn’t heard from me. They would call someone, someone would look, but they’d never find me lost under the snow. My parents would wait the entire winter to find out what happened or maybe they’d never know, they’d just know I walked into the woods and never came out.
The last thing I said to them was that I would be careful. It mad me so angry. I hated myself for it, hated that the last thing I said would be a lie.
There I was, on the edge of life and death, knee-deep in snow, hands and feet numb, spirit crushed, admitting defeat, realizing that this is how it was going to end, laughing because I never imagined it would end that way, end so young, but it was going to, it was going to end right there in that snow.
I sat and stared out at the white world. It all felt clear.
“So this is how it ends,” I thought.
Then a voice rose from deep inside, whisper thin, telling me to stand up, to fight to the last, to go on until I couldn’t, until the very end, the last breath, the last moment.
“It is the only way you’ll die happy,” it said and I knew it was right.
The image of friends, of another chance to ask out a pretty classmate, of hugging my parents again, of everything life has to offer, it all dangled in front of me, lifted me forward a step at a time as numbness consumed my hands and feet and began crawling toward my core.
“Until the end,” I thought.
The shelter startled me. It came out of nowhere as if my defiance of death brought it out of the forest and placed it in front of me.
I stumbled inside, brushed away the snow, then ripped open my pack, stripped off my sweat-soaked clothes, and slid inside my sleeping bag. I zipped it tight until the opening was no more than a tiny hole to breathe out of and waited to see if it could match the cold.
Minutes passed. An hour. Then my foot began to tingle, my hands ached, and I loved the pain, I loved that I felt anything at all.
I stared out at the dark night and trembled and shook as terror, pain, regrets, joys, dreams, all of it flooded out.
I knew I would live.
Then I cried, cried because I had never been so scared in my life, because I felt human again, because I didn’t know what else to do.
I have a video that I took a few minutes after I realized I would live. It’s dark and grainy, tears are streaming down my face, my voice is shaky, and I’m only half coherent.
I’ve never shown anyone the video and doubt I ever will, it’s too uncomfortable, but I still watch it. I turn it on, sit, and feel that moment again.
Before the Pacific Crest Trail, I watched it. Before the Continental Divide, I watched it. Before the Hayduke, I watched it. Before I ever put a paddle in Lake of the Woods, I watched it.
I watched it and remembered that I am not invincible,not after 2,000 miles, not after 5,000 miles, not after 9,000 miles, not ever.
Life is thin in the wild.
Sometimes you have to sit and watch the waves while you wait for a better day.