On a broiler of an afternoon last summer, I pulled up outside a health food store in the barely-populated desert town of Independence, California, and forced a deep breath. I was late, my back muscles felt like tension wires, and as I sized up the two people waiting for me at a picnic table in the shade, my fears were confirmed. They had to be half my age.
I was there to meet Ross, my guide, and Dae, my tentmate, for the first time. Just a few weeks earlier, at home in New York, I’d booked this backpacking trip with an outfit called International Alpine Guides. When I told friends about my plans, they were horrified. Was I sure I wanted to spend eight days sleeping out, foregoing cell service, Netflix, showers, and—to some, this was the most frightening prospect—anti-aging creams? I’m small (5’3” and a lightweight) and 51 years old; Was I sure I could haul a pack over three passes, and then climb Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the lower 48? My mother-in-law sent me cautionary articles about altitude sickness and aggressive marmots (picture an extra-chubby guinea pig). That made my husband laugh—“beware the killer marmots!”—but he shared my loved ones’ greatest concern: I’d be doing all this with just two other people I did not know.
New Yorkers often find themselves thisclose to folks they’d rather keep at a distance. It’s part of urban life; you endure it. But whenever possible, you curate your company. The idea that I would willingly throw myself into intimate contact with a couple of randos for 8 long days? Baffling. Disturbing, even.
I hardly needed these warnings. The trip had me nervous as hell. So why was I willing to take this particular flyer? I’d hit a funny juncture in my life. After 27 years as a magazine editor, I found myself hip-checked out of a job, and, most likely an industry. I’d held the top title, editor-in-chief, at two big brands. The role came with a talented staff of hand-picked creatives, a vibrant relationship with a smart, female audience; work that kept me energized and curious; a generous paycheck and an assistant who moved me through my densely scheduled life like a chess piece on a tricky board. It also came with massive challenges: dwindling advertising dollars and distribution channels; distracted readers pulled in a million different, mostly digital, directions. Enough trouble to introduce this exhausted working mom to the joys of insomnia.
In truth, I had spent the better part of two decades worrying. If it wasn’t staff bickering or reporting snafus or some celebrity insisting on monogrammed M&Ms at a cover shoot, it was mom stuff—orthodontics or mean girls or standardized testing. In the past, worry had served me well, helping me stay ahead of crises and Wonder-Woman my way through heavy weeks. But this was a new level of anxiety. Life in the magazine industry began to feel like a shark movie: One minute we’d all be splashing around happily at the beach, and then suddenly, with a shriek and a bloom of red, another editor would disappear from view.
Along with my colleagues, I innovated as fast as I could, launching a new magazine, digital channels, partnerships with Amazon and integrations with advertisers. When none of that stemmed the loss of ad dollars, I cut costs with a vengeance. It was never enough. I began to hear the Jaws music in the winter of ‘17, and sure enough, my magazine was folded last May.
For the first time in more than 20 years, I was off deadline. Take some time for yourself, my husband and teenage daughters sweetly instructed. I decided to spend the summer kinda-sorta relaxing while kinda-sorta job hunting. These turned out to be utterly incompatible goals—no wonder I failed at both. The panic that had been my rocket fuel still coursed through me, but instead of forging ahead, I turned in circles, bedeviled by questions. How would I be received as a mid-life job hunter? Surely my storytelling skills were broadly applicable, but would people in other fields take a risk on me? Also: Money! I had to force myself to write emails and re-jig my Linkedin profile. The results were cautious and uninspired. Instead of acting on ideas for my future, I interrogated and discarded them. My own shower became a dangerous place where anxieties hijacked my brain. (Had I washed my hair already? No idea, so I washed it again.)
By mid-June I was a frazzled and rudderless mess. I needed to escape. Pull the plug. Power down. I needed the back country.
In our twenties and early thirties, my husband and I had spent roughly half of our precious vacation time backpacking. For Rob, the planning was half the fun. He was born to strategize routes, map elevations, and portion out food. I am terrible at those things, so he did the obsessing for the both of us. That freed me up to simply experience it all, and to fall in love: not just with the pretty stuff (campfires, columbine meadows, etc.) but also uphill plodding, rainstorms out of nowhere, dirt in every crease, instant coffee at sunrise after struggling to sleep. Tethered firmly to the present moment, I was almost always happy on the trail.
I missed those trips terribly after our daughters were born. We should have taken them backpacking, of course, but we didn’t. We couldn’t imagine risking their precious safety and comfort in the wilderness. But we told ourselves that we would return to the trail if we ever got the chance. Advance 17 years and I had my chance in the form of a severance check.
My husband was willing to take full responsibility for our teenagers, so nothing was keeping me from heading back out there. A massive dose of nature might be just what I needed to slip the noose of anxiety, provided I had a guide to take care of the details—because without Rob, my trusty navigator, my story might not end as prettily as Cheryl Strayed’s did in Wild. I did some research, found IAG and with a few keystrokes, bought myself an adventure in the eastern Sierras.
Peace of mind? Not so easy to come by. In the weeks before I left, all I managed to do was refocus my doubts from the long term to the short term. Instead of working the problem of my future career, I fixated on details, like which Capilene long underwear to buy, and more broadly, how I would survive this trip, especially if I didn’t connect with my two companions.
Which brings me to the health food store parking lot with Ross and Dae, where I discovered that his age, 24, plus hers, 27, equaled my age exactly. Neato! I also learned that despite their relative youth, and relative size (Ross is a sinewy six feet, Dae, at 5’10”, is all legs and marathon-toned muscle) we would be carrying packs of roughly equal weight. As we divvied up the piles of camping gear, Ross mused, Zen-ly: “Your pack is exactly as heavy as it needs to be. You’ll be fine.” But I nearly fell over when I hoisted my behemoth to try it out.
That afternoon we headed into the Sierras, a massive, toothy range that leaps straight up from the bone-dry California desert, for our first night at the trailhead. I had no appetite for Ross’ expertly prepared burritos. Later, lying inches from Dae in our narrow tent, I wondered how I would possibly keep up with her. My phone told me it was midnight, then nearly one. Finally finally finally I fell asleep.
The next morning Ross made eggs, we cleaned up, and soon it was time for the first of a thousand switchbacks. Watching the cars in the trailhead parking lot shrink to Matchbox size, I realized that every step forward committed me to whatever the next week would bring. Then we rounded a bend and suddenly, the cars and every other sign of civilization disappeared. My body stumbled along under all that weight, but my mind began to float free.
That said, I was downright scared when we faced our first big challenge: crossing a slippery, quarter mile snowfield on the way up to Kearsarge pass at 11,760 feet. My thighs quivered and was that gravel I felt in my left knee? I’d trained for this, even hiking around my local park with a 20-pound bag of grass seed in my old pack. Nonetheless, I was panting like a geriatric retriever.
The trail disappeared under snow and footprints spread left and right around melted spots, where a middle-aged lady could easily drop into a sinkhole lined with pointy boulders. Ross and Dae fairly scampered ahead while I gritted my teeth and searched for safe places to set my feet. I thought about nothing else—just one step, then the next. It doesn’t get more in-the-now than that. At the top of the pass, I accepted a high five from Ross, then gobbled a bagel with cream cheese and salami. There were a half dozen hikers breaking for lunch along with us, and we had all risked a broken leg to perch there. The view was worth it.
The conversation between Ross, Dae and I flowed easily as we headed steeply down, past pale aqua alpine lakes dotted with a few remaining icebergs. The journalist in me took over and I kept the questions coming, using these two as a miniature focus group of twenty-somethings in Trump’s America. All that day, we talked about politics, fake news, and Obamacare (Ross is a fan, because he knows so many rock climbers who relied on it after falls). I got personal—because hey, these people were going to know every time I needed to pee—and asked about Ross’s dating life in Independence, where men outnumber women 8 to 1. He told us about his girlfriend, Catherine, whom he treasures, especially given his odds. Dae talked about her multi-racial family; her misadventures in several grad schools, and the soulless swiping on Tinder. Our common ground turned out to be podcasts. Avid listeners all, we swapped recommendations and retold some of the best stories we’d heard.
By the middle of day three, I realized that I shouldn’t have worried about getting along with these strangers, or keeping up with them, either. Ross and Dae waited when I needed them to, though I sometimes dropped back on purpose for a little solitude. In general, though, I was right there with them. Yes, I hurt, sometimes alarmingly, but I was elated when joint drama resolved overnight. That my middle-aged body was still able to repair itself seemed a minor miracle. More interesting: Aches and pains I’d brought with me from home disappeared on the trail. Sitting disease is real, people, and for me the cure was constant movement punctuated by nights on the world’s hardest mattress.
The days that followed were the opposite of a blur: I remember specific moments with snapshot clarity. Ross’s superhuman agility, pirouetting on top of a boulder as if his pack was filled with helium instead of gear. Dae darting into one of those alpine lakes with a shriek (I outlasted her!). Passing hikers decades older than me, carrying packs just as big as mine. One pair of oldsters who hiked holding hands. Oh, and dozens of log crossings, when we had to balance-beam our way along tree trunks acting as bridges. Ross sometimes took my pack (which he threw over one shoulder like a toddler’s knapsack) so I could focus all my energy on not falling into a rushing stream below. I wobbled but never balked completely.
Day 6 was the big one, when we would wake at 4:30 to climb Mount Whitney. Despite my growing confidence, I kept thinking about all those vertical feet: 15,485. Ross got us up that morning and we all strapped headlamps on to start our climb in the dark. We left most of our gear at a base camp, so there was nothing to it beyond walking straight up, past a lake shaped exactly like a guitar, above tree line, onto switchbacks only a few feet wide and carved into the rock of the mountain. By mid-morning we were looking down on other peaks, bird-views I had only glimpsed from planes. Hundreds of other climbers were doing just what we were, a striking number of them middle-aged women. Along the way, Ross monitored us for slurred words and other signs of altitude sickness. Weirdly, Dae and I experienced the same effects: We both felt lighter, as if we had invisible marionette strings attached to our knees and feet, and someone up there was dancing us to the top. Beyond that, we fared well.
At the summit, marked by an ancient stone climbers’ hut, we signed our names in a registry. Inside the hut it was cold, dim and damp—not a place to linger. Outside, the world arced around us so dramatically you could only laugh or cry at the sight. Ross and Dae joked around with other climbers; I fought back tears.
As we gathered our things for the long descent, a thought bloomed in my mind, vivid and fully formed. Maybe that inner part of me who worried habitually and unstoppably, who trafficked in fear and second-guessing—maybe I could leave her behind. Abandon her up here, and with every step down, put more distance between us. The image that sprung to life was of the climber’s hut, and this split-away self, huddled inside it, fretting furiously. I saw her there and mentally swung the wooden door of the hut closed, iron latch down. The harshness of what I’d conjured took my breath away, and then it made me smile.
Lots has happened in the six months since I returned from California. I dealt with my resume and Linkedin for real; helped my daughter apply to college; started talking to anyone I knew who does something interesting for a living; mastered new tech tricks I should have known all along; refreshed my Spanish; and focused on podcasting as a viable path forward. I’ve even been developing a few. One got the green light from a network last week, the other got a “no” this morning. Tomorrow, I’ll figure out who to pitch it to next.
True, I don’t have any experience in audio storytelling. The business model is iffy, and very few people seem to be making money at it right now. But podcasting holds promise and fascinates me. When all the possible negatives begin to circle, I return to my strange visualization. I separate myself from the me who rejects ideas and hunkers down with doubt. I remember that I left her on top of Mount Whitney, door shut, latch down. I hit send on an email to yet another total stranger, and step into my uncertain future.