Washington Trails Association
Trails for everyone, forever
By Craig Romano
Stunned, anxious, and in a near daze I headed to Mount Rainier’s Paradise Valley. It was a warm, bright-blue day — the type we live for in the Pacific Northwest. I headed up familiar trails before turning off on one I had yet to explore.
Only one day before, on September 11, 2001, I had watched the news as New York’s World Trade Center towers come crashing down. The world as we knew it abruptly ended. This horrific event replayed in my mind’s eye and I desperately needed to hit the pause button.
That day, when I reached the end of the trail, it was just me. And, for the first and only time in my life, the skies were completely devoid of aircraft and contrails. Mount Rainier beneath an eerily quiet and empty sky put my mind at ease.
Upon hearing of the horrific terrorist attacks — then having the disturbing images of death and carnage seared into my mind — I went through an array of emotions: rage, fear, loss and anxiety. Lots of anxiety. I no longer felt secure. But my surroundings quelled my emotional turmoil. I sat still in the high valley and stared out. The roaring of tumbling water intensified. A hawk’s high-pitched warning pierced the air. A distant marmot’s shrill whistle echoed off the ridges. I cocked my head downward and gazed at the glacial till beneath me. I took notice of small plants tenaciously surviving in this harsh environment. I breathed deep and let my mind wander. Like my enduring surroundings, my life will go on. It’ll be different, but it’ll go on. No matter what happens out there: war, social unrest, economic distress, a rancorous political divide, pain, suffering and loss — these natural cathedrals will be here to assuage my soul and bring comfort to my anxious mind. Here in nature, everything is right. And in times of turmoil, I need that assurance, stability and validation.
The natural world has always been my safe harbor. Trails leading to sparkling lakes, primeval forests, mountaintops, desert canyons, hidden beaches, remote valleys and alpine meadows — these have continuously kept me from wandering down darker paths when the world has come crashing down or life has dealt me a bad hand. And now, during this unprecedented time of the coronavirus pandemic, and political and social upheaval, the backcountry has been my panacea. And it is about more than a pretty place. The fresh air reminds me to breathe, the path reminds me to put one foot in front of the other. I can focus more on my inner thoughts and feelings in tranquil surroundings. Taking to the trail forces me to see the beauty of the world and allows me to face the outside world with more clarity, confidence and hope. Life is full of suffering, hardship and loss. But the trail is the place I can take a reprieve from the pain, a place I can reflect, assess and seek redemption. The backcountry is where I have gone to grieve after losing loved ones and beloved pets, a place I have headed after heartbreaks, disappointments and failures. The trail has assuaged me during periods of extreme stress, uncertainty and reckoning. It has allowed me to accept who I am, what has come my way, what has passed and what will be.
Never has the power to heal on the trail and in the backcountry been so revealing to me as it was 30 years ago during one of my darkest times. A failed marriage was followed by a long bout of depression, insecurity and anxiety that manifested in claustrophobic attacks. The backcountry, hiking and running saved me. There were many turning points along the way — and the path was rife with setbacks and regressions — but the overall route was one of recovery. A particular episode stands out among the many little triumphs and revelations. It was my first solo backpacking trip. During a bout of extreme loneliness, I headed to Olympic National Park’s High Divide and Seven Lakes Basin.
Being self-reliant on the trail builds self-confidence. Being surrounded by bountiful natural beauty and wildlife instills a constant sense of wonderment and awe. And hiking and camping in one of the most breathtaking landscapes in the world after emerging from one of the darkest periods of my life intensified the entire experience. The whole trip was surreal. I listened to the haunting sounds of bugling elk. A curious young coyote pranced through my campsite. I watched more than a half-dozen black bears comb blueberry and huckleberry patches. I sat in utter astonishment on a peak watching below as a black bear sow and cub splashed in a shimmering tarn against a backdrop of glistening snow and ice. A nearby marmot broke the stillness of the evening with its piercing whistles. Afterward, in astonishment, I watched the sky turn fire red as the day faded into night. I never felt so alive — and so secure, adequate and at peace.
It was a physically and emotionally challenging trip. The mileage, elevation gain and rough terrain distracted me from my emotional pain. And finishing the hike instilled in me a touch of confidence. It was being alone in the wilderness in the dark of night that daunted me. I would have to fight my mental demons on my own — and not give in to doubt and fear. I would console myself throughout the evening by repeating that I was safe and all was well. And I would awake assured I could be alone and not lonely. Being alone surrounded by so much life and beauty brought me clarity. Being alone heightened my experience. I emerged from this trip renewed and assured that despite all of life’s bumps behind me and the ones remaining in front of me, I wanted to keep moving forward. There was so much out there I wanted to see, feel, and experience. I was going to be okay. Nature’s rejuvenating powers are prodigious.
COVID-19 and the current political and social unrest have been tough on many of us, leaving in its wake, depression, despair, and anxiety. While I encourage you to maintain strong, healthy relationships with loving family members and friends; and seek professional help from mental health workers as positive ways to cope with these challenges — consider the trail too as a way to heal. Here are a few tips to help you on your way.
Craig Romano is a guidebook author, craigromano.com.