Plateaus, Peaks and What I Left Behind

8/21/15 – Day 5: Crabtree Meadow to Tyndall Creek via Wallace Creek

“Well you just never know who you’re going to run into out here!”  Arkansas Robert!   I’d come 3 ½ miles from Crabtree meadow and my gear troubles, traversed the vibrant Sandy Meadow, trekked up rocky slopes dotted with old-growth red fir pines and weather sculpted flamboyant foxtails and finally down into the Wallace Creek basin, where I’d planned to take a break and fill up my Nalgene.  I wasn’t expecting to see anyone and was joyfully surprised to see my four trail friends from Arkansas lounging in the shade of the Sierra conifers on the shore of the shallow and gently cascading Wallace Creek.

Robert greeted me with his now familiar signature line and the others with bright smiles and warm welcomes. It’s so fun to run into people I know out here! I stopped at the edge of their half circle and we shared our adventures from the day before:  the climb down Mt. Whitney and the smelly smoky ash-rain filled night.  We’re all concerned about the fires, but their attitude is the same as mine: we’ve come too far to bail.  All we can do is take it one day at a time.

I told them about the medevacked squirrel with the excitement of a six year old telling her parents about a caterpillar she captured in an empty mayonnaise jar. They’d heard the helicopter from their camp on Whitney Creek and wondered what all the fuss was about. I was happy to clear up the mystery and make them laugh with my squirrel tale. crabtree marker sign smaller

I was enjoying their company too much to hike down the creek further and find my own spot, so I happily accepted their invitation to join them for lunch.  I plopped myself down in the dirt where I was standing, pulled off my dusty Salomons to air out my tired sweaty feet and fished my lunch  out of the front compartment of my Flash 62 backpack: which I hadn’t quite forgiven for this morning’s shenanigans.

Unlike the first time we met, today we lingered in the shade over our trail-lunches and conversed beyond introductions.  The foursome had the kind of easy friendship that comes with decades of knowing one another. Robert and Tim met in kindergarten and Lee and Tony came into the mix through grade school and high school.  They got along like brothers and had endless tales of adventure and life experiences to share, each contributing their section of the story on cue, like people who have spent a lot of time together do.  Every summer for decades they’ve taken a guy’s trip and have been everywhere from Glacier National Park to the Everglades to Alaska. I listened earnestly as I munched on my Teriyaki flavored Primal Spirit Soy jerky, passing it around to prove how delicious tofu jerky can be.

It took less than fifteen minutes for the conversation to shift from the polite small talk of strangers to all the things new acquaintances should never talk about: politics (which stemmed from our mutual contempt for Trump), religion, the meaning of life and solving all the world’s problems.  Conversation flowed easily and naturally. Who would have thought a Liberal atheist from the Bay Area would have so much in common with four retired men from Arkansas???  I’m well aware that living in the Bay Area, I exist in a bubble that is very different from most other places in the country (I’m also well aware I can be a bit of a snob about it too), so I generally steer clear of charged topics until I really get to know someone. It was a nice bonus to be among like-minded friends.

A warm and sunny summer day. Creekside on the John Muir Trail.  A gentle breeze, great company, stimulating conversation.  Life doesn’t get any better than this.  These are the moments I live for, where my version of reality comes to life.   I “fit” here. It feels like home.

Rock Creek Lunch Break branded

With 5 or 6 miles to hike to get to camp at Lake South America or Tyndall Creek, my new friends from Arkansas reluctantly packed up and hit the trail, leaving me to loll in our idyllic spot in solitude.  I lugged my backpack and boots downstream to rinse my clothes and clean up, taking advantage of the last minutes of unobstructed sunlight before the smoke floated in, chilling the afternoon air. I laid my wet clothes out on the grass, propped my pack against a tree facing the sun, closed my eyes and lazed against it to dry off in the warm sun, listening to the waters of the cascading creek, the birds busily chirping and the soft breeze flow through the branches above me. This is what peace feels like.


An hour later I was crossing the vast and barren Bighorn Plateau. This late in the season it’s blanketed in tufts of golden grass rising up from a bed of sand and broken rock. Wow! Just Wow!  Despite the yellowish haze obscuring the views of the Mt. Whitney range, it was a magnificent sight. I tried to imagine what the view would be in a normal year, when half of California isn’t on fire. I couldn’t help but feel a little jilted, but in the big scheme of things it didn’t matter:  I’m on the JMT. I spun in place doing a couple 360s feeling like Mary Poppins – only the backdrop was a rugged and faded plateau instead of the vibrantly rolling hills of the Alps.

Looking back toward Whitney and Crabtree Meadow

I’ve been hiking mostly alone for 5 days now. Until this afternoon my thoughts were about getting from point A to point B, dodging blood thirsty coyotes, not falling off cliffs and trudging up mountains in the thin air, focusing on getting enough oxygen into my depleted body. But today, hiking across the desolate Bighorn Plateau my thoughts drifted to my new friends from Arkansas and the bond they shared.  I mentally examined the concept of lifelong friendships with the fascination one gives an alien object; dissecting it with the fingers of my brain in an attempt to understand its inner workings.  How do people stay connected over decades? How do they manage to not grow apart and drift away?  What is it like to have a circle of close friends and family you’ve known a lifetime that you can depend on; to know that no matter what, someone has your back?  I chalked this up to yet another of life’s “normalcies” that other people have, but not people like me.

Most of my life I’ve felt like an outsider looking in;  mingling and mixing with the ‘normal’ people with their big happy families and friendships born in sandboxes at preschool and sustained through Girl Scouts,  homecoming dances, graduations, marriages, births and divorces. I’ve watched with the fascination of someone who went to thirteen elementary schools and learned early in life that making friends was a futile endeavor.   By the time I reached high school I didn’t even know how to make friends anymore. I was quiet, withdrawn and used to being teased and bullied at every new school I went to. Usually it was because of my weight – but mostly just because I was an outsider and easy prey.

High school foreshadowed the life that lay ahead for me: I didn’t fit into the predefined social cliques nor did I have tons of options when it came to choosing friends. I wasn’t outgoing, athletic, pretty, cool or funny.  I was smart, but too serious and mature beyond my years for even the brainy clique.  Plus, I was awkward and self-conscious and didn’t know how to relate to people my age.  I made a few friends – outcasts like me – but I never really felt like anyone “fit” me. We outcasts came together, not because we liked each other necessarily, but out of pure necessity: finding safety in numbers. We’d pair up and quietly slink down the hallways between classes hoping no one would notice us and huddle together in the corners of the cafeteria at lunch, each of us trying desperately to fade into the group and become invisible to the bullies on the prowl for their next victim.

I eventually found my place with the burnouts; learning at a young and impressionable age that Carolyn the ‘bad girl” had a lot more company than the smart quiet girl. And so the patterns of my life were born; cycles of partying and the friends and relationships that came with it,  followed by getting clean and leaving them behind for new sober friends and then falling off the wagon and alienating my new healthy friends…

Mt Whitney climbing out of Crabtree toward Bighorn Plateau
Mt Whitney climbing out of Crabtree toward Bighorn Plateau

Confidence and sociability came with age and experience. By the time I moved to San Francisco at 21 I found it easy to meet people, but even during my periods of lucidity most of the people who came into my life didn’t stick.  My periods of sobriety were quests for personal discovery and growth; uncovering my truths and finding the reasons I kept going into dark places. This has meant a lot of very hard soul-searching and reinventing myself over and over again. Each new phase meant learning what – and who -fit into my new reality and often making the hard choice to move on: alone.  Which has always been a source of shame and doubt for me. Why can’t I hold on to friends like “normal” people do? How many times do I have to reinvent myself? Why can’t I just be normal?

I paused in place on the rocky trail and spun around soaking it the view of Bighorn Plateau to get out of my head.  This little trip down memory lane was consuming me and I wanted to step back into the present.  Behind me Mt. Whitney majestically jutted toward the sky in the smoky distance. I smiled. I climbed that.

And in that moment something happened. Standing on that plateau with Mt Whitney behind me and hundreds of miles of peaks and passes ahead of me it all came together. I am exactly where I am supposed to be.

smaller view of whitney from Bighorn
Mt Whitney through the smokey Bighorn Plateau

My heart swelled with…. Happiness? Pride? Relief? I wasn’t sure, but I felt completely and totally and unabashedly free. Freer than I have ever felt before. Not just because I’m on the John Muir Trail and have nowhere to be for the next 25 days but free from all the judgement I’ve carried about the relationships and friendships I’ve had to say goodbye to over the years. Free from what I thought I should be and should have. Free from some manufactured idea of what my life should look like. Free from the falsehoods of a world dressed up in Hallmark moments and cheesy prime-time sitcoms that neatly wrap up every relationship issue in a half hour.  Free from a world that tells people like me that we aren’t ok because we don’t have what Hollywood and Capitalist America tells us we’re supposed to have.

Yes I was dealt a shitty hand.  Yes, I’ve had to fight and dig and claw my way through life alone, figuring things out as I go and learning all my lessons the hard way.  I could have settled for “surviving” like so many people do, but that has never been good enough for me.  I’ve never been one to sit on the side lines, taking the safe route. I  am not one to just go through the motions, biding my time on this planet.  I want to live – I mean really live.  That has meant a life of experiences, risks and experiments – some of them healthy and some – well, let’s just say, maybe not so much. Trying things – and people – on for size is how I’ve discovered who I am and what fits.

Today I was set free. Today I saw myself in a kinder, more empathetic light: I am exactly where I want to be and I owe that to the sum of my experiences. Good and bad.

I got here by being brave enough to face my truth. By making mistakes, getting into bad relationships and trying on friends that didn’t fit.  I learned something from each and every one of those experiences. And they got me here, to this exact spot at this most awesome and beautiful moment. Not everyone’s path is the same – and that is ok.

I was so deep in thought that I barely noticed the plateau was behind me and I was beginning my descent toward Tyndall Creek on a wooded trail.  My mind was racing with all the clarity that was flooding in. Like some invisible gate of self-love and empathy had flung open and I could see clearly for the first time. How could I have known what type of men I wanted to date or women I wanted to befriend if I didn’t even know who I was?  All those years of selling myself out had left me an empty shell; a chameleon ready to take on whatever colors I needed to blend in. But not anymore. The last couple of years have been about learning to be true to myself. About learning that I don’t even want to blend in and be like everyone else! It’s been about accepting – and now celebrating – my uniqueness.

I wanted to scream into the forest,  “YES I AM DIFFERENT GODDAMMIT AND IT’S OKAY!”

It’s fucking OK…

I trekked on with renewed purpose and an awakened sense of myself. Just a couple more miles t to Tyndall creek where I may or may not meet up with my new friends. And either way, it will be perfectly OK.



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21 comments on “Plateaus, Peaks and What I Left Behind”

  1. Hi Carolyn – I follow your YouTube channel and finally decide to succumb to curiosity and read your JMT blog. I am enthralled with your writing style and really enjoying reading each and every blog. I am usually one who watches and reads a lot but rarely comment – feeling like I’m not important enough for anyone to care what I have to say. The emotions you have written about thus far, I too have felt my entire life. Although I suspect we have had very different life experiences, our emotions surrounding these life experiences have been very similar and encourages me to continue reading as I am currently on my own sort of journey to discover myself and learn how to be comfortable in my own skin.

    1. Wendy, I’m glad you enjoyed the blog! Writing has been my first true love way before I even thought about making videos. I’m honored you’re enjoying reading! Good luck on your journey learning to get comfortable in your own skin. It is, indeed journey! Take care, Carolyn

  2. This one really jerked me. Tears trickle now as I write. Another thing I have in common with you – I too feel like I’m always saying good bye…right up to this day. I’m coming to terms with this reality as of late. And, It’s getting harder as I age now, I think. But, with this sad realty,, I’m deeply grateful to be me and in this body. I’ve been learning lately to love me, love my body, my health and to be grateful for the constants in my life – my dog, my van, myself and Universe/God!

    1. Gloria – awwww.. 🙁 Yes, lots of goodbyes, but I believe they all happened for a reason.. to teach me how to save precious room and time for the right people!! And yes, dogs, vans/rvs and God/Universe are always great companions too! – C

  3. I was so lucky to stumble across your JMT blog and I absolutely love it. I feel like I’m hiking right along with you and the insights of your self reflection ring so beautifully true with honesty and with such a great sense of humor. This blog entry really spoke to me as I can relate to that nagging feeling that I’m always outside looking in, wondering why I feel so disconnected with most people. You’ve stated it better than any therapist when you said how can you pick people who are right for you if you don’t know who you are. I never looked at it that way and you are now my hero and such an inspiration! Plus the laughter I get from your stories is the icing on the cake. I too, am trying to find out who I really am now at age 54 (better late than never!) and am trekking to Everest Base Camp in Sept of 2018.
    You’ve given me the kick in the butt to get out on my own, face my fears, embrace what I may discover about myself and start planning for a solo trip on the JMT for 2019.
    Keep it up, Carolyn…you are my new girl power hero!! Thank you!!
    Now to get back to reading the rest of your blog journeys!!!!

    1. Barb, I’m glad you stumbled upon my blog too! Welcome!
      Everest Base Camp!!! Holy cow!!! that is awesome.. good for you!
      And thank you for the very kind message about your experience reading my story. It means a lot to know that you feel connected to my journey.
      Wow. A little envious of the Everest hike. YOU GO!!! Thanks very much for writing! I hope you enjoy the rest of the adventure! – Carolyn

    2. Barb, I was reading the comments and came across yours. I know you dint know me, but just wanted to say that I think it is amazing that you are going to the base camp.. I hope all the adventure and happiness for you. Will you be blogging about your experience? I’d love to rest about it.

  4. Yup… found myself crying reading this blog. I love how transparent you are… and how clearly you share everything about your journey. Im positive many of us can relate in one way or another which is very moving and connecting. Be true to yourself, love it!! thank you thank you for sharing 😀 Your AWESOME!!

    1. Tabby, I somehow got your comment mixed up with another the other day and don’t think I really ‘saw’ it. I just ran across it again in my inbox and feel that I owe it a new response. Your heartfelt words touched me – so I wanted to say thank you for that. When I read comments like yours I know that taking the risk and putting myself out there the way I have is worth it – if I can connect with people like you, who understand and have been through stuff, then it all kinda makes sense.. does that make sense? YOU are awesome. Thank you for the encouraging words!!! All the best, Carolyn

  5. Congratulations on completing the JMT! I started the JMT NOBO from Horseshoe Meadows at about the same time as you but unfortunately I had to pull off at Woods Creek for a variety of reasons. I learned some valuable lessons that I will apply this summer as I give the JMT NOBO another shot.

    The Big Horn Plateau is an amazing place and I can easily understand how being there can inspire folks. Thank you for sharing your JMT journey and I look forward to reading future posts.

    1. Bill,
      I’m sorry to hear you had to leave the trail, I hope you’re able to complete it this year. I learned a lot too and when I do it again will definitely hit the trail a little differently. Sometimes just getting out and testing the waters is the best way to learn, right? 🙂

      Thank you for the congrats – and for reading and leaving your message! I appreciate it. – Carolyn

  6. It was beautiful, I loved it. Learning to love yourself and be grateful for who you’ve become is brave. It’s a bravery not many have. Facing yourself, your fears, being courageous, being vulnerable… being REAL. Way to go. I look forward to every post. Thanks for sharing and for keeping it real, warts and all,

    1. Skye, Awwww… thank YOU!!! It’s not easy sharing so much of myself, but I truly feel if my story inspires or helps others deal with some of this ‘stuff’ then it’s worth it. THANK YOU for your kind and encouraging words – they are so appreciated! – Carolyn

  7. I too, appreciate your raw honesty. I can relate to some of your experiences. It took years of self inflection to come to terms and it’s still a work in progress. Your blog is an interesting combination of trail experience and your life experience.

    1. Thank you Rhea. One of the questions I get most about my trip is what I thought about while on the trail alone for so long. And women often say they could never go alone because they’re afraid they’d not be able to get out of their heads. I thought it would be helpful to share parts of my story to show what goes through your mind out there – it’s not that scary. 🙂 And you do think of everything from your past mistakes and baggage to the lyrics of song you just can’t seem to remember to why rocks look the way they do (that post is coming soon).

      Glad you’re appreciating the story for what it is and thank you, as usual for your kind words. 🙂 – Carolyn

  8. You articulate so well the feelings and emotions I had growing up. I suspect your blog will touch a lot of people. I love your honesty. You’re an amazing, inspirational person. Thank you for verbalising your thoughts and feelings Carolyn.

    1. Brian, Wow- thank you very much for your kind words! I dug deep on this one and almost didn’t publish it, but I know I’m not the only one who went through all this stuff and if I can help someone have a better day or make sense of a difficult situation, then it’s worth it. Knowing that it touched you in some way inspires me – so thank you!! – Carolyn

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