Today I built my first campfire – actually the first fire I’ve ever built. Not knowing what I was doing I scrambled around trying to find dryish flammable materials… some stringy moss, dry leaves, a page out of my guidebook. I scraped together small twigs to make a little teepee over the tinder like my Google search instructed me to do. Went in with the lighter, the moss caught for a slight moment then sadly retreated back, flameless and charred. Same goes for the leaves, the paper and eventually an alcohol soaked wet wipe. People use liquor to start fires right? Well apparently not wet wipes.
Finally, remembering how some packing lists called for cotton balls and Vaseline to get the flame going, I grabbed Theo’s mushers wax (paw wax to protect his little feet) hoping that maybe it’d have the same effect. Probably 25 lights and a couple layers of skin off my thumb later I decided I may just have to call it quits. I tried lighting it once more and turned to the other girl at camp saying I had to call it. As I stepped away she said ‘Look look!’ The flame at last finally caught and was slow burning through the Mushers wax. And this time the flames didn’t curl up into a dark swirl of smoke and burnt embers, they continued to grow on each other until finally catching my miniature teepee. I’d done it! Woman makes fire! Success!
I then realized this was the second time today I was about to give up on a task and it miraculously fell into place at that moment. This morning in the blistering cold after hunting around aimlessly for one of my tent stakes I said well that’s that, gonna have to use the spare, then wham, I look down and the stake was right next to my foot. Now the fire incident. Maybe it’s presumptuous but I can’t help but think Matt’s helping me out especially today when I had a hard, bone chilling, blister filled day. (Note for self – do not switch back to regular socks, toe socks all the way).
It’s times like these that I truly feel like an infant, reborn from grief just kicking, screaming and crying. Not wanting to face this new reality that is our harsh world. I have to relearn everything. My future as I planned it has been crossed through, then run back over in a thick sharpie just in case I missed it. Here I am, in the woods, learning how to build a fire, navigate the cold, not break my only utensil (yes, the 88 cent walmart spoon was a steal, yes it also broke on first use), ration my meals and stops throughout the day. Back to basics, living as a human 101, that’s where I am at right now.
To think that six and a half months ago Matt and I were checking out cheap plots of land in the outskirts of Boulder county for our future (dream) farm style cottage property. We were going back and forth over whether we should get married in Colorado, Arkansas or maybe just elope. We were about to go to Iceland, our flight was on the Friday after we lost Matt. It would have marked Matt’s first trip out of the states and a dream of his. Just days before we lost him he sat quietly smiling at our table circling all the sites he wanted to visit in the guide book.
Our careers were blossoming, he receiving a hefty promotion, myself with interviews lined up at some top tech companies in Boulder including Twitter and later Google. We knew soon we’d get another dog and name her Elizabeth to keep in line with our British dog names. We joked that we’d then name our kids Spot, Sparky and Rover just to throw people off.
Everything that Matt and I wanted in life was at our finger tips, just inches away. We were so happy in love and it all was coming together. Nothing could go wrong, nothing could touch us. But then, as life does, it did, and everything went wrong, I lost Matt, Matt lost everything he’d been working towards and his little family, what he prided the most. Drugs took it all away from us faster than the lightening I see riveting through these mountains some nights.
So now, here I am, alone in the woods with Theo, learning the basics. Trying to remember how to breathe, take care of myself in the simplest way and keep moving one step in front of the other through these hills. So is the nature of grief.
The Appalachian Trail continues to remind me how connected we are and how similar so many of our stories truly can be. I spent time this last week with not one, not two but three women who’s lives had also fallen apart, and who’d been torn up from grief and addiction themselves.
Two were former heroin addicts, with many years clean under their belt. One of the two, Denise (name changed for privacy) was a counselor for eight years for young people struggling with addiction. I picked her brain for hours over one of our walks about her experience in this work, particularly her opinions on how we can best help late teenagers address addiction issues at their infancy.
We discussed the concept of enablement, and how often families turn budding addicts away from their homes, families and lives for fear of encouraging the behavior. She believes when too extreme, this further drives young people into the isolated feelings that so often rooted the drug use in the first place, creating a spiral of isolation from loved ones, lack of self esteem and ultimately more use, leading to more isolation and so on. While she believes it is true that an addict must want to stop to be able to seek help and stop using, we can prevent young users, particularly at the start, from downward spiraling through showing them more care, love and support early on. Instead she encourages parents and families to bring options to the table for the young addict, help them navigate ways to get through this while also making sure they know they are loved and valued. Most of all the latter, to ensure that no matter what the child knows they are loved and believed in, she said that is so important for anyone trying to recover from addiction.
I found this interesting, and while I don’t have the expertise she as a counselor has to back it up, it was something I sensed. Matt would frequently echo this sentiment a well. The reality is, Matt flourished most when he felt his loved ones were proud of him, and that he was loved. His self esteem had taken a beating from his decade of addiction but he was rebuilding, and feeling loved and believed in was essential to the years he had in recovery. Members of his family saw that he was better when he visited from Colorado and made sure to tell him they were proud of him, that they could see how far he came and all the amazing things he was doing with his life. That right there meant the world to him, and though he lost his battle in the end, this kind of support was crucial for the days he walked the line and his time in recovery.
I’ve been thinking a lot about working in wilderness therapy as a potential path for me after this trek. Denise is a believer in it, explaining how getting kids with addiction out of their often toxic environment, into the woods and showing them how they can be self reliant rebuilds their self esteem and helps them work through their isolation. Nature removes us from the daily stressors and pressures of modern day life. We are back to basics out here, not being judged by our appearances or our past errors. The woods don’t care. That fire would not have lit any faster if I’d been wearing a cocktail dress and heels. These hills would not have been climbed any quicker had I never made a mistake. Matt himself withdrew to the outdoors when he was struggling with either his self esteem, his addiction or his other past traumas. It truly is healing and cleansing in so many ways. I’m not sure it’s the route I will go down yet but I definitely can personally feel the power of it and want to continue learning more.
Our week rounded out with a stay at the farm my cousin worked at here in Franklin. Her boyfriend’s sister is the caretaker of this small sheep and vegetable farm right on the outskirts of the trail. Her parents were there, all of them Irish natives. With the drizzly cloudy weather, and sheep abound, I truly felt I’d been transported into an actual sheep farm in the hills of Ireland for a day.
Being on that farm was bittersweet. As I pet their new baby sheep, born just last week, I thought about how much Matt would have loved this. The caretakers’ quarters was a cottage style one floor home. They had a greenhouse full to the brim with seedlings being prepped for planting. I could almost feel Matt in there in his old age singing and bouncing to Mr Fantasy while he watered and talked to his plants. I could see us sitting on the porch together at dusk with hot tea in hand watching our goats (he wanted goats rather than sheep) in their fields. It made me weepy at times, being there, seeing with my own eyes the future Matt and I could no longer have, one so similar to what we wanted.
But at the same time, it was hard to be totally morose among the company at the farm. The Irish truly are some of the most hospitable people I’ve met. Her mother cooked up a storm of pasta, pork, sweet corn and fresh garden salad for dinner. Oh that fresh garden salad, I had not had a single vegetable in two weeks so to have something FRESH from a GARDEN from the GROUND was pure medicine. Between her dad’s quick wit and FaceTiming my hilarious cousin, I had many good laughs. The next morning I was able to wash my clothes and Michelle, the daughter, made us homemade chai tea as her mom fried up ginea eggs for a full breakfast. She even made me a giant sandwich to go! Angels on earth, I swear they are real.
And so here I am, a day post farm in my tent typing away at this. There’s truly much more to write about, more stories to share, and that I will in the days to come. But for now, I need to turn in so I can hike my many miles tomorrow, Theo has been asleep so I don’t think he’ll tolerate a glacial pace in the morning after all. Thank you again for reading this, I know it covers a lot, grief, addiction, hiking shenanigans, so I hope it’s not too jumbled. I’m definitely still getting into the swing of it all but feeling more at home out here everyday.
Kamikaze and Theodore the Explorer
P.S. Theo is scared of sheep, guess he’s not the Jedi they are looking for.
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