The agoraphobia struck forcefully and without warning. I cannot entirely identify the catalyst, though I remember those first weeks well—long October days, hiding under layers, smoking menthols out the bedroom window and pure, unadulterated panic at the mere thought of needing to leave my apartment. Depression swirled through it all like milk poured into black coffee. I skipped holidays and family events. I made excuses. I slept through entire days and nights. Anxiety medication was popped like candy. I watched the seasons change through glass, like some kind of backwards peeping Tom.
When spring arrived, I forced myself out to stretch my legs and breathe something other than staleness and smoke. I couldn’t make it past the end of my street.
Fast forward five years and you’d find an older, slightly happier, slightly less agoraphobic me. I had a healthy relationship, a cat, a dog and a ten-year-old girl who wanted me to be her stepmom.
I still had panic attacks in the grocery store.
I still could not drive more than 20 minutes from home without fear and nausea and a jumpy, palpitating heart.
I still skipped family functions sometimes.
I’d had enough.
I would do something big, push myself beyond every, last level of comfort. I would perform my own version of immersion therapy.
I would not die before I saw something beautiful.
I chose Glacier National Park. Crown of the Continent. More than a million acres of mountains, lakes and streams. Teeming with everything from tiny pikas to mountain lions and grizzly bears.
Lying in bed at night, I scrolled through pictures on my phone. I wanted to be there so intensely I could feel it in my chest. I had been a prisoner of my brain for too long; it was time I unlocked the gate.
I didn’t have money for hotel rooms—I would sleep in my car. I’d arranged my sleeping bag so my lower half would snuggle down into the trunk of my 2007 Toyota Corolla. My food supply consisted of protein bars, peanut butter, bananas and instant coffee. I didn’t have the proper “outdoorsy” clothing. My too-cheap, stow-away backpack was made more comfortable with a little help from a bungee cord as a makeshift chest strap. My hiking shoes had holes in the toes.
None of this mattered.
On the morning of the great exodus, I was readier than I imagined I could be. When I’d awoken throughout the night, I was met with feelings of confidence, not the get-me-out-of-this dread I had anticipated. Nerves were high but so was excitement. The car was packed. The house was checked and double checked for things I might have missed. I said goodbye and logged the first of 1700 miles.
For each of the next few days, my routine was similar. Drive until I couldn’t anymore. Find a place to park. Set up sheets as makeshift curtains. Slide into the me-sized trunk bed. Sleep. Wake before the butt crack of dawn. Make coffee over my tiny stove and jetboil fuel. Drive. Drive. Drive. I-94, you vast, barren creature—I will never forget you.
Wildfires were raging just west of here. I’d noticed for hundreds of miles the hazy muted shades of the horizon but on my morning drive to Glacier, the sun was a strange murky, coral-colored orb. With the windows rolled down, I breathed in the acrid scent of what, to me, smelled of childhood bonfires. The Blackfeet Indian Land I traversed was immense and looked nearly untouched. I imagined this land looking much the same as it always has, unharmed and wild.
And then, it happened.
I saw my first ‘real’ mountains. I stopped the car at a pull-off, got out and stood on wobbly, unused legs. Far below me, an animal bellowed deeply. This was the wilderness. I was here in all my shaky, four-days-of-car-living, no-shower, stinking realness, and I was more alive than I had ever been. I drove the rest of the way into the park, paid for my pass and listened to the park ranger with a raptness I’d not previously conjured.
I entered at Two Medicine and parked at the Scenic Point trailhead. I’d done no real research, so focused was I on keeping myself relaxed and calm as mile by mile I became further from home. I didn’t know how long the trail was or what to expect. I secured my bungee cord chest strap and stepped into wonderland.
The trail started gently, quiet and meandering through thick forest, the sound of the rushing water of Appistoki Falls to my right. I was convinced I had walked on the set of a film. The trees and flowers were props, each stone strategically placed. If I exhaled too hard, I’d blow it all down. I ached to touch it but I could not. This was sacred ground. This place could eat me alive. I was dumbfounded. I hiked with my mouth hanging open.
Thick vegetation lined the trail, and I quietly wondered where the grizzlies were hiding. Never had I hiked with the very real possibility of becoming someone’s meal. Overcoming my trepidation about making noise in this beautiful place, I occasionally clapped my hands loudly to scare away wildlife. The trail opened, looking down at Two Medicine Lake. Gnarled skeletons of dead white-bark pine trees stood stark against the landscape like wise village elders.
Scrambling over boulders and talus, I continued up, switchback after switchback. Despite running nearly every day back home, I had never felt more out of shape. I was panting. Hard.
I began to realize that Scenic Point was at the top of this mountain. I didn’t arrive looking for this particular challenge but now it was my life’s sole mission. Veteran hikers coming down passed me at intervals, looking nonplussed, decked out in their Osprey backpacks, carrying trekking poles, bear bells jingling cheerfully as they walked. I was a novice. I didn’t care. When I thought I’d certainly reached the top, another switchback led me further. I refused to stop.
The wind was whipping my hair into my face, sun beating down on the exposed trail when I saw the cairns. I was too tired for tears of joy. I was an agoraphobe on a mountaintop. I had breathed for the very first time. Such a strange mix, the fear of leaving the safety of my home and the elation of standing there, a solo brunette lightning rod. The latter force was stronger. It was worth every dusty mile.
On the way down I wondered if everyone could see that I’d looked at the face of God. Was my hair a little whiter? Was it written in my eyes? I felt I had grown, that my heart was bigger and my soul finally full and satisfied after years of starvation.
I was not…am not…cured; Life doesn’t quite work that way. But I was changed. The essence of that mountain had seeped into my pores. Now, when I am afraid, when I feel less than brave, I know that I am still the same girl who once defied the enemy and drove 1700 miles to stand on a mountain.