Tag Archives: solo roadtrip

The Early Introvert Hikes Alone – finding paradise on mt leconte

I’d never hiked alone in the dark. My only memory of hiking at night occurred when I was a child camping with family at Indiana Dunes State Park. We’d all gone out with flashlights to spot spiders building intricate webs and watch the waves play with the sand off Lake Michigan. This time, however, I was alone. The headlamp I’d purchased as a book reading tool was now strapped to my head, making me feel some mix of a badass and nerd extraordinaire. As it turned out, the light the headlamp produced looked much dimmer when thrown out into the vastness of nature than it had against the parchment white pages of my journal. “There are bears out here,’ I thought.

Two hours before, I’d crawled out of the warmth of my sleeping bag wedged halfway into the trunk of my car and fumbled around for the keys. Once in the ignition, the radio had sprung to life and, with the promise of heat, I’d messily braided my hair, changed into hiking clothes and started water going for coffee. Spending the night in a hotel parking lot, smack dab in the middle of Pigeon Forge isn’t what I’d recommend for a restful sleep but it is where I’d landed and, once on the road again that morning, the flashing lights and overdone gaudy buildings seemed to be performing for no one in these early hours, an eerie ghost town of excess. Open cup of coffee in one hand, I’d clicked between high and low beams, snaking down dark mountain roads on the way to Alum Cave Trailhead. An oncoming driver had flashed his brights. I’d forgotten to switch mine off. I always forget. I hoped he received my telepathic apology. Mountain roads in the dark walk a fine line between enchanting and terrifying.

I reached the trailhead at 6:50am. The parking area was already littered with cars, though many were likely overnight guests at the Lodge. My hands shook slightly. Was I afraid of the dark? I wasn’t sure. I was new to this. Nevermind. Headlamp strapped on, I headed in the direction I assumed the trailhead would be. Miraculously, I found it immediately. “Alum Cave Trail. Mt. LeConte 5 miles.” My insides were shaking as I crossed the small bridge that begins the trail.

And yet, only moments later, the feeling that washed over me was absolute calm. I was no longer afraid. I was exactly where I wanted to be. Guided by the wane circle of light emanating from my head, I hiked on, following Alum Cave Creek along my right. While the dark early hours of morning persisted, it was only me, the wane circle of light, the sound of water rushing over rocks and my own footsteps. Something spiritual existed in that moment. The darkness, the mountains, the trees performed a symphony more felt than heard, and I alone was permitted admittance, the lone patron.

Slowly, the sky beyond the trees began to lighten. I surprised myself with my hesitation to remove my headlamp; The dark had been unexpected magic. Though accidental, my timing had allowed me to hike the lower elevations in the dark and placed me high enough in the growing light to catch back-lit mountains in stunning vistas. The first bright rays of sun sparkled behind ridges and the amber yellow leaves of early October popped in the shadows.

I’m an introvert and a loner by nature. The mention of parties makes me cringe. Even when I WANT to be social, I only have so much social to offer on a given day and once it is used, it is gone, not to be replenished for at least the length of a full night’s sleep. If other stresses are added to the day, my social stamina will be even less. At times, just a long drive to an event mixed with the worry over not being able to socialize like a “proper” human have me finished before I’ve even started.  Forced to remain at an event after my ‘social’ is gone means my smile will look and feel strange and my eyes appear tired. A headache will, almost inevitably, build in the spaces behind my temples. Every noise in the room will become too sharp, every light too bright, my senses now overwhelmed to exhaustion. I forget how to respond to questions, how to make conversation, how to laugh when others are laughing.

To say I’m not the life of the party is a colossal understatement. “Are you ALIVE at the party?” would be something nearer the truth. And yet, the traits which make me want to fall into a hole in the floor given the prospect of trying to be entertaining, make me excel at being alone in the woods, hiking to the top of a mountain, not a person in sight in any direction. Every introvert has her own version of the BEST type of ‘alone.’ This is mine.

I was lucky enough to continue the ascent in absolute solitude. Not until approximately a quarter mile from the LeConte Lodge did I meet a couple heading down. The man had a full, Santa-white beard and nearly stopped my heart when he teased, “The trail is closed. You’ll have to turn around.”

Passing the lodge, which was bustling in the early morning hours, I continued up the short spur trail to the summit. The cairn at the LeConte summit was massive, and I approached it slowly for fear of causing the tremble that might bring the whole thing down. I placed my own stone on the pile and felt at once I’d joined my soul with all the others who had stepped here.

On the way down, re-tracing my steps, I was a child running down a 5-mile-long hill. “Forget 34-year-old knees, let them hurt tomorrow. Today, I play.” The solitude of the morning hike had left me bubbly and energetic. I spoke happily to hikers coming up the trail, responding to questions of “how much further?!” I stopped to ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ at a baby squirrel and marveled at a man testing his two brand new hips for the first time.

By noon I was back in my car, just one more early autumn tourist snaking down Highway 441. This hike had been the capstone on a short peak-bagging trip and my ninth peak over 6,000 feet in just three days. A month later, I still can close my eyes and be back at the Alum Cave Trailhead, headlamp switched on, taking those first cautious steps into the dark.



Badlands Are Bittersweet Companions

After leaving Glacier, I spent a night in Kalispell, then began the trek toward home, driving through smoke-strangled Lolo forest. I stopped for gas in Lodge Grass on Crow land. The large sign on the building read only “Gas Diesel Snacks.” A rez dog trotted onto the lot, lifted his head and howled.

After a night in Sheridan, Wyoming, I slogged through dense, early morning fog to Wall, South Dakota–tourist trap and relic tucked into a tiny country town, bookended by grain silos on one side and Badlands National Park on the other. Signs for Wall Drug had begun more than a hundred miles away, dotting the parched roadsides of I-90.

Free ice water!

Western wear!

Coffee 5 cents!

Experience Wall Drug!

Though camping and hiking are available at Badlands, the main event of the park is the 39-mile scenic drive. Upon entry, signs warned of plague-carrying prairie dogs. I decided to take my chances.

To step foot in the Badlands is to cross into an alien planet. Juxtaposed by prairie, layers of rock jut toward the sky like elaborate castle battlements. In places, the earth seems to have undergone one great squeeze, corrugating ground like cardboard. Temperatures soared into the 90’s and wind tore over the tree-less ground. I think, if one stayed too long, she too would become just a speck of dust.

All of us earthling tourists, in our brightly colored clothes, stopped again and again taking pictures then, gladly, crawling back into air conditioned cars. Strangely enough, having not showered for five full days, I had reached a curious new level of confidence (or at least lack of concern) regarding anyone’s opinion of me. Over one thousand miles from home, enveloped in strange, untamed land, whether or not my legs were shaved was of little concern.

For the next day and a half, one word sounded in my head. Home, home, home. My last night was spent in a hotel, a gift from Alan. How quickly ‘normal’ life becomes foreign! I fumbled through my things, feeling confused as I stared at shampoo and soap and clean, white towels. At long last, eyes closed and palms open, the humanizing effect of hot, running water brought me to tears.

Mountain Therapy – where agoraphobia met adventure

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.

And yet…
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.