Layin’ Down Roots: The Girl and the Mountain

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I guess it started out as a spontaneous trip to the mountains. On an average Tuesday, I found myself with no impending plans for the weekend and an airline voucher from a previously cancelled flight burning a hole in my metaphorical pocket. Just three days later I was on a plane bound for Denver with a rental car and an air BnB awaiting my arrival. There would be no friends to greet me at the gate. This was a trip I needed to make on my own.

Why the mountains? The easy answer is because I’d never been. The hard answer…the real answer…is that I needed an escape – a place where the only distraction between me and my thoughts would be the incredible scenery and the dangerous terrain. There’s no WiFi or cell service in the mountains. A perfect forced retreat and detox from the world.

My biggest worry wasn’t the weather or the wildlife….it was the fact that I’d be forced to talk to myself. Honestly, it’d been so long since we’d had any meaningful conversation that I was worried I wouldn’t like this girl I’d be stuck with for a few days. Maybe she’d be boring, or, worse…maybe she’d say too much.

I know what you’re probably thinking right about now. What is she escaping from? She seems to have her life together – a career she loves, hobbies she enjoys, friends who support her, and a family that loves her back. And all of that is undoubtedly true and I’m incredibly grateful for the luck I’ve found in life. But…and maybe some of you who’ve reached the “not old, but no longer young” part of your lives might relate to…there was still something missing.

I didn’t know exactly what it was, but I knew I wasn’t going to find it by sitting at home. It was deeper, a gut sense that could only be found somewhere above the noise and chaos of everyday life. I escaped to find it.

I landed in Denver and hopped in my rental car and set off on my solo adventure. I was struck by how Mountain-less the terrain was by the airport and I briefly panicked that I’d landed in the wrong spot. This was not the view John Denver had promised me. But as I made my way to Boulder for a one-night stop off, the flatland gave way to peaks and I took my first real breath of the cool mountain air. Now this might be the altitude talking, but I already felt lighter. (Or light-headeder….hard for a girl from the Midwest to tell the difference).

Spoiler alert – I did not find what I was missing in Boulder. I did, however, find out some things about myself.

1. As much as I tried to be, I am not hipster enough to enjoy a downtown air BnB room with a mattress on the floor and a host who wouldn’t shake my hand because he is “more of a fist bumper.” I’m good at handshakes, it’s kinda my thing, and I really need more than two pillows for a good night’s sleep. (Translation = I’m too old for this shit.)

2. I like college towns, they’re cute, but do you know what I like even more? Waking up early, grabbing some overpriced coffee, and getting out of town while the rest of the under 30 population is still sleeping off the hangover from the night before.

On my drive to Estes Park, gateway to the Rocky Mountains, my real trip began. Ninety minutes of jamming out with my ears popping and frequent audible gasps as the scenery unfolded all around me. I’d forgotten what pure freedom felt like, and it was downright glorious. All that was missing were big sunglasses and a colorful scarf wrapped around my neck with one end hanging out the window.

Like a good tourist, I slid into a parking spot at the Visitor’s Center and flagged down the first park ranger I could find for a recommendation on a hiking trail. Ten minutes later I was on a shuttle bus with a backpack of water and snacks, heading up to my first big girl hike.

At the Bear Lake trailhead, I started my Garmin watch, buckled my backpack straps, and took off toward Emerald Lake. With the exception of a few friendly “good mornings” to fellow hikers, I soon settled in to solitude. It felt foreign at first, like a place I’d heard about but never really visited. But as any traveler will tell you, foreign soon morphed into familiar and I stared to relax. And the thoughts rushed in like a cold spring cascading down the mountainside.

Was I happy? Sure, maybe, probably, I think so. Happy with what? Life? My current situation? My recent choices? Ten miles of trails affords plenty of time for internal debate. What was I doing that I didn’t want to do anymore? What did I want to start doing instead? Was I being true to myself? Did I even know what I valued? With each step, questions transformed into answers.

It all sounds so crunchy granola and mystical, but the narrow trail widened my view. For the first time (in a depressingly long time), I experienced clarity. I don’t know if I met God on the mountain (or Mother Nature or Father Time), but I was talking to somebody and they were talking back. What were they saying? The entirety of our discussion will have to be saved for another day, but the gist of it was this – quit wasting time looking for things you don’t need and start making time for the things that you do.

By the time I made it to Emerald Lake, I started to
like this girl that I was hanging out with again. Despite the choices of her recent past, and the struggles to create a new normal, she wasn’t so bad after all. She was her own worst critic, so I decided to give her a break. Could redemption be found in the whispers of the wind through the Aspens? I like to think so.

I came down from the Rockies feeling content and happy, like genuinely happy. And not because of another person or a finished race or a successful career move…happy with myself for being honest with myself. I didn’t need to fill up my life anymore just for the sake of being full. There is peace that comes with sitting in the silence and loneliness, and being okay with it. Sometimes the soul needs the mind to just shut up and listen.

That sounds great, right? Girl goes to the mountains and finds herself! Cue the music and roll the credits! But…that’s not the way this story ends.

I had to go back. And, in true form, I had to dig deeper and look harder. I can be a real challenge sometimes, (just ask those who love me the most – although I think they prefer to call my stubbornness a real “pain in the ass.”) but scratching the surface just wouldn’t suffice. What was I really made of? What did I really want? And, what did I really deserve? That last question has been the most elusive one of my life, especially during my 37th year. While I strive for success in most areas of my life, and usually attain it, I am also (maddeningly) quick to settle in other areas. I accept “okay” or “good enough” way too often.

So this time I chose a harder hike with a higher altitude and more challenging terrain. I’m a Spartan racer, so I am an admitted glutton for punishment…but I wanted to test the limits of my psyche too. As they say….Your body can do almost anything, it’s your mind you have to convince. I wanted to test if this theory applied to mental feats as well.

To accurately describe the beauty of the hike to Sky Pond is an impossible task. The English language just isn’t adequate. You’ll have to trust me on this one and go see for yourself someday. But if you’ve seen pictures you know that the stark contrast of the craggy peaks against the cirulean sky can leave you staring in wonder, and the crystal clean lakes surrounded by tall, green pines are a hiker’s dream. You are rewarded by nature at every turn, and greeted by breathtaking views in all 360 degrees.

But here’s the part of my 10 mile hike that really matters for our purposes here. My proverbial “where the rubber meets the road” moment. With one mile left from the top, I found myself face to face with a rock wall and no easy way to get up. My actual thought was, “Now how in the hell do they expect me to get up there?!” I looked around for assistance. There was none to be found. I was alone. And I had a choice to make. Was I going to let a steep incline and fear get in my way, or was I going to tackle it head on and find a way to get through it? Action always cures anxiety…so I grabbed on to the slippery rocks (oh yeah, forgot to tell you water was rushing down) with both hands and started climbing.

Don’t tell my Dad, but at one point I slipped. My trail shoe didn’t get a good grip and I fell a bit. But I regained my composure and continued. I could feel the wind whipping around and the temperature dropping. But, you know what….I made it…and found out what I was made of – grit and heart. And when I finally got to the end of trail and sat on a rock overlooking that lake 11,000 feet up in the sky, I exhaled a breath that I think I’ve been holding in for the last ten years.

So, what do I want and what do I deserve? I found my answer while sitting on that rock.

I want experiences that will expand my mind, test my limits, and leave me with stories to tell.

I want love that will let me go off to slay dragons, but will step in front and hold up a shield if the fire ever gets too hot.

I want to embrace the past and feel gratitude for all of the stops along the way…accepting each leg of the journey for the lessons it provides and the people it brings into my life. Every single one of them.

I want to be the very essence of love for my children. The example they look to, along with their father, when they’re out blazing their own trails and the guide they can turn to when the path gets tough.

And I deserve it all. Not the “good enough” version…but the real, meaty, gritty, wonderful, worth waiting and fighting for version. And so do you.

I hope you’ll go find your answers, be it on the top of a mountain or outside your back door. And embrace the simple beauty of all the experiences that get you to the end of the trail.

-Stacey Dodson
Layin’ Down Roots


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