It had been a rough few weeks, and it felt like the world was conspiring against me. It wasn’t, but I wasn’t simply being dramatic. I had at least five unanswered writing queries and one good fight with an advertisement focused editor who cared about anything but publishing a great story simply because it was a great story. I had a novel sitting on an external hard drive that needed to get restarted and quickly edited; whenever I came near the little thumb drive hanging from the handle on the closet in my office, I was suddenly paralyzed, and doing just about anything else seemed more important. I’d been laid off a couple weeks prior, the famous rain and clouds of the Pacific Northwest’s shoulder seasons had begun to roll in, and my optimism—no matter how hard I tried and how much I attempted to stay light-hearted, focused and hopeful—was beginning to evaporate as quickly as the warm Indian summer days.
I needed a little connection with the Earth and a little interaction with the outside world that wasn’t stemming from or focused on the writing world and my next career moves. I needed fresh air, deep breaths, sweat. I may have even needed some tears. Within a week of the unexpected closing of the magazine I was working for, I’d launched a new web journal, pitched several stories, wrote to old connections and contacts in the industry to get the ball rolling on the next project and begun to talk—with great excitement and hope—about the future. I’d also done the humbling stuff. The State of Oregon tested my aptitude in math and English, I registered for the iMatchSkills career building program and I’d made budget cuts and lifestyle changes I didn’t want to have to make. I tried to let the good keep the bad from boiling up, but it sat there simmering underneath the surface and I knew it was only a matter of time. Maybe part of what I was feeling, part of what pulled me outside and over to Dog Mountain, was a desire to have my breakdown outside, alone. Sometimes the things that make for the best scene in a novel: a man, alone, on the side of a small mountain he’s failed to climb before, with the wind whipping him relentlessly and the ice-cold rain drops of early October pricking his skin, pushed higher, faster and further than before by the negative in his life as he searches for catharsis in the least cathartic situation possible… Well, sometimes those ideas are best left in fiction stories, because there’s a falsehood to the whole thing. Are we really at our best when we’re alone, cold, stranded and beaten down by the oft-disappointing rhythm of life constantly lapping at our shores, taking a bit more each time it charges the beach?
I sat on the couch in our living room quietly sipping coffee. The volume on the TV was turned down. I was watching whatever football game the NFL regional experts decided I’d be interested in, which is always funny to try and figure out in the transplant packed Northwest. I was just about to dial things up a bit and try to get into the game when I noticed the tone switch in Ann’s voice. She was talking on the phone with her dad, and I knew the minute I picked up on the vibe of the conversation that things weren’t well with her grandfather. He’s 97 or so, and it’s a call we all expect in our lives. Our families—hell, ourselves—will not live forever. My first thoughts, being the loving, attentive husband that I am, were something along the lines of “Oh, great, like we need this right now.” I cringe to think of it now, but writing, at its best, has to be honest. I was feeling a little selfish, the way most anyone would after the few weeks I’d had. Images of us scrambling to gather our things together to fly to Indiana started to flash through my head. I’d had a lot of changes in the last 250 or so hours, and it seemed that more were on the way. And then she asked a simple, pertinent, amazing question that turned something in my swirling head.
“How are you doing, Dad? I know you two are so close,” and with that, I shed a tear or two. She humbled me and shut me up before I could stick my foot in my mouth and regret something I would likely have said after the call. I married an amazingly empathetic and emotional woman. I’d spent some time thinking about how my job loss was going to affect her; it kept me up that first night—thoughts of her and us, not me. I think I’d learned more about marriage in the few hours after the magazine’s closing than I did our whole first year together. I’d learned that things no longer happen to me, they happen to us, and that’s both heartwarming and terrifying. I’m just beginning to understand the way a couple of young parents feel the first time they find themselves in some financial difficulty with a little one’s mouth to feed.
Ann had been nothing but supportive, upbeat and excited for the new opportunities coming my way. Her first words were something like, “Well, you put together a hell of a magazine, and it’s sad that it’s gone, but you have something to be proud of.” She wasted no time with, “Now you’ve learned so much and know the market so much better—it’s time to do your own thing.” I wanted to be that guy with her grandfather’s passing too, but sometimes the person we are at the core is being affected by the situations around us.
“I’m sorry, babe,” I said. “Let’s take this one day at a time and we’ll do what we need to do when the time comes.” It really was that matter of fact, but I felt so much less supportive of her than she had been of me. It was something we’d both have to deal with. Neither of us is good at waiting or at handling the things we can’t control. We worry constantly about enjoying our weekends together without interruption or distraction, embracing each day and always trying to get the work and responsibility out of the way so that we can relax and enjoy life together. That’s a longterm and short term philosophy for both of us, but life was launching things our way that weren’t easily handled by this shared schematic outtake on life.
I packed my bag nervously for Dog Mountain. It’s a simple 4 or 5 hour hike covering a little over 7 miles with about 3,500 feet of elevation gain. I maybe needed a rain jacket and a bottle of water. I had a sandwich, a Clif Bar, a knife (I learned my lesson from Aaron Ralston: you never know), toilet paper, a fleece, a raincoat, my iPhone with a couple new Radiolab podcasts for entertainment, hiking poles, sunglasses, a winter hat, a baseball cap and a few odds and ends I’m forgetting. I was still packed lightly, but this list was generated and bolstered by the past failures and faults on this little, local hill. What I didn’t carry this time was the 65 pounds of fat I’d been dragging around for a few years, a slight hangover from the previous night or a fear of finding my physical limits.
Ann and I gave Dog Mountain a try back in February of 2010. I was a slob who’d hardly left the couch unless I was sitting in the car on the way to work, and Ann hadn’t learned how to handle me in my moments of self-doubt and anger. I clearly remember arriving, haggard and already beaten down by the steep switchbacks that seem to never end over the first mile or so, at the signs that mark the more and less difficult trails. We took the less difficult route, of course, without even discussing it, but when we got close we hit a sign that marks the last mile and half or so. Behind the sign the path stretches straight up. It’s so steep that when you’re there in the spring with the thousands of wildflower-seeking tourists and a trail soggy from the rain, you’re guaranteed to take a spill coming down this thing. “Do you want to take a break?” I remember her asking. She didn’t know that I’d already given up. I wasn’t the trained hiker she was, and I’m never going to be as stubborn or tough as she can be. We gave up and turned around. I was sore for days. The image of that trail haunted my memory for over year. It joined forces with the mental movie of my failed summit attempt on Mount Hood the summer prior. These memories seemed to be screaming at me, but what they were saying was unclear. I kept hearing, “Maybe you’re just not cut out for hiking and mountaineering,” but what they were likely saying was “Get your ass off the couch and this shit will stop happening.” You hear different things at different times. We’re not always the same person.
Ann needed to get out of the house for a bit after the phone call. A home can be that warm, comfortable place that you’ll always want to return to, but it’s also a place you need to escape from time to time to be reminded that there’s a whole, big, busy world out there. To know that others are carrying on despite their problems and to know that life goes on, even on the dark days, is an important realization. We climbed in the Honda to tour the Hood River Valley in full fall splendor. We would have preferred the Jeep, but gas money was part of our budget restraints. We made a stop at our favorite BBQ joint, but despite the enticing apple-smoked aroma, we were both having a little trouble connecting. Two minds constantly reeling over our current predicaments. We were so alone together. I wish I’d had the perfect words.
“Would you, maybe, want to go get a glass of wine somewhere and just relax?” she asked me as we prepared to leave. She knows I’m not a wine lover—I hardly touch the stuff. Her voice was soft and seemed in need of something.
“Uh. Um. Well, we’ve got a lot of food and some drinks at home. Maybe next weekend?”
“OK.” She said plainly, and in a way that now breaks my heart to relive. Her head seemed to hang a bit.
We made our way past Pheasant Valley, the logical winery choice, and over toward the western end of Hood River. The sun was shining through the gaps in the thick white clouds overhead. I heard my phone beep. I knew what it was. Before we’d left I’d written an editor who told me she couldn’t publish my story, even though it was a great idea (her words), because she had some advertisers who might not like it. Anyone who knows me well or has worked with me knows how my reply went. Something along the lines of, “Sorry to hear that your advertisers have such a strong influence over the content of your publication.” I’d actually said it much more tactfully than that, but she was able to find the true tone and sentiment despite my email’s careful, calculated prose. I didn’t want to look at the email right then, but it also got me thinking that I didn’t really want to head back to our quiet house with unemployment to file, an angry email to read and a heavy, sad feeling still hanging over the two of us. I steered the car toward Phelps Creek Winery without telling Ann. She thanked me warmly when we arrived.
I’d turned things around a while ago with some lifestyle changes that allowed my physique to match my mental state. While life was good, stories were being published, we were enjoying our first year as newlyweds and the largest fear we had was being trapped by all of the success we were experiencing, we’d managed to join the gym. After some time, I’d dedicated myself wholeheartedly to getting in the best shape I could be in. 65 pounds later, with muscles I never knew I had popping through my Patagonia t-shirt, I threw my pack over my shoulders, hopped in the Jeep and sped-off for the trailhead. I knew what the mountain was going to throw my way this time. I’d finally made it to the top with Ann in March 2011. It wasn’t without a few dicey moments. I snapped at her about halfway up as my own fear of failure threatened to take me down. “Geez. Relax. It’s not worth doing if you’re miserable,” was her answer. She was right. And I did relax. We were met with snow at the top, and we could only stay for a few seconds in the howling wind, but I felt a sense of great accomplishment, despite the fact that a team of slightly overweight women in their forties had been with us most of the way up. We wrapped up the whole deal in about 4 hours and finished the afternoon off with a few beers from Everybody’s Brewing.
This time, I was alone. This time, I was unemployed. I was sad—depressed even, but I knew I was doing the right thing. Don’t wallow, don’t be a victim, pack your bag, hit the trail. If you’re going to breakdown, let’s do it the manly, proud way: alone, where no one can see you cry like a baby. There was one other car in the lot on that cloudy, cold October day. I hung the Northwest Forest Pass on the rearview mirror and absolutely shredded the first mile of trail. It started out smoothly. My legs felt strong and my body felt light. I passed the first major viewpoint and just kept on pushing. As I came back around toward the north-facing side of the hill I paused to grab a little water and to catch my breath a bit. The clouds pushed past at what looked like 40 miles an hour. The river’s current beat on in the other, westerly direction, and for just a minute I stood between these two immense forces. They moved like the plates underneath the Earth, but no friction could be felt. Two masses, one of air, one of water, pushing ceaselessly on, unconcerned with who noticed and what was happening around them.
We bought a bottle of pinot noir and made straight for the round, metal table in front of the tasting room. The folks at Phelps have a killer view of Mount Hood, though their parking lot is the foreground. “What a bitch,” I said, shattering what little semblance of peace we’d gained.
“She wrote you back?”
“Yeah, check it out.” I passed the phone to Ann and she sipped her wine with her left hand while holding the phone in her right. I poured a few sips into the large glass and swirled them around a bit while looking out toward the mountain.
“Wow, that seems really inappropriate.”
“I know, right? Someone’s got a chip on her shoulder.”
“And all the exclamation points in a work email?”
“I know. And she’s ranting to me—a writer looking to publish what she thinks is a good story—about the economy and the plight of small businesses? I’m a small business, bitch!”
“You going to respond?”
“I feel like I have to, but I don’t want to say what I want to say.”
“I know. Wow. You don’t want to burn any bridges.”
“I doubt this woman is attached to any bridges I’d cross, but you’re right. I want to give her a piece of my mind though.”
“Eh,” she sipped at her glass and sat back a bit. “You’re here, amid all this. Maybe just something simple, but don’t burn any bridges.” I knew she was right. We passed the phone back and forth with a few sarcastic, never-meant-to-sent emails, and finally settled on a simple line.
“Thank you for your time and insight. Enjoy your Sunday.” And that was that. Kind of. I’m not the best at letting things go. If I fail at something, I come charging back. If someone attacks me, I’m the guy that brings a tank to a knife fight. I’m not sure if it was always this way, but I think it was actually the opposite. I think I was such a quiet kid, such a pushover at times, that once I found my voice it was too late to learn how to wield it safely and politely. We both felt a little better after a full glass of wine and the short drive home.
We pulled into the driveway still talking about this editor I’ll never meet in person and opened the door to the house, which now seemed filled with an angry pall on top of the sadness that had floated in earlier. “Well babe,” she said, “thanks for the wine. I do feel a bit better. I’m sad, but I think we just need to take it one day at a time and deal with what comes.”
“Sounds like a familiar sentiment,” I said.
I found a pace I’d never found before. The clouds and the river had long ago given way to the dark pine needle floored forest. Squirrels and other small creatures darted in the brush around me. Not a soul was in sight (unless squirrels have souls?). My mind was going through the cleansing process. I was propelled by more than long sessions at the gym. The sweat, cold against my body, seemed to be pulling some of the negativity out of me. A slight drizzle fell and I hardly took notice. I’d realized a mile or so back that I wasn’t going to need the cold weather gear on this one; my body was making its own heat. I was burning on anger and frustration, on helplessness and angst, on everything and anything that was thrown my way over the last few weeks. Being ignored, being ignited, sadness, loneliness and failure, they were each another log on the fire. The hard earth, the miles, it all fell away underneath me as I quickly chose the easy route to the top over the harder one. It wasn’t a choice based on fear, but on Ann’s words from a couple hours ago echoing through my head “Be careful out there alone.”
And I was out here alone, but for the first time I wasn’t afraid. I knew I was going to make this. There would be no failure today. No one could stop me from attacking this beast and leaving it crying for help in my dust as I sped away. This was controllable, this was something I got to choose to conquer. This mountain didn’t happen to me, I brought myself to it. I’d taken the last few weeks and turned it into momentum that was strong enough to power my 220 pound frame up this steep, uninviting peak. Dog Mountain had not changed over the years. It was the same height, give or take a centimeter of erosion. It was the same distance, the same pitch, the same damn hill. I brought a different person to it each time and left a different man after each hike.
“Part of me totally understands what’s happening with Grandpa, but I’m sad for my dad,” she said, teary-eyed. Sunday Night Football was flashing on the flatscreen in the living room. She looked forward as she spoke. “Grandpa’s had his time, but, ugh, I can’t imagine going through that.”
“I don’t think you can think about losing parents or losing each other. I mean goddamn, one of us is going to watch the other die; I can’t get out of bed everyday if I have to face that.”
“Oh god. Don’t—”
“Sorry, I’m just saying, thinking about it and focusing on it aren’t helping.”
“I know, but I can’t stop.”
“I certainly get that.” We hadn’t stopped with the drinking since the winery earlier that afternoon either. It was almost eight.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s been a rough couple weeks. We don’t need this.”
“And we don’t get to choose when it happens.”
“I just want to not be sad for a day or two.”
“It’ll pass,” I said. “I read that in a book a few years ago, um, The House of Sand and Fog. He’s an Indian guy or Pakistani or something. Some guys are holding him and his family hostage and he’s talking to them only in his mind. The kidnapper points a gun at him and rather than freak-out, he says something like, ‘You can’t scare me, for I know that all things bad and all things good come to an end.’” She reached forward and took a swig of wine while wiping tears from her eyes with an old, used paper towel I’d had in my pocket. “He knew that at any moment the gun would fire,” I began to explain, “or the police would burst through the door, or the whole world would go up in flames. Basically, if you let it be—”
“Everything happens for a reason?” she said sarcastically with whatever smile she could muster. It’s my least favorite phrase of all time.
“No! But everything—”
“I know, babe. Don’t get too high with the highs and too low with the lows. This too shall pass.”
“Exactly,” I said with a smile. I raised my beer glass and we toasted. “One day at a time. Control what we can control.”
My heartbeat was matching the fast-paced rhythm of my steps. Place the hiking poles, step, step, breathe, repeat. Don’t stop. At the one hour mark I reached the long, steep, final incline until you crest the exposed mountaintop and follow the winding single-track to the summit. Step, step, plant the poles, step, step. I was still listening to the same hour-long podcast I’d started with and the summit was just 15 minutes away. By my standards, and by most, I was killing it. I would be up and down in under two and half hours, and the therapy was working. It became about rhythm, solitude and accomplishment. Step, step, plant, plant, step, step, plant, plant—“Whoa, hoo, woooow!” I shouted leaping back as my heart jumped into my throat. Breathe, breathe, and back the fuck up! A 20 inch Pacific rattlesnake reared up to strike and whiffed as I quickly put six feet between us. I’d almost stepped right on him. He’d almost had me. His rattler and the strong west wind were the only sounds I could hear. My ear buds had fallen with the force of my lunge backwards. I took a few quick steps down the hillside before I caught myself. “What am I gonna do, run down like a wimp?” I asked myself. “Be careful out there alone,” was a faint hum of Ann’s voice covered by the loud static of adrenaline and panic. I clacked the ends of the hiking poles together: sound did not deter him. I half lunged, faking an attack, toward the snake, the way I would if it were a feral cat in the front yard; he didn’t flinch. “Matt,” I thought, “you would have made it in record time, but don’t jump the snake. Live to hike another day.” I made my way down slowly. I turned every few feet to make sure this thing wasn’t following me, which I know they don’t do, but come on, I was quietly, controllably freaking out. He didn’t follow.
For the next 40 minutes or so, each branch, each fallen twig or twisted root, was a small snake ready to strike. I laughed nervously to myself. I stopped at a viewpoint to swig some water and to update my Facebook status. I mean this is the stuff status updates are for, right? Or maybe I just needed to not feel so alone for a second. I typed each word while constantly looking back down to the ground, turning to make sure nothing was behind me. I began to laugh harder and out loud. I was in a state as close to hysteria as I can recall. A mix of glad to be alive tinged with get me the hell out of here. I got back to the Jeep and thought, for the first time ever, “A snake could totally get in here if he wanted to. There are drain plugs in the floor.”
“Grandpa had an amazingly full life,” I said about an hour before we went to bed, quite drunk and quite exhausted.
“I know. And he and Dad got to be so close for so long.”
“My grandfathers were both dead before I was done with sixth grade. I never knew my dad’s dad.”
“Yeah. There’s a lot to be grateful for, but it still sucks. Dad sounded so broken up.”
“Grandpa got to see his son and daughter start a family, he saw both his grandkids graduate from a college he dedicated his life to, and he even got to see you go on to work in higher education—his dream. Not many grandparents get to know and experience so much of their grandkids’ lives.” She wiped the last of the evening’s tears from her swollen eyes.
“I’m all stuffy and drunk. This is going to hurt tomorrow,” she said.
“I know, babe. We probably should go to bed; you have to work tomorrow.”
“I know. I know. One more drink? I’m just not ready for this day to end.” It was a tone that reminded me of her question about a glass of wine from earlier in the day.
“Of course, baby.” I didn’t want this miserable, sad day to end either.