Take a Hike!
Dumped by my fiancée in the middle of the Pacific Crest Trail, I had to pick up the pieces and learn to how to stay sober in disappointment.
Six months into our sobriety I asked my girlfriend to hike with me from Mexico to Canada along the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail. I had attempted a long distance hike in 2006, but had spent most of my budget drinking and had to get off the trail. Now sober, I was ready to try again.
"Sarah" and I had met at a bar. United by a mutual desire to do more with our lives, we spent our first few months together trying to manage our drinking and dreaming about adventure. After a few months of unhappily hiding from the bar scene, we decided to give AA a try. There we found others who were happily sober, living the lives we dreamed of. So when I asked Sarah to hike with me six months into our sobriety, she eagerly said yes. While many of our friends would first be hearing about the PCT through Cheryl Strayed's Wild, we would be testing our mettle as a sober couple on its diverse and rugged terrain through California, Oregon and Washington.
I wanted to lie down and die. Yet in the same way I had to get up and move towards water in order to survive on the trail, I needed to move towards spiritual water or I would drink.
We spent the next 18 months loading up on hiking gear, going on hikes, saving and training physically. As our spring departure drew near, we stored our possessions and spent the final few days in our empty Brooklyn apartment, full of anticipation and saying our goodbyes to family and our recovery community. At just over two years sober we arrived at the Mexican border, prepared to hike 20-30 miles a day for the next five months through some of America's most rugged terrain. The first leg of our journey finally lay before us—the desert mountain ecosystem of the Mojave.
In recovery we use the acronym HALT to remember to watch out for times when we are too hungry, angry, lonely or tired. Long-distance hiking is often like being in a perpetual state of HALT. In the desert, where water is often nonexistent except for the caches graciously hauled in by "trail angels," this often means carrying upwards of six liters while contending with heat that regularly breaks 110 degrees in the shade. Our first night we collapsed underneath a canopy of desert stars having devoured a spartan—and soon to become all-too-familiar—meal of pasta and tuna.
Over the next few months, we were often on the trail before sunrise and would hike until the desert sun made doing so unbearable. We would siesta until the sun went down, and continue hiking well into the night. During these siestas we often read from the Big Book and held "mini-meetings," as actual meetings were sparse along the trail. Whether it was this lack of support from our recovery community, or fatigue from hiking over 100 miles a week, we found ourselves fighting more and more.
After two months we came out of the desert and reached the high Sierra mountains of central California. Even though our spats had become more frequent, so too did our conversations about our future together as a couple. With this in mind, I decided to ask her to marry me atop Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States. Her response was a less-than-enthusiastic yes. I was surprised. Isn't this what we both wanted?
A few weeks after my proposal we arrived in South Lake Tahoe for our weekly resupply. We were exhausted and longed to check into a motel where we could collapse in front of a TV in an air-conditioned room and eat real food. The next morning as we were preparing to hitch back to the trail, Sarah said we needed to talk: "I'm going home." I was speechless other than to ask why. She averted her eyes and replied that it just didn't feel right.
I asked her how long she had been feeling this way and she said a few weeks. I was furious! Since my proposal she had been eager to talk about our wedding plans while we hiked. Yet she had already booked a flight and scheduled a ride to the airport in Reno. She was gone without further explanation a few hours later, never to be seen again.
I was shocked. Over the last few years I had worked the Steps, been of service, become employable, dateable, engage-able. Yet in one morning I had lost my fiancée and had to make the hard decision to get off the trail and ask my family if I could stay with them while I figured things out. I was angry, sad and confused. All I was certain of was that if I stayed on the trail by myself, it would only be a matter of time before I drank. I was moving—literally—from the top of the world down into my parent's one-window basement, physically exhausted and underweight after three months and 1,100 miles of hiking with the girl I thought I would marry.
I wanted to lie down and die. Yet in the same way I had to get up and move towards water in order to survive on the trail, I knew that as much as I didn't feel I had the strength, I needed to move towards spiritual water, or I would drink. I was advised by my sponsor to see this time living with my family as an emotional sabbatical, rather than a source of shame. He also encouraged me to write about what I was feeling. Over the next few months I began to grow in awareness of some of the red flags that I had not seen during our relationship.
From the start I had made my goal of hiking a long-distance trail contingent on Sarah joining me. Six months before our hike she had abruptly decided that she didn't want to hike, but would rather focus on her career. Rather than talk through my fears about what this meant for us as a couple, I decided my dreams had to take a backseat to our relationship. I had been willing to sacrifice "me" in order to maintain "us" and didn't then see that I had no true sense of self outside of our relationship. My insecurity placed me in the position of having to subtly coerce her into abandoning her own goals and adopting mine, so that I could have my cake and eat it too.
Through writing and talking with my sponsor I began to see that all I had achieved in doing so was to create a fertile ground for the fighting and resentments that would ultimately leave me with neither her nor the trail. Through this Sixth and Seventh Step work, I also started to see that despite my commitment to our relationship, I hadn't actually been as happy in it as I'd thought. Sarah was a great woman, but had she been what I really desired in a companion, I wouldn't have had to spend as much energy as I did trying to force her into my mold. Despite my grief, I slowly began to become okay with getting off the trail and breaking up with Sarah. I was encouraged to use this time of emotional sabbatical to meet who I was, outside of romantic relationships, and to focus my energy on getting to know myself.
Nearly a year after my descent from the mountaintops into my parents' basement, I'm back in New York and re-engaged as an active member of my recovery community. Although I thought Sarah leaving and my getting off trail was the end of my life, my perspective on it has slowly evolved. I can now see that what happened was inevitable and necessary to my growth as an emotionally sober adult.
In the last few months I have started dating again, but I am in no rush to jump into a serious relationship. If and when I do, I'm sure it will be from a more secure footing, having learned to hike on my own two feet through the beatific and sometimes brutal scenery of life on life's terms.
Nathan Frank is a writer in Brooklyn.