My daughter and I were lazing around on the couch one warm fall afternoon, flipping through Netfix’s offerings. ‘Hey….wanna watch this one?’ I paused on a documentary called ‘Mile, Mile and a Half.’ ‘Sure,’ she answered. We spent the next hour and a half riveted to the TV, watching this group of friends, who were also film makers and artists, backpack the John Muir Trail over 25 days. The film ended and we sat in silence on the couch for several minutes. Still looking straight ahead at the screen, I said, ‘Should we do it?’ ‘Abso-fucking-lutely,’ my 16-year-old responded. And so the journey began.
The John Muir Trail is a long distance hiking and backpacking trail in the Sierra Nevada mountain range beginning in Yosemite Valley, traveling over eight mountain passes, and ending at the top of Mt Whitney, elevation 14,505 feet. After that, you still have to walk eight more miles out, but no one counts that part in the mileage. The JMT is 211 miles with an elevation gain and loss totaling 46,000 feet, and traverses some of the most epic scenery on the planet.
We started our planning. We bought the books. We were frequent shoppers at REI. We joined all the appropriate Facebook groups, we had pages and pages of notes. We honed our itinerary, we planned our meals and resupply packages. We applied for our permit and miraculously got it on the first day, first choice! This was meant to be, we thought! We are actually going to do this!
Fast forward a few weeks…
It was a Thursday. Just another Thursday in January. It was the fourth day of my second semester of nursing school. It was supposed to be a class day, but things had gotten switched around so I was home that day instead. I’d just hopped out of the shower; I was getting ready for the day in a leisurely kind of way. My curly mass of hair was tamed, for the most part, and I was jamming out to some Pandora station with my loyal dog, Lucy, at my feet who was eagerly anticipating her first walk of the morning. The teenagers were at school, my husband, a fire captain/paramedic in a town three hours away, was at work. It was beginning just like any other day.
I had my mascara in my hand when I heard the knocking at my door. It was gentle at first, so I assumed it was probably just somebody selling something – nothing important. I continued on, brushing my lashes with the mascara when the knocking and pounding became more insistent. I’m thinking to myself, ‘wow, those are some ballsy salesmen!’ Well…..not exactly.
I hear, ‘Open up, POLICE!’
What the heck? I’m thinking. Better go investigate. Must be the wrong house, right? Dogs are going ballistic. My heart is pounding out of my chest, fear is beginning to grip my heart, the mascara still tightly gripped in my left hand.
I open the door. To my incredible shock, there were nine guys lining my walk wearing those big flack jackets that say ‘FBI’ and ‘POLICE.’ One guy had some heavy, tube looking thing in his hands that I saw him drop in the bushes when I opened the door. Were they going to break down my door? There were a couple of other men dressed in suits and ties and my street was lined with various police vehicles, some marked, some not. I must’ve looked like a deer in the headlights to them. I was equally terrified and confused.
My mind could not make sense of any of this. Was I caught in some creepy Twilight Zone episode? Was this one of those ‘joke’s on you’ type reality show? I didn’t see any TV cameras anywhere. What was all the fuss? I was just a regular nursing-student-mom-of-teenagers living a calm, suburban life in Northern California. Nothing to write home over.
The men in bullet proof jackets were very nice to me. At this point I was still thinking these guys has stormed the wrong house but my heart sank out of my chest when one of them said, ‘Are you Tanya?’ They said they had a search warrant and asked to come in….I believe my response was something like ‘sure, welcome home,’ something I say to all my friends. It’s weird what you think of and say in a moment of distress.
They came in and began their search, it was just like you see on television though they were careful and kind while rifling through every last paper, drawer, cabinet, closet, box, computer, and phone in our home. One agent was assigned directly to me. He stayed by my side. He was a kind man and very good at what he does. He would feed me little bits of information, wait for it to soak in, then ask questions related to the information he had given me. It was a slow, scary, bewildering experience.
Eventually they told me what was happening. My husband of the past six years, a fire captain and paramedic of twenty years, had been arrested for the possession and production of child pornography. There are no words for the shock I felt. The person I had shared my life with for the past eight years had been harboring a secret – dark and evil – the worst kind of secret, an unthinkable secret. He had been living a dual life that none of us knew about, and somehow, he’d finally been caught. Thank God he’d been caught.
After the officers finally left, I sat on my couch in the middle of the devastation of a search warrant and a broken heart, my emotions thick and raw. Lucy layed at my feet, her breathing relaxed and even. I glanced across the room and there was our pile of JMT books and notes left neatly on the corner of the table for us. I unconsciously squeezed my hands into fists and realized that I still clung to that pink and green tube of mascara. I relaxed my hand for the first time that day and it dropped to the carpeted floor beside Lucy. What had happened to us today? It sounded so crazy, like something that happens to other people or in the news or maybe a in a Lifetime movie. This stuff doesn’t happen to real people. This stuff doesn’t happen to me! But it does happen to real people and it did happen to me.
So we began the process of picking up the pieces. I was left with three teenage kids, a home to care for with all the bills that go along with that, three more semesters of nursing school to make it through, and no job. It sounds ridiculously impossible and felt even worse. I wanted to give up. I wanted to die. I was in the darkest tunnel with no headlamp and what felt like no way out.
But in the midst of all the challenges that had to be overcome, I had my family, I had my friends, I had my faith, and gosh darn it! I had this hike to do. Tiny glimmers of hope became beacons that lit the way like floodlights. My life was shattered in a way that I never imagined it could be, but my God layed the path out perfectly before me. He knew the plan, I was only to follow it. Rely on my friends and family, let them help me. Concentrate on passing nursing school. And for crying out loud (pun intended!), go spend 23 days on the John Muir Trail that summer! This was my job and damn it, I was going to do it.
And we did do it. We walked and I cried. I think I cried for the first three days straight, mostly because my heart was heavy but partly because my pack was heavy, too. We hiked and saw some of the most beautiful things I have ever in my life seen.
My daughter and I spent a large portion of the trip in silence, lost in our own thoughts. I thought a lot about the tragedy, especially in the beginning, but as we continued farther and farther into the woods, I noticed that I started to think of other things, too… happier things. The way the alpenglow looks from our campsite…the way the wind in the trees sounds like water flowing…the colors of the wildflowers seemed so vibrant when I barely noticed them at first.
Our senses were heightened, our muscles were sore, our boots were dusty, and we fell into our sleeping bags at the end of the day with exhaustion. I was too tired to worry as much as I had been. My thoughts became more focused on the here and now. Where should we stop for a snack? What do we need for tonight? How many miles will we go tomorrow? Which pass will we cross next? Will there be snow? Will the water crossing be difficult? Where is a good place to poop?
Sometimes I missed home and my family and friends and dogs while we were hiking so I started to look for heart shapes in nature as I walked. Every time I spotted a heart shape, I chose someone important to me and prayed for them. I found myself lost in prayer much of the time. My prayers set my cadence as we trekked up and down, for miles and miles.
The other thing I did when I was hiking, especially up those super steep mountain passes, was sing to myself. Remember that little kid’s song, ‘This Little Light Of Mine?’ Yep! That song got me up eight mountain passes. I was starting to smile more and even laugh some.
We rose before dawn and walked some more. We were away from news and cities and internet and immersed in God’s magical, healing world. We met people from all over the world. We shared stories and candy bars with them, we gave out the bracelets we made. We climbed mountains. We conquered mountains! And our hearts began to mend. Every step was like gluing a shattered bit of my heart back together again.
It is difficult to place a finger on the single most important part of this journey; the experience was an intricate machine with a million moving parts, all working together to heal and strengthen.
The entire hike, I lead the way and my daughter walked behind me. Except for the very last day. We summitted Mt Whitney at dawn, enjoyed our celebratory candy bar breakfast, then headed back down to civilization. But this time, instead of me in front, my-16-year old daughter took the lead. She had carried the same heavy pack I’d carried, she walked the same 211 miles I had, she was the youngest girl we saw on the trail in the last 23 days.
We had survived a heart breaking event. We shared the burden. We conquered a physical and emotional challenge and through this experience, I found my way out of the darkness. This travel transformed my trauma, reinforced my heart, and reminded me of who I am. Where once I was lost, I found myself again on the John Muir Trail.
Few places in this world are more dangerous than home. Fear not, therefore, to try the mountain-passes. They will kill care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action. Even the sick should try these so-called dangerous passes, because for every unfortunate they kill, they cure a thousand.”John Muir