Below is an excerpt from my memoir Lessons.
My head swirled as my gaze spun up the trail before me. Rushing down the slope of the hill before me, the westerly breeze pouring down from the higher elevation offered some relief from the summer heat. Clouds and shade are nearly non-existent on the foothills of the Rocky Mountains just west of Denver, Colorado. June was already too hot for me. I grew up in damp New England where water was a free-for-all and humidity hung in the air like a cool grey veil, even in the thick of summer’s heat. High and dry on that hillside, I squinted my eyes to ensure I could find sure footing as I heaved myself up the path.
I had started hiking shortly after arriving in Denver. It was an outdoor exercise I had only ever done as a kid, growing up on a farm in Maine. When I was younger, the paths I would take led me along a slow-moving river, following a deer path on the north bank. I would wander along, fern fronds brushing my legs, a horsefly buzzing over my head. I took these hikes as a way of escaping. I would wander in the woods for hours and simply forget what I had left behind, focusing on the path, the river, the sounds, and the smells around me. I would let my imagination take over, and while I was away from the house, I lived in a different world, on a different time-scale. I was an explorer. I was a Native American. I was a hunter. I was a gatherer. I felt every step I took. I was away.
In fact, escape was all I ever wanted. Things at home were never that good, really. My mother and father had been slowly falling apart as a couple shortly after my brother was born. The tension hung in the air at the house, much like the morning mist hung over the rolling field that expanded to the east from my doorstep. I needed to walk away and slip into the fantasy world that my imagination had created ever since I could read a book. The life in my mind was more vibrant and more alive than the life my physical body inhabited.
My stomach flipped, unhappy with how I had treated it the night before. Whiskey, diner food, blurry drive home. Echoing in my head as I lifted one foot up the trail in succession of the other I had lifted a moment before were the words of my bar-friend, Andy.
“Stop hating yourself, Thom,” was his exact instruction, chased by another swig of beer.
I had been hating myself for years. It seemed silly, as I stood there on the mountainside, that I’d be taking what Andy had said even remotely seriously. Countless times, I’d been told to stop being so critical of myself. This rebuffed all that I had learned growing up.
As much as I tried to be something my dad and mom could be proud of, I never felt like I’d made the grade. I simply had too much to accomplish. Too much weight on my shoulders. Too many expectations, too much pressure. All I wanted to do, every day, was get away, and get out from under the yolk of my family. I wanted to be myself, and take myself to places where I could establish myself as my own entity, without judgement or assumption. I don’t think, looking back, that I ever really cut myself any slack. I just resigned myself to never measuring up. It was a constant struggle between allowing myself to be okay with this fact of my life, and giving into the pressure to do better and strive to make those around me happy. I never simply existed for me.
One more step upward, one more climb. It wasn’t unlike any other climb I’d taken since moving away from Maine. This hike was a way for me to slip away again. It couldn’t be any different than that. I’d still come down off the mountain and have the same crummy life to deal with when I got back. The bills weren’t getting paid by the footfall. Food wasn’t going to magically appear in my refrigerator. Somehow, though, traversing up this rocky path became something else.
I had taken a long slow draught of my whiskey and ginger and let his words just settle a bit inside me. I had ordered up one more drink, made my way to the diner, and then home, with the intent of getting out on the hillside for a hike the next day regardless of how I felt. I needed to do my penance for yet another night of drinking and longing.
I started off on the trail very cloudy. My head throbbed from lack of sleep and too much greasy food. Like most hikes, the first twenty minutes was spent simply catching my breath in the very-thin air of the mountains. Soon, like in all the hikes I’d taken, I’d fallen into a rhythm with both my steps and breathing. Like most other times of sustained motion, I became trance-like in my movement and presence.
The more distance I covered, the less and less aware of each footfall I became. As the sound of the gravel beneath my feet faded away, my mind was allowed to linger over other things, other thoughts. I was able to take a step out of my reality and examine my life for what it was. I’d attempted to do this on every other hike I’d been on, but for the most part, the time was always spent thinking about the guy I’d met the night before at the bar, or the one I’d been chatting with online who showed a little bit of interest in me. I never thought about myself. Not yet, anyway.
In my ears was the music that had been blasting out of the speakers in my old Saab when I drove from Portland, Maine to Denver. Miles and miles of highway rolling beneath me and the throbs and pulses of trance music had sustained me for the three-day journey west. I had associations with each song that brought me back to stretches of field in Iowa, or the industrial mess south of Chicago. I had songs that led me through the miles and miles of corn in Nebraska, following the infinitely straight highway 80 westward to a town I’d never been before and to people I had only casually connected with on the internet. I was flinging myself into the unknown at break-neck speeds, and the thrill of the new, the excitement of the mysterious kept my eyes wide open. It was like hiking the paths of my childhood at eighty miles an hour – a matter of scale, but the same effect. The music carried me across the country. The music carried me up the mountain, lost in thought.
I don’t remember exactly when I started crying. Part of me, though, remembers feeling the tingle and electricity, similar to runner’s high, coursing through my veins as I pushed myself hard up the trail. I needed to work out the booze that was lingering in my system. I was serving myself punishment for drinking too much again. It was a steep section, rocky under my foot, and a vertical climb of about three-hundred feet. By the time I had reached a plateau, tears ran down my cheeks. I was trembling. I was exhausted. I was smiling. I remembering Andy’s words.
“Love yourself more.”
This is what I said out loud to the wind and rocks and distant birds that floated on the swells of air that encircled that hillside.
I had spent the greater part of my life running from the person that I was. I didn’t like the skin I was in. I didn’t make the best of choices along the way. I hadn’t treated myself with the respect that I should have. There were plenty of places along the way that presented me with the opportunity to end it all. I could have easily slipped away, killed myself, and escaped the anger, rage, sadness, and frustration that had been piling up inside me. There were plenty of opportunities to do what was intrinsically right, but I’d chosen a lesser path.
Still, I persisted. I don’t think this was a totally conscious decision. I’m not a religious person by nature, but I know when my free will is being usurped by some force higher than myself. As I’ve progressed, I’ve learned to recognize when I get to choose, and when the choice is already made for me. Standing there on that mountainside, the dust in my eyes, the ache in my legs and feet, and with the smile on my face, I knew this was a moment when I got to choose.
I chose to finally stop running. It has made all the difference.
I got to the top of Mount Falcon and took a break on the bench that someone had constructed on the edge of an east-facing cliff. Below me was feet of sheer rock that tumbled into scrub brush and spread out towards the city of Denver, and points beyond. I could make out the skyscrapers of that city on the front range, and the plains that stretched back towards the place I had come from. Miles and miles of my past ran like a thin, blue ribbon towards the horizon.
With my choice to stop, to say no, and to give myself a little more respect and self-worth, I could feel the weight of that past cut away. A heavy, wet, meaty substance tossed into the wind of that west-facing slope to be carried off to the east, across the wide plains and back to the world I had left behind on a cold and crisp late September morning. Never before had I been so present, so affirmed, and so in my own shoes. The sun on my face, shirtless in the wild for the first time, I caught my breath.
This is a story of how I learned to love myself again.