Grab a cuppa coffee. Or a beer and look at your clock now and again when you finish. And settle in for a roller of a story.
My Self fell into bed the night before prepared to turn 40. I had changed my voicemail message to “Hi, you have reached Kim at the Art of Massage, and I will be unavailable all day today. I am celebrating turning 40 by hiking with my little black dog in the Shenandoah mountains. I look forward to hearing your good wishes when I turn my phone back on later today. Thank you for honoring my birthday!” On Facebook the night before my message said: “….still 39.” The next day when I went to change it to my “Happy Birthday, Self” message there were about 22 messages waiting for me to read, all wishing me a Happy Birthday! By noon there were 6 messages on my phone. By 8pm there were 14.
I awoke into September 17th feeling a mixture of sadness and elation. The sadness had nothing, absolutely nothing to do with stepping into 40. That IS the elation. So ready and happy to embrace 40, to thank it for welcoming me in. For a life thus far that includes a body that has put on over a million miles powered by its own strength. A million sounds like a big number. Truthfully, I really haven’t been calculating. After 4 months of journaling about a girl that I felt a connection with, an energy so powerful…this feeling of being ‘Home’ the number of times we’ve hugged, yet wondering if I was making more of it than it was, I drew up the courage ask her out after months of inner work…. And that if she said ‘No’ I wouldn’t feel as rejected, but instead could move on. And, if she said ‘Yes,’ it would make me happy instead of afraid. Still, the asking would be from a place of friends as, even though I felt she felt what I felt in the hug, I couldn’t know for sure as she hasn’t gotten in touch with me since the last time we hung out together. Oh, the last time we hung out together. “I’ll be your partner in crime anytime,” she spoke sweetly into my ear at the end of a tight wonderful embrace. A creation of dreams inside my body became alive when an evening of getting to know one another unfurled into magic, for even though she knew I was, I wasn’t clear if she was. Closeness. Intimacy. Holding. Loving. Words. Seeing beyond the eyes beyond the skin. Touching each other’s soul, for a minute anyway. Shared expressions of gratitude, excitement, and being in the loving. From magic and an opening, expanding heart, over the course of less than a week, to a well of emptiness within. Like a little kid holding a string attached to a balloon high in the sky, only to notice the same string lying over his finger and resting on the ground, Her heart quietly and suddenly released my heartstrings, pulling my own heart to the earth, just a couple weeks prior. I was broken. Like a death, it felt, as she pulled away so wordlessly and yet so loudly, after 6 months of dreaming and fantasizing within all the uncertainty; unknowing which direction she leaned. Yes, I was falling in love. Again. And, again, it became unrequited.
This is how I entered the doorway of my 40th birthday. Patch….. Thoughts…. Joy…. Sadness…. Raw…. Awful…Grateful….Broken…. Mom and Dad sang to me together on my voicemail that morning as did Sherry, MJ, Barb, and Linda. But my 40-year-old heart, which I permit to feel emotion, felt hollow. Sunken. My stomach, sucker punched. Many friends asked how I would be spending my special day. I had decided that one on one time with my friends, over the next few months, was what would give me greater satisfaction; greater than some party or gathering of multiple people. I meant it. I delivered the message to them without sounding glum and dejected. It is what I wanted to do. But, it also excused me from having to spend my one and only 40th, pressured into celebrating with friends and family because that’s what’s expected. I looked alive and even happy to others, but, on the inside, truth infiltrated my cells. I was depressed. Really, really sad. Hurting. Confused. Disregarded. Unacknowledged. Rejected. Unappreciated. All as if I was grieving a sudden death of someone I loved. If I couldn’t be spending the day with her by my side, then the only one I wanted to be with was my soul friend, my companion, Patch. I think she’s the only one who could truly hold my series of rollercoaster-ish emotions. Patch, and a couple of my closest friends. Nonetheless, she can’t talk using words so, a quiet walk in the mountains, just me and her, and the occasional bear, sounded like the perfect way to spend my birthday.
We arrive in the Shenandoah around 3 pm. Me, and my dog who walks beside me, in front of me, behind me, would remind me that I was not alone. Even though I was doing what I loved on my birthday, I felt alone. My heart heavy, I open the door to the visitors center.
“Good afternoon!” I say to the Forest Ranger. “What good hike should we do today?” He listed several, ignoring my word “Today” as he mentioned this 12-mile hike. “That’s the one I want to do,” I silently say. The ranger looked at me as if he heard my thought.
“You can’t do this hike today. It’s too late. But it’s a good one to come back and do another time. This hike has a turn around point at 3 miles. You can come back and add the 6-mile loop that’s attached to it.”
“Well, what time does it get dark?” I ask, knowing that we were in the mountains and a reasonable guesstimation was around 7pm.
As with everything else in life, when I am thinking things through I have an infinite amount of time. And it’s my birthday. If I want to do this hike, well then, I’ll not let this man who knows these woods more than most people and his wise words/thoughts squelch my desire. He doesn’t know how fast I walk and that my dog and I can walk forever.
In an unassuming way, he says, “Around 7/7:30.” He reminds me, “Maybe 6 will be okay depending on how vigorous you walk, but you don’t want to push it.”
I park my car at the trailhead some 20 miles further down the road in Shenandoah National Park. My sadness, the one I’d been clinging to as if it were some prized possession, is on the back burner for the moment as Patch and I set out on our next adventure. A six, probably 12-mile hike. I calculate. We now have 3 ½ stretch to 4 hours worth of time. Twelve miles in 4 hours means 3 miles per hour. Piece of cake. Two bottles of water and treats for both her and me with temps registering as a low 70* day.
“C’mon Chief! Are you ready to have some fun?” I say, with a backpack slung over my shoulder and a spring in my step.
It had been awhile, maybe a year, that Patch had hiked even 6 miles. Eight to ten miles?Years. Twelve? I know she’s had to have done 12, but I can’t think of a single moment. Patch is almost 10 years old. But she can do anything. I don’t call her Patch the Wonder Dog because it only sounds cool.
My little dog responds how she always responds when we embark on a new adventure, or any adventure for that matter – with a big, toothy, open-mouthed smile, a wiggle in her torso, and a gallop in her step! Patch is free and happy, grateful and ready.
“Let’s go, Chiefie!”
We enter the woods. We are bound to see a bear. I mean, we’re all alone for 12 miles! And when we do, we’ll have that divine connection when our eyes meet, pausing to honor the sacredness of that meeting, standing in the deep knowing that animals and humans are a part of one harmony. Then, Patch and I will walk on. I’ve always been accused of being a dreamer. I like the attribute. Briskly, we walk. Patch is ahead of me but in eyeshot. “What if we do see a bear? What if a bear sees Patch? What if Patch chases the bear?” The internal dialogue is manufacturing thought after thought as if to warn me or worry me, not sure. “I should have her on a leash. Oh, my God, I’d never forgive myself if she was mauled by a bear. We’re so happy now, but that would not be a happy birthday. I should put her on a leash. But she is not free when she’s on a leash. No one is free on a leash.” I decide to not follow that train and trust that all is gonna be fine.
It’s quiet out here. No voices. No cars. No continuous buzzing of circuit breakers or power lines. This is what I’ve craved. To be in the stillness of nature with no one knowing where I am. My heart is broken. As I descend beyond the surface of my splintered heart of yet another girl I fell head over heels for, I allow myself to feel deeper. It’s broken. Broken by a family who rejects a core aspect of who I am, making me feel like I don’t belong here or don’t deserve real happiness unless I adhere to the family code that they’ve subscribed too. The shame I feel for being me is ALWAYS there. Aware now that the bag that I cling to is a bag of shame. Somehow, I feel like the next woman is gonna be the one to cut it from my hands and show me how worthy and worth it I am. How loveable I am. That if only my family could see how wanted I am by women, and for that matter, men too, that they will say, “Oh, we got it wrong. We now see how worthy you are! You’re alright. We approve now and accept you back in.” But so far, no matter how much my illusory confidence and charm intrigues these women and even gets them in the door, it hasn’t worked. Here I am. Walking with my raw pain on my 40th birthday. Not how I imagined I’d be celebrating this milestone.
I check my clock against how far we’d gone and damn if we weren’t making great time! We were on it. We could’ve turned back, certainly a cautious idea to some, but at this point in the hike, it wasn’t going to be too much further if we kept going. I checked in with Patch and she drank as I offered her water from the smashable bowl I pulled from my pack. I would stop and peer through the woods, hoping to catch a sighting. Most people don’t want to come within eyeshot of a bear, but for me, that’s a reason TO walk these woods. Nothing. We see nothing but leaves on and off the trees. A thinning forest a couple thousand feet up. Or couple hundred. I don’t know. And we walk.
“Chief?! Let’s pick up the pace, buddy. I think we can do this.” I continue to calculate, matching our time to the impending darkness and decide our pace. A brisk stride will be our rate of speed for the duration. I am down to one water bottle with many more miles to go. Treats are good and we both seem to be feeling high levels of energy. My map is useless as I haven’t seen any mile markers in awhile, but I know I’ve only seen one path. And I trust this path. Some reason, I trust this path.
“Thud!” The sound of a big foot pounding once against the earth entered the space. My heart skipped a beat, excitement, and fear held hands at this moment. “Phmmpp!” Again I hear from behind a tree. I look at Chief. Stopped in our tracks, I look all around us, sort of hoping to see him. The gender is arbitrary at the moment. Nothing. We see and hear nothing. Slowly, we take our next step and another and the next one. Hearing what I think was a bear and not seeing one, is, for the moment, scarier than seeing one. We walk on.
It’s beginning to dawn on me that I haven’t seen a sign that we’re on the correct path for a little while. The trail begins to curve and twist and head downward. I feel confident about it descending but a little worry enters in. I pull out my little map and try to figure out where we are. It looks similar to what I think we just did. At this point, we are very very committed as we’re deep in the woods. Patch is dancing down the rocks that have currently become the terrain of our trail. Thoughts of the girl took over. Thoughts of what I deeply wanted and fantasized and dreamed with her overtook me and I let the emotions lead the way. I cried. I cried and cried making all the noise I wanted and needed. Crying a river is so cathartic but this river had been expanding and lengthening over the last several years. I wondered how or if I’d ever be aligned with the self-love necessary to sustain and nurture a romantic relationship with another woman. Thoughts bouncing every which way, the story becoming more and more colored by my own racing mind. Crying, spewing profanities at this girl to purge my system of anger, I trudged down the path. I did this for, oh, until we came within sighting of a pole.
“A marker!” I ran toward the 4-foot tall wooden square structure that I hoped was an indicator. “Please, please, please let it be so,” my mind shouted as I was sure, but not sure. The closer I came the more my momentary dream was coming true. I “hallelujahed!” as we arrived at the post with the teeny letters telling us we were going the right way. “6 miles.” It pointed to where we began our day’s adventure.
My next dream come true would be the stream we came upon that would provide a water source for Patch as my supply was just about gone. She shot down into the stream just to find a clear indication that it hadn’t rained in a while. Dry as a desert. She looked at me. I looked at her. “I’m sorry buddy, c’mon. There’s gonna be water soon,” as the remainder of this path was mostly beside this stream bed. The time was now close to 6pm. As we were in the lower end of the thick of the woods, I decided to run/walk. Run for a few, walk for a few. Patch, I could tell, was quite OVER this whole adventure thing. She jogged when I wanted her to but it was clear that she’d had enough. “Here we go again… where I trust you and then you forget that I’m not the 4-year old I once was. Leave it to you, mom, my life will never be without adventure.” Her eyes said to me.
As unenthusiastic as she was, the Chief followed and lead, followed and lead, as we ran and walked. It was the only way we’d make it out, hopefully with some light to spare. Dusk was falling upon us much more quickly than I’d anticipated. I was so much happier now that we were beside a stream bed with puddles of water and in some cases, more. I was so much happier now that I had a certainty of our direction and the remaining mileage. What I didn’t have a certainty of was whether we’d make it out of the woods with enough illumination. As we walked, I began planning our overnight stay. The temps were comfortable. I had a light jacket to cover me. We would curl up in a pile of leaves in between some trees. I had a knife; like I’d really use it to kill something anyway. We are fine. I was surprised and amazed by the absence of fear or worry. We’re gonna try and make it out, but if we have to stay, I have already surrendered to that thought. I felt peaceful inside. With the stream to the right of me and the dense woods to the left, I happened to turn my head and look far through the trees. A bear’s eyes met mine. We held a gaze for a moment as if it were the equivalent of seeing a squirrel. The time of day clearly outshined a bear sighting. My dog and I marched on. Running walking, running walking, I encouraged Patch like a parent celebrating their child’s first milestones. “You’re doing so great, Chief, you’re doing so good, buddy! Thanks for trusting me. We’re really almost there!” Dusk was duskier, but even in the dimly lit woods, we could see enough to stay on the trail.
“Another post!” The post I remember seeing when we entered the woods. The post that stood promptly at mile one. Or was it two. Maybe three miles in. I’m not sure as I couldn’t make out the mileage etched into the metal plate. My second burst of joy in the last 6 miles of this course at this sighting as I felt the energy of accomplishment and confidence that we were absolutely making it out tonight. Patch, for three seconds anyway, matched my joy and bounced up and down as she could feel and see mine.
“C’mon chief!” I shouted for the 17th time today. Seriously, buddy now we’re really close!” Even though I wasn’t sure if there were one or three miles to go. We ran. This time we really really ran. It was as if dusk held a candle for us for the last 3 miles. It seemed to never darken. It wasn’t until the moment my foot hit the pavement and saw my truck, God turned off the lights as the space we stood in went black. I opened the back door to my car, scooped up Patch and placed her on the back seat. As I was getting into the driver’s seat, I turned around to see my little girls eye’s already closed as she was curled up.
“Done!” I thanked God in that moment and shook my head again at another true precarious adventure ending in success.
As I began the 20-mile drive toward the exit of the park, little pairs of white bright circles pierced the darkness in an eerie sort of way. All the wild creatures that inhabit this park lay still along the grassy edge of the road watching us go. I got out of the park and as my phone came into cell range, the chime of messages rang over and over again. People remembered my birthday. I listened to messages from my brother, cousin, and other friends. My gas light turned on as I was about to pass the Shell station on my way out of town. It was 8pm. As Patch lay asleep in the back seat, and my tank was filling up, I decided to stroll inside to see what trashy gas station food would become my birthday dinner.
“A Moon pie or hot dog? Which one?” I presented these options to myself.
My phone rang. It was my birthday twin, Paige, who was calling to wish me a Happy 40th. “Ahhh, Happy Birthday, girl!” I said to her. “How are you celebrating?”
“Just finished having a wonderful dinner with a group of friends and we’re about to have dessert.”
“That’s great!” I said with a smile of dichotomy, staring at both the Moonpie’s and hotdogs. Alone.
I walked out the station empty-handed and jumped back into the car to see my sleeping dog. Everything I thought I knew about life, about Karma, about love, about courage, about journeys, I certainly don’t. I know that life is fascinating, always telling a story. My story. Am I writing it? Or is it pre-determined? I’ve lived this story before. I must’ve hit the playback button, again. Different scene same outcome.
I’m 40 years old today.
“Okay.” I sighed deeply and drove.