Monday, March 06, 2023

Snow in the desert

"You think you're avoiding triggers, but what you start to do is avoid life." — My sister

When I was a teenager, I decided that if heaven was everything it claimed to be, then we should be able to choose its form. An eternity of drifting lazily on a cloud? No thank you. My heaven would look like Moab in the winter, a sandstone maze brushed with snow under a cloudless blue sky. At the time I had only experienced southern Utah during the spring and summer and didn't think it was possible for the place to be anything but parched and hot. But in the heaven I could choose, cold air and tranquil silence would linger forever. 

I tried to remind myself of youthful daydreams as I drove through Monument Valley, a place I'm ashamed to say I'd never seen before. It was a little out of the way, and I was already running behind, but I needed a distraction. Anything to calm my pinched breaths and slow my heart rate. 

"Snow in the desert. Snow in the desert," I chanted out loud. "It's so beautiful." 

For an entire day, I'd been embroiled in a slow-rolling anxiety attack. I wondered if I had the fortitude to endure this trip. There was nothing about the trip's reality to fear, but I had long since lost hold of my tenuous grip on reality. There was no way not to feel fear, so I reminded myself that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hike The Wave with my mom and sisters. 

"The Wave" is a unique sandstone feature on the Utah-Arizona border, a geologic anomaly so aesthetically pleasing that it's become an immensely popular destination despite its remote location. Think about art enthusiasts seeking out the Mona Lisa — that's how many desert enthusiasts feel about The Wave. As such, the BLM issues limited permits that people have about a 1-in-100 chance of scoring. So when my youngest sister — the one who I would have voted "least likely to ever love the outdoors" when we were younger — scored a permit for Feb. 17, we knew we had to take the leap. 

In hindsight, the week she scored that permit was right around the time I slipped into what I think of as "the big anxiety spiral" in mid-October. I've suffered from anxiety for years, but usually the low points last a week or two, and then I start to emerge. After this particular plunge, months passed. I made some improvements while physically injured in November and December, but looking back, I wonder if the physical pain was just a mask — a distraction — from emotional turmoil. After our annual Alaska trip fell apart in December, I plunged right back into the depths. Since January it was difficult to enjoy or look forward to anything. I just wanted to hide in my house, even though I didn't feel safe in the house. 

I forced myself into activities because therapists like to say that "actions become emotions." And I dabbled with recommended lifestyle changes such as yoga and limiting caffeine. But my emotional state wasn't improving and the pain was starting to manifest in my body — tremors, pounding head, severe insomnia, and muscle cramps. Every morning was filled with so much unfocused doom that I'd hide under the covers for long minutes until the rational side of my brain could spur me to action. I felt as though I was drowning. The anxiety that I'd long imagined as a fiery red sea monster was finally pulling me under. 

Friends have been urging me to try antidepressants for years. I resisted because the side effects sounded worse than anxiety, which I'd always been able to manage well enough. Also, I bristled at the notion of "better living by chemistry." But who am I kidding? I've been medicated since my 30s — thyroid medication, asthma inhalers, antihistamines, CBD, just about every supplement the thyroid forum led me to believe could possibly help. Drawing a line at SSRIs seemed arbitrary. 

And now I wasn't sleeping at night, I was drowning, and I would have grabbed anything offered as a liferaft. Heroin? Yes, please! So I made an appointment with my primary care doctor. By the time I was able to get in, it was February 13, just days before this trip. My doctor started me on a small dose of Lexapro, warning that the initial adjustment period could include dizziness, nausea, and increased anxiety. Increased anxiety? Really? I asked if I could wait to start medication until after my trip, be she encouraged me to start right away. Spoiler from many weeks later: I'm glad I started this med, but I wish I'd waited that extra week. 

Everyone's experience with anxiety is different and they're all difficult to describe. For me, generalized anxiety is like being a passive spectator in a horror movie version of my life — I know the killer is in the house, and I can feel the suspense when they're about to strike, but I can't do anything about it. Even though I know the killer isn't real, I can't ignore the terror. 

This is how it felt when I woke up to my 4:30 a.m. alarm for what would turn out to be a 14-hour drive on icy highways to Kanab, Utah, via Page, Arizona. During our planning, we realized that my Subaru Outback wasn't going to cut it for the primitive road into the Wave in muddy conditions, so I reserved a Jeep rental in Page. Kanab had been slammed by a blizzard with six inches of snow on Tuesday. The same raging storm dumped a foot of snow on my house and much of the Front Range on Wednesday. In the predawn darkness on Thursday morning, I crept along a snow-packed I-70 at 35 mph as temperatures dipped to 15 below zero. I could almost hear the ominous soundtrack playing in the background. 

The stress was so pronounced that I had to concentrate on steady breathing. There was no more bandwidth for eating or drinking. As I passed through Grand Junction, I felt the urge to drive up to a hotel and hide under the covers while I called my family to apologize for my absence from this once-in-a-lifetime and not-especially-arduous adventure because my brain had stopped functioning, I'm so sorry. 

But then, what would that make me? A fully dysfunctional person? A person who once endured the Alaska wilderness alone and now could no longer even endure a fun family trip? A person who needed hospitalization? I wondered.

My jitters and breathing improved as I crossed into Utah, familiar territory and so lovely under a blanket of snow. But as I neared Arizona and the prospect of driving an unfamiliar jeep on a slippery, muddy, rutted road, I wilted again. I arrived in Page about an hour before my arranged pickup time, so I decided to walk out to Horseshoe Bend, another iconic landmark I hadn't yet visited. The parking lot was packed as sunset approached, and I was put off by the crowds of tourists. Of course, I should have expected this tourist attraction would be crowded. But I wished for a place I could be alone. I hiked out to the viewpoint, took this one terrible phone photo with the sun glare screaming at me, and checked my phone for current road conditions. 

I wish I hadn't. I mean, it was necessary to understand what to expect, but I did not anticipate what was coming. Regarding the dirt road to The Wave, a guide had posted that it was in some of the worst shape she'd seen, with flowing mud and wheel-swallowing ruts, and only "The T-Rex of 4x4s" could handle it. I'm a timid driver in the best of circumstances. I'd just spent six hours navigating a terrifying slip-and-slide across Colorado. I imagined steering the jeep into a mud hole, plunging into icy water, and my entire family freezing in the cold desert. With that image imprinted in my brain, I lost it. 

So there I was, frozen in terror in a large crowd at Horseshoe Bend, gulping down an intense panic attack. I started shuffling up the pathway, stiffly jogging as though I was a zombie, gasping desperately. I pulled on my sunglasses and jacket hood so the other tourists wouldn't see tears flowing down my face. I hoped they'd just assume I was a severely out-of-shape jogger. I felt so ashamed. 

I sat in my car for ten minutes, focusing on breathing and calm thoughts. Once my breathing had slowed sufficiently, I called my sister to tell her about my concerns. I thought I could rationally explain the situation, but as soon as I heard her voice, I lost it all over again. For the next 45 to 60 minutes — which felt like three minutes to me — Lisa spoke calmly and urged me to stay on the phone as she and my mom scrambled for a solution. 

"Let's hire a guide," I heard my mom say, which I recognized as the most loving thing to suggest. It's not in my family's thrifty and can-do nature to spare no expense on a wilderness guide. The odds seemed grim at 6 p.m. the night before our trip, but they found someone at Dreamland Safari — as it turns out, the guiding company co-owned by Iditarod Trail Invitational athletes who completed the event on bikes this year, Sunny Stroeer and her husband Paul Gagner. In what felt like three minutes, the sky shifted from blue to violet to black, and suddenly we had a solution that didn't require my dysfunctional self to drive or navigate the hike. I felt relief, love, and an enormous amount of shame.

What have I become? I drove to the jeep rental place, shaking profusely. I tried to calm down and collect myself enough to approach the person with the clipboard and tell her I no longer needed the rental. I didn't know whether they'd only deduct the deposit or the entire cost and I didn't care. I would have paid $10,000 not to feel this way. Heroin? Yes, please! 

Then I finally drove myself to a gas station and shakily wandered the aisles, feeling more out of sorts and exhausted than I would if I'd ridden a bike from Colorado. I bought a small sandwich and a mealy apple, then sat in my car and forced down the only meal I'd eaten all day. I hoped I'd find the wherewithal to drive the final hour to Kanab. It was an extremely difficult hour that I don't remember much about, besides losing control of my breathing and again succumbing to tears and hyperventilation. 

My sisters and Mom were immensely loving and understanding when I arrived in Kanab, and I was relieved that they could see me at my worst, my most vulnerable, because that meant I no longer had to hide this from them. As the oldest daughter in a family now missing our father, I've felt the need to remain stoic and strong, and I absolutely put that pressure on myself. As the most experienced outdoors person in the group, I felt obligated to take up the logistics and navigation of the hike — which truly is not harder than hundreds of outings I've done for fun. But this is what happens when you're drowning. You can't even save yourself, let alone manage anything above the surface. It was a relief to admit this to myself and the people who love me. 

The night after my panic attack was awful. I don't think I slept at all. My heart continued to pound, adrenaline surged through my blood, and I couldn't calm my breathing no matter what I tried. But I was safe, and in a way, it felt like I had eluded my imaginary killer. My body was amped up, but my mind could rest for now. 

Looking back on those snowy, sunny days in mid-February, my perspective looks utterly ridiculous — as though I was actually languishing under murky water and failing to make sense of muddled reflections above the surface. I was in a beautiful place with the people I love, and I was still lost in the fog. On Friday, February 17, at 8 a.m. sharp, we were greeted by our guide for the day. Mel, I learned, was a young ultrarunner who recently relocated to the desert from the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. She is strong and fast and aspires to audacious expeditions, and perhaps a few successful runs in traditional races. We had a lot in common. She was friendly and knowledgeable without being overbearing in her guide role. 

Driving out on what was indeed a horrifically muddy, rutted, and partially flooded road, she put everyone in my family at ease even as wheels skidded and mud chunks flew. I would have hyperventilated and shivered the entire way out if I'd been behind the wheel. This is not an exaggeration. While I remained ashamed of this truth, I was deeply grateful for Mel. Removing myself from that role would have been a bargain at twice the price.

The hike out was lovely and relatively uneventful. The sky was mostly cloudy and temperatures remained cool — in the 30s — with a harsh headwind sweeping down from the plateau. My body's thermostat was weirdly not working well and I had to put on all of my layers, including several I brought as backups for my mom and sisters. But just the act of walking — walking and breathing and only focusing on the next step — was wonderfully calming. When I'm walking, I'm at peace, which is why I sometimes daydream about a life in which I do nothing else. 

And then, there we were — the premier photographic destination in the Southwest, a place people often wait years to land a permit to visit. The rippling streaks of sandstone are unique even in a region full of unique rock formations. Millennia of slow wind and rain erosion calcified layers of sand until it hardened to rock — a petrified sand dune. 

When Sara first landed her permit, I was excited about the opportunity — I too tried and failed to land a permit way back in 2002. But I was also admittedly skeptical — was this going to be another one of those overhyped tourist traps? Reader, I was wrong. It is truly awe-inspiring to stand in the midst of The Wave, sculpted by nature with an artistic precision that humans have yet to match. 

These rock formations are also impossible to photograph — not that I gave it much of a go with the flat mid-afternoon light and guide urging us to pose for photos once we were in photo-taking mode. But for 20 minutes before all that, we stood with reverent stillness in this cathedral and marveled. 

The posed photos were fun, too.

My favorite — nothing but pure joy. 

The remainder of our trip was enjoyable as well, coinciding with a hot-air balloon festival. Sara and I headed out early Saturday morning to view the spectacle. The balloons did struggle to launch in this decidedly cold air, but it was bright and colorful fun. 

Later Saturday morning, I coaxed my sisters out for a hike on the "Kanab City Trails," which, given their name, seemed like they should be relatively straightforward and family-friendly. Lisa was an especially hard sell, as she languished through the worst day of a bad cold virus that her entire family passed around, but that somehow eluded Mom, Sara, and me. But it was a beautiful day, and I was feeling recovered enough to grasp some shaky confidence about leading my sisters along this unknown route. 

Unsurprisingly, the trail from the start was nothing but mud, mud, and more of that awful sticky bentonite clay mud that accumulates until each shoe weighs 10 pounds. The sisters were unenthused but determined to at least reach the top of the ridge — even as I behaved like an anti-Mel type of guide and spouted continually discouraging information. "It's going to be more slippery going down than up." "It's not going to get better." "My watch just buzzed a 47-minute-mile, good job team!" (I was also moving as fast as I physically could. The mud was relentless.) 

The views from the ridge — stretching for dozens of miles all the way to the top of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument — were quite spectacular. Sara felt more secure in her footing after I gave her my trekking poles, and Lisa seemed resigned to the pain she'd be experiencing whether she was in bed or here. The snow was deeper and mud seemed less prevalent along the ridge, so we collectively decided to try for the original 7-mile loop we'd planned. 

Sara, my California-based sister who wasn't outdoorsy when she lived in Utah, had never before hiked in the snow. It was, for the most part, four to six inches of sticky slush that turned to ice underfoot, so not great for hiking. We trudged along for another mile before she admitted that the struggle was a lot for her, and that's when I remembered the three pairs of microspikes I was carrying in my pack. Once we put those on, everything improved ... for another mile or so. 

The three sisters on what is apparently a "city" trail, overlooking the "city" of Kanab. 

We followed four-wheeler trails until I realized that we'd gotten off track. The four-wheeler trails continued another 20-something miles to the east. If we wanted to hike off this ridge, we had to find something called the "Cliffs Trail." I should have realized that this trail would be aptly named. The initial drop-off had been erased by a rockslide last autumn (I read about it later on AllTrails) and it took us ages to find the route. First, we climbed down from an overlook trampled in a flurry of mountain lion tracks, only to be cliffed out. I had to give my sisters the classic "butt boost," which I assured them was a legitimate climbing maneuver. Finally, I zoomed in to 80-foot scale on my GPS and traced the track exactly, which was still quite cliffy and almost impossible to feel out the best footing under the snow. What had I gotten my sisters into? 

This. This is what the Cliff Trails becomes — a narrow scramble along rocks and mud with a cliff overhead and a precipitous dropoff below. 

Luckily, I possess the worst vertigo of anyone in my family, so my sisters weren't too bothered by the heights. And I was too focused on not sliding off a cliff to ruminate in my usual anxiety, which probably sounds strange to anyone who doesn't suffer from an anxiety disorder. I will take real terror over imaginary terror any day. 

Mud, rocks, mud, rocks.

We eventually got entirely too tired of the mud and cut over from the "city" trail into a subdivision and called our mother to pick us up. We'd spent five arduous hours walking seven miles and the sisters weren't interested in walking the road back to town, which I understand. But for me, it was a fun little adventure. I'm impressed with how well my sisters did with some of the most heinous trail conditions possible. 

"How did Dad deal with mud?" they asked me.

"To be honest, I don't think Dad and I ever had to hike through a lot of mud together. It was something he generally avoided."

(This is now the third absolutely heinous mud hike I've dragged my sisters on, after two in Oregon last June. I will be surprised if they agree to hike an unknown trail with me again.)

Ultimately it was such a nice weekend, even if it wasn't the vacation from my head I'd been hoping for. It took me weeks to write about it because I was so ashamed of my Thursday night panic and how I nearly spoiled the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for my family. Only now, in a better headspace, can I look back and acknowledge that this is part of my life experience right now. I live in the grip of a sea monster I don't understand. I don't know where it came from. I don't know why it drags me to such depths. I don't know how to vanquish it. But with help from friends, family, medication, therapy, and the simple and pure magic of walking in nature — in my personalized versions of heaven — I am learning how to live with my monster. I'm grateful.