On the Mountain There is Healing
34.2364° N, 117.6590° W
When I set out on the 12-mile round trip hike to Mt. Baldy, I had succumbed to a desperate belief that I could find healing on top of the mountain. All I had to do was summit before the end of the day.
Much like healing, getting up the mountain was more difficult than I ever imagined.
At the time I was training for a six-day backpacking trip from Mammoth to Yosemite’s Half Dome by way of the John Muir Trail. I didn’t have any backpacking experience prior but when my friend told me there was an permit up for grabs, I volunteered.
I knew I was in trouble as soon as the group set out on the hike that early Saturday morning. I felt out of breath before the pavement that lead to the trailhead ended and I knew I was in trouble. I was feeling the weight of the 25 pound pack I was carrying for the first time along with the emotional weight of getting final closure and separation from my first love two years after the original breakup.
Mt. San Antonio, or “Baldy” as it’s more commonly known, is an 12-mile hike located in Los Angeles County, California. It is the highest mountain in Los Angeles County at just over 10,000 feet of elevation and the second tallest peak in Southern California after San Gorgonio. On a clear day, hikers can see the Los Angeles skyline on one side and an expansive desert on the other. It is a day-hike for many Los Angelenos and serves as a great training hike for future thru-hikers.
I started to fall behind in the first mile. As I watched one switchback between me and the rest of the group grow into two and then three I felt a deep shame rush into me. Even though it was my first time hiking with such significant weight on my shoulders, being so far behind felt like the ultimate failure.
Beau, another person from the group, waited for me to catch up and began to hike with me. We took long breaks and went at a slow pace. My legs were screaming and I would bend over on my trekking poles to try to release some tension. We still had at least four miles to walk and over 5,000 miles of elevation to climb. I was doubting whether or not I would finish this climb.
We made it to the halfway point where our group was eating and resting. I was exhausted and on the verge of tears thinking about how far I still had to go and how much more difficult this hike was about to get. But I let myself enjoy the ten glorious minutes without a pack and listened to the wind mimic the roar of the ocean between sets as it rushed through the smaller peaks and trees surrounding us.
We started walking again and soon the group was at least 20 minutes ahead of Beau and I. Beau began talking about a study he had read that revealed people are 30 percent more likely to think they can achieve something if someone is simply standing beside them. A sense of community–even the most miniscule display–will help a person last through a difficult task significantly longer than when they are alone.
I thought about when I started weeping in my therapist's office the day before the hike. The unexpected sadness had overtaken me and left me short of breath. I felt deeply alone and misunderstood. I found someone standing beside me in my pain when my therapist called him my first love, unlike so many others who look at me when I say his name and reply “It was only four months, Laur.”
She acknowledged my love. She is the one who believed that yes, I can get over losing the hope that my first love would return to me, for the second time. This hike was about proving that if I had the resilience to make it through the most difficult physical experience of my life, the same resilience would get me through one of the most painful relational experiences too.
“You good to go down? I can’t do it anymore.” Beau said.
I stood there on the steepest part of the trail and felt disappointment wash over me. I was scared of going at the mountain alone without being able to see the rest of the group. I also felt tied to Beau and that his happiness and comfort were more important than the goal I had of summiting Baldy. I encouraged him to keep going and less than a fourth of a mile later he stopped and told me that we should turn back. It was too hard for him and I should go back down with him.
I almost said yes. I almost convinced myself that I could do it another time, but despite my exhaustion and doubt that I could make it all the way, I started shaking my head.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry, I know it’s selfish, but I have to finish. I have to make it to the top. I have to do this for myself.”
I made sure he had food and water, told him there was only one trail and as long as he followed it down he would be fine, and he might even be able to meet up with one of the group members who had decided to turn back after our extended rest stop in the middle.
I started walking on my own and after about five hundred feet I started chanting, “On top of the mountain there is healing. There is healing on top of the mountain. I won’t stop until I get healing.”
I wanted it so bad. I would do anything to get healing. I wanted to be able to find the closure he had denied me for a second time and not feel so furious and broken.
As I continued my delusional chant, I realized this was so much bigger than healing from a denied second chance. I was hiking for healing from everything that happened in 2017–otherwise known as the very bad year. I wanted to be able to write again. I wanted to not feel fury at my emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend. I wanted freedom from the shame of unfinished articles, broken promises, disappointed bosses, clients, parents, and cancelled plans.
I had started to believe that there would be a significant leap forward in my healing if I could just get to the top of the damn mountain. I wanted to summit it for years and even though I had naively stacked the odds against me, I was going to finish.
So I continued my chant, muttering it softly under my breath when I passed fellow hikers and loudly when I believed that I was in earshot away from them.
I reached two members of the group who had stopped when one of them began to have altitude sickness. We were only a half of a mile away from the summit. He decided to head down and I moved on with the other person who was going to hike the full JMT.
I kept my head down until I heard another hiker coming down the trail tell me, “You’re almost there.” I looked up and I realized I could see the summit—I could see healing—just a little bit ahead of me.
I felt a surge of energy and walked as fast as I could up to where my friends were and cried. It was everything I had wanted to come of this day. I had made it to the summit despite being told to turn back and hiking alone for the majority of the journey. I had made it to the top of the tallest peak in Los Angeles County, and I would make it through the healing processes of the very bad year.
I was worried that the mountain metaphor would fizzle out as we headed down the mountain. But those mountain-top moments of clarity are just the beginning. You have to go back to your normal life after these moments. You’re going to be tested on all that you have learned on your way down.
I pictured leaving my anger on top of Mt. Baldy and focused on remaining aware of the growing distance I was making as I hiked back down. This hike was affirmation that I was regaining what was lost and what was taken from me. I was leaving the angry, broken, and insecure version of myself and hopefully returning to someone more recognizable.
Much to my surprise the downhill brought its own challenges. My fatigued feet and legs slipped on loose dirt and rock and sent up a prayer of gratitude every time my trekking poles supported me.
At one point I fell and landed on my pack, trekking poles still tightly grasped with one at my side and the other up above me. I had been thinking of the first one, wondering why we allow such intense emotions to be tied to a person even when they have been out of our lives for years. I had been feeling so good leading up to the fall and even picking up speed in order to catch my friends and was now looking up at the sky, feeling very alone and exhausted from fighting my fatigue. I rolled over to one side and shakily stood up on my poles and took a few sips of water from my platypus and continued on.
I finally made it to the end of the hike and saw the crew slowing walking and chatting at the clearance. My feet and legs were aching, I was soaked in my own sweat in addition to being sunburned and chapped-lipped but I completed the hike. It felt like I had grabbed something that was stolen and hidden from me. I felt powerful and I felt free.
You have to earn your healing. It is possible to find healing on top of the mountain, but know that the mountain reveals all weakness–all broken bones, fractures of will, and insecurities on the way down and on the way up. But if you want the healing bad enough and are willing to let the mountain break down your defenses and false narratives, you will find healing on top of the mountain.