On the first day after the air cleared of forest fire smoke, I made my way to a trail near my home. Following an old railroad grade, nearly flat except in places where the old trestles had fallen away, requiring one to scramble down into the chasms along a crumbling hillside, and then scamper back up the opposite bank. Pausing to eat my breakfast along the river, I took a few moments to decorate my hair with sprigs of nearby flowers; baby’s breath, chicory, a purple, daisy-like flower I didn’t know, and a few turkey feathers. Dawn began to strike the canyon walls, pink light bathed the tops of the hills. I continued down the river canyon for five hours, passing the charred remains of an old corral with its two blackened pine trees, and several interesting pieces of rusting equipment. I watched along the ridges for bighorn sheep, and several times saw their distinctive tracks in the dusty path before me, but they never revealed themselves.
Instead, I counted three pairs of cranes, several solitary herons; always flying low along the water or stalking along in the rocky shallows. A small group of turkeys bobbed through the lower fields, making their way along to the banks of the river. I saw a large juniper in a canyon high above me and watched carefully beneath its shade for deer. One large seeming rock lowered its head to graze. I smiled to myself. I was not always patient enough to spot the animals in this way. Too loud, too clumsy, too self-involved to pay attention.
The sun began to beat down on me, but it was a welcome sensation after so many days trapped inside breathing recirculated, filtered air. I had almost begun to believe in my body that fall had arrived, but out here on the river, I could still feel summer on my skin. Only a few lingering traces of smoke wafted through the canyon. Sun gleamed off the water, the deep blue in striking contrast to the golden, velvety hills and the rich red-brown basalt talus slopes, rims and cliffs. As fall approached, the weather would cool; snakes and lizards would retreat; leafed plants would dry up, drop leaves, and become dormant again. Mists would return to the canyon, and so would the strong, cold wind. The ground would freeze; birds would migrate across the sky, their grouped forms always visible somewhere above.
I hiked ten miles, fifteen, and then twenty before I arrived at the moment I had been searching for. The pain had come into my body. It crawled up the back of my left leg and came to rest behind my knee, cranking my calf and hamstrings into a tight bundle that refused to yield. Every step became a singular task, gently lifting and placing my foot, shifting my weight, and beginning again.
When the pain sets in, the only actionable course is to rise from it with dignity. Slogging along, complaining, and allowing the pain to get loud only leads to more suffering. Instead, I slow down; I make sure I’m not stooping, limping, slouching, or shuffling. Each step is an intention, a choice, an opportunity to rise above mortal suffering. Each step is one moment closer to the end, though the end is sometimes when the pain really comes into its own. At first, I just listen to what hurts. Often, I’ll find the pain gets quieter, or I’ll realize the area that’s troubling me is smaller, and less intense, than what I perceived initially. Then, I check in with my other body parts, the ones that are not screaming. What doesn’t hurt? What feels good? Where inside my body am I rested and feeling at ease? What can I offer my body? Is there anything it asks for? I drink water, select a snack, change up my layers, apply some more sunscreen, and then eventually, I run out of distractions. We are alone together again, my pain and I.
But this kind of pain is nothing. This is a moment or two at a time. This is not the crushing weight of a years-long depression, the unyielding knowing of a friend’s final moments. This is no broken leg, nor broken heart, nor gunshot wound. This pain will never touch waking up sober, broke, and alone in the darkest years of my addiction. This pain is nothing compared to the eighty-eight hour labor I endured bringing my son into the world. This pain is not anything like the hole you cannot fill inside yourself. It’s not post-traumatic stress, it is not chronic fatigue, it’s not a respiratory infection you cannot shake. It’s nothing like realizing how broken you are. Nothing like being unable to find your own forgiveness.
This pain-it is nothing at all. I examine my experience of it. I allow it. I choose to participate in what is real. This is nothing but a series of moments I am capable of moving through. I sit taller in each one when I remember who I am.
I am grateful when the sun sets behind the hills, the same ones that were crowned in pink this morning. Three more hours, two more hours, one hour left. The last few miles require me to crawl over a barbed wire fence four times. That final maneuver on shaky legs is not easy, but I manage to spare myself getting spiked in the thighs. I am bathed in a beautiful light as the canyon opens out before me and I, finally, can make out my shiny little car in the distance. A red tailed hawk alights from his perch beside me as I navigate the final segment. I watch him glide across the river and disappear into a juniper tree on the far side. I find myself smiling again. It is an honor to be here, to be worthy of these places.
Finally reunited with my car, finally finished walking on this injured leg, I sit on the tailgate of my rig and tear open a bag of chips. I hold my leg, I wrap my arms around it, it hurts. I finally say it out loud. This hurts! I complain to myself. I’m alone here, no one is listening. I whine a little, just to get it off my chest.
Back on the road, I pilot my way home along this narrow, washboard path in the canyon as daylight slips back into night. A dark blue sky behind the shadowy features of the canyon, my headlights illuminate the gravel road ahead. A train passes on the opposite bank. I wish I was riding alone in a boxcar, just me and the shadows and the sky.
I need never ask my pain to be quiet, because when I am willing to look it full in the face, I find it isn’t much more than discomfort and fear. It’s just a feeling; a moment by moment reminder to be present, be grateful for your mortal form, to remember those who came before you, and connect back into yourself.
Here I am.