Between my husband’s addiction recovery, and our relationship recovery, sometimes I just need a break.
I went hiking last week, something I haven’t done nearly enough the past few months.
Hiking is one of the main reasons we moved from Southern California to the Blue Ridge Mountains. I’ve often quipped that being in nature, on a trail, is my happy place.
When we relocated to Western North Carolina four years ago, I had no idea the role the mountains would play in my husband’s, and our, recovery. In fact, recovery wasn’t even on our radar back then.
After a challenging week in my husband’s belated addiction recovery process — he quit drugs and alcohol thirty-seven years ago, but never went through recovery — and in the relationship recovery process we’re learning goes hand-in-hand with him finally facing his character defects (A.A.’s term, not mine), my brother suggested we go hiking.
Even though it’s winter, it’s been unseasonably warm this year. With the sun shining bright and the forecast predicting sixty-degree weather, I jumped at the invitation, realizing I hadn’t hit the trails in months. In that moment, I also realized that’s probably why my mental and emotional health has felt so ragged lately.
My brother and I hit the trailhead around noon.
It’s Friday and the parking lot is fairly empty. Perfect for me, as my favorite way to hike is in solitude. As we walk along the river’s edge, listening to the sound of the water caressing the rocks, my mind begins to calm almost instantly. Off in the distance we hear a gaggle of sounds — wild turkeys, or frogs maybe? We aren’t sure. With the winter trees wearing no leaves, we have a clear view of the blue sky above. It’s February, but it feels like a beautiful spring day.
As we traverse over several wooden bridges, and cross two small streams, with stepping stones leading the way, my brother and I talk. About life. About the week I’ve had. About challenges we’ve both been facing the past few months. And about Mother Nature and her abundant lessons.
We laugh because so many of those lessons are hitting us smack in the face as we walk along the trail.
Yielding to the flow of life, like the river does, instead of fighting against it, like we too often do. Accepting the seasons of life, without question or pushback, just as we accept the seasons in nature. Learning to let go of things we can’t control, just like the leaves do when they drop willingly off the trees each October.
We find ourselves joking about the few leafy stragglers hanging on to their branches, even though they’re faded, papery, and clearly past their expiration date. One tree in particular catches our attention. He stands defiantly in the center of the trail. His branches covered in pale, dry leaves, and reaching skyward like arms in celebration, as if to say, “I won! I’m still here. I outlasted them all!”
We laugh out loud at how silly that sounds, while recognizing we’ve done the same thing ourselves.
Instead of letting go of things we can’t control, feelings that hurt, or frustrating situations we can’t change, we cling to them. We try to control people and situations we know full well we can’t, believing if we could, life would be better. We’d be happier. We’d be at peace.
As we head up the mountain toward our destination — a large rock outcropping that offers a 180-degree view of the Blue Ridge Mountains — my mind is focused on our conversation, and on not missing any trail markers. My husband and I have missed turns while hiking this trail in the past, adding miles that I don’t want to add today.
The trail continues to climb and begins feeling unfamiliar.
I’ve hiked it half a dozen times, but today I’m losing my bearings. It seems steeper and more challenging than I remember. My heart is racing. I have to stop twice to catch my breath.
“I think we missed a turn,” I shout to my brother, who is hiking behind me, because I’m supposed to know the way.
“I don’t remember it being this steep,” I add, as I glance down at my watch. We’ve been climbing for well over an hour. I recall it taking about forty-five minutes to reach the rock outcropping where we plan to eat lunch. It’s almost two o’clock and my stomach is growling.
“We should be there by now, it’s…” but before I can finish my sentence, I realize where we are.
We’re hiking up the part of the trail my husband and I usually hike down.
The trail is comprised of two interconnected loops, and because I missed a turn, we’re now hiking up the steeper, longer part of the trail.
“I definitely missed a turn. We usually come down this way,” I tell my brother. “The good news is, we can still get to the rock.”
Eventually the trail levels off and we enter one of my favorite parts of the hike. Near the top of the mountain there’s a respite from the steep climb up and the somewhat challenging descent back down. The trail broadens into a flat, open area that feels like a meadow, but with trees.
Serene is the word that best describes it. With no breeze, and no leaves to rattle even if there was one, it’s eerily quiet. Birds are few and far between. Even though it’s warm, it’s winter in the mountains and that means there aren’t many birds.
I relish the peace and quiet as I walk in silence.
My brother and I have halted our conversation. Perhaps because we’re hungry and wishing we were already at our lunch spot. Or, more likely, because I’m hyper-focused on not missing another turn.
The trail begins to descend and we still haven’t encountered the rock. I’m doubting myself and getting frustrated. This hike is not going how I planned. It was supposed to relieve my stress. It’s adding to it instead.
My brother can tell. “Should we turn around?” he asks. “Maybe we missed the turn back there,” he says pointing in the direction we just came from.
I pause for a moment. I’ve done this hike many times. But it looks and feels so different today. For one, I’ve never hiked it during winter. I’m used to being surrounded by trees plush with leaves. And, because we’re hiking the trail backward, my sense of direction is completely discombobulated.
“No, let’s keep going,” I reply. “I know this leads back down to the parking lot. I just hope we didn’t miss the rock.”
The rock is the whole reason for the hike.
It’s a peaceful perch that grounds me, even though it sits 3,300 feet in the air. Resting on the large rock outcropping, gazing out over the Blue Ridge Mountains and absorbing the overwhelming beauty, calms me. It helps me catch my breath when the craziness of life takes it away. It helps me cope with living across the country from a mother dealing with dementia, with losing my father last year, and with a husband who is finally going through addiction recovery — a much bumpier road than either of us anticipated.
Less than a minute later I see a grove of rhododendrons and I feel my body relax. The path to the rock cuts through rhododendrons. We didn’t miss it. I’m not lost. I can breathe again.
“This is it!” I exclaim, in both excitement and relief.
We make our way down the short narrow path through the rhododendron grove, the view beckoning us through the evergreen leaves, until we reach the rock. We carefully step onto it, steadying ourselves with hiking poles to avoid slipping on the wet surface. We find a dry spot and sit down. I take a deep breath and drink in the view.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” I say, a statement more than a question.
“Is this your happy place?” my brother asks. He knows — we’ve discussed it frequently since he left California, and moved in with us last summer.
“It is,” I reply.
A moment later I correct myself. “Actually, I think it’s my healing place.”
All my worries are lifted from my shoulders, at least for the time being. I unzip my backpack, grab my sandwich, take a bite, and savor the delicious sustenance my growling tummy has been clamoring for.
“Everything always tastes better up here,” I say, while also thinking, everything always feels better, too.
Author Note: My husband has given me full permission to write about his, and our, recovery journey. In fact, he insists I write about it.