My windows are down and I feel a slight pang of loneliness as I drive towards these magnificent mountains. A sharp gust of cold wind blasts into the window and strangely comforts me: yes, it’s ok, because this is a lonely, desolate place. This is why I came here.
I throw my pack together at the trailhead, leaving out a few items (rope, first aid kit, flashlight, camp towel, flip flops) to lighten my load and to make room for the bear canister I’m required to carry in. I’ve got about five miles to hike, two thirds of which are steep switchbacks that will gain me about 2,500 feet of elevation. I am heading to Delta Lake, just northeast of the popular Surprise Lake—equally beautiful but minus the heavy day-hiker traffic. The trail ascends quickly, emerging from pine forest and crisscrossing me up the side of a wildly steep hill where thousands of wildflowers grow, all facing the vista. As I climb, I munch on the wild huckleberries that grow everywhere.
The trail is steep and my walking becomes a prayer, my breathing aligns with my footsteps. At the end of a switchback, about two miles from the top, I leave the path to Surprise Lake and head down a rough unmaintained trail that leads back through the forest. Soon I hear the sound of water and the trees open up into a massive boulder field. The way is marked by cairns, and I rock hop on all fours, following the sounds of the stream upwards until I spot the next cairn.
The crest of the ridge hangs just ahead, almost directly upwards, and I quicken my climbing pace. And at the top: through rocks, the stream rushes downwards from a mad blue green lonely lake, totally still, behind which the immense summit of the Grand Teton impales the sky. Snowdrifts line the lakeshore. The temperature instantly drops about ten degrees, maybe just from the wind coming down off the snowy peak. I am frozen in place for about two minutes before I can continue on, circling around the lake in search of a spot to set up camp.
Everything is boulders, but I find one small flat strip of dust. I put up the tent, staking it down deep into the ground against the gusting wind. I refill a water bottle in the crystalline lake and boulder hop 100 feet downwind of camp with the bear canister under my arm. Sunlight is already fading when I begin to cook, boiling a potato over a small wind-battered fire and dicing it into my spiced pasta.
The bright white moon comes up over the lake, glinting gray-green in the water, and I am soon lost in the dancing flames. I know that this place should be utterly inhospitable for me, and I am intensely grateful for the warmth of this fire and the comfort of my tent, in which I will sleep tonight protected from the elements. ‘Can I feel home in this place?’ I constantly ask myself as I strive to learn to make the entire world my home, as I strive to know whether this is possible. I think all the time about the human family (one love). And then it hits me…Jackson was so friendly, and I realize that I’m excited not for the distant future when I’m around friends again, but just to return to society and cultivate ever more spontaneous interactions with the people I meet on the street, in coffee shops, in passing. Somehow, friendly connections come quickly to me. So…if the world is to be my home, then humanity must be my family. I smile, curl up in my sleeping bag, and drift off quickly.
* * *
In the morning I rise with sun, close my eyes again for an hour, and then emerge from my tent into the warmth of the morning sunlight that shimmers across the water, which is now even more brilliantly aquamarine in the new daylight.
That mountain still fiercely lunges skyward. I clean up the remnants of my fire, remove a muffin from the bear canister, and tear down camp. I shoulder my pack and pick my way across boulders back around to the edge of the lake where the stream begins to fall. I set my bag down on the sloping rock and snap a few pictures of this wild place.
When I feel satisfied, my camera goes into my pocket and I sit down on the rock and eat the muffin and just soak up the insane beauty and solitude of this place. From my pack, I pull out a water bottle filled with pristine aquamarine lake water. The bag tips slightly, but I don’t bother setting it straight. I have a swig of pure, cold water and take another bite of my muffin; everything is still. Then my bag slips and starts tumbling down the rock face toward the stream. I fly down the rock, grab for the bag, slip and slam down into the water. The word “fuck” resonates through my mind. The cold hits me like a knife. I pull myself out of the water. I am soaking wet from the chest down. I climb back up on the rock. My right knuckles are covered in blood. My jaw aches, but I can open and close it. My head is ringing. I take a breath, try to focus on what I’m feeling in my body. My right knee is a dull ache. I look down at my jeans; they are soaked through red. I gingerly roll them up; there is an inch long gash across my knee and blood pouring down my leg in little rivulets. I stare dumbly at the wound and can see down almost half an inch deep to a layer of white. There are some minor scratches on my left arm and my left middle finger is turning purple under the nail, but this seems to be the extent of the damage.
I take a few breaths and try to relax for a minute. My first thought is, “you fucking idiot. You should have been more careful.” I stretch out in the sun; I realize I’m shivering in these soaked jeans. Letting the warmth fall over me, I try to take stock of the situation. I reach into my pockets and pull out my phone and camera and map, all dripping. My first aid kid is in the car, 5 miles and 2,500 feet below me. I lay there and try not to move. I can’t help it, but images pop into my head of Aron Ralston (127 Hours) and Chris McCandless. I imagine myself being swept over a waterfall. Then I stop and focus. Blood is dripping from my knuckles. They look bad, but they only really hurt when I make a fist.
There isn’t much of a choice; I need to get off the mountain. I stand and test my leg. It hurts, but I can definitely walk. I pull on my wet pack and tighten the buckle, then head down with extreme caution as I lower myself along the rocks. I have about 500 feet of boulder field to descend, but I try not to think about this. I can’t bend my right knee much, so I gingerly lower myself by crouching on my left leg and stepping down to land on my right foot. I start to feel a little bit woozy when I lose the trail. I’m trying to follow the cairns down, but they are a lot harder to see from above. I know I can make it down, but only if I can find the trail. My heart races when I stumble on a loose rock. No mistakes right now, I tell myself, as if I need reminding.
I do finally find the trail, though I have to climb about 30 feet back up to reach it. Now I’m hiking through the woods. The trail is steep but solid. After a few minutes, I run into a hiker who happens to be a Wilderness First Responder. He sits me down and washes out my knee, then has me look towards the sun as he checks my pupil dilation. He rinses out another bloody scrape on my right elbow that I hadn’t noticed. I tell him I’m ok to hike down, and he lets me go after giving me a couple Ibuprofens. A few minutes later, I meet a couple who stop to ask me if I’m ok and offer me water. It’s not much longer before I reach the main trail, where I immediately run into a doctor who examines the knee, says that I probably need stitches, and tells me about a nearby clinic located within the park. With a small few exceptions, almost everyone I pass on the trail stops me to ask if I am ok and to offer me first aid or help. And then it hits me. People are taking care of me. My human family is watching out for me. The blood drips down my leg as I hike, and people keep stopping me to make sure I am ok. I start making up stories about getting in a fight with a bear. When a woman seems too worried after seeing my knee and my knuckles, I show her a tiny scratch on my other arm and joke that that’s the worst part. I decide to enjoy the rest of the hike, even through the limp. I meet another WFR and an EMT. They sit me down and patch up my knee with tape and a gauze pad. They ask if I need food or water. 90% of the people I pass on the rest of the way down stop to make sure I’m ok. About half of them have some sort of first aid certification.
I make it beyond the sloping wildflower alpine meadow hillside and down through the forest, almost to the trailhead. I exchange nods and hellos with two people as we pass each other. I hear them stop walking, and I turn around; they are staring at me. “Dude, are you ok?? We just walked past each other and said hi but then we saw your leg!” I have an overwhelming idea as I finally reach my car. Why did everyone stare at my leg? I used to wonder why everyone stares at bad car accidents. This natural element of human nature had always deeply disturbed me. And then suddenly I wonder: maybe we stare because we want to help. Even when we know we can’t help, it doesn’t matter—the uncontrollable urge to look is wired into us, not because we are attracted to the ugliness, but because, maybe, we are biologically compelled to watch out for each other.
I drive to the clinic in the park. Now that I’m down from the mountain and my knee is wrapped (though blood still trickles down my leg as I drive), my focus shifts. I am often asked, “without money, what would you do in the event of an emergency?” This is my first experience with an injury/serious illness since I began to travel, so I am about to find out the answer first hand. One purpose of this journey is to find my own way to make it, not to lean on the people who would support me if I asked them to (my parents, as well as a handful of friends who have, over these months, actually asked if I need money). If I had a life threatening injury, things would be different. But I just walked 5 miles out of the mountains, so I needed to see if I could deal with this on my own.
At the clinic, I tell them I have no insurance and I also can’t pay for treatment. They tell me they can’t help me, and send me 45 minutes away to a hospital back in Jackson. I limp into the ER with a bloody napkin pressed to my leg, and they sit me down to fill out paperwork. I tell them I can’t pay for help. “That’s ok, we can’t refuse you treatment,” the receptionist says. She gives me a form that I can fill out later to request financial assistance.
In the back, two nurses have me lie down and they wash out my knee and my hand with warm soapy water. It stings, but I just close my eyes and enjoy the warmth and the touch. This is all I needed. The doctor tells me my hand and jaw will heal on their own, and he injects my knee with an anesthetic. The nurse and I joke with each other as she irrigates the wound. The doctor returns to put in two stitches. After I sign the discharge papers, the nurse sits and listens as I talk about my search to feel at home in the world and how this “accident” allowed me to feel intense care from strangers.
In the parking lot, I finally strip off my still wet shoes and socks and jeans, empty out my pack, and hang clothes and sleeping bag on open car doors to dry in the sun while I eat a tangerine and leave the peel on the dashboard. We ask the universe for growth experiences. But then when those growth experiences come in the form of hardship, we curse the universe. The people I passed on the trail kept saying, ‘I’m so sorry, I hope you still enjoy the rest of your time here…’ as if this might ruin my vacation. But I am not on vacation. I am traveling, and my task is not to judge experiences as ‘good’ or ‘bad;’ my task is to accept with gratitude all that comes to me.