I think of my time in Glacier National Park every day. I worked there for four months, and those four months were filled with new, strange, beautiful, and intense experiences, the kind that only can come with suddenly being stripped of everything comfortable and familiar and easy and finding yourself alone in foreign territory.
That summer I spent more time alone than I have before, ever, just existing. I think our culture places a lot of emphasis and value on extroversion, but enjoying yourself is incredibly valuable. Going at things alone for the first time isn’t easy, and it shouldn’t be. It’s just really gratifying.
One of my greatest blessings that summer was working with so many other incredible employees who were absolute hiking machines and took me on excursions up mountains. One of the best experiences in my life was hiking up Mt. Siyeh, a 10,000 foot peak (a 4,000 foot gain off-trail). On that day I wrote:
“We watched little helicopters fly below us, tiny dots in the space between these mountain ridges. An eagle (or some sort of falcon) came and soared right in front of us, dipping and gliding into the abyss. What SPACE! It is utterly incomprehensible how tiny we are.”
Climbing up Siyeh, I looked up to see clouds (tumbling practically right above my head)– white wisps. I was wearing these little sunglasses that have UVA and UVB filters, otherwise looking up at these amazing clouds would have been blinding. The particles of water caught and refracted the light and made these amazing rainbows that looked sort of like oil in puddles, all swirled together, moving quickly and fluidly. I stood and gawped. It was incredible, tangible magic. (^ Click to see large) At the top of the peak, we could look straight down at Cracker Lake, a bright turquoise puddle a mile below. Being surrounded by that endless expanse of blue sky and clouds does really good things for your brain.
Hiking out to Cracker Lake was unforgettable. I’d seen pictures of that bright turquoise water and the mountains. And I’d seen it from a mile above, hanging over the edge of Mt. Siyeh.
There is no preparation for the feeling of being in the presence of those giant rock walls that rise over the lake 4,000 feet and surround you and take up the whole sky. And the water is the most supernatural, opalescent, pure bright pthalo turquoise blue. It doesn’t get any less blue, anywhere. Where it’s deeper, the color doesn’t fade or get desaturated. It gets an even more concentrated, inky blue.
It’s enormous, pristine, otherworldly. My jaw dropped and I was covered in goosebumps and my arm-hairs stood on end. It was like nothing else I’d ever experienced.
All this indescribable beauty rocked me to my core. Everything felt new, every day felt different than the last. I was lonely and I liked it that way, even as my heart burst from watching ancient couples holding hands as they shuffled through the hotel lobby. In that summer’s strangeness and beauty, it was exactly what it needed to be.
In late June of that summer, I participated in a relay race with other employees. 100 miles, from one end of the park to the next, over the course of a day. We all took 2 shifts of about 4-5 miles each and got a very early start. I had the chance to meet employees from lodges all over the park and run the most I ever have in one go.
(I had optimistically believed all the hiking I’d done would prepared me for the race) (I was not correct) By the end of the day I had enormous blood blisters on two toes and was completely infatuated with another runner. He worked on the opposite end of the park as a bellman and ran in moccasins filled with holes while singing christmas carols in his head. He ate really old, brown, gooey bananas and loved NPR. Needless to say, I was enamored.
All that remained to be done was to orchestrate casually bumping into him again, but that was difficult to do with him living two hours away on the opposite end of the park, with no car, and no internet or cell service, and me being a very shy person. It ended up being another month before I was able to find a sufficiently casual way to run into him. What happened was I finally sucked it up and went to the lodge where he worked and made casual conversation about pagan rituals and blood sacrifice.
We arranged to meet when he got off. An afternoon hike turned into a futile attempt to grab friends to go camping with us — everyone was busy with something or other so we borrowed a tent and heaps of blankets, tromped out into the woods and camped out. We were too nervous and excited to sleep much– we just talked and talked about important things, like the strange hairdos and hats we wore as little kids and our plans to someday run a school on a hot air balloon. The night was perfectly clear and there was no need for a rain fly, so we looked up at the stars — they were so bright they cast shadows. I had strange dreams filled with colors and confusion and when we woke up in the morning we realized for the first time we were surrounded by wildflowers.
(Indian Paintbrush at Iceberg Lake, above, and Fireweed along the Grinnell Glacier trail, below)The next couple weeks together were ecstatic, luminous, and amazing. I was getting to know this person who was so unbelievably similar to me; it felt strange. There were all these uncanny things — that as a kid he hated the feel of shoes and socks and would wriggle out of them to walk around school barefoot, while I hated the stiffness of jeans and only wore the softest, most ragged old leggings I owned, to my mother’s despair. We would go on these marathon 48 hour ‘dates’ on our days off to explore every inch of the park and talk ourselves completely hoarse.
I was so deliriously happy I would find myself daydreaming at work, blindly punching keys and smiling to myself when I was supposed to be checking people into the hotel (to my coworkers, if you ever see this which I sort of hope you don’t, thank you for putting up with me– I was probably insufferable).
The experience of falling for a person for the first time is exhilarating and utterly terrifying. I really felt like I was, quite literally, falling off a cliff. I finally just gave into it and surrendered myself to the uncertainty. It was made all the more excellent with the feeling I had, for the first time really, that I would be fine. I actually knew I would be okay, I was well acquainted with myself, and enamored with the unknown, and whatever the future had in store would be amazing– good or bad was irrelevant. This June will make be our 2 year anniversary. At that point we may be at opposite ends of the country, but in the entire time we’ve known each other things have never been normal for us. Our mantra is, “we’ll figure it out.” And we always do.