By Megan Byers
There has never been a moment in my life when I didn’t find peace in the wild. I always cherished the feeling of dirt between my toes or the scratchy bark toughening my feet as I scaled pines. A childhood spent in Colorado’s mountains fueled my hobbies and inspired me to climb 14,000-foot peaks and camp in the remote alpine. The wild was my sanctuary, and I found solace in the silence of the untamed world, similar to the solace some people found in God.
Traditional spirituality never found me though. The idea of a priest telling me what to think or what I was allowed to love and practice rubbed me the wrong way. The more hateful, horrible acts I witnessed, exercised by followers of a faith supposedly based on love and compassion, the more I began to doubt that the guidance of a religious god held a place in my life. Loving without consequence shaped me into the person I wanted to be. I knew I didn’t need religion to convince me to “help thy neighbor.” I have a self-reliant, love-bearing attitude that drives all decisions I make, and, as a result, I’ve formed life-long companionships with numerous wonderful people. My personal mantra — to give relentlessly — is so embedded within me that, when I fell in love the first time, I became inseparable from my high school sweetheart for over two years despite the relationship’s pernicious nature. It was this relationship that taught me that although love is the purest human emotion, it can become stained with toxicity when those closest to your heart take until there is nothing left to give.
I would hardly bat an eye when he’d inflict emotional pain on me while I scrambled to pick up the pieces of his unhappy life. While I complained about his disposition to friends and family, I would simply brush off their advice and make excuses for his behavior. He was steadily chiseling away at my inner harmony while I remained oblivious — too focused on giving him the world. As time went on, the miniscule slivers of affection I’d receive from my supposed lover diminished. Even then, it took half a year of emotionally abusive comments, guilt and arguments to break me. Slowly, I witnessed the relationship with the man I planned to marry changing me into someone I didn’t recognize. I wanted to share my love with the world, but, instead, every ounce of care I had to give was funneled into the wrong one. What ultimately pushed me over was hardly the biggest problem we had in our relationship —dirty dishes he refused to clean. A slammed door in my face after a simple request and, minutes later, tears streaming down both of our faces. His eyes were filled with confusion, as if he was clueless of my anguish despite the countless painful conversations over the preceding months. Our breakup wasn’t just a heartache, it was soul ache, for outside of our mangled relationship, my enthusiasm for the world was also broken.
Sustaining so much abuse to my unconditional love left me questioning why I ever did anything for anyone at all, an exact opposite mantra of my former self. Every day was cognitively exhausting, as I boiled with rage over him and myself. When feeling low, I relied on vehement journal entries and venting to friends to find relief, but nothing was working. The previous summer, it was almost by chance that I stumbled upon a Colorado Trail marker after summiting Mt. Princeton. The more I researched the 486-mile backpacking trail that ran from Denver to Durango, the more I believed I could complete it by myself. At first, it was just an escape from a month of work; but given the circumstances of my breakup, the timing of my trip couldn’t have been more convenient. The days between my breakup in May and the time I started my journey were confusing, and I longed to run away. I ached for the moment to escape my monotonous grind. No work, no friends, no family and no responsibility for anyone but myself and my aching heart.
I took my first steps onto the Colorado Trail on July 6th. As I ascended towards the mountains from Denver, I could feel the peace I needed sink in from the earth through my shoes with every crunching step. As I acclimated to a heavy pack and long-distance trekking, I couldn’t think of anything other than how pained my feet and back felt after 17 miles of walking. I was greeted with a message from him the first time I decided to reconnect to civilization. I want you in my life. Sitting in the dust, looking at the tiny blue message on my phone screen immediately ignited the fire in my brain and sent me furiously walking at a painful pace, forgetting my feet hurt at all. I became frazzled by a silly text, opening a gate for all my previous problems to flood to my consciousness and send my mind rambling uncontrollably at the hypocrisy of his message. I hiked vigorously while on the brink of tears, until every step felt like knives to my knees. I collapsed at a creek bank well after the sun had descended past the hills, and I wept; the distraction of my destination no longer held back by my heartbreak. I sat in tall, lush grasses feeling sorry for myself when the sparkle of a full moon on the babbling creek hooked my eyes. Once my focus was fixed on the dancing white light, the red-hot rage in my head felt like a small pebble in the bed of the creek being washed over relentlessly with cold water. I crawled into the creek after stripping off salt-crusted clothes and lay on a sand embankment, floating in ice water. Glimpses of the moon reflecting on the surface floated into my body, rejuvenating my soul. The grief and pain I carried that day floated down the stream, well past my reach.
From that first night on, any time I was on a path to self-destruction, Mother Nature found me. I was slapped awake by my violent sobbing, coated in tears resulting from a cruel heart-wrenching dream. My tent, with an open screen face, swayed gently in the midnight breeze, framing a pure navy sky freckled with stars. The brilliance of it all turned off the hurt in my head instantly. The sky and the wind wiped the tears of emotional pain from my eyes. The sound of my exasperated breathing was like a bulldozer in the silent night. It embarrassed me to be making so much noise. Pale green Indian paintbrush splattered about the plains stood tall amongst tufted hair grass, looking back at me with stark prominence despite their closed petals. The breeze flowing through the surrounding grasses seemed to whisper a calming hush at me. My lungs inhaled remedial gasps of lucid air, allowing the grandeur of the world to swallow me whole and spit me back out into itself. It seemed petty to interrupt the silence of a peaceful night and exhibit such weakness, while the mountains stood so strong against enumerable challenges greater than mine. The prairie grasses and flowers lulled me to sleep with a peaceful whistling of wind through their leaves. Hush, they seemed to say. Hush.
Despite my lack of belief in traditional faiths, the presence of Mother Nature’s stoic power and wisdom embedded a stronger sense of spirituality within me after each passing mile of my journey. Each day a different part of the wild took me in. Careening down a hill, full of pity, I was stopped in my tracks by an audience with thousands of eyes staring at me curiously. A thick aspen grove composed of hundreds of paper white trunks were inspecting every inch of my ratty blonde hair and dirt-caked legs, investigating my heart strings and peering in my pack at a journal full of doubtful thoughts. They swayed rhythmically, their eyes shifting position but never losing focus on me. The cluster of individuals towered well above me, but, despite this, my tired legs swayed with them, and I felt as mighty as they were in that monumental moment. Without judgement of my past and my own apprehension, the quaking, coin-shaped leaves murmured at me. Stand tall, little one, they seemed to hum. Stand tall.
Hours alone in silence and serenity mined out problems I’d suppressed for years. I contemplated my broken heart the most, but other troubles that pecked at me numbly were extracted for trial: doubt in my ability to succeed in school, awkward encounters with friends lost, poor decisions made resulting in grief. Although I was no longer blind with rage while hiking mindfully, every time I connected my phone to my life outside the mountains I was confronted by things that made me forget all the lessons and wisdom given to me by the wild. Text messages from him pathetically attempting to reach out would make my brain boil and pour out in a hissing fizz. How could he be so clueless? How could he hurt me? Why did I let him hurt me? He didn’t support me then, what the hell is this half-assed attempt now? And then, in an instant, at a rockslide alongside the trail, I snapped. I screamed. I threw off my pack and shrieked so loudly it left my ears ringing. “I FUCKING HATE YOU!” The yell was heard by no one but somehow everyone. The echoes of the scream carried far and wide but certainly didn’t reach the intended recipient. While no human heard me, the faces of hundreds of mauve columbines staring back at me with blank sympathy from the crumbly rock slide broke me down to tears. In front of me stood a delicate flower, sprouting out of inhabitable terrain by the dozens, turning an ordinary pile of boulders and shale into a life-filled corner of the earth. The humility of their comet-like pistols and snow-white faces playing in the wind, despite the brutality of the alpine, refined me. Every summer, they rose from the snow and sand of a dead rock pile and fulfilled their purpose despite the weather’s effort to tear them apart. A flower, only the size of my palm, at that moment, contained more purpose than I did. I was driven by rage, while these columbines were driven by life. They helped me realize the irrationality I felt from my heartbreak and frustration, exemplifying that life was only as brutal as the problems you couldn’t evolve from. Life would always thrive through adversity, as these resilient little perennials did year after year. The humility from my encounter of these violet entities was overwhelming and swept my mind — capsizing problems away like mere dust in the wind.
By a miracle made possible only by Mother Nature, I was able to escape a majority of the notoriously rainy mountain monsoon season and experience day after day of bluebird skies and beaming sunshine. A heartbreak-spouted doubt to stop pouring all of myself into life was discarded as I trekked high above the tree line for days, surrounded by millions of blossoms, ranging from magenta to lilac. Every blossom was brimming with joy for sunshine, rain and air. They’d observe me proudly and shake their pom-pom fruits and star-shaped faces at me as I trekked by, tuning into my busy thoughts, satisfied at my neutral contemplation of them. Mother Nature did not force her crude agenda down my throat. She didn’t demand prayers or my presence in church. Rather, her wild spirit guided me to my own conclusions, intervening only to bring wisdom to my insignificant frustrations and to recenter my focus on what carried weight in the grand scheme of things. In a rainstorm, my eyes were flooded with joy when a beam of sunlight burst from the gray clouds, shining directly on my face. I was alone for miles in every direction, surrounded by white and pink bistorts, dancing effervescently in celebration of my clear and center mind, in defiance of the blowing wind. For the rest of my journey to Durango, I no longer cried from grief. I only cried at the gifts she painted in front of me at every bend in the trail. The wild didn’t tell me how to be inherently good, where to find answers or why the ones we love sometimes hurt us. Instead Mother Nature’s spirit intertwined me in her arms and taught me how to live and let go, for a soul brimming with life and love is a magnificent one. I found guidance in the humble lessons of the soaring aspens, the purple blush faces of the irrepressible columbines and the towering summits of the stoic peaks and sky. I found my spirituality in Mother Nature, through the listening power of her wild flowers.