The Gifts of Failing

Image by Tommy_Rau from Pixabay

What I didn’t do was finish the 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT), reach the highest summit in it, or spend 11 days trying.

What I did do was hike 20 miles in a day and a half with about 28 pounds on my back the first 10 miles, 15-20 for the last 10, and through around 3,000 feet of elevation gains and losses.  But these are just logistics and the glaring point is, I failed to do what I set out to and it didn’t feel great.

It turns out, this “beginner’s trail” is quite hard. I decided we should start with one of the most difficult sections early on to get it out of the way and gain more ground on the easier, more level sections. We started in Tahoe City and traveled north then clockwise through the trail. Day one, we were climbing. A lot. I was breathing hard from the incline and had to stop frequently to keep from hyperventilating. Lesson learned: I am too out of shape to expect a couple months of training to carry me through something this arduous without penalty. However, we made it to Watson Summit and the sights and views were phenomenal. We thought we had trekked 15 miles. Sadly, it was soon to be revealed that we were just 10 miles in, pretty much out of water and the next source of water was 5 miles further. I had been feeling proud and optimistic until the sign we came upon gave us the bad news and all wind was taken out of my sails. But we had to press on. My legs were spaghetti, my body was exhausted, and my spirit half-broken. Erich took about 7 pounds of weight from my pack and we continued. There was no other option. We needed water. We pushed forward, everyone tired and thirsty. It was rough and we had hiked down much of the incline only to start climbing upwards again for a long ways. I desperately wanted to stop but we could not. My steps were getting more and more sloppy as I tried to concentrate on the scenery, not on how much my body wanted to lay down and drink water like a horse, or on the pain that was starting to shoot up from my right ankle. Eventually, I developed a headache and started seeing stars. I had experienced a few minor dizzy spells but was able to fend them off by stopping to rest. It was determined it would not be possible to continue as we had to reach the water source where we would camp before sunset and it was getting late in the afternoon.

When we made it to a sign that said we were just one mile from the lake, everyone else cheered joyously.  I was only mildly happy as I was already so miserable and ready to give up.  Somehow, through yet another incline and thousands of tired, sloppy steps, we made it.  I was spent.  Like I’d never been before.  My three companions immediately started to filter water while I sat on a rock, head hung, trying to collect myself.  Through the last five miles I had been wondering how I could have been so stupid to think that I could do this.  Everyone with me being 10-20 years my junior and in better shape.  I had overestimated myself and was paying for it.  I was sure I would not be able to go forward but said little as we finished filtering water, setting up camp, eating, and going to bed.  I apologized a lot.  I was the pacesetter, being the slowest, and it cost us.  I knew the next day would bring an even harder challenge as we would have to reach Rose Summit, an even higher peak.  I fretted.  

We woke around five AM the next day and it was agony just to stand on my feet.  My ankles had swelled up over my quarter length socks and the right one was stabbing me upon every step.  My feet were not much better.  Knees and shoulders were aching, and I was developing pain in my hips, too.  I had never felt so utterly wiped out in my life.  I popped plenty of painkillers and we set out on the trail around seven.  It was okay for a couple of miles.  The ibuprofen had kicked in and the trail had given me a reprieve by mostly leveling out for a while.  Erich had taken all but about 18 pounds from my pack by now to help and it did.  We made it to the trailhead, 20 miles in, where we expected to find a campground and water.  No dice.  It was a popular trailhead where many day hikers were coming and going but our journey was to take us much farther and higher.  While the guys went forward to recon the situation, my sister-in-law, Salina, and I stopped to rest.  

It was here that the thought tormenting me over the previous ten miles finally manifested itself into the realization that with me holding them back, we would never make it to the next water source in time.  Especially not with an even more challenging hike ahead.  I broke the news to the group and was met with the expected push-back.  My offer was to let them go on and I would get a ride out of there and meet them back at Tahoe City at the end.  Erich, however, was not having it. I reasoned through some scenarios to try to stay the course, but the truth was we would be out of water long before we made the next source if I were to continue; them continuing on without me was not up for discussion.  So, we quit, all of us, and rode back to Tahoe City with me feeling like a complete chump.

We set up our tents at a campground nearby that afternoon and walked into town to eat a good meal and try to find some clean clothes for the guys who didn’t bring any extra.  We were camped two miles out of town and three from the shops, so we still had plenty of walking to do but, gratefully, without packs and on even ground rather than sandy, rocky trail bed.  We cleaned up as best we could in the campsite restrooms before heading to town and picked up some cards while we were out so we could play Russian Rummy that night at camp.  The next day, we managed to secure a room for two nights in Tahoe City at an inflated rate, given the season, and planned to buy bus passes for the next ten days so we could hop about the lake and make the most of it.  After the first night, it was clear that staying would cost thousands more than changing our flights to leave early, so we moved our flights up to the next day.

While on the trail, I felt a sort of communion with the forest.  I think most people do.  The scent of pine and moss and decay filled my senses and I even stopped to hug a tree while hoping in my heart it would somehow grant me the ability to finish the hike.  It was a very stereotypical hippie thing to do but I didn’t care.  I was talking to my in-laws about the research that discovered the vast network beneath soil that carried out messages and nutrients between trees via roots and fungi.  How each tree was not an individual but part of a greater whole.  The wonderment and genuine affection I felt when looking up at these old, massive beauties was overwhelming and awesome.  When I had to give up, I felt I had lost so much more than my pride.  I lost time in a place made for healing among ancient giants, gods made of flora and earth and wood.  It is not an exaggeration to say I was heartbroken.

While we were in Reno at the airport, waiting for our flight back home, I picked up a book to pass the hours.  A Pulitzer Prize winner I had never heard of before.  The synopsis on the back cover made the hair on my neck stand on end.  It is a work of fiction based on facts about trees titled The Overstory by Richard Powers.  I teared up many times on the plane while reading.  It is moving all on its own, but it felt especially personal to me after the time I had just spent in the woods.  I could never do it justice here so I will just recommend you read it.  I’m halfway through it now and would love to share thoughts about it with someone after I’m done.  

Fast forward to yesterday. Just two days home and I am sick with a nasty head cold which was probably a contributor to my fatigue and joint pain while we were gone. Something to be thankful for, I suppose, as it would have been awful to be sick on the trail. That paled, however, in contrast to both the phone call we received yesterday and the news that Salina, my sister-in-law who had traveled with us, had been taken to hospital and was being sent to emergency surgery to have her appendix removed. Erich, his mother, and I were struck by the profundity of what could have happened if we had been on the trail during this time. Her appendix could have ruptured. Would we be able to get her to a hospital in time if it did? She may have died in that forest.

I don’t believe the forest gave me this cold. In fact, I am sure it was picked up from my coworker who contracted it from his children and came to work with it a week or so before I left, for which I suppose I owe him my gratitude now. Nor do I believe that the tree I hugged could have healed me but chose not to in order to prevent Salina’s potential death. But I believe in the connection between us. The forest, the ocean, the stars, and we humans; and I believe that when we are tuned into that flowing current, we can find guidance, help, and even peace.

As disappointed as I was, I would not change it now.  It is so clear that we were meant to stop and come home.  I did push past my own limits, even if they were nearer than I anticipated, and spent time with people who love me and who I love as well.  We would all like to return in the near future but I think I would have to do it in shorter sections.  As we joked over drinks one day in Tahoe City about getting tattoos to memorialize the shortened adventure, I offered up “TRT BRB.”

Author: Mandy

Your basic American primate, searching for magic and meaning.

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