Tales from the Trail

“You want to go WHERE?”

April 12, 2016

It’s nearly 5:30PM and I’m ready to call it a night. I’ve just finished an 18hr transatlantic flight from Bucharest to Denver. Monica’s Prada-scented goodbye kiss and teary-eyed command to get back home as soon as I can is still fresh in my mind. I wondered how I managed to convince her that my sleeping in the outside for 6 months was a good idea…

Wouldn’t it be great if this sketch portrayed Monica’s initial reaction as I brought up the idea of hiking the Appalachian Trail? A hearty, full-body laugh releases all those pleasure generating neurotransmitters like dopamine and endorphins, flooding the brain with feel-good associations. This was the kind of environment I wanted her brain to be floating in as I broached the topic of a 6-month backpacking trip along the mountain ranges of the East Coast.

The sketch is Monica, and the infectious laugh is hers, but I’m pretty sure that we we’re in Barcelona at the time and I was probably telling her some story about fumbling through performing my first breast exam in medical school. Or it could have been the one about the conflicting expressions of relief on my patient’s face as I drained an enormous thigh abscess versus my expression when the stream of pus found its way to my face. Regardless, I’m sure I was telling one of my stock stories designed to make me look both heroic and adorable at the same time.

I didn’t have anymore heroic yet adorable stories to lead off with, and I had fairly low expectations of controlling Monica’s brain environment. This is partly because she’s too smart to let me get away with any of my scientific trickery, but mostly because I couldn’t even control my own brain environment. My brain was drowning in its own swirling sludge of doubts and depression.

In fact, I left Romania several weeks earlier in order to weather another depressive episode back in Colorado at Dad’s place. Despite Dad’s attempts to move me into a bedroom, my favorite place to hide when I was in one of my “funks” is a converted storage room. Packed with cardboard boxes, dusty books, unhung pictures leaning against the walls, and lit by a dim reading lamp, this space became my cave. A pile of blankets on the floor, wedged between the closet and a utility table, formed my cocoon. My cave is safe, and familiar, and an ideal place to ride out a funk (I know what you’re thinking, but I can’t let you have it – you’ll have to create your own cave). Dad would gently nudge me out of the house occasionally to go skiing or trail running (depending on the season), but otherwise, I rarely left my cocoon until my funk passed.

After a few weeks of denying the familiar lies that my depression told me: “I’m so broken, I’m unsalvageable,” and “the world would be a better place without me in it,” these lies faded into the periphery. Vague memories of my accomplishments as a surgeon, scientist, and long-distance runner stopped suggesting journeys that I failed to follow to completion. I sensed Dad’s unobtrusive but protective presence just beyond the door of my cave, and felt Monica’s devotion despite having a crazy husband. I must not be ALL bad if they were still sticking with me. I was ready to slough off the stale film created after several weeks of inertia. Time to start living again.

Emerging from my funk with an uncharacteristic sense of purpose, I did what anyone looking to commemorate a new beginning would do. I put on my cleanest hoodie and walked to the nearest Taco Bell. On the way to a celebratory feast, I envisioned myself in a position to make a meaningful contribution again, to connect with people. Particularly vivid images claimed center-stage in my mind: I was hoisted up on the shoulders of a grateful crowd, receiving the hand-shake praise from some important dignitary, seeing the joy-filled smile on the face of a previously injured child… that kind of thing.

My pace slowed as a few nagging doubts surfaced. Won’t the next depressive episode interrupt any big plans I make? That I hadn’t been gainfully employed for several years was something I could probably work around, but my tendency to turn into a cornered rabbit in social situations was going to limit my potential in corporate cultures. The more I thought about it, I hadn’t been able to avoid cave-worthy anxiety/depression while trying to tackle something challenging, around new people, for years. Except when I was hiking sections of the Appalachian Trail. Hiking the Appalachian Trail…

I kept walking. Each step of my right foot punctuated my internal dialog. “Fine. I’m not a normal person. Who is?” As traffic whizzed by me, I remembered the fresh air, silence aside from soothing nature noises, and the feel of damp leaves over packed dirt on my toes as I strolled through a forest. Yup. It’s time for another hike.

Taco Bell didn’t disappoint as I devoured a pile of burritos and crunchy tacos; doubly-deserved because I made it through another funk, and because I had a plan to do something meaningful again. I was going to hike until I discovered a better version of myself.

Selling the idea to Monica was going to be difficult. This would be my third trip to Georgia, and on each of the previous hikes, the strain of being apart became obvious despite her attempts to put on a brave face. I didn’t want to hurt her, but convinced myself that this journey would be less painful than following our current path.

I tried to ignore my elevated heart rate and the whooshing sound of helicopter rotors in my ears as my Skype request went through.

“Hey Love! Are you feeling better?” She looked concerned and a little sad and beautiful.

I told her I was feeling better and apologized for having to escape to my cave (again). I briefly considered abandoning any plans that didn’t take me back to her, but ultimately decided to jump in. “Love, we can’t keep doing this. I’ve got to find a way to exist. To live. You know?” I wasn’t doing a very good job of getting my point across. I was about to dig up one of my heroic/adorable stories, but she spoke first.

“You’re going to take another hike aren’t you?”

Maybe this was going to be OK after all. “Yes, Love. I don’t really know why, but while I’m hiking, I’m able to think, to relax, and maybe, hopefully, this time I’ll be able to find a way to live through the funks AND be around people again. We can be happy, together.”

We caught up on recent events in our respective continents, then the conversation shifted to logistics. I would fly back so we could spend a month together, then I would head for Georgia (after a brief pit stop in Colorado to collect my gear and hopefully the chance to sneak in one last ski trip with Dad).

I thought we were about to wrap up the conversation when she apparently reached a decision.

“Love, I think you should hike the whole trail this time. You need to get your confidence back. And if you don’t finish it this time, you’re probably just going to want to try again next year.”

I love that she knows me so well.

12 Comments

  • Reply Monica April 13, 2016 at 3:06 pm

    As much as I want you to hurry back to me, I still want you to stop and smell the roses 🙂 enjoy the views and have a great time!

    • Reply Gabriel April 15, 2016 at 4:54 pm

      Probably not too many roses to smell on the trail, but the rhododendrons smell good too. Miss u already, Love!

  • Reply Steve Adams April 15, 2016 at 2:34 pm

    I didn’t have your past but I understood your pain when we spoke one evening. Reading this post brought back the intangible “something” that drew me to the A.T. I learned a lot that was good but found additional issues when I was away. Writing my book has been therapeutic for me and I’m ready to hike again. I’ll be doing the John Miir Trail this summer. Have a great hike though, come to think about it, how could you not?

    • Reply Gabriel April 15, 2016 at 4:59 pm

      Mighty Blue! When do ur books come out (My Appalachian Trial I and II if I remember correctly)? I’m sure you’ll enjoy the John Muir trail as well. We’ll have to compare notes when we’re done.

      BTW, you get a portion of the credit (blame?) for a recent impulsive act… I just shaved my head!

  • Reply David April 23, 2016 at 2:05 am

    Gabe, David Saenz here. Got a hold of your blog thru brother Michael. Who knew you could doctor, write AND paint? Truthfully I’m not surprised:-) too much fun, too much love and too much fulfillment are amazing things Gabe. It’s not so much that I’m envious, it’s more so that it gladdens my heart. I look forward to ‘the rest of the story’! In English please?

    • Reply Gabriel April 24, 2016 at 4:20 am

      David! It’s been too long (completely my fault of course). While I’m thrilled that you enjoy my words and sketches, I think you give me too much credit? But I’ll keep trying to improve… AS far as “the rest of the story” is concerned, I sure hope to make some meaningful progress over the course of this hike. And if I do… I’ll be sure to share!

  • Reply Barb Knowles January 24, 2017 at 8:17 am

    One thing I hate is when readers comment with requests to read their blog. And now I’m going to do it to you. This is a post I wrote last February, which is a humorous (hopefully) short tale of my little venture on the Appalachian Trail, which winds through a spot where I used to live. And you might recognize. https://saneteachers.com/2016/02/19/deer-ticks-coyotes-and-psychopaths/ So only if you feel like it, and this isn’t annoying you too much, you might get a kick out of it.

    • Reply Gabriel January 24, 2017 at 8:31 pm

      What a great post Barb, glad you shared! Brought back so many memories, most of them playful (a few… not so much).

      I also get the daunting obstacles and fears that sometimes keep us from enjoying the Nature part of hiking. There were so many times I considered packing it in and returning to the cozy comforts of my Cave. However, in time, the confidence and peace I found after overcoming some of the challenges you mentioned turned hiking into an incredibly rewarding experience.

      Glad to see you haven’t completely abandoned your outdoor career! And I look forward to following along as your adventures continue.

  • Reply usathroughoureyes January 26, 2017 at 6:01 am

    Great personal story and one of love… love for one another and one of learning to love self again so you can love another. The trail has a way of sorting things out and building our confidence in ourselves and in Another.

    • Reply Gabriel January 26, 2017 at 1:48 pm

      So true! and thanks for stopping by!

  • Reply Bel February 24, 2017 at 10:58 pm

    I think I need to find a guy version of Monica because she is pretty amazing. You are both lucky to have that kind of love that goes beyond what others may feel is the norm. Even when I travel with my usual travel buddy I kind of want a day to myself to just wander on my own – some people don’t understand that – what was written here was kind of heavy but it was done in a way that I don’t feel the weight as a reader. Thanks for sharing.

    • Reply Gabriel February 25, 2017 at 12:26 am

      hehehe I’m pretty sure I snagged the last of the “perfect” models when they were being handed out, and it’s a good thing too, she needs to be perfect to endure me 😉

    Now it's your turn to play!

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