This morning I became a runner.
Well, not so much a runner as a chubby lady awkwardly jiggling in the woods, who face plants within 30 seconds of being on unpaved trail. It’s a start. I’m told it gets easier, and though I’ve found that to be true of most things, I’m not sure I will ever be able to not trip over roots. I like to think of my 50 pound mutt who needs to smell everything as resistance training.
Running has never been a thing that appealed to me. At all. I’ve often joked about the only times I would run being away from a dinosaur or to cake. I even have a plan if the dinosaur is holding the cake (should the situation arise, I would throw rocks at the dinosaur until he dropped the cake). But I’m friends with a lot of people who run, and more inspirationally - a lot of people who have only recently become runners and have run marathons. That’s impressive. After one day, I’ve yet to figure out why this running thing is appealing. I could, and have, hiked hills for miles and miles and miles. Living in the mountains without a car, where weekends spent on the Blue Ridge Parkway are par for the course will do that to you. But running? No way.
Before I went to Iceland, I printed off a picture of the glacier I was going to hike on and stuck it on the treadmill at the gym each morning. It wasn’t just a matter of looking good in my vacation pictures (which, by the way, is impossible when you go to Iceland in the winter), it was a matter of survival. My very life hung in the balance of losing a few pounds. I had to fit into my snowpants, or I’d freeze to death on that glacier. But the gym is so boring, and once I fell off a treadmill because I got really into the One Direction album I was listening to (don’t judge). No one looked up. They were either giving me my last shreds of dignity or it happens so often no one blinks an eye. I’m going to pretend it was the second. I did, eventually fit into my snowpants and then lost an extra 8 pounds in 6 days when I was there. Iceland isn’t particularly vegetarian friendly. When I landed in New York I stuffed my face fall of tacos,and after eating nothing but yogurt for a week, I regretted nothing. But then the holidays and a five day booze and starch fest in Canada happened, and all of that was immediately undone.
I’ve gotten really into these four mile hikes around the lake with the pup in the mornings, so early there isn’t anyone there, so early I forget the highway is half a mile away and in my boots, hike over fallen trees and through creeks. It’s surprisingly hilly for being in such a flat part of the state. I’m there at sunrise and back to my apartment before my alarm clock even goes off, and I feel so good just being in the woods. The dog likes it too. Weight loss has never been a particular goal of mine (despite wanting to look really good in my bridesmaid dress this fall). If you don’t love your body fat, you’re not going to love it thin, either. I look back at pictures of me when I was thin (on a strict Stress and Poverty Diet. I don’t recommend it), and am appalled at how fat I thought I was then. These fat thighs have climbed waterfalls and hiked to the top of a mountain in La Mancha. That’s not something my skinny self could have ever said (though, in fairness, skinny self went caving almost every weekend).
A few days ago, it dawned on me. I’m going to Peru. I’m going to hike the Inca Trail. I don’t know when, but I’m going. It’s a cliche, yes, and I don’t care. I’ve wanted to go since finding a tiny llama figurine in a cabinet my great uncle brought back a million years ago as a kid. And I’m not going to die on the trail, so, I today, I started running.
I mean, seriously. Look at this trail. I’m not doing this in the shape I’m in.
My boss, an avid runner, asked me if I’d picked a 5k yet. I’m just working on not passing out, but with images of Machu Picchu in my brain, I’ll keep running. Excuses are boring.
A few months after the hurricane that put a several hundred year old oak tree through our roof in the middle of the night, my older sister and I hopped the fence to the woods behind our house as we often did. The woods held all things that were magical. There was an old car with bullet holes in it, a broken down Buick someone used for target practice, but with a little imagination was an old 40’s gangster car dumped in the woods after a police chase where the bank robbers took off on foot. There were mounds of rocks that were clearly Indian burial grounds. After the hurricane, it became a mess of tangled trees, navigable by only the most adventurous explorers. We built a fort for our secret club in the huge branches of a fallen oak and called ourselves The Volcano Girls, after the Veruca Salt song that was out at the time. It was edgy and empowering. Volcano Girls, we really can’t be beat.
I knew nothing about volcanoes, and continued to know nothing about volcanoes when, during my senior year of college, I failed a geology class. I failed a class because I could not, under any circumstances, make myself get out of bed and go to class. I missed deadlines at the newspaper where I worked. I rarely left the house. It was, I assumed, a bad case of senioritis and I continued to hole up in my apartment for days on end. I’d been hospitalized a few months before with a panic attack so severe I couldn’t breathe, taken a hiatus from the paper where I worked and started sleeping on my friend’s couch most days. My living situation was not good, and the idea of going home was so stressful it sent me into fits of panic. But this was different, I’d removed myself from the situation and was living healthfully and happily with my wonderful roommates who kept me safe, well-fed, and stocked with a constant supply of Jason Schwartzman movies. And still, I couldn’t manage the energy to just get out of bed. I tried taking anti-depressants for a few months, but they made it worse and I, being impatient, didn’t bother to try a new medication or adjust the dosage. I just stopped, and continued to be miserable for another year.
Three and a half months ago, in the middle of a very serious Funk, I flew across the ocean to be alone with my feelings and center myself in the most beautiful country on earth. I hiked a glacier, ran on black sand beaches, ruined $3000 worth of camera equipment when I hiked in the rain, and I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.
I’ve thought a lot about what it meant to be in Iceland, alone. What it meant when, while driving through the night looking for the Northern Lights, we pulled over on the side of the road by a waterfall, and I took off alone, without a flashlight, climbing behind it over icy lava rocks on my hands and knees by myself in the darkness, what it meant to be near hypothermic on a boat, sharing a handful of words and a tiny heater with an Italian family, what it meant to stand in the shadow of a great volcano. Under Eyjafjallajökull, the famous unpronounceable volcano I can now almost pronounce you’d never have guessed it disrupted the universe. It was lovely now, a green rocky mountain with waterfalls from the side and a glacier on top.
But the truth is that I bought a plane ticket to Iceland on a whim because I was sad, and when I got there I was still sad. Mental illness does not give a shit that you are standing on a bridge over a river where the European and American plates collide and that you are literally watching the earth form in front of you. If mental illness stayed in one place, I’d have moved a long time ago. It ignores beautiful things in favor of collapsing inward on itself and imploding, slowly. It tries, but there is always an aching sadness brewing somewhere in this deep, dark part it can’t even find. Mental illness is a volcano, with bubbling lava deep within that erupts when things shift beneath your feet. When things are good I notice everything. I’m annoying effervescent, I want to tell everyone about the way the light came in my window this morning. Look at these trees! And these flowers. And isn’t life amazing? Everything is the best. But anxiety doesn’t let you leave the house to see that, and depression doesn’t care when you do.
The Volcano Girls may not be able to be beat, but the next line is but now and then we fail and we admit defeat. Today was a bad day, it was a panicky, anxiety day. With due reason, but it was the first bad day in a string of very, very good days. It was the first day in a while I had to admit defeat, had to come home early and admit that my body hurt, that my brain was all a-flutter with a million worries. It was a mini-eruption, a tiny earthquake - all shaky hands and rapid heart.
But I know, because I saw it, even Eyjafjallajökull eventually is calm.
Or rather, I nearly did. We had a King Cake at work, and I got the baby. The prize, other than not choking on a creepy looking secret cake baby, is a year of good luck and the honor of bringing the cake to next year’s celebration.
I’ll take it.
I’ve never been to Mardi Gras, but my love of New Orleans is absurd. I’ve been there twice in my life, once as a kid on a spontaneous trip with our neighbors, and once as a 20 year old on St. Patrick’s Day. Each time I’ve loved it differently and loved it fully.
The first time, it was a rainy spring break and my mom, an airline employee, and my neighbor, married to an airline employee, were debating what to do with four antsy kids. My neighbor’s sister lived in New Orleans, and a few hours later we were at the airport en route. My memories of the trip involve muffaletta and what happens when four children are double buckled in the back of a camry and one gets car sick. I don’t know who started it, but once it started there was no stopping it. We pulled over on the side of the road, in front of the superdome, and there we were, all four children throwing up on the sidewalk repeatedly and for what seemed like hours. I’m fairly certain we went straight home and were hosed off in the driveway.
Years and years later, a few months after Katrina, I took an Alternative Spring Break trip to Mississippi to do some relief work. It was the closest thing to the apocalypse I ever hope to experience, and I can absolutely not imagine a more heart breaking or life changing experience than my time there. I’ve tried to write about it for years and have never been able to properly articulate everything I felt in those 10 days. Our last day before driving back to the mountains we headed into New Orleans for the St. Patrick’s day celebration and some much needed mental health. On the way back, we ended up lost somewhere in the middle of Mississippi.
There is nothing to say about New Orleans that hasn’t been said already. The food is amazing, the people are incredible. Those accents are my favorite regional accents in the United States. It’s magical and mystery and voodoo and fancy cocktails and walk up bars. It’s fried beignets covered in brown sugar in brown paper bags. It’s meeting up with a childhood friend, dressed in drag, and walking arm in arm through the streets of the French Quarter. It’s traditions involving a year of good luck for accidentally eating a baby.
This weekend my plans include making homemade beignets with one of my dearest friends and listening to French creole music and me wishing I hadn’t sold my accordion.
Suggested listening, Balfa Brothers, La Danse de Mardi Gras
and it was amazing.
We arrived from all over on Thursday night for the big surprise, which involved a near asthma attack and hugs for approximately an hour.
And then we did nothing. For five days. We slept until noon and drank whiskey and attempted to drink (to no avail) some weird schnapps made of moss I brought back from Iceland. It was horrible. We went to a bookstore and ate donuts and so many different types of french fries we declared it St. Starch’s Day. We watched cartoons until 2am and giggled and reminisced and rarely got out of our pajamas, and none of us could stop hugging each other.
But there were sneak attack hugs.
And there was poutine.
There were taco bell fries (that’s a thing in Canada! Weird!)
There was a sunset over the bridge back to the States.
And riverfront laughs.
There were snowy rooftops.
And there was the realization that being a grownup is totally overrated.
I found this poem today while doing some casual internet-ing, and I think it sums up why I like to travel and hike alone way more beautifully than I could. Mary Oliver is one of my favorite writers as of late, and so naturally this was pretty perfect.
“Ordinarily I go to the woods alone,Mary Oliver, “How I Go to the Woods” from Swan: Poems and Prose Poems
with not a single friend,
for they are all smilers and talkers
and therefore unsuitable.
I don’t really want to be witnessed talking to the catbirds
or hugging the old black oak tree.
I have my ways of praying,
as you no doubt have yours.
Besides, when I am alone
I can become invisible.
I can sit on the top of a dune
as motionless as an uprise of weeds,
until the foxes run by unconcerned.
I can hear the almost unhearable sound of the roses singing.
If you have ever gone to the woods with me,
I must love you very much.”
I have fallen in love. Hard. With a tiny, frozen, volcanic country. I’ve been back from Iceland for four days now, and I’m already plotting my return. In my life, I’ve never been so tired, perpetually drenched, cold, sick, and so happy all at the same time. I saw a whale from a boat in the Greenland Sea. I ran in the sea foam on a black sand beach, climbed on icy lava rocks and stood behind a waterfall at night, by myself, without a flashlight (my Icelandic driver would later call it, laughing, the “dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of, you stupid American girl.” I’d like to pretend it’s the first time I’ve been told that. It’s not.) We drove through the night looking for the Northern Lights (we didn’t see them), I ate an amazing meal of communal soup with strangers on a farm. I hiked and hiked and hiked some more. It’s pure magic, and if it’s not on your list of places to go, change that now.
In a glacial valley in the south of Iceland, there’s a coffee shop with volcanic rocks on the table as centerpieces and vats of hot soup and tons of fresh hot coffee and tea. It caters almost entirely to hikers and their guides. I cannot imagine locals come all the way out here to the middle of nowhere, to a place that feels like the end of the universe, just for a bowl of soup. The glacier slowly comes to an end down the side of the mountain, ending in a small lake of melted icy water.
Three days prior, I’d strapped a pair of crampons to my hiking boots, wielded an ice pick and hiked to the top of this very glacier - in the process experiencing what I can only call the rainiest rain to have ever rained, ruining $3000 worth of camera equipment and pictures for the rest of the week, all while not really caring that much. This time, we’d returned to the glacial valley, a u-shaped rift that is so tremendous there is no way to believe you are still on Earth, to pick up a hiker on our way back to the city.
While she took off her gear, I ordered a cup of coffee and drank it with two French women, an elderly Russian couple who - despite being easily in their late 80s - hiked with no problem, and our Icelandic guide, a man in his 50s who could have passed for 30 with his bright blue eyes and blonde hair.
“We drink a lot. We sing a lot, even when we shouldn’t. We read a lot, and we laugh a lot.”
“I love that about this country. Everyone has an amazing sense of humor,” I tell him.
“You can’t live in Iceland and not have a sense of humor,” he says. “The weather is miserable here. It’s dark half the year, and a volcano is always about to kill us.”
When there is an earthquake, the tectonic plates shift so much that new waterfalls and geysers are formed or disappear completely. There’s a story of an woman who, months after an earthquake, smelled something strange in her kitchen. The smell got worse and worse until a newly formed hot spring broke through her floor. There is a volcano that has been due for a catastrophic eruption at any moment for the last few years. The last time it erupted in 1918, 1 in 5 Icelanders were killed. And people still hike on top of it.
“And you don’t worry about that?”
“Of course we worry about it, but it’s just part of us. It’s just life.”
“But, it’s going to kill you.”
“Eh, we’re vikings.”
So that’s it, the secret to happiness as learned over coffee in the middle of a glacial valley from a descendant of Lief Erikson. When the earth is shifting beneath your feet, when you wake up one day and the landscape you’ve known your whole life is entirely different, when your entire country is in financial collapse, even when you know your world will literally explode, the only thing to do is laugh and sing “even when you shouldn’t.”
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