The sky was still dark when I left my house and to be honest, I was a little nervous. I’m not a world traveler, I’ve never lived in a van, and adventuring doesn’t come easily to me. Life had been hard recently. I was exhausted and in need of self-care when I got a phone call that my long-time childhood friend Ryan, had committed suicide.
Ryan had been my brothers best friend since before I was born. The last few years we hadn’t kept in close touch, but he and his family seemed like a lifeline to my past. They were a part of the less complex times pre-adulthood. Before my parents got divorced, my health fell apart, my siblings all moved away, and my 9-year relationship ended.
When I think of Ryan, I remember how he consistently saw creativity in others, like that one time he was confused that I had never done drugs when he saw one of my sketches.
“So you’re really telling me you weren’t high when you drew this?”
“Nope. I’ve never smoked.”
“WHAT? Never. Dude, your brain works in some weird ways.”
I couldn’t help but laugh until my stomach hurt. He also inspired me often. He and his wife had biked from Canada to Mexico and I was in awe of their courage, dedication, and adventurous lifestyle. When I think of Ryan and his family I am reminded of a level of happy simplicity that my life no longer offers.
While I had dealt with death many times before, this was sudden and hit me like a semi-truck. It shook me to my core as I processed the level of depression he must have faced, while simultaneously being reminded that I could never go back to the childhood friendships and relationships I found comfort in. My anguish was just as connected to losing him, as it was a letting go of a childhood I wished I could hold on to. There was a sadness lingering in my bones and getting earth beneath my feet felt like the only viable option.
I had never gone hiking alone, but I knew that it was time. I decided that I was going to explore Red Rock Canyon, near Las Vegas, NV and spend the evening with my grandparents. The next day I was committed to exploring Joshua Tree National Park for the first time. It was a weekend of firsts. First soul-o venture. First time in Red Rock. First time in J-Tree.
While driving my nerves kept getting the best of me. Questions were stewing in my mind and I had a steady stream of consciousness that was a mix between a ramble and a nervous tick.
“Am I prepared for this? What if there’s an emergency and there’s no cell reception? What if I get lost? What if my car breaks down? I could really use a coffee. What if I run out of gas and water and die of dehydration? Did I bring enough water? God, I love this song. I wonder what animals I’m going to see. Mmmm I could use a snack. I should have downloaded more playlists. I hope I see a mountain lion! Fuck… What if I get attacked by a mountain lion? I should just turn around now… No, Alisha, you need this. You can do it.”
When I let this stream of consciousness finally come to a standstill, I found that I was most prominently scared of my emotions. I was scared of the sadness that had washed over me, but also of what it might mean to be happy again; to truly feel like myself.
If I moved on and released these emotions, did it mean that I honored Ryan’s life any less? Would I easily forget him? Is that even possible?
I arrived at Red Rock around 10:30 AM and after a short stop at the visitor’s center, I found a trail that interested me. Within two minutes on the trail, I was stopped in my tracks. There was a woman sitting on a rock, doubled over throwing up. Her friends thought that she was dehydrated; she had almost fallen off her horse, but they also knew that she had other unknown health issues. I ran back to the trailhead to call 911, but there was no cell reception to be found. On the outside, I stayed calm, but inside I was panicking. The woman wasn’t doing well, she could hardly keep down water, and wasn’t speaking clearly.
Finally, someone with a satellite phone connected us to medics and I gently took over the role of caring for the horse. My fear of an emergency with no cell reception was coming to fruition. I was forced to face it head on and quickly was reminded that you can only control your own emotions in any given situation, but still, that they are powerful and contagious.
As I began to care for the horse, I thought of the emotional intelligence they can teach us. At first, we were all slightly anxious, but together we calmed down to face our fears. After nearly an hour, the woman was being cared for by professionals and backup arrived to take the horse back to its stable. I decided it was time to move forward on my journey and get lost in my thoughts.
Into the first 3 miles, I made friends with a fellow human. I don’t remember his name, and we didn’t have much in common, but we found things to talk about or simply hiked in silence. I hiked 6 or 7 miles up hills and mountainsides. By the end, my legs were a little tired, my heart was a little more open, and I felt myself begin to relax. I saw red soil, beautiful cacti, and learned a little bit more about my fears. I felt useful, confident in my abilities, and was able to exhale little bits of stress from my body. The feeling was good, but not the closure I was looking for.
That evening, I had an easy dinner with my grandparents, a warm bath, and a good night’s sleep before leaving for Joshua Tree. Four plus hours later, I found myself in a similar place as earlier in the day, rolling into the visitor center. This time, I was in a desperate need to pee with no idea what hike to take.
People had told me that Joshua Tree was magical, but I found myself questioning how it could be impactful to so many.
Did there have to be a distinct difference, or could they go hand in hand? I took my chances and wandered over to one of the volunteers to ask for advice.
“Excuse me, sir, I’m hoping to do a hike today, but I’m not sure which one. I’m hiking solo, want to go around 2 to 4 miles. Moderate level. I have plenty of water, and I would love some elevation gain so I can get a view of the park.” You might as well ask for what you want… right? He looked at me and simply stated, “Well, it sounds like you need to hike Ryan Mountain. 3 miles out and back, a little over 1,000 ft. elevation gain.”
It was one of the few times in my life when words seemed to have escaped my mind and mouth. You see, in case you’ve forgotten, my friend’s name was Ryan, and this hike was for him. After a moment I regained my composure. I got directions to the trailhead and simultaneously thanked the universe for showing me that I was on the right path.
I can’t quite put into words what this hike meant to me. Like most good things in life, it was hard. It wasn’t beyond my physical capacity, but my emotions were being stretched. There were moments when I wanted to say fuck it and turn around. But what’s the point in that? It took a while, but eventually, I simply gave into my mind and body. I went through the stages of grief. Crying tears of joy at the sheer beauty of my surroundings and tears of sorrow over Ryan’s death. Feeling slight wear on my muscles, and the sun on my shoulders. At the summit, I took my time, allowing myself to be fully present in that moment.
Dirt and rock beneath my feet, I began to make my way back down the mountain. I found myself stopping ever so often to write down thoughts that were too poignant to let go. Sketching vivid images that my mind was eagerly creating. Feeling my fingers itch for my pen and paper. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face as creativity began pulsing through my body.
I thanked God for creating the beauty that was around me. How magnificent to feel so essential, yet so minuscule all at once. I said a silent prayer, thanking Ryan for reminding me how to feel like myself again.
I may never have answers about Ryan’s death. And I still don’t fully understand why it tore my heart apart so fiercely. Maybe it was because he’s always been like a brother to me. Or it was the longing for my past, or perhaps it was the inspiration I gained from hearing about his adventures with his sweet wife. I do know that on this day, during this hike, I found a bit more closure.
It can be challenging to define exactly what you gain from nature. Over the years, I’ve found a grounding. A heartbeat. A place where I can truly, unequivocally be myself. As I looked out over the vast desert, it’s easy to say that this time was no exception.