25 @ 55: My 2018 PCT Journey
Author: Sheryl Cooksley
I left the trail at 10:45am Sunday, July 22nd. I hiked out 3.5 miles on a hot gravel road, hoping to catch a ride to Timothy Lake at the end of this unmarked logging road. I felt broken, frustrated and deflated. I had wanted and planned this hike for a year. I had come into this backpacking adventure with the hope of even a glimmer of healing my broken spirit.
It’s really amazing what you can learn in 3 days of solitude with a friend who provides a safe space to feel the feels and the privacy at home to take a moment to re-emerge. I learned so much from 3 days of stepping out of my day to day life, facing my fears and allowing myself to be vulnerable. To be in the middle of the woods, feeling the pain of the day’s hike, being hungry and dehydrated and sick, and recognizing when my time to change course was necessary and not an option, truly opened my eyes to how this all correlates to my life.
I learned that the pain of losing Adam will NEVER go away, scar over or be put to rest. I thought my scars were thickening and creating a firm barrier between my current life and my life before Adam’s death. Not so. I realize that I still have some fragile scabs that peel away very easily when given the time and opportunity to be exposed. Hiking exposed this “scab”, peeled it away and left me feeling the same complete and utter pain that I felt over 2 years ago. I hiked out for a variety of painful reasons, but this one reason directly related to Adam. When I gave birth to Adam, my labor was in my hip joints and felt like someone was taking a hammer to my hips. Although I have had some hip issues and pain since then, I haven’t felt that level of hip joint pain in almost 30 years. The day I left the trail, I felt like hammers were pounding on my hip joints, hiked 3 ½ more miles and then stopped. Just like labor and birth, I powered through the pain, but only because I knew there was an end in sight. In labor, it was the birth of Adam. In hiking, it was a well-travelled road at the end of a private logging road. This hip pain also reminded me of the never-ending pain I feel in losing this same baby 27 years later.
I wanted to show my daughters, daughter-in-law and granddaughters that they can do anything they set their minds and hearts to. The lesson I can offer instead is to recognize they are human, have limitations and that it’s ok to be real with your feelings and own them with every breath of their being. I wanted to show them “girl power”. I showed them that by DOING; by going backpacking when I may not have been physically ready, but it was time and I am alive and I could. I showed them that it’s ok to take time out of your busy life and make time to do something big for yourself no matter how busy you are as a mother, wife, partner or employee. I hope I showed them that I am not super human and need to be taken off the pedestal that they put me on as the “strong one who can handle anything”. I can not handle everything and am as vulnerable and tired and unsure as they are. I hope they see that at 55 I am still exploring life and learning how to live it fully and that they can too. But please don’t wait until you’re 55. I hope they have learned from me to guide your children by example by taking bold chances and opportunities. By “jumping off the deep end” sometimes and trusting in yourself.
I need my people. My survival in life has hinged on my inner language of “I don’t need anybody. I can only count on myself.” Although this strategy and language has gotten me this far, it is not healthy and not true. I need my people. I need my husband, my kids and their kids, my best friend, my sweet, safe hiking companion, my neighbors, the nice person who drove me to Timothy Lake when I hiked out, my village. Although I did have to count on myself, without their love and encouragement and support at the end of this trip, I would be feeling all of these feels alone. I continue to learn that I can count on them during the worst of times and when I’m just a big ol’ mess. Like now. I need them and their words to drown out the negative self-talk that has always been at the forefront of my vocabulary. I need them to love me through my pain and to remind me to celebrate the victories. I need them to be patient with me as I continue to discover each layer of me….and pull me close when I push them away. I need my people. There I said it. I CAN’T do it alone.
Backpacking and labor, birth and parenting have a lot in common. But I’ll save that conversation for another day.
And the final lesson, Lesson 5:
I am stronger than I ever, ever imagined myself to be. I carried a 30+ pound backpack 25 miles on legs that have given me hell for years. 13 years ago, I couldn’t walk around a block. I was sick and deteriorating physically. I have fought hard over the last 13 years to get the “old Sheryl” back. The girl that was fit and ran in the woods, rode bikes and climbed trees. That’s the girl I missed so much. I may never be 20 again, and my body may have some dings from aging, but I am stronger than I imagined. Although I did not complete my 55-mile “expedition” and struggled under the weight of my body and pack, I completed a first in my life: I backpacked….and liked it! 25 miles is not zero miles. It’s not a cozy couch and air conditioning and soft bed. It was a challenge. I challenged my comfort, gathered the necessities and executed a backpacking trip. Check, check and check.
Although I may not have completed 55@55, those three days in the woods taught me some serious life lessons. It also exposed my own misconceptions about myself and opened some new areas that need continued healing. 55@55 was intended to be a journey, not a destination. I may be in the middle of my life, but my journey continues even if it means taking a side road to get out of one situation, hitching a ride to a new place, and beginning the next leg differently than expected. 25@55 is ok.