I was not that kind of girl! I was not the wholesome, athletic type who would hike the 2,663-mile Pacific Crest Trail over the steep mountains of California, Oregon, and Washington. I was an ersatz bad-girl with a checkered past who married a doctor from an old Dallas family and became a tiara-wearing dinner party hostess.
But while I was growing up in a housing project, reading books and hiding from gangs, the man who would one day be my husband was learning outdoor skills at boys’ camps and killing rattlesnakes for dinner at the National Outdoor Leadership School.
Long story very short, Porter and I met at a dinner party in Houston, married, and began the search for something in common besides our instant recognition we were soulmates. Aahh, my soul said when I first came into his forthright, mountain-man presence. Aaaahhhh.
One night at dinner, over a killer Malbec, he asked me to hike the Pacific Crest Trail with him. He was a hospice doctor in a career crisis who badly needed renewal in nature after eighteen years by the bedsides of dying people.
“I know you’d love it,” he said of climbing twenty miles a day over the California mountains, trying not to die of dehydration crossing the Mojave Desert, kicking steps up ice in the High Sierra, fording rapids on the way down, stumbling through the lava fields of Oregon, and getting soaked in the forests of Washington.
I knew I would not love it. But what did I really want: to worry about him for six months, or endure the wilderness with him to make sure he was still on the planet? I knocked back the rest of my crystal goblet of Malbec. “Why not?!” I said.
Porter moved our bed into our living room, so he could turn our bedroom into a staging area for our hike. He stayed up all night making ultralight gear so light that even I, at five feet seven inches and one hundred twenty-five ladylike pounds, could carry it. Not to mention I was fifty-six and he was fifty-two. My fully loaded pack weighed a mere eleven pounds, and his only twelve pounds, plus food and water.
“You sew gear as a sublimation for sex,” I said.
“Sex,” he said, “is a sublimation for those who can’t sew their own equipment.”
Finally we set off on the Pacific Crest Trail at the Mexico/California border. My learning curve was steeper than the mountains. Malbec was in short supply, so I learned to filter and treat water. I ate and slept at bug-and-snake level. I gave up making a fashion statement, for utilitarian backpacking attire.
Terrible and beautiful things happened to us. We reveled in simply walking, on a vast sandy landscape dotted with cacti and sage. Porter set his pants on fire while lighting our alcohol stove, and nearly went out in a literal blaze of glory. We climbed snowy peaks to touch the cobalt sky. I nearly drowned in deep rapids, but Porter plunged in to drag me out, pack and all. We fell asleep under ancient pines, the wind soughing in their boughs.
We shared deep secrets about ourselves. And we argued about how to complete the PCT in the April-to-September weather window, given his striding pace and my struggle to keep up. One day, I raced far ahead of him in a raging burst of “I’ll show you!” adrenalin. I rounded a switchback and skidded to a halt at the massive mountain lion standing before me. Her tawny haunches rippled against the sunlit mountainside. She stared through me with her green-gold eyes. Gaze. Listen. Be.
I was not the same after that. I was not who I had imagined myself to be—a girl from the projects who grew up to marry a doctor, host dinner parties, and hike the Pacific Crest Trail. I was much more than that—a mystery, like mountain, desert, river, sky.
Porter found the renewal he was seeking, in nature’s cycles of death, birth, and growth.
I didn’t so much find something, as be found–by the love that is nature at her fiercest. It’s the same love that Porter and I intuited in each other the moment we met. Climbing up and down in the wind, blazing sun, rain, even snow, all day, every day for months, eroded the permeable illusion between ourselves and nature. I went from asking myself, “What the hell am I doing here?” to “Who am I?” Together Porter and I walked deeper and deeper into the question, until the question itself dissolved.
About Gail Storey
Gail D. Storey is the author of I Promise Not to Suffer: A Fool for Love Hikes the Pacific Crest Trail, winner of the Barbara Savage Award from The Mountaineers Books, 2013. Her website (includes book trailer) is http://gailstorey.com.