This essay is excerpted from the book Wild Mama, one woman’s quest to live her best life, escape traditional parenthood, and travel the world, on sale November 3.
It is mid-morning on day three of a trek through Arizona’s Paria Canyon, and two of my toes are numb. Each time I cross the river my feet recoil with needle-like pain. I look down at my mesh shoes and imagine the skin underneath; wrinkled and white, purple veins pulsing life. “Damn,” I say, searching for a patch of sunlight. Yesterday I discovered that even a thin golden ray can provide comfort that feels like a pair of wool socks.
But no light reaches the canyon floor just yet. I scrutinize a sunny spot high up on the rock wall. Forty-five minutes, I estimate, before the warmth creeps all the way down.
Downstream, my friends Adam and Seth are two curves ahead, because I said I needed space. It’s an odd request out here, where everything echoes, but I’m on vacation from mothering two young children, exhausted from being touched and asked questions and needed. When Adam announced at a party that he was planning this trip with some guy friends, I said, “Take me!” We don’t know each other well, but he shrugged and said, “Sure.”
My husband, Chris, said, “Go for it.”
Adam looked at Chris. “Really?”
Chris shrugged. “Fine with me. I’m going on a guy’s camping trip later this summer. This will be her ‘guys’ trip.”
I bend down to massage my toes. With hypothermia, is it tingling that’s a warning? Extended numbness? Pain? Although we don’t have a route map (the park office was closed) Adam estimates that our hike today is ten miles, which will take us to our car. I can make it. I stand up and jog in place for a few seconds, my pack thumping around on my back. My left ankle wobbles. My right knee almost buckles.
“Okay,” I say, glaring at the river. With a giant inhale, I dip my right foot into the calf-deep water and tramp to the other side.
It’s easy to fall into a rhythm—plod, splash, plod, splash—and I tousle my wispy hair and survey my surroundings: a weaving of water and land, wholly unlike my familiar Colorado mountain terrain. The contrasts are stark: Red rock piercing blue sky. Milky water lapping mud. Pale grasses nudging pine. I look over my shoulder at my footprints, tiny divots in vast sand.
I wanted to feel physically strong on this trip, but I don’t. My calves are thick knots, my left ankle is swelling, and both shoulders zing with pain. Despite all my efforts—yoga and cycling and hiking—my body feels sloppy after two rounds of childbirth, abdominal muscles stretchy and soft.
But I’m here, right? And I’m doing this? Deep inside, my core burns bright. I imagine the burger and salad I’ll eat later in celebration.
Up ahead, I see my companions talking to a group of hikers with a map; the first people we’ve seen in a day. I amble up. “Hey.”
Adam runs a hand through his copper hair. “Hi.”
Everyone looks at me uncomfortably.
Finally, Adam speaks. “It turns out we might’ve been wrong on our distance.”
“Oh.” I nod like it’s no big deal. How bad can it be?
“We have around twenty more miles.”
My jaw drops. “What?”
“Twenty. From here?” I hear my voice rising. The entire trail is 38 miles. How do we still have more than half of those to hike?
“Holy shit,” I whisper. I stride to a dry spot, throw off my backpack, and lean forward, hands on my knees. The sun is arcing up overhead, and suddenly I feel hot and thirsty. I look over at Seth, hoping he’ll laugh and say this is a joke. But he’s silent, staring down at his drenched boots, his lanky frame slumped.
In my head, I fume. How did this happen? Why didn’t we insist on a map? Why did I trust these guys? This sucks. I can’t hike twenty more miles.
I look up. “We have to camp one more night.”
Seth shrugs. “But our permit ends today.”
“So what. I’ll talk to the rangers tomorrow, beg for forgiveness.”
Adam places a hand in the pocket of his khaki pants. He sighs and urges me on with a nod. “Let’s just keep hiking and see what happens.”
I can tell by the look in his eyes that he has no intention of camping. He’s an enthusiastic type, and today that means he’s ready to rock out these last miles, hit the trail hard, even if it requires strapping on our head lamps at dusk and hiking into the night.
I fasten my pack. “Fine. But I am not crossing the river in the dark.”
Adam and Seth have already begun walking.
I follow step, furious, clomping around in the sand. Fucking trail. Fucking canyon. Fucking us, who spent more than two days using the sun to gauge our time and distance. Only idiots do that. Amateurs.
Within ten minutes, I am so far behind I can’t see my friends. My promise to “pick up the pace” was half-hearted, because I can’t seem to make my legs go any faster, and also I don’t want to. Every day as a mother involves running from one place to the next, preparing bags full of supplies, and making the most of every free second. On vacation, I want to go slow. If I have to, I think, I will camp solo tonight. Everything’s on my back: one-person tent, sleeping bag, energy bars. My family’s not expecting me back for a few days. No one will worry.
But then I look down at my feet. My left ankle has ballooned out to the same width as my calf. If I take my shoe off to sleep, I won’t get it back on in the morning. Will I even be able to walk in the morning?
I stomp my right foot in the dust. “Shit!” I scream. It echoes four times, which isn’t enough. Shit, I whisper. Shit.
I stumble forward, biting back tears, grasping the straps of my pack. My heart thumps against my knuckles. I think of the hardest things I’ve done in my life: Olympic-distance triathlons. Climbing 14,000 ft. mountains. Dancing on raw, bleeding toes in a ballet company throughout adolescence. But nothing seems harder than this, than what lies ahead.
I walk fast and breathe fast and listen to the sound of my backpack squeaking against my lower back. Something about this sensation—the rhythm—bring a new word to mind. Childbirth. The hardest thing I’ve ever done, hands down.
The C-section with my first child was one thing, but for my second, I chose homebirth, and it was grueling. It was an entire night of teeth-gnashing, bone-shaking, flesh-ripping pain. I remember insisting on going in the bathtub, and then hating the bathtub. Begging for drugs. Flailing and wailing. And the midwife responding with tough love. “You wanted this,” she said.
It was the most un-magical experience of my life, yet I made it, and it produced a dazzling life. And for this reason alone, ironic but true, I know I will finish this hike. Motherhood is the reason I can make it. My steel mind will urge my weak body to simply keep walking.
I press my damp hair behind my ear, groan at the cramping in my lower back, and forge forward. It is miles of sand, boulders, and jagged rock crevices; always threading the river. Each step sends waves of pain through my body, and I focus on the forward motion of my hips, imagining them strong and flexible; up to the task. Slowly, quietly, while humming a tune I remember from yoga, I retreat to a deep primal place in my mind. It’s that spot I remember from childbirth, as old as the earth, where my resolve exists naked and pure. The place Chris described as trance-like; faraway. But I’m not far away, really; I’m painstakingly close—operating from the deep wild of my core.
In this place, time stops. Hours pass. Daylight fades. The beam of a head lamp guides my way. When I finally emerge into my conscious mind, it’s to the yelps and broad smiles of my companions. “Look over there,” says Adam. I squint into the black night. Barely, I can make out the dark hump of our car.
“Yes!” I scream, triumphant. Fully alive, I begin walking, then run-walking, then running, unfastening the straps of my pack. “We made it!”
I collapse into the front seat of the car, a lump of human flesh, my headlamp still beaming. But my smile outshines the light. Somehow, some way, this is just what I wanted.
Carrie Visintainer is a writer who splits her time between Colorado and various off-the-beaten-path locations. Learn more about her and her wild family at freeyourwild.com