An Ode to Montana

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Montana is an incredibly beautiful, not to mention enormous, state. From east to west it’s about the equivalent of driving from Chicago to New Jersey. Crazy big.

About a decade ago, I had the opportunity to do some backpacking inside Glacier National Park. It was one of the most memorable backpacking trips, from seeing a massive and somehow majestic moose standing only a few meters away to crossing a waist-high, ice-cold mountain river hoisting my camera and the rest of my pack above my head in an attempt to keep it dry. We also came across a mama bear with her two nine-month-old cubs. Luckily, no mauling ensued.

When I arrived in Bozeman earlier this month, the little airport felt welcoming and cozy. It was built like a mountain lodge with raised wooden beams supporting a roof that takes on an average of seventy-two inches of snow each year. Outside, the Montana that I recalled entering many years ago, with it’s clean air, grand mountains nestled on an eternal horizon, and impossibly large clouds somehow not blocking the warm sun that fell on my face, greeted me kindly. Although many years ago, I had landed in Kalispell almost three hundred miles away, this was the same big sky country. It felt like an embrace from an old friend.

We stayed at a newly built dwelling called the Sage Lodge in Pray, MT. They were still putting the finishing touches on the rooms. When we checked in, we were missing oddities like lightbulbs and the sliding screen door handle. Strange, but the staff were mostly friendly and you couldn’t beat the location, which was almost on top of the Yellowstone River and a thirty-five minute drive straight across the Wyoming boarder into Yellowstone National Park.

Since taking on the minimalist way of life, there wasn’t much packed in my suitcase. It was light as a feather. Two t-shirts, an athletic long sleeve pullover, a SmartWool shirt, hiking pants, jeans, socks, hiking shoes, sandals, pjs, undergarments, a hat, sunglasses, and a toiletry bag. (Minimalism aside, I was glad the lodge we stayed in had laundry because by the third day, I needed them all cleaned.)

I’ve heard fishing is good for the mind, body, and soul, and we were in the best fly fishing spot in the world, so I figured why not. And it did not disappoint. On the Yellowstone River, there are rules about which fish you can keep, which you must release, and others you must keep or kill. According to the law, we released all our catches.

Every time I’d get a bite, I’d “set” my pole, which basically means pull it up as hard and fast as you can, and hope there’s a fish on the other end of it. I missed most times, but managed to net two beautiful rainbow trout. The experience of pulling them in, feeling their weight on the other side of the pole, and then guiding them gently into the net was invigorating. I’d wet my hands, hold them for a quick picture, and then they went back into the water hopefully a little wiser for the wear.

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We also spent a day in Yellowstone. Did a six-mile hike out and back to the Imperial Geyser, saw a few bison, a bighorn sheep, and watched good ole Ole Faithful do its thing too. Impressive.

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When the four days were over, I was sad to leave Montana. There is a rugged wildness, a real wilderness, about the state. And yet, I felt safe and supported by the mountains, the rivers and streams, the vast earth. Maybe it was just nice to get out of the city and see the stars. Whatever it was, I want to go back.

People say Montana winters are a “dry cold,” which I guess is supposed to be less cold somehow. I don’t know about that, but I might go back this winter just to test out the theory. I’m thinking snowshoeing or cross country skiing. Anything to get outside, even in the freezing temperatures, to be with those mountains and rivers, and under that big sky again.


Finding Everest

Reaching Mount Everest base camp wasn’t a goal I had planned on attaining. Sure, it was on a bucket list. It sat somewhere at the bottom between racing a motorcycle at 200 mph and getting into space. But, everything changed last summer.

For almost a year, I struggled with all kinds of pain; first hip, then back, then leg, then foot, then hip again. It’s as if the pain was trying out different places in my body to find the perfect home, like Little Red Riding Hood. Neck to was too high. Foot was too low. Hip was just right. Once it pulled back the covers and got cozy, it stayed a long while.

At first, I thought I just needed rest, so I stopped running. The pain continued, so I stopped going to the gym. When the pain started waking me up in the middle of the night, I went to to the doctor. They sent me to physical therapy. It didn’t help. It increased the aching and soreness. I went to acupuncture. It almost helped. I went to the chiropractor. She sent me to get an MRI, which came back negative. Several weeks more with chiropractor visits that included pressure points, stretches and back adjustments, I still had pain.

It was then that I decided my body was revolting about something other than my physical activity. Stress has a funny way of manifesting itself, as does depression, sadness, guilt and frustration. Whatever was going on with me, I wanted to find it and fix it. So when the MRI came back negative, I decided to go to Everest. Whatever was ailing me, I believed it could be healed with a twenty-two day solo trip trekking in the Himalayas en route to the highest mountain in the world.

This idea seemed absurd to most people and unnecessarily risky to others. Why go halfway around the world to hike forty miles up hill when you can barely walk? It made no logical sense whatsoever. People thought I was being foolish. I understood their skepticism and concern. But my pain wasn’t logical. There wasn’t anything the doctors could find or point to and say, there. There is your problem and here is your cure. Since nothing on the outside could seem to fix the pain, I felt like I should go inside. I meditated and prayed and listened. Then without warning, I heard a small still voice saying go do something hard, something solitary, something meaningful. Get away from work. Get out of your head. Now get up and go. So I did. I found something hard and solitary and meaningful. Trekking to Everest base camp checked all three boxes even though it was at the bottom of the list. And as luck would have it, I had scraped up enough vacation time to make it work during the optimal Himalayan trekking season. I finalized the trip in early September and flew to Nepal on November 4.

With only two months to train, and I use the word train loosely, I knew it was going to be difficult. But how difficult and for what reasons, I couldn’t have foreseen. The terrain was in one word: unforgiving. If you dare to adventure the same path, go prepared. All in all, I felt I was prepared. Maybe not physically with only two months of preparation, but I had a solid packing list that saved me ample pain and suffering. While there, I became awfully sick. Let’s call it food instability issues, but it was probably some type of food poisoning. And antibiotics, ever grateful I had packed them, eventually knocked it out.

To set my eyes on Mount Everest was exhilarating, mind-blowing, awe-inspiring, and it would take a better author to try to explain it. But the destination was only part of the reward. The journey was the other. My hip pain flickered only twice and very early in the trip. The rest of those those twenty-two physically grueling days trekking to and from Kala Patar were hip pain-free. Don’t get me wrong, on the way, I suffered from sunburn, blisters, diarrhea, headaches, altitude sickness, food poisoning, dizziness and dehydration. But not a peep out of my hip. For a year that pain had plagued me. Now under the direst of circumstances, when I would expect it to get first in line with all of the other ailments, it magically healed. I had almost forgotten about it completely until I returned home.

Whether you call it instincts, gut feeling, intuition, still small voice, angels or God, there is a force inside of you that knows what is your next best step. The trek to Everest taught me a lot about different parts of the world, cultures, commitment, perseverance, and myself. The most valuable lesson I took away from the experience, besides always take antibiotics to a third world country and when the CDC recommends rabies shots heed their advice, is to trust yourself.

There’s a biblical proverb that says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” In my experience, we should also listen to our guarded heart so we know what to do when it tells us so.


Gratitude

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I have a ton of gratitude for all that has come my way. I get to eat dinner everyday and sometimes hem and haw over which cuisine I might fancy. And I often get to have seconds if I so desire. I get to sleep in a comfortable bed every night with clean sheets under a roof that doesn’t leak in a house that is a safe place. I get fresh water freely and take hot showers daily. I work inside a building where, unless I’m really clumsy in the cafe, I won’t lose a finger or limb. My life is abundantly blessed.

Today on my 10 mile run I thought about many of the things, big and small, that I am grateful for including the ability to run freely under an open sky, at my own pace, feeling myself breathing, watching the path disappear under my feet, pushing my boundaries under my own will. It was perfect at times. I’m so lucky to have moved to a place where I have relatively easy access to a running path that will serve as my marathon training ground. I’m so lucky to have the means to afford running shoes, shorts, bras, hats, etc. And to afford to enter a marathon, with both my time and money.

All of this gratitude helped ease the pain on the run today, but make no mistake, there was pain. Enough to scare me into wondering how the hell I’m going to do almost three runs like the one I completed today with less than three months left of training time. I thought the fear and anxiety would have subsided by now, but I couldn’t have been wronger. The reality of how long this run is couldn’t be more real or scarier. I just don’t want to let anyone down.