I didn’t want to panic. One wrong step and I’d go sailing downhill, crashing into the wreck of Jurassic stones that had broken away and taken their own bounces down the slope. I had to pick from the best of two bad choices. I could try to shuffle my way back uphill the way I had come, risking toppling backwards if my boot slipped on the sheer rock, or I might be able to sit on the ledge and dangle my legs down far enough that a five-foot fall sure to wrench an ankle was more like a three-foot stumble. I didn’t like either option.
Even the possibility of falling backwards was enough to make me freeze. I envisioned myself unconscious and bloodied, broken bones under the desert sun just a mile from camp. The only place I could step was a very hard and unforgiving trail unaffectionately referred to as “ball bearings” for the effects they have even on the grippiest boots. No. So I sat on the lip of a little ledge above a space just big enough for me to stand up against, threw my hiking poles down, and dangled my legs into the air, trying to think “loose” for the impact. By then, I couldn’t think about it anymore or I’d lock up. I eased myself forward, trusting that my legs would land just right, and took a little jolted stumble as my feet hit the slightly-more-pliant ground beneath.
I didn’t even notice that I’d banged my arm on a projecting chunk of red stone on the way down. I worked out the tension and anxiety by cursing myself and swearing I would never make such a mistake again as I threaded my way down the incline back towards my car. All I wanted was a moment to collect myself and a well-earned cold soda. I was almost there by the time I noticed the dots of deep red along cat-like scratches down my forearm and a bruise starting to turn my hyena tattoo purple.
Making myself feel guilty comes naturally. It’s a reflex, one based on that simple fact that we are the common denominator in our own lives. Any misstep or accident has that persistent element of ourselves right at the middle. But as the ground started to flatten, and I passed through the cooling shade of the sparse junipers, I started to flip the narrative. Yeah, I shouldn’t have tried to wander out into the backcountry entirely alone and I should have checked my path down more carefully, but I’d made it. My body, this big and awkward thing that’s usually parked behind a keyboard, had taken me there and back again.
We can more readily plant an image in someone else’s head than make them actually feel what we do.
So much of the joy we soak in about the outdoors comes from what we see and touch. The night before, I saw the Milky Way over shadowy towers of Mesozoic stone for the first time in years. Every little lizard that skittered away from me was a delight deserving of a “Good morning, friend” even if I was just a passing monster to their reptilian eyes. I was overjoyed when I pulled myself up over a sandstone ledge to find an aquarium’s-worth of fossil fish, scales shining in the noon sun. We come back with tales of what we’ve seen and we’ve touched, an extension of our primate heritage based around those familiar and powerful senses.
It’s not very difficult to show. It’s harder to tell. We’re islands, all of us, able to roughly understand the pains and pleasures of others but unable to fully empathize with some emotion or internal sensation we’re not also feeling in that moment. What we feel inside are little sparks that don’t cross the barrier of our skin, experiences of sensation as different as two distant stars in the night. We can more readily plant an image in someone else’s head than make them actually feel what we do. Even the most mundane and common feelings are as unique as how the same color might seem to two different people.
But I wouldn’t go climbing dangerous slopes if I didn’t like a little challenge. I want to try to capture even a whisper of what I felt on that hot late summer day. It’s a rare joy that’s difficult to find.
Someone I once knew came up with this taxonomy for dangerous or unsettling experiences, which I’ve carried with me ever since. Type One Fun is simply fun. We don’t talk about it much. It’s the kind of fun that’s perfectly expected, that makes you say “Yeah, it was good” when you come back from a trip, but there’s little point in sharing the details of a pleasant plan that’s unfolded without turbulence. Type Two Fun is more interesting. Type Two Fun is when something goes wrong—rain drips all over your sleeping bag, bloodsucking gnats assail you all day, you take a wrong turn and scrape yourself up going downhill—but you still come home with a story to tell. Something irritating, scary, or even dangerous in the moment can bring a smile to your face. (Type Three Fun, if you’re curious, is terminal.)
The dull ache was a marker of joy, pride in feeling present in my body despite the scrapes and bumps.
My little spill was Type Two Fun. I smiled as I poked my healing bruise now and then, wandering around the backcountry in search of more fossils. The dull ache was a marker of joy, pride in feeling present in my body despite the scrapes and bumps. I had climbed and clambered and slid, living an unfolding series of uncomfortable moments that reminded me of all the things my body can do. It’s difficult to remember a muscle you’re not using. What better way for those bundled fibers to remind you of their presence than aching?
Finding the joy in the scrapes, bruises, and occasional scar is something new for me. The whole reason I had a happy little spill was because I was looking for something from another lifetime. On a surprisingly cold March morning in 2019, I’d stumbled across a set of tracks made by a carnivorous dinosaur more than 220 million years ago. I was numb then. How I appeared to the world didn’t yet reflect the woman I am. At home or in the middle of nowhere, I moved through the world almost in a haze. Very little felt good. When I’d have a good day, or I’d even feel happy, I’d second guess those emotions as my brain doing something strange or accidentally releasing the wrong chemicals for the occasion. I had only just realized that my depression was a symptom, not the root, and I had only just begun to address my dysphoria as I trudged up that hill.
I didn’t make it back up on my return trip. I picked my way all the way to the top, carefully weaving between boulders half the size of my home until I became cliffed out—standing with no step to take but to go back and try a different route. That’s when I met the smaller ledge and my choice, calling off my fossiliferous search for the day. But despite my self-flagellation for picking the wrong place to step, I felt good. I had taken myself out and back from a place miles from anywhere, from anyone, present and aware in a way I never was before. I wasn’t just moving through the world. Finally, I could savor the sensations that had been so muted. It’s not about the specific feeling, it’s about the depth—sensations in color instead of a monotone. There’s almost something childlike to it. Push your limit, fall down, scrape your knee, get up and do it again, smiling the entire time. A bruise or scar doesn’t have to be a warning. Each can be a point of inversion, where pain turns to pleasure with just a little time.