The Way Down

Inspirational documentaries are the stories that hold gravity in my mind. These woven tales of triumph take underdogs, downtrodden by the callous parts of life, and prove that they can do hard things. They are stories of daring feats by unlikely heroes – individuals who accomplish the unprecedented and the monumental.

Their accomplishments make the headlines. Soon after these exhausted champions pump their fists in triumph, the closing credits indicate their story is over. The viewers are queued to cheer. They celebrate. I contemplate:

“Can I do that?”

I have always chased the endpoint. The arrival. The top of the heap. The pinnacle of existence. If it’s challenging, I want in – and I want in right now.

To achieve it.

To live in it unapologetically and out loud.

To stand in complete awe at the beauty surrounding me and the complete humbleness for the war-torn path I took to get there.

To soak in the ecstasy of higher ground and taste the sun on my lips, feeling the hot burn of NOW.

To see and feel everything – all at once.

To exhale the forces that tell me no.

To inhale the deep knowing of being exactly where I’m meant to be, at the exact moment I’m meant to be there.

The challenge always sends me searching. With a heavy pack of ambition and no navigational guide, I trudge the road to happy destiny.

My MO is to figure it out as I go along. I am a survivalist by nature and a planner only by force.

I like traveling alone. Those who join me are distractions to a higher connection I seek within myself and the sunlight of the spirit that surrounds me.

But this journey is different. This time, I let my guard down and reach across the path, meeting eyes with a journeyman headed in the same direction. When I let go of the control and the desire for solitude, I am met with power and strength and a deep understanding of shared triumphs, griefs, and dreams.

And so it begins. With every labored step, I shed my skin – the layers of dust and grime from former selves that no longer serve me. They become ashes of past lives that swirl around my feet. I kick at the dust they create, thanking them for the shelter they once offered when I was weaker. I know I can’t retreat inside them. Not again. There is no place to go but forward.

I pull out my insides to show the strength that’s hiding there – the true grit – and also the rawness to my companion who is willing to do the same. With my vulnerability laid bare, my stepping stones of openness chart my course.

For the first time, I lead with my heart, I trust the process, and I lean in when every past experience warns me of the dangers.

After days on the trail, I finally reach the mountaintop. And what a spectacular view it is!

And how it changes me

And everything to follow.

The air I breathe is different. I see the world in a new light. The stars are brighter and clearer and reach down so close I can almost touch them with my fingertips. 

I lift the once hidden parts of me towards the sky and yell,

“Look! How beautiful! How very alive you are now. And how very alive this world is, too!”

I look across the sweat-spattered trail we took – its jagged edges, the steep inclines, the jutted cliffs reaching down to the perilous, crashing waves. I threw every ounce of energy I had into those worn-down soles of my Salomon trail runners. I dreamed about this moment – formed the edges of my story like soft, red clay pressed into the beaten paths that got us here. I have arrived with my own woven story of survival.

And so, it is. My film-worthy, incredulous feat to share with the world. My documentary now reaching that climax that will soon cut to the closing credits. But this doesn’t feel like an ending. Not like in the movies.

I didn’t pack the right gear to stay on the mountain forever. And like all things, the longer I stay, the more lackluster the pinnacle becomes. The air gets thin. The wind cuts into my skin. Reality sinks in and the mountaintop demands departure or soon enough, penance.  

So . . . now what?

Unfortunately, these documentaries rarely include a guidebook on how to descend.

How to survive the normal.

The afterward.

How to breathe the stagnant air when you return with new lungs.

I look across to the other side of the mountain. I notice a tiny footpath, haphazard and winding and much less worn than the path we took to get here. But looking out across the horizon is an uncharted, breathtaking land. Though some of the valley is shrouded in shadow, the parts touched by sunlight are the greenest of greens and are being kissed by a starburst-pink sky resting its head ever so gently above.

As the sun sets, the moon scatters thousands of projectile lights to point the way towards a new freedom and a new happiness. But what lies in the shadows along the way?

I have a choice to make: Do I return to what I know – the safety of the familiar – or do I descend to the other side? It is in this moment I realize the journey to the top is not what the universe is preparing me to reach.

My past proves standing still is a slow, leaking death. But the pinnacle I now stand upon can take me faster. I must choose before the mountain chooses for me.

My fellow journeyman contemplates the other side, but the shadows overtake his confidence and he retreats down the familiar path.

I am now left alone.

I look down at my left arm and remember who I am. A phoenix tattoo burns into my flesh and reminds me there is no returning.

Not when returning means to sit upon the ashes and wait for redemption.

The faces, the places, the habits, the rituals – everything looks different now.

And me.

I look different too.

Returning would not be returning.

It would be visiting as an alien, unfamiliar and looking for solace in a world no longer meant for me.

I am on the mountaintop.

I now see what’s on the other side.

And I can never go back with new eyes to tell the same story.

I inhale deeply and embrace the unknown.

This is my survival story.

Not of returning as a hero, but of soaring as a phoenix no longer sifting through the ashes to find a home. 

Just Leaf Me Be – A Natural Remedy to Get Away from it All

When I was a kid, I remember lifting large stepping stones in our backyard to forage for roly polys and marvel at how they folded into themselves, cocooning their inner bodies from the outside world. Other times, I would pluck a blade of grass and search for tiny holes in the yard where grub worms were hiding. Sticking the grass blade into the hole of earth, I’d wait until the worm latched on before abruptly yanking him from his home to examine him. Afterwards, I would roll over on my back against the soft clover and stare up at my looming oak tree, attempting to count the number of leaves on the tallest branch I could see.

My grandfather instilled in me a passion for the outdoors. In fourth grade, my science class was assigned a take-home project involving putting together a leaf classification notebook. As sexy as this sounds now, it was a daunting task at the time. Unbeknownst to me, what came to follow was an adventure with my grandfather that’s still lodged in my memory like sticky sap from a sugar maple.

My grandfather was a natural explorer. He scoured every inch of Lauderdale County, through briars and bushes, creeks, and streams, to pluck from loblolly pines, hearty pecans, sweet gums, black walnuts, red cedars, and towering white oaks. I’d watch him crawl from the brambles to deliver a huge sassafras leaf. I used that particular one to create a leafy character for the first page of my notebook. “Sassy” was a hit with my teacher. In the end, I had over 100 different leaves in my notebook and one tired, old grandpa in Zip City.

Today, I find myself nestled within the wilderness that surrounds me. There I can breathe, inhaling what my grandfather taught me years ago.

Slow is okay.



The best finds are sometimes off the beaten path.

When I am in the world, I am bombarded with crises that I have no control over, but yet feel compelled to solve. Ever pay attention to how many emergencies come across your screen during one social media newsfeed scroll? Nestled between pics of toothy grins from my little cousin twice removed, videos of cats falling from televisions, and occasional dachshunds running in hot dog suits, there are short blasts of urgency imploring me to take action.

Did you know Greenland is melting into the ocean? The Emperor Penguins are going extinct due to disappearing sea ice. North Korea is testing nuclear weapons. Trump is golfing again. Here’s more about the mass shooting. Here’s another mass shooting. Burger King is serving plant-based whoppers. The New York Giants may have to relocate if they finally find Jimmy Hoffa at the west end of the stadium. Bacon causes cancer.

Compound the world’s problems with the daily work grind and social event schedule, and I’m begging for some fresh air.

When I am not in the world, but of the earth, my senses are keener. I can smell the red clay dirt muddled with fresh pine. I can hear the nearby creek, cold as ice, washing away the weeklong schedule block. The taste of wild honeysuckle brings me back to the days when my world was wrapped up in studying grubs beneath cinderblocks and deciphering the animals that appeared as clouds in the sky.

To offset my obsession to fix, manage, and control the world around me, I travel to areas that don’t demand my attention. The dirt trails that beckon me know where they’re headed without my advice, thank you very much. The millipede crawling across a world of bark and branch isn’t frozen in place, concerned with which foot it should move next. The limestone boulders are in no hurry to get anywhere, and I’m willing to bet that sapling up ahead is more grounded than I’ll ever be.

Sometimes this world is too much. Too much demand to react to issues that are out of my control. Too much of “can you believe it?” “This is unprecedented.” “Why the end times are near.”

Not enough “just because.”

“I love you.”

“Be still and know.”

“It’s going to be okay.”

“You are enough.”

“Just breathe.”

“Just be.”

How bizarre it is to become overwhelmed with the vast world surrounding me when an entire colony of ants built their lives around a small heap of dirt, unconcerned with what that other pile of earth a few feet away may be doing at any given time. When I am surrounded by nature, all of those worries fade away into the orange rust and starburst pink sunset.

Readers, you may not be a fan of the great outdoors, and that’s totally cool. Flying bugs and poison ivy aren’t everyone’s favorite past time. But heed my advice. Find your own outlet to shrug off those negative messages. Don’t be like the roly polys that live under a rock and ball up in fear when light is shed on them. Embrace the warm light like the grub worm. Clench onto that blade of grass, pull yourselves out of that hole, and bathe in the sunlight.

Famous mountaineer John Muir said that between every two pines is a doorway to a new world. How refreshing it is to leave the old one behind.

Blogger’s note: If you’re a woman who is truly interested in some stress relieving explorations in nature but don’t know the first thing about navigating the path, the Shoals’ League of Outdoor Women is a great option. The League gets together throughout the year to hike and incorporate some useful workshops like first aid survival training, plant identification, camp packing 101, and even an upcoming photography in nature class. You can check them out on their Facebook page here to get involved.

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