I wrote this in Fall of 2014 for a zine by some friends of mine called, 101. This is the piece that started this whole blog thing. I made some tiny edits, but otherwise…
I Take the Long Way
By, Jenny Bruso
The last switchback of the trail, painful to the point of near numbness, was in sight. I had come so far from where I was when I woke that morning. All of my lizard-brained petty thoughts growing tiny, tinier, until I no longer heard their ring. They no longer existed. They had become something else and I did, too. I repeated the same mantras I always vault into in these moments, “I can do this. I have done it before and I have done it well. One more step, and then another and then…” An ocean of yellow grass tilted to a dizzying angle, dry and hypnotizing. The wind rustling their empty shafts into whispers. The path was tiny, not more than a foot wide and carved into the side of the mountain. The switchbacks repeated themselves so many times I couldn’t tell what progress I’d made, but there it was, the last one before the crest. I trudged on, grateful for another morning without a hangover. One more step, and then another and then…, until I nearly stepped right off the cliff. In my exhaustion, I hadn’t realized I took a side trail to a viewpoint. As long as I didn’t look directly down, the view of the Columbia River Gorge with it’s mood ring blues flanked by columnar basalt, was devastating in it’s greatness. It’s the kind of thing you want to call a miracle. An exquisite reckoning and longing blossomed in my chest, like maybe I’d lived there before.
I stayed put, leaning against a wall of blasted lava rock, panting and fumbling for my nearly dry water bottle. No more false moves. When my breath returned to me and my heartbeat slowed, I backtracked to the actual trail. As I reached the final leg, a flurry of butterflies lifted from the grassy gold and began flying all around me as if they were using their collective energy to pull me forward, one more step, and then another and then… Tears mixing with sweat, stinging my eyes and skin with their combined saltiness. I felt seen, and I knew that I was.
This had happened to me once before on a trail. At the hardest part, I tried to cull any extra energy I could. I said out loud to The Universe, “If my ancestors and spirit guides are with me, please reveal yourselves.” And out came the butterflies, which are only a tired metaphor until you actually get to experience something like that. I had no doubts about its meaning that first time, but to conjure it once again in the same manner was a confirmation that this connection was, indeed, always around me. As long as I opened myself up to it, I could tap in and create a sacred space to connect with what is beyond my imagination and into the all powerful everything, The Universe. In nature, I rejoice in the feelings of being both infinitesimal and simultaneously a part of everything.
My physical exhaustion undone by this profound sensation of connection and belonging, I crested the mountain and descended into a thicket where not a hundred feet from me a deer walked onto my trail. My thoughts a mix of gratitude and disbelief, we locked eyes and I received a message that opened up inside of me like my beloved Columbia River: that thing I am always looking for does not have to come from other human beings. In that moment, I was able to articulate what began bubbling in me since that first time my girlfriend took me on a hike. I had found it. Home. Home is in nature. In the woods, the deserts, the mountains. The deer, water, birds, butterflies. In the needles of pines and cacti. The spooky whispers of leaves that convince you someone is speaking. Maybe I’m starting to hear what is being said.
The awful scrambling descent, wherein I frequently had to sort of crab-walk and scoot my ass along the crumbling trail, barely registered. I was wild with a joy more real than any of those puny stories of fear and shame from that morning. My voice croaky and strained from not having spoken yet all day, I said aloud, “Thank you…” and I meant it with every last part of me, old and new. The words heavy with something like grief and healing all in one, like a mourning that has nearly run its course. That’s what is really happening to me these days, a mourning of my former self.
Do we ever really change? The answer is, yes. Yes, goddammit. We change because we have to. Because even though changing years or decades of living awfully is damn near inconceivable, it is so much harder not to. In nature, I wasn’t born guilty. Nature doesn’t care that I wasn’t raised right, or shame me for self-medicating with alcohol, drugs, food and the most hollow attention I could get my hungry hands on because oh-god-oh-god I just wanted love. Nature doesn’t judge me for spending a continent-sized period of my life flailing in and out of everything and everyone, trying to prove my innocence, clinging to an idea of inherent goodness. Nature doesn’t care about how many people I have searingly, regretfully fucked over and vice versa. In nature, I belong. In nature, I am forgiven.
I am forgiven and I forgive. I have been taught the power of acceptance. The greatness of these gifts is immeasurable and unsurpassable. I now know joy. What happens to me out there is a gorgeous mystery revealing itself one trail at a time. I prod these stories from the earth with my hiking boot-clad feet, earnestly. Sometimes I’m shameless and imploring, like a child or what I think being a child might feel like. Nature has become my medicine, my church, my home.
(The featured image by, Ebin Lee, accompanied my piece in the zine. I had been having visions of eyes and kept seeing them in everything: trees, rocks, wood grain, etc., though Ebin didn’t know that when they drew it.)