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Mountain Battles by Sara Smiles
 

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  • Unemployment can be a constant mental battle. You prepare yourself for the tightened budget and the days spent at coffee shops, writing one halfway intelligible cover letter after the next. But you don't prepare yourself for the anxiety, the lost sense of self-worth and the time-leaking duldrums.

    I've been unemployed twice in the last three years. Once by my own choice--I left my journalism career to move to Seattle in 2009 so I could get more involved in the progressive movement. The second time I was laid off in the midst of the recession. That could have sucked way worse if I hadn't developed a strategy for it in 2009.

    Solutions to unemployment generally involve self-help books, job search seminars and too much coffee. Mine involved hiking. At least once per week, rain or (the rare case of) shine, I would haul myself to the nearest peak. In my first seven months after moving to Seattle, I covered over half of the “60 Hikes Within 60 Miles” book and then some. Boredom was not an option.

    Among those I can remember off the top of my head are: Little Si, Tiger Mountain West, Tiger Mountain Chirico, Cougar Mountain, Squak Mountain, Rattlesnake Ledge, Washington Park Arboretum, Tiger Mountain Poo Poo Point, Iron Horse Trail, Lake Serene and Goat Rocks.

    My roommate and I decided to forgo sitting and drinking and watching football one Sunday afternoon in the midst of this year's unemployment battle in order to get a little nature out of our weekend. One thing that is cool about Susan is how much she appreciates and encourages my need to get away from the city.

    She decided on Squak Mountain, a trail in Issaquah I hiked back in May of 2009 with my uncle.

    There aren’t many trails I’ve hiked twice. Mountains are like shoe stores in Washington State. You have a never-ending array of choices: there are tall ones, short ones, long ones, ones made for heavy rain, ones made to be covered in snow, colorful ones, plain ones, muddy ones, and ones you've worn out but need to try on again.

    Squak Mountain was a rather plain hike that I had not noted for any reason other than it had been a struggle back in 2009. I had the wrong shoes, no poles, wore too much clothing, and had no idea how to create my own switchbacks on steep terrain.

    But even in the rain and all the sloshy ankle deep mud I found myself a bit more appreciative of the hike. It was as if the second time around I could focus less on my feet and more on the ferns and moss and terrain around me.

    We played games with all the tree stumps and snags we saw, naming them after animals. There was Eagle Claw, Whale Belly, Giraffe Neck, and Peacock Feather, to name a few. Instead of feeling apprehensive about the mud and the incline of the narrowest points on the trail, I laughed and made fun of the skidding and the squishing and the futile attempts we made to stay clean.

    Snags have become an obsession lately, that wonderful purgatory stage of a standing dead tree in a forest before it becomes a log. I think I admire them because they are the misunderstood link to a healthy forest, entirely absent from plowed mountainsides replanted with tree farms but so starkly tall, gray and abundant in forests of varying tree ages. At one point, I was checking out an especially holy snag when we saw a chubby Woodpecker dancing from side to side on its bark, like he was checking himself out in various side mirrors.

    Tracing every loop and trail and direction we could go on the mountain until it got too dark, the map rebuilt in my head of my previous trip. I remembered the beautiful firepit near the top and how circular and meditative each trail ambled. It made me think of all the mundane things we do so repetitiously and without thinking every day, and what it would be like if we could laugh at ourselves or notice the tiniest changes along the way.

    What if every time you commuted to work you took a second to pick apart a cloud formation, or every visit to your local grocery store you stopped to talk to a different bagger? What if you didn't put your headphones on in that coffeeshop, and struck up a conversation with the person next to you? Would you feel like you were wasting your time, or would it help make the world a little brighter, a little less fleeting? What if you didn’t zone out for one full day at all, but were truly present in every moment and every feeling?

    It wasn't easy to be so self-aware when I was unemployed, as my attention was so focused on being outwardly expressive and Getting. A. Paycheck. But maybe now, with a job that I love and the time to write and hike and still get paid, I can take one last look. Notice the Woodpecker. Hug a tree and thank the mountain for its many varieties of life, and its abundance of lessons as I carry on with my daily battles.
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