Rebecca Joy

About Me

Rebecca Joy

Just a girl finding her place in the world through change, adventure, and learning.

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Laughing on Purgatory Trail

September 27, 2020

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The white capped water tumbles and surges over the gray and red rocks, hurrying to reach its downhill destination, and drowning out the other sounds around me. The glowing yellow and orange leaves of the aspen dance and sparkle like glitter on a twirling dress, but I cannot hear the wind rustle their drying bodies. I lean over the shoreline and dip a finger gently into the energetic water at my feet, wrapping my other arm around my folded knees to keep my entire body from joining my finger in an icy dip. A tear escapes the corner of my eye and I lift my cold finger to my skin to brush it away. Another tear replaces the first and I leave this one to create its path down my face. And then, more tears rushing from my eyes, I let my hair loose, throw back my head, and laugh.

. . . . .

I was a child with a vision growing up, but then again, weren't we all? My personal future scenarios involved ever-changing "when I grow up" plans and real-life princes who never needed to save me. I drew dream houses and built towers and rivers in my sandbox. I floated paper boats down the drainage ditches and ran barefoot through the yard beneath the sheltering trees. I dreamed up stories and caught fireflies in my palms, watching their lights serenade me from the field every summer. I laid on the grass, felt the earth hold me, and gazed upward at the sky.

But visions don't always come to fruition, and the made-up stories never play out the way they are imagined. Choices are made and compromises reached, and dreams drift slowly downward like fall leaves letting go of the boughs they once clung to. Houses are expensive and binding, and twenty-first century realities tether with lies and necessity. What is an obvious joy to some is the end for others, and sometimes the princess would rather be left alone to fight dragons than live happily ever after.

While my strongest childhood dreams long ago laid claim to my heart and never fully relinquished their grasp, others have fallen away. Some were forgotten, some were unachievable. Others simply didn't happen. And always, time mocks me with fast flashing seconds while I balance between accomplishment and happiness. The disappointment of realities and circumstances haunts me as it does all of us, and the self-conscious doubts whisper truths.

Purgatory Trail
Purgatory Trail.
Vista along Purgatory Trail
A lovely vista along Purgatory Trail

I have not finished Peace Corps or thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail. I have not become an expert in my field or risen to the potential level they assured me I would reach. I have not re-pursued the path of life I once day-dreamed of and then left, but also haven't traveled far in the version suited for my soul. I have not spent the years being lost in a new home and instead existed among the ghosts on every corner. Change and dashed expectations have been constant companions and the years have led me to places I didn't imagine.

And now, six days before the three decades marker, I wake up neither in Panama nor Iowa, with a melancholy, the frequent guest of anxiety gnawing at my gut, and the dreaded sadness seeping through my body like sand through a sieve. I know I must leave my cabin of sanctuary today, so I pull on gray pants and tuck in a blue shirt, and start driving, knowing where I want to go, but not exactly knowing where it is or how to get there. Eventually, I arrive, and park on gravel beneath a pale sky. I pull the pack up and over my shoulders and walk across the road to the brown sign announcing, "Purgatory Creek Trailhead."

I disappear into the trees, my small presence slipping quietly over rocks and dirt, my fingers grazing rough tree bark and the smooth skin of aspens. The trail opens into a valley, speckled with tuffs of bright yellow leaves and thin white lines of aspen trunks. The golden grass blankets the valley and gives way at the edges to the forest green of the pines clutching their rocky homes with tangling roots. I stroll purposefully between the mountains, the minutes turning to hours as the valley narrows to follow a creek into a canyon, and I climb the rocky wall, balancing on a strip of terrain between rock and open air.

The trail is more beautiful than my mind can comprehend, and I take just a couple pictures before giving up on trying to capture the unfathomable magnificence. And yet, being on perhaps the most beautiful trail I have ever hiked, the hollowness does not leave me, and my steps feel heavy.

When I reach the river, I stop breathing as I take in the crisp colors and the wild beauty. The dry pine needles beneath my practiced feet crunch as I reverently make my way to the bank, and sink down at the shoreline onto a rock. Before me, blue-green water greets me nonchalantly, and the landscape bows to my awestruck gaze. And yet, no euphoria fills my mind, no lightness lands on my soul. Instead, I feel the tears rise and spill, and then the simultaneous laughter.

I laugh because I have been able to do both of my life-long dreams, Peace Corps and the Appalachian Trail, but have not been permitted to finish either. I laugh because a version of life I used to desire is likely gone from my grasp forever, but I will always hold a dangerous shard of the pastel promises. I laugh because life has been nothing I expected, but everything I needed to bleed, cry, and temper. I laugh because I am in one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, but there is no bubbling joy, just a sad hollow. I laugh because I have been everywhere, and nowhere.

I laugh like a mad woman, sending my voice into the breeze, clutching my hands to my cold, wet cheeks with my hair streaming around my fingers. And in that moment, I stop thinking about the mysterious future and the lost past. I let go of it all, and I accept life for what it is in that instant - a beautiful place before my eyes, but presented with my sadness. And yet, I know I am okay. There are no fireworks of joy in my heart, no desperate plea in my bones to spin and glide in a reverent dance. But I am okay.

The breeze slows and the trees are still around me. The water remains, churning, running over the boulders and rocks on its own eternal journey, but I know it's my time to leave my tears with the river and laughter echoing in the wind. I stand, and put my pack over my shoulders. The breeze returns for a moment to kiss me goodbye, and my lips twitch with the tease of a smile. I turn, walk away from the water, and do not look back with longing, for the colors and sounds will stay locked my mind. And then I take a deep breath, set one foot in front of the other on the dusty ground, and hike forward, alone, on Purgatory Trail.

Sitting along the Animas River
Sitting along the shoreline of the Animas River, off Purgatory Creek Trail.