On Lostness

Anna Oberg:

Something in me toys endlessly with the edge that summer. The gauzy space between the mountains fascinates me as I view them from afar. I am afraid of the unknown, yet I insist on it. I drive around in unfamiliar places, intentionally without my phone or a printed map, more comfortable with an unanswered question than if I were to nail things down. I hike alone, always. Usually in the morning, before the sun is up. No one is out. 

It’s a preoccupation I’m exploring, this notion of lostness, betweenness. I dwell on it, fetishize it, wishing my greatest fear would come true, even while hyperventilating at the thought. I wonder if it is my expectation of lostness preceding foundness that coaxes me to explore this ambiguous place. 

For years, I puzzle over the phrase “you can’t go home again,” wondering what it means in my own perception of home and away. At first, I’m sure it has to do with the place I leave behind. How home somehow magically transforms in my wake. Over time, I realize I’m mistaken. Home itself has nothing to do with it. I’m the one who leaves, the one irreversibly altered by experience. 

What I don’t grasp is what it takes for this to be true. It remains a mystery, what type of experience, what kind of wilderness is required for a person to change so profoundly. I wonder what relentless anxiety could rock a person to the core of their identity, causing them to become entirely new, unable to return to who they once were. 

I remember being lost that summer the same way one remembers any vacancy—not as decipherable terrain, but as the line of its periphery. I remember it the way one remembers the slight impression of something forgotten. Only the shape remains. Everything else, the center of the thing, bleeds into an indelible vagueness, the incoherent sense something once there is now gone.

The summer of 2015, the summer I turn 32, the summer I get lost—I climb eight mountains in Rocky Mountain National Park, naively searching for whatever it is I need. It isn’t the summit photos I’m after, though they are a driving force. It’s an image of myself I seek carved from the granite, from the wild depth of the sky. 

I am writing a book, or rather, laying the bedrock for one as I summit a peak in each section of the Park. Each mountain I choose becomes a chapter about some complication, some elemental battle in the natural world. 

The book I envision, when I picture a bound copy in my hands, is about self-identity, understanding who I am even when I’m unsure of my location or trajectory on life’s path. I want to write a creation story, a narrative of becoming. It’s all still theory and conjecture. Yet, I already understand the irony—the summer I embark to find who I am, I lose myself. 

Mt. Nimbus is in the Never Summer Range, a lonely string of peaks on the far western rim of Rocky Mountain National Park. I choose this summit because its name suggests water, the fluid nature of hardship. Nimbus clouds, I’m told, are those that bring rain. I wish for revelation, deluge, some profound enlightenment to wash me, as I become whatever it is I am meant to be.

It’s early July, and by the morning I arrive at the empty Bowen/Baker Trailhead for my hike up Nimbus, I’ve already summited Estes Cone, Hallett Peak, and my first thirteener, Mummy Mountain, as well as made a failed attempt to find Mt. Adams in the half-dark of a socked-in fog with thunder rumbling close by. Mt. Nimbus will put me just past the halfway point on my journey which will culminate in August, when I plan to hike the Park’s only fourteener, Longs Peak. In the intervening days, I’m slated to climb Snowdrift Peak and Meadow Mountain, both in more well-travelled sections of the Park than the Never Summers. With a round trip of twelve miles and an elevation gain of 3,856 feet, Mt. Nimbus (12,706 ft.) seems moderate, I tell myself, with no technical elements—just a jaunt through the woods and a haul up to the rocky summit. 

As the sun rises, I jog alone through fields of wildflowers, stopping to snap a few pictures as I travel west toward Baker Pass. It is green, so green. Another planet from the dry trails on the eastern side of the Park where I have done most of my hiking thus far. Crossing a vast meadow through the Never Summer Wilderness, I reach the pass, reentering the National Park at a wide-open crossroads where the Baker Gulch Trail intersects the path to Jack Creek and a route to Parika Lake. I turn around, surveying where I’ve come from—rippling waves of land stretch back as far as my eyes can reach.

I turn east. My gaze veers up a steep pile of red scree. This is the western slope of Mt. Nimbus, my route. Anxiety floods my belly with clean heat. My scalp prickles. It is three-quarters of a mile nearly straight into the summer sky. There is no path, only the threat of gravity pulling me down the sharp pitch. 

There is only one way to go. 

Because of the collapsing hillside and rotten rock, it takes much longer than I anticipate to top out on Nimbus’ gorgeous summit. After a few photos in the bright, noon light, I stand there inhaling the view of Longs Peak to the east, idly wondering if I’ll ever make it up that mountain. I dawdle, sipping water from my Camelback, trying to persuade myself to descend from where I currently stand. 

Down, I find, is every bit as hard as up, and it takes just as long. I creep my way toward the green pass below, tumbling every three steps as the unsteady mountain gives way, and I go sliding with it. My shins are bloody from the loose, shifting rocks, and, dramatically—true to form—I wonder if I will make it, or if I’ll die there in the sun with the ravens circling overhead, waiting to pick my bones and leave me to bloat and bleach in the heat of the day.

Finally, I reach the line where the insufferable scree meets the grass. My relief is short-lived, however, as almost immediately, I celebrate by gulping the last of my water. A hollow, sucking sound laces through the blue straw attached to the now-empty bladder in my running backpack. Facing a thirsty six miles back to my car, I comfort myself with a half-smile, and the thought of what I’ll write about this scenario. 

I retrace my route, elated I hit the summit, but slightly worried I’ll be dehydrated when I get back to the trailhead. As I follow the path with my eyes and feet, my thoughts scatter elsewhere, preoccupied by the material, the details of this terrain’s story, this day, this difficult adventure. Predictably for the season, thick afternoon clouds build dark anvils in the west, and as I run, the green valley gives way to dappled shade as I re-enter the woods. 

The trail passes through a dense ponderosa grove and back into the sunlight toward a willow bog. Expecting it to veer around the willows, I come to a dead stop when the path ends abruptly at the edge of the bog. Not wanting to get my Asics wet, I turn around, thinking I’ve inadvertently taken a spur off the main trail. I retrace my steps for a few yards, but the route evaporates that way as well. Very suddenly, I am standing in the bright woods wondering where the hell the trail went. 

Turning a full circle, I digest the four cardinal points, covering only a bit of ground. Soon, I don’t know which direction I’ve come from or where I should be going. 

Something like truth or an idea less lofty enters my head in the span of this pause. It is reality settling in, taking up lodging. Comprehension surfaces in the intermittent sun as I watch the storm build, the bottom edges of the clouds turning a heavy gray, rain imminent. Suddenly, I know fully and coldly, relentlessly—well, you fucking can’t stay here

As much as I want to, as much as I would sit down and cry, I can’t. There is a whirring note in my head on repeat telling me I have to move. I’m not calm—my heart gallops, blood pounding in my ears. I try imagining the way I think the trail would have gone, should have gone, and I go that way, right into the bog, sharp willows tearing my legs, three inches of icy water pouring over the tops my running shoes. A sickening squelch follows my every step, the suction of the mud beneath the surface nearly sliding each foot from its shoe, further flooding me with distraction. This is all the water, the very sea of it, I dreamt of when I chose this mountain—Nimbus—by its name. 

Marching involuntarily through the endless bushes, I’m reminded of the sharp bends of my body, not just where flesh fastens to bone, but the internal corners, the places blood must turn and flow back to where it came from, back through the limbs, the harsh places, aiming fiercely at the heart. How it too can’t go home again unchanged. The sewer lines of my internal self are kinked and pained in this rough scenario. I don’t know if I’ll ever find my way back. 

Thunder reverberates through the empty spaces of the red mountain I’ve just descended, and I walk on under the gathering sky, knowing the clouds could burst any time, or inflict their fire on me, the highest point in this flat, unceasing place. I think, it can’t get worse. 

It can, though, in the way it nearly always can. 

Lostness is a terrain all its own. I look back now and can’t remember how I got there or what I see in country. Afterward, the only remainder is the feeling I have of being held fixed in a space between two breaths and not knowing if an inhale or exhale will ultimately claim me. Lostness is a landscape of question, the liminal territory where I house my perception of the gray, unknowable space I’ve viewed only from afar until now. 

I find my voice after half an hour in the bog, shaking, frenzied as I call at the top of my lungs, can anyone hear me? No one can.

All I want, as I count my loud, sucking steps through this flooded place, is something familiar to anchor me, to remind me of everything I know to be true. The reality remains unsettling, however, as minutes tick to quarter-hours to half-hours to hours. The storm stays to the west, and my sloshing feet are the only thing soaked through, but I can feel the skin on my heels become loose and begin to flay as blisters form and fill and pop and recede into the water. It is cold, leftover snowmelt not yet returned to the atmosphere after a long winter. 

I am tired.

I don’t know how much time has passed when I reach the edge of the bog. It feels like days, but my thirst is still at bay, so it can’t have been that long. A break in the forest welcomes me to dry ground. It doesn’t matter how long it has taken to get there, because there is without context, someplace I have no reference for. 

Suddenly, as through eyes opening slowly after a long nap, I see a path crossing a bare place flecked with sunlight, peacefully meandering through the widely spaced pines. The trail has been there all along. 

I sit in the middle of the trail, quiet for a moment, when unchecked sobs rise to the surface of me like bubbles from a deep spring. I can’t stop my tears. I’ve been somewhere I never planned to go, and now I must find my way back home, knowing I won’t return there either. 

Taking a deep breath, I grind the heels of my hands into my eye sockets. My tears dry, and I stand to walk, again toward the trailhead. 

The shattering thing—as I think the day over, calm and willow-gnashed, aching in the car on the way home—is that by any measurable standard, I was never lost. Authorities were not called. No one was notified. Not a soul heard my cries in the Never Summer Wilderness. To any outsider, my hike took a few hours longer than expected, and I was thirstier and dirtier and wetter than necessary when I got back to the car. 

Yet this event shakes me profoundly, begging the same question as a tree falling in the forest when no one is around. If I am lost, and there is no one to see me in that uninhabitable place, did it happen at all?

I drive, understanding there has been a lapse. A gap in my consciousness has widened—the haze from between mountains fills me. I can see, suddenly and clearly, why “you can’t go home again” is something universal. No matter what else, I have become the sum of all my choices since I left home. My experiences—the summit, the trail, the bog—have already altered me. I have seen the gray edge I’ve been pressing against crumble, and I’m reminded that nothing is safe, nothing is planned. Anything can happen. 

I sit and write this story until I am calm with it, comfortable staring at it, rolling it over in my hands, examining all its facets through the disturbed light of a broken prism. It is important, for my nerves’ sake, that I state it, that I make it my own, just as the fear of being lost and never found has embedded itself and made it my own. Just as writing it over and over will be my only way home. 

BIO: Anna Oberg is a professional photographer based in Estes Park, Colorado. When she’s not arranging family portraits with the perfect view of Long’s Peak as backdrop, she focuses on writing tiny memories and small stories. She has been published in Cleaver Magazine, Burningword Literary Journal, The Maine Review, Causeway Lit, and HerStry blog.

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