I'm not there yet. I'm nowhere close to there. My heart remains unhealed, a battered, worthless thing...but. But today I felt real joy, the kind that sings, that makes the blood beat a little faster, the eyes tear in gratitude for the moment. It's been a long time since I felt this way. Alive and awake and aware; every cell, it seemed, humming, on alert. That it occurred on a mountain makes me believe in the mad magic of my dream to climb those big, big peaks next year. I think perhaps I'd forgotten how the wild soothes and centers me, how testing my legs against steepest slope makes me believe, if only for a time, that I am capable. Strong.
I've spent the past few days at Canaan Valley Resort in West Virginia, which is located within a 6,000-acre state park, in an oval basin that sits at 3,200 feet. It's the second-highest inland wetland area in the United States and it is filled with creatures great and small, from ever-present groundhogs to mountain lions the rangers swear up and down don't exist. They have a lot of room to roam; there's a nearly 17,000-acre wildlife refuge next door, along with a 10,215-acre wilderness area. It's green and lush here, peaceful. I've brought along my confident and long-time friend Serafice, who soothes and centers me almost as much as the wild.
I'm thankful for her presence, this mystical and healing woman, because this is the first time I've traveled without T since he left me, fleeing back to the South he loves, it must be said, more than me. It's one day after my 50th birthday. Somehow it didn't occur to me that this journey would have its emotional difficulties and it's not until the door to our room has closed behind us and we are setting our bags down that I realize I'm on the verge of a panic attack. I suppose it is borne of the renewed recognition that all my future, the trips I will take, the love I will make, all my best and worst moments to come, will be without him. Each time this recognition slithers into my consciousness I'm torn apart again. When, when, when will this pain and fear end?
"Because he left," Serafice tells me, "you can be who you are meant to become. You could not have attempted this with him in your life, Jill. You never would have been allowed near those mountains. You know that. You are free now."
The panic waxes and wanes over the next few days and is finally lost as I ascend through bright, breezy meadow and shadowed forest to Bald Knob, a rocky protuberance rising 4,308 feet over the valley floor. It's a short hike - just 2.5 miles in total - but for a time, in between encounters with chattering, happy families, I'm alone. There is only the wind and the sun and the mountains in the distance, hazy and eternal. Butterflies, too, and dragonflies that dart before me on the path, as if to guide me onward. I feel tiny, dwarfed by these timeless hills, and at the same time tall and powerful, like each stride I take is that of a giant. I imagine my footfalls are making great booming sounds, that they leave deep fissures in the earth. I don't think about my age, or that, just six weeks after T and I parted, I am already yearning for a lover's touch. Already lonely. I don't think about fear.
I realize that this is the first climb I've made, small and tender though it is, since swearing my oath to ascend Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua next year.
Nearly without acknowledging it, I've begun.
Jill Gleeson is a journalist based in the hills of western Pennsylvania. She is a current contributor to The Pioneer Woman, Country Living, Group Travel Leader, Select Traveler, Going on Faith, Wander With Wonder, Enchanted Living and State College Magazine, where her column, Rebooted, is featured monthly. Other clients have included