Dear Eleanor,

The tallest peak on the Long trail is Mount Mansfield, 4393 feet. I’m sure that’s a regular Saturday afternoon for you more experienced hikers, but my first post-Long-Trail-training hike was Burnt Meadow Mountain, standing in at 1575 feet. I couldn’t make it to the top, because of snow drifts, but truth be told, I was tired and winded anyway. More than winded, I felt done. Like, I did it. I took steps up a mountain. I’m a hiker. Everyone can go home now. Because Mount Mansfield is the tallest peak on The Long Trail, she has been the goal peak lingering in the back of my head, as I train. She’s my Eleanor. The unicorn. The unattainable. The 1971 Ford Mustang Sportsroof. The fable creature who is impossible to capture. I went back to Burnt Meadow Mountain recently, with my partner, to see if I have made any improvements; to see if I’m any closer to the unattainable. I made it to the top and though there were still some tough spots for me, it was easier. I don’t normally go back to the same mountain. Im sure I’ll cycle through them at some point, but I’ve been trying to pick a different mountain every week, so I can use my training as a way to keep pushing myself. I’m glad I went back to Burnt Meadow though, because it didn’t just provide me with insight on how far I have come, it also provided me with a few laughs.

As we head down the mountain, there was a rustle in the woods. It got closer and closer, and I thought to myself (as I usually do) “this is it, this is the day we are going to be mauled by a bear.” My partner grabbed a stick. Not a stick, a tree. It was a tree. I started running and thought she was tailing me, until I heard screaming. I had it in my mind that she was back there defending my honor, in some kind of inter-species duel, as she yells, “OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD!” I get back to her, and she’s flailing her arms, bear-less, and covered in fire ants. When the screaming stopped, she said, “I hope I didn’t scare that bear.” The look in my eyes quickly goes from panic to more of a “are you kidding me?” She explains that her intention was to use the stick (tree) to make noise enough to deter the bear from approaching. She recovers from the ant invasion enough to continue walking, and says “what did you think I was going to do, physically fight a bear? I don’t want to take a long dirt nap right now.” (Long pause) “I have to buy contacts.” Well folks, we bought another day, she needs contacts. (Small pause) “I feel bad that I disrupted that ant habitat.” To be clear, she isn’t avoiding death to buy contacts, but I wanted to show you how her brain works. It’s not unlike her, actually, to be a log-toting, bear fighting, little lady protector… but only in the least restrictive way, of course. We wouldn’t want to scare a bear or disrupt a habitat. She also quickly pointed out that I would be neither a lady protector, or a bear fighter, because my instincts were to run, and that’s just what I did.

We all know how I respond to threats of safety, I’ve written about it in multiple blogs. I’m not proud of myself, but as my grandmother always says, “whatta ya gonna do?” I am who I am. One time, I was with a group of children, who were being attacked by Guinea Hens, and still ran. I worked in Recreation program at a shelter for survivors of domestic violence (yes, I know, that makes it worse). We took the kids on a field trip to a local farm, and the Guinea Hens started to revolt. My instincts, as they are, were to run. I got about twenty feet away, remembered the children, and turned back to see my boss fighting off Guinea Hens and bleeding from the leg. I ran to help her, but the damage was done. We all knew who the hero was. I told my partner this story, as we continued down the mountain, trying to reassure her with this wisdom, “if I didn’t save a group of homeless children, I’m sure not saving you.” Of course, she responded as she does, by saying that although my first instinct is to run, in both scenarios, I stopped myself and came back for the fight. She’s right, I suppose. If there is a space somewhere between fight or flight, that’s likely where you will find me nesting.

Oh yeah, I guess I should stop here and say, you know that girl I was telling you about, back when I realized I was Titanium? Yeah, she’s back. Actually, she’s sitting next to me now, in a book store. I can see her face in the reflection of my lap top, and I keep stopping to look at her. She’s very expressive when reading, it’s like you can actually see her mind expanding. She keeps laughing in her book, which intrigues me, because she’s reading a finance book about living simply… but we all have our things, I guess. For those of you who didn’t read that post, it involved a brief romance in the fall, that ended abruptly and felt unfinished. Well, I guess it was unfinished for both of us. The truth is, we have this habit of finding each other. I’d like to think that this time is the one that counts. If you’re still struggling with the mustang reference, her name is not Eleanor, just to be clear. This post isn’t really about her. Well, in a way it’s about her, if added to a list of fears to conquer; Mount Mansfield, failure, commitment, vulnerability, trust… but again, we’ve all got our things. It’s about the things in your life that are too hard. Or at least seem too hard, until you fight harder for them.

I’m looking at my long-trail calculator, with 39 days before the start and a half a month more before I meet my Eleanor. It’s upon me. These mountains are still tough, and maybe that won’t change. I think I imagined that at this point in my training, I’d be running up a mountainside without breaking a sweat. Well, I’m not running up them, but I am getting up them. One after the other, I am getting up them. When I started this adventure, Eleanor did seem unattainable, but I have started using her to calculator to my progress, and I gotta say, she’s starting to feel less like a Ford Mustang and more like a Ford Explorer. I’m learning that when you start believing you can do something, it stops feeling unattainable. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure I’ll reach the top of Mount Mansfield chanting “Eleanor” through my tears, but that’s a story for another blog. This blog is just an Ode to Eleanor; a letter, if you will.

Dear Eleanor, You’re no unicorn. You’re just a mountain. Stay right there. I’m coming for you.

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I am TITANIUM.

Here we are, at the final part of my three-part blog post.

I had my heart broken, y’all.

I told you in my post, “Why the Long trail?” that this hike was something I have wanted to do for a long time, and that was true. I told you that I was driven by the concept of my Dad not being able to finish building his shed, and that was true. What I didn’t tell you, was why I started training at that time. Well, you see… it was about a girl…. and ain’t it always?

I don’t even know how to explain this relationship. It was complicated, and lovely, and hurtful. The skinny love that Bon Iver spoke about; the kind that your gut tells you won’t last the year. A Shakespearean tragedy, even. You know, she drinks the poison, he drinks the poison, she goes for the knife, and all the readers are like, “ummm, I mean, why don’t you guys just use your words?” The connection between us was intense, and that made it feel like the relationship had purpose. It probably did, but maybe not the purpose that I envisioned.

The relationship ended abruptly, and as a person who has always struggled to let my guard down enough to love someone, and did, that was incredibly hard for me. I had conversations with my support systems that asked what the process of heartache would look like. Type A Kelly needed to understand how to heal efficiently. Everyone kept saying “time.” The proverbial “time.” In time, with time… time, time, time. They were right, of course. One friend, however, added a few more words and it changed the direction of my healing process. It’s amazing how one person’s advice can do that. Her name is Brooke. We met working at a summer camp, 12 years ago. We have a large group of summer camp friends, who try to stay in contact and feel an awful lot like family. She said that everyone else was right. “Time, Kelly, but there are two other things that you can do, and you need to do them every day. You need to shower every day and you need to exercise every day.” I went to the gym that night and started crying on the treadmill. “Screw you, Brooke, this was useless.” Begrudgingly, I did it again the next day, and the next. The gym turned into walks outside, walks turned into hikes, and hikes turned into the Long Trail.

Training has been a fight, for a lot of reasons. Heartache, sure, but it’s also winter, and I feel like it’s been a long one. Though I ran into a wise man the other day who responded to that by saying, “Ehhh, they all are.” He’s right, but this one has seemed like the kind of long that builds character against your will. The lessons that come on days when you are desperately trying to keep a smile on your face, but the universe laughs back at you. You know, the ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife- kind of winter. The kind where you decide to start training for a long-distance hike and then injure your hip. The kind where, at some point, the only response you can muster is “can I just catch a break?”

I have this cycle, when it comes to emotional pain; loss, heartache, or big life transitions. I have an immediate reaction to it, where I heal unrealistically fast and in what looks and feels like a healthy way; processing through and moving forward. Then, traditionally, a secondary reaction surfaces a few months later, and she is not so cute. Basically, I allow myself to feel stress, until it becomes unbearable, and then I tuck it right down where it doesn’t belong and ignore it until everyone around me gets to watch Mount St. Helen erupt and ravage whole cities. Historically, I have used that time in not-so productive ways; ignoring life’s responsibilities and spending too much money on useless crap that brings me fleeting joy. Training for the hike allowed me a physical outlet to dealing with that stress, but it still acted as a distraction. A needed distraction, but a distraction nonetheless. So, when I got the hip injury, and couldn’t train, Helen returned. Knowing my history, I had two choices: tell the townspeople to run for their lives, or deal with it head on. You know, the ol’ feel it to heal it.

Because the relationship ended so abruptly, there was no closure. A lot of people told me that, in this situation, a person cannot offer a level of closure that would make any difference. Endings are tough, and you have to figure out how to find your own closure. You have to figure out what lessons the experience taught and bring those lessons into your life. You have to find a way to forgive where forgiveness is required, and you have to move on. That, however, just wouldn’t sit with me. I knew her. I knew us, and I couldn’t accept that we would just exist in the world individually, with resentment towards each other. So, I reached out to her and was honest about the fact that I needed a better ending than what she offered me. I needed us to say some things that we hadn’t said, but should have, because we owed that to each other and to the memory of our relationship. She agreed, and we met for closure. The ending was as lovely and complicated as the beginning, with a few heavy conversations, and a dance to our song in the parking lot of a closed down bar.

As I drove away from that bar, away from her, I had a heavy heart. I was about to make another transition, and because I have had a lot of those over the last couple years, I keep going back to that place where I’m asking when I’ll catch that break? The song “Titanium” came over the radio, and I thought about the last couple of months; the unanswered questions, the tears, the hike, the injury, and I realized that though this is another transition, I’m strong. I’m titanium. The truth is, maybe we don’t get breaks, maybe this is just what life is. The world is happening to me, happening to all of us. Not for us or against us. Maybe real character is developed when you can see that the positive things in your life scream as loudly as the negative, if you allow them to. If you give them your focus. Yes, this year I have had my heart-broken, and my hip injured, and winter is still where spring should be- but I also allowed myself to love, and I started working towards a hiking goal that I once saw as unattainable, and my company car has heated seats, and Hulu added all seasons of ER, and the old man at the toll booth smiles at me with his whole face, and it’s a beautiful life.

Now, I have to work on healing. I have to work on healing my heart, I have to work on healing my hip, and I’m pretty confident that those things were supposed to happen together. That the training offered me a reprieve from heartache, and when the time was right, the injury offered me space to address it. I will heal though, and I’ll still want to do this hike. Not for her, or because of her, not even because of the loss of my Dad or the challenges my sisters and I have faced since then. Though I’m sure they will all find their place on the trail. It’s about me. It’s about setting a goal and accomplishing it. It’s about carrying on, relentlessly, and trying to do that with an open-heart. It’s about using my feet to show this earth that I am still here, and I am freakin’ titanium.

Oh, yeah, and I date girls. This is one way to share that, right?