Cry or Breathe?

Written by Bonnie Walton, Administrative Assistant at Project Sanctuary   

I moved to Colorado in August of 2017, from the Midwest. After we had settled in and got somewhat acclimated, I decided to try hiking. My local friends were willing to show me the ropes. I was excited to go exploring and get some exercise. They started me out small on easy trails with little elevation gain. Little by little, I gained appropriate gear from thrift stores. We went hiking once or twice a week, pushing a little harder each time. I worked my way up to around six-mile trails without much difficulty. The hikes were truly enjoyable experiences with amazing scenery. My friend CarrieAnn researched trails on All Trails, and our next trail was Onahu Creek Trail right inside Rocky Mountain National Park.

Onahu Creek Trail

Onahu Creek Trail was listed as an EASY 7.8 mile loop trail with an estimated 1,489 feet of elevation gain. We started out in the morning. It was early November, so it was cold as we started but was supposed to warm up to the 60’s during the day. I was dressed in layers, had my backpack, water, and snacks. It was a beautiful morning. The sun was shining and the trail fairly clear. The first mile was a pleasant stroll through aspen groves and pine forest. There were a few steep areas but nothing too difficult. The majority of the elevation gain was toward the beginning of the hike.

As we progressed, the higher elevation had some snow. Then, at about mile two, the snow became deeper. It was up to mid-calf at 18 inches deep. It was exhausting to walk through it, and we were now near the top of the elevation. The trail narrowed to a two-foot path with a seriously painful looking slide down the mountain. I think it was at this point that there was discussion about going back the way we came. By looking at the map, it seemed like we were at the midway point, and we had already seen that half of the trail, so we might as well push on. (We were in fact not to the midway point and should have turned around.)

Bonnie (middle) with her son Joe (left) and her nephew Clint (right)

We drudged on. My son and nephew were way ahead of us. They are young and in better shape. Meanwhile, I was stopping often to catch my breath. We were still walking in knee-deep snow for a couple of miles. My feet hurt, but I wasn’t sure because they were numb. CarrieAnn gave me her trekking poles, but at this point, I couldn’t decide if they were helping or just irritating me. I was cold, miserable, and the trail seemed endless.

We finally came to some familiar surroundings – Big Meadow! We had hiked to Big Meadow before from another direction. Yay! Wait…that meant I knew how much farther we had to go – 1.75 miles. That is when the panic attack happened. I let everyone in front of me get some distance. Then, I ripped my backpack off and proceeded to have a meltdown. I was going to cry, but I couldn’t breathe. It was an overwhelming rush of emotion. I felt like I was going to die in the woods. Or, at the very least, be hauled off the mountain by Search and Rescue. Why did I voluntarily do this to myself? Breathe. Don’t cry. If I cry, then I can’t breathe. I had to make a choice, and breathing seemed the most logical.

Onahu Creek Trail 11-17

The group let me catch up. Everyone was cold. Now, it was overcast, and when we stopped, it got colder. They had been waiting for me to catch up, and when I did, they started moving. I needed a break, but I felt guilty that they were having to wait on me. However, the faster we went, the quicker this self-inflicted misery would be over! Good news – we were heading down hill. Bad news – the trail was a mud/ice combo and going downhill was cramming my frozen toes into my shoes with every baby step down the trail. I was to the point of another breathe versus cry dilemma, and I asked for a break.  I had been trying to quit smoking, but I decided this was not the day. I announced that I needed a “morale cigarette,” which was amusing seeing that I couldn’t breathe. But, this may very well have been the end, so don’t judge me.

We slopped and slid our way the remaining 1.5 miles to the trailhead. I saw the road! Yay, we made it – until we got to the parking lot and realized that we entered at the other trailhead another half mile down the road. Are you kidding me? Everyone was way ahead of me, walking back to the parking lot. I was throwing my thumb up to cars passing by. My son and nephew made it to the car first. I thought, “Good, they can bring the car and pick me up.” Then, I realized I had the keys. I finally made it to the car. I took my shoes off to drive because I could no longer feel my feet. My leg muscles were twitching, and by the time I got out of the car, the stiffness had set in. I literally crawled up the stairs that night.

Bonnie and CarrieAnn in the local thrift store

Looking back on it, it is all about perspective. If you are from the mountains, a 7.8 mile hike is an easy to moderate hike. If you are from the Midwest, it’s pretty impressive. It was misery in the moment of doing it, but now, I am pretty proud of myself for getting through it. I got through it ungracefully, complaining, and cursing my decision to even try. But, I did it! This less-than-stellar hike wasn’t bad enough to keep me from hiking again. I relied on myself, my friends, and a good sense of humor.

Spring is here, and I am ready to get back out there. I will go back to Ohanu Creek Trail, also humorously referred to as my personal “Trail of Tears,” just to feel like I conquered it. This time it will be in the summer. As a side note, my nephew did this hike his 2nd day in Colorado, in steel-toed boots, a leather jacket, and with a bottle of Mountain Dew. Experiences may vary.

Hiking tips:

  • Appropriate gear:  well-fitting, waterproof hiking boots; a comfortable backpack; ice traction cleats; plenty of water and snacks; water purification, and a small survival kit
  • When it gets tough, just put one foot in front of the other. Progress is progress.
  • Give yourself a break. We all have limits, and everyone has the right every once in a while to have a weak moment. Cry, then breathe, and keep moving.
  • Watch where you are going, but remember to stop and take in the view. I had a rough hike, but there was never a bad view.
  • Be proud of yourself for your accomplishments.
  • Some patient friends and family will get you through a lot.
  • It helps to have a map to know where you are going and to see how far you have come.