by Heather Lynn Horvat
When my husband and I moved to Arizona several years ago, he suggested we hike the Grand Canyon. I laughed. "Experience that without me," I said. I wasn't an outdoors person.
As a teen living in central Pennsylvania, I had dabbled in the outdoors, mostly as a means to escape adult eyes. Once, I hiked near a dam in the woods and black snakes slithered across the trail so the ground itself looked like black ocean waves. My boyfriend carried me on his back. I heard the squeak of a tree branch bending and opened my eyes to see a snake dangling above me. There were so many snakes that day that I still question if it was a bad dream. Nightmare or reality, the memory lingered and I stopped seeking nature.
About a year ago, the panic attacks started. Somehow I had become fearful of more than just nature. I now feared crowds, but also feared being alone. I feared my own Self, and the fear paralyzed me. I refused to admit to anyone that I needed help. The attacks worsened in severity and intensity. I stopped writing. Or, the words stopped coming.
"You need to get out of your head," my husband said. "Make new friends. Find a new hobby."
2018 began the year of new: new friends, new freelance work, new hairdresser, new workout routines. I went on a girls' weekend to Vegas barely knowing the girls but embracing the opportunity that presented itself. The freelance work I submitted earned praise and a check. My body boasted muscle definition in places I didn't know could be toned. On the outside, I looked like I had my shit together.
Since my husband is an outdoors person, I agreed to go on a short hike with him to Wave Cave. Like the name implies, there is a cave with a jutting rock in the shape of a large surf wave. A touristy destination per Google and rated at moderate difficulty, I figured it wouldn't be as bad as Camelback, the mountain that left me with three scarred gashes on my left knee two years ago.
Arizona hiking is much different than Pennsylvania hiking. Here, the desert mountains are rocky at best, boulderous with little shade and breathtaking views at high elevations. Wave Cave possessed all the qualities of desert: gravelly, gradual incline to lull you into mental safety until the final elevation gain that's steep enough to make you wonder why you agreed to this.
Finding my footing in the rocks, my thighs screamed while I thought, What the hell I am doing? My husband didn't ask if we should turn around; I'm sure he knew that I might have said yes.
Once we reached the cave and I heaved, trying to catch my breath, I looked back from where we came. The trail was obscure between the jutting rocks and boulders. The desert beyond was serene. Houses and cityscape were further away and didn't seem as claustrophobic as it sometimes feels when you live in a cookie-cutter neighborhood. For the first time in a long time I could breathe.
Ten people shared the cave space with us. I kept to myself huddled against the back wall and ate a snack. A woman about my age, but more fit, more hiker ready, posed on the wave while her partner snapped pictures with his phone. Her laugh made me want to laugh.
When it was my turn to pose on the wave, she offered to take our picture. No judgment in her eyes that I didn't belong, because at this moment, on top of this section of mountain, everyone belonged.
It could've been hunger and thirst or aching muscles, but I felt a euphoric rush.
"Will you hike again?" My husband asked.
I've completed eight hikes since Wave Cave, some of them without my husband. As soon as I finish one, whether three miles or seven miles, rocky or boulder hopping, I begin planning the next. The panic attacks haven't stopped completely, but words are coming back to me.
Heather Lynn Horvat is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. She currently freelances while writing her next novel.