This is the story of a camping, kayaking, and biking trip I went on last summer. It was an adventure that had some long lasting effects; while it reinforced my love of being outdoors, it also activated some triggers that still are giving me problems. This is also as good a time as any to bring up Schema Therapy (Wikipedia). There's a very good book co-authored by Dr. Young that deals with this, entitled "Reinventing Your Life" (Amazon). As always, I'm not a trained counselor, or anything else official. I'm a guy with a blog. Talk to a professional about this stuff. Now, on to the story.
Last summer, I was invited to go on a weekend car camping trip to a farm several hours away by someone I'd met in a group of outdoors minded people; folks that like to bike, kayak, swim, run, camp, etc. You know, the people you see on the freeway on Friday afternoon headed out of the city, with a kayak on top of the car and a bike strapped to the back, as well as a collection of state park annual stickers on the windshield. These are folks do do yoga, who train and compete in triathlons, and who measure bike miles in hundreds and thousands.
I'm honestly an adventurer in training; it's only been the past couple of years that I've "seriously" gotten into camping, kayaking, and back into biking. I'm decently equipped for car camping, and have enough common sense to know where to pitch a tent and how not to set the forest on fire. I'd need some help to survive for more than a few hours in the backcountry.
A clarification on "camping"-- I don't go to Yogi Bear's Jellystone Campground, I go to state parks and national forest campgrounds. I look for the signs that say "primitive", meaning camping sites that don't have their own electricity or water, and the campground rec center is known as "the woods". I have no problem at all with doing my thing in an outhouse, or walking up the hill with a 5 gallon collapsible water jug.
On this particular trip, the plan was to arrive on Friday and set up camp, head to a local river for an all day kayak trip on Saturday, and do some biking on Sunday before heading home. This was my first weekend trip "on my own", to a place that didn't have much support-- the nearest town would be miles away. I was pretty well equipped, and managed to get my car loaded up, including the mountain bike strapped to the back, and headed West. Through rain the entire way, and through my car bogging down on the hills due to what I'd discover later was a bad set of spark plugs. But I made it there, and got set up, and things were basically okay until the monsoons came through in the middle of the night.
It rained about three inches in eight hours, so my tent can be forgiven for letting some water in; it turned out that I'd arranged the tarp underneath the my tent so that water got caught between the tent and the tarp, making my tent into a waterbed. See, adventurer in training. Anyway, on Saturday I cooked myself breakfast, and assembled what I thought I'd need for an all day kayak trip, and off we went.
The logistics of getting everyone where they needed to be took several hours; we had to drive to the take out point, and then get shuttled back to the put in point. Some people had their own kayaks, and it took more than one shuttle trip, and so it took a while. I had a single water jug with me, which I filled before leaving, and a basic lunch-- a couple of sandwiches, some veggies, and some granola bars. My gear consisted of a small wet bag, and a change of dry clothes.
It turned out that last year had been a bad time for rain, and the river was down; in kayak-speak, that means that all the rocks and branches and crap that lives on the bottom of the river now is also at the top of the river, sticking up and out. I found myself getting hung up on stuff and getting stuck, a lot. Over and over again. When I got stuck, the rest of the group, especially the more experienced kayakers who knew how to not get stuck, kept going down the river.
Me, I got frustrated. I was working twice as hard to get half as far, and it became very clear to me that if I got stuck to a rock by the current and flipped over... I was alone on a river in the middle of nowhere. There were some deep sections of the river, and some mild whitewater created by the lower river level, and that made things (I'd learn later) much more challenging than normal. There wasn't a buddy system in place, and no one was looking out for me. If I didn't show up at camp later, people would wonder. But that might be hours later, and too late.
When you have to constantly unstuck yourself, and when you have to always deal with not getting hung up on a rock, it's stressful and it's hard work. My water supply dwindled quickly, my food supply a little less quickly, and in general I found myself having a bitch of a time. Mentally, I went from frustrated to triggered, and just sort of shut down and kept paddling and wondering if the river would ever end. It did, eventually, and once at the take out point, I scrounged water from anyone who had some to offer. I was dehydrated and exhausted, and unhappy, and surrounded by people who were talking about what a great trip it had been.
You might ask why, if things were that desperate, I didn't drink river water. I suppose I could have, but I know enough about biology to know what floats around in untreated water. I figured that adding symptoms like stomach cramps and diarrhea to my problems would not have been an improvement.
That night, it was monsoon season again-- and again I didn't get much sleep. By Sunday morning, I was whupped, and elected not to go on the bike excursion. I knew already that I was one of the slower bikers, plus I ride a mountain bike so I can't usually keep up with road bikes that can do 35 mph. I still had to break camp and pack up, and it was looking like rain again in the afternoon, so I said the hell with it and started breaking camp. Still, there was a lot of good to be said about the trip, I'd learned a lot by being there, and I felt it was a positive experience. I'd met a lot of interesting people, made some new Facebook friends, and kinda looked forward to doing it again after a trip to REI for some water carrying stuff.
A side, but related note: I also participated in a weekly bike ride with the same group, and many of the same people. As mentioned above, I was always one of the slowest riders, and it eventually got to be unfun, doing the route alone and busting ass just to get to the meeting place after the ride before everyone left. So yeah, among that group, I was feeling a little like the kid who gets picked last for kickball. I enjoyed the activities, but I was always the slowest and least prepared/experienced, or so it felt.
Then school started last fall, and I was a full time student again, and I didn't have time to do things with the group because I was busy with school. I had next summer to look forward to, though.
Next summer became this summer, and... thud. I looked for the people I'd friended on Facebook from the trip and bike rides last summer, and realized most of them had defriended me at some point. The group was still there (it's an online community, and anyone can join and participate in events), but there weren't as many major weekend trips planned that I could participate in.
I also wasn't invited to the private trip this year.
And this is where the feeling defective part comes in, and where the PTSD kicks in, and the whole thing starts snowballing down the side of the mountain. Recovery can be fragile; it doesn't take much to derail a recovery. In my case last summer, I put forth a lot of courage to do something that I'd admittedly never done before on that scale. I didn't make any friends in the process, though, which aside from learning and doing was part of the point of the trip.
I am blessed to live in a city where doing stuff outdoors is a way of life-- people here do stuff. There's more to do within an hour of here than a person could possibly do in the three months that make up academic summer. Living here, I have the opportunity to do a lot of cool things.
The frustrating part for me is that when comparing myself to other people, I don't feel I measure up. I'm not as experienced, I don't have all of the right equipment, I can't go as fast and as far. And so that defectiveness thing kicks in, and I back away, and here I am, trying to get the train back on the tracks, me back on the bike and out in the woods.
It's hard to just run your own race.
Update: I've posted a follow-up to this post, read it here.