Losing Myself to Find Myself

A little over two years ago, curiosity almost killed this cat. I was living in upstate New York, and spending a great deal of my free time exploring the surrounding landscape. I was developing newfound passions and trying to get over old-time fears.

One day, after months of photographing and hiking through the nearby and relatively innocuous Hudson Highlands, I was tempted to undertake a journey into the taller, wilder, and more seductive Catskills to the north.

I threw a couple of water bottles and a sandwich into my black Jansport backpack and called it good. In hindsight, I was a damn fool to not depart better equipped. The mountains almost ate me alive.

The ascent up Indian Head and Twin Mountains and back is a solid 8.3 mile trek featuring 2800 feet of elevation gain. Unknown to me at the time, the hike is a segment of the Devil’s Path, a steep, rocky foray through the Southern Catskills that is considered by some to be the toughest hiking trail on the East Coast. It was a mild afternoon in mid-October and I set off into the woods around 2:30 pm.

A rock chimney on the way up Indian Head. (Credit: Alex Biles, 10/11/2014)

The journey up to Twin, strenuous as it was, was the most carefree part of the trip. I’d stop for a couple sips of water and catch my breath every 15 minutes or so. I had gone on maybe a dozen hikes in the preceding months, and so naturally, I considered myself schooled in the trade. And yet, I’d never quite ambled hours and hours into wilderness by my lonesome, where the nearest person at any given time might be two or three miles away.

Come to think of it, I only ran into one group of people on my way to the summit. I wearing a NIKE Lacrosse hoodie that day, partly because I enjoyed its fiery design, but mostly because it was on sale.

About halfway up Indian Head, I approached a trail junction, where I ran into a friendly pack of University of Albany lax bros heading in the opposite direction. They were excited to see another human, and after exchanging some pleasantries, enthusiastically asked me what school I played lacrosse at.

I doubt my answer satisfied them.

I reached the top of Indian Head an hour later, and the slightly harder-to-find summit of Twin an hour after that. Upon taking in the infinite waves of autumn trees and snapping a few photos, I decided to take the slow descent to civilization.

The view from Twin Mountain’s summit. (Credit: Alex Biles, 10/11/2014)

It was a hair past 6 pm and the warm glowing light of the sunset and approaching dusk began to envelop me with every step. Even as my walking evolved into a tentative jog down the rocky trail, the ramifications of my ill-timed ascent had not yet hit me. In reality, I was a snowball in hell.

Darkness quickly fell upon me.

My cell phone had no service, and after a stint as a makeshift flashlight, its battery met an untimely demise. The flash on my DSLR served as an acceptable substitute light source; that is, until it too, was sapped of its lithium ion energy. I had devoured the meager food and drink I carried in my black backpack at the summit and brought no other supplies or warmer clothes. I was only halfway down the mountain, and by this point, I couldn’t see the ground beneath my feet, let alone 10 feet ahead of me.

I panicked.

When all else fails, use your DSLR flash as a light source! (Credit: Alex Biles, 10/11/2014)

Stranded 2000 feet above the Hudson Valley below and two miles into thick wilderness, I tried to feel my way downward like a blind man crossing a busy street. My desperation only ended up making the situation worse and I ended up in a shallow col hundreds of feet off the trail.

The comfortable cool of the daytime had blown over into a biting winter chill. Each gust of wind felt like a slap to the face. The ominous confab of nocturnal animals lit up my surroundings. My futile cries for help went unreturned.

After an hour of psychological anguish, I regained my composure. Using my backpack as a pillow, I crawled into the fetal position, shivering, and hoped for the best come morning time.

It was too cold to sleep. I was hungry and thirsty. The hours felt like days.

Every twenty minutes or so, one of my limbs would become numb and I’d stand up and start shaking my arms and legs and doing jumping jacks. For some reason, I felt like Forrest Gump.

Sure enough, the sun rose in the east as it tends to do from time to time, and I used it to deduce which way was north. Luckily, I was reunited with the trail a couple minutes after setting off that morning.

Within two hours, I emerged at the trailhead parking lot, walking past the ghost of my old self going the opposite way.

As fate would have it, my dad was pulling into the lot as I walked out from the forest.

I might have been shaken and starving, but I made it home alive that day.

It’s fascinating what uncertainty can do to a person. Around that time of my life, the simple act of living seemed a stressful and tiring exercise more days than not. I lacked the motivation to develop better habits, to break out of my rut. My brain brimmed with limiting thoughts that told me I wasn’t worthy. Whatever medications I was on; whatever therapist I was going to were not helping me in the slightest.

I constantly told myself I wanted to die.

And yet, my experience in the woods that day annihilated all of my previous conceptions. I did want to live. I wanted to live more than I ever knew, god damn’t. And ironically enough, it was in that moment of nervous, primal desperation that I came to a realization: I was truly living.

In between those dirty moments consumed by intense anxiety and the uncertainty of my fate, weird streams of comfort washed over me at various points during that night.

I was alive and it was amazing and I wanted to be better. I wanted to be better to my parents. To my brother and sister. To my friends. And most importantly, to myself.

I’m not yet close to where I want to be. Getting my shit together and developing positive habits and healthier thinking patterns is an arduous, ongoing process. But I’ve come a long way. And ironically enough, it took getting lost to find a little piece of myself.