MONTANA: Glaciers, gratitude, and a standing ovation.
Back in January, I was lying in the van in the pouring rain, parked outside of my friend Michelle’s house when I got an email from Rachel, the REI coordinator I had been working with to schedule my tour dates in southern California. I shot up out of my horizontal state and almost hit my head on the shelving above the bed.
“Barry, um, they want to know if we want to take this talk around the country,” I stammered.
My mind was racing. Just a few months prior, we had sold everything we owned and bought a 1998 Chevy van, with the intention of traveling around the country. We didn’t know how we’d pull it off, how we’d make money, or even where we’d go, but I knew I wanted to share my story with anyone who would listen, and Barry was all-in on the dream.
This was my shot.
Rachel explained that there wasn’t any financial support available from REI, but they’d give me a space to share my story, like they did for the first two tours around the stores in Southern California, and the same promotion plan as the tours I already did; they’d promote to local members via GearMail and with in-store signage.
I replied to the email saying yes, and Rachel introduced me to coordinators in Colorado, Northern California, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. I didn’t care about the money part, we could figure that out later.
As we started coordinating dates, it was looking like we’d be in Colorado for all of April, then back to Northern California in May, Oregon in June, and Washington in July.
While I was booking dates on the west coast, a woman named Andrea reached out to me on LinkedIn after she saw a post about my tour with REI. She worked as a Sales Lead at the store in Bozeman, and asked if we had any plans to stop in Montana. Barry and I were particularly excited about visiting Montana, and that would be the next state we’d get booked after we confirmed dates through Washington.
As such, Montana was the next state on my list of places I wanted to speak and I was jumping out of my skin when I got the note from this gal. She passed along the contact information for the coordinator at the Bozeman store, Teresa, and soon enough, I was introduced to Gina in Kalispell and Shannon in Missoula.
It was like an avalanche of excitement once we started coordinating dates in Montana. Shannon was the first to respond to the group email, suggesting that I swing through Missoula the second week of August, and that REI was sponsoring an event with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks called Becoming An Outdoors Woman (BOW). We hopped on the phone and I shared my story with her to see if it would be a good fit. Turns out, it was.
Shannon introduced me to Sara, the powerhouse behind BOW Montana, and before I knew it, I had just booked my first speaking gig outside of the REI tour. Montana FWP offered an honorarium (!!!!), and there was room for us to park the van, access to a shower house, three meals a day, and the ability to participate in the programming when I wasn’t otherwise occupied. I was scheduled to be the featured speaker on Friday night, the opening night of the event, and then I would host a hike on Saturday morning.
I confirmed my speaking date at the Missoula REI store and then shifted my focus to Kalispell and Bozeman. Gina and Teresa were incredible to work with, and they both made recommendations of some incredible organizations to partner with for our group hikes. Once we got everything coordinated, I shifted my focus back to the other markets I was still waiting to hear back from. We knew we’d be in Montana for the month of August, so we started to book the dates on the west coast to accomodate for that.
We made our way through Colorado, NorCal, Reno, Oregon, and Washington between March and July, and now it was time to hit the road for Montana.
I spent most of the drive through eastern Washington reviewing edits for my manuscript, face down toward the computer screen. We made our way a trailhead near Flathead Lake and went straight to bed.
We woke up and drove to our next campsite, on the banks of the Flathead River, just outside of Glacier National Park. We were waking up wicked early the following day to do our first hike in Montana - the Highline Trail in West Glacier.
This was the first hike I've done since I started #hikingmyfeelings last year where I didn't feel the initial resistance I feel at various points throughout the hikes. I didn't feel emotional resistance, physical resistance, or spiritual resistance. Everything was aligned. I was entertained the entire hike; by the expansive wilderness that surrounded me, by the conversation, by the wildlife.
As the miles ticked on, I felt more and more comfortable. It felt easy. I felt alive, embodied, comfortable, confident, floaty. Reminiscent of the descent into Parsons Landing after finding the missing piece to my chaotic puzzle - free, liberated, excited for what's to come.
After marching with the mantra, "I am worthy of investing in" for 18+ miles, and with new moon, I know that everything I've experienced to this point, everything I've healed, everything I've sacrificed and risked, all of my efforts are worth it.
I am worthy of the investment.
I was able to buy myself time to heal in this way, and every day from here on out is dedicated to making sure that money isn't a barrier to entry for folks to be able to access this kind of self-awareness, to get to this place of feeling confident and capable.
We spent the next few days back at the Flathead River, decompressing from a whirlwind tour through Oregon and Washington. We rolled into Whitefish, Montana the day of my talk at the Kalispell REI store and met Laurie, the leader of an organization called Outsiety. Gina, the coordinator at the Kalispell REI store had suggested we partner on some hikes in the area and Laurie had graciously offered a guest room at her house for our stay in Kalispell.
When I walked into the store to introduce myself and find my point of contact, the team member at the register started jumping up and down, visibly excited that I was there.
I turned around and shot Barry a look to say “OMG this is awesome, what is happening here?”
She had heard so much about me, and as her other colleagues came up to the register, she gushed about what we’re doing and the journey we’re on.
Well, this is very different from some of our previous stops where I wasn’t even acknowledged, I thought to myself.
The talk in Kalispell was incredible. Laurie brought a bunch of the women from the community with her and we had a blast together at the event that night.
This talk felt different. Maybe it’s because the manuscript is done and being edited, maybe it’s because I felt refreshed after blasting through the Pacific Northwest, but it was magical. The women in the room were engaged, asking great questions, and by the time we got done in the parking lot, the sun was setting over the mountains.
After the talk in Kalispell, we hosted the hike with Outsiety on the following Saturday. Most of the women who were at the talk came to the hike, and it was wonderful to be able to continue the conversation with them, answer their questions, and hear more of their stories.
On Sunday after our Outsiety hike, we made our way to the east side of Glacier National Park, and we set out to hike the Dawson Pass to Pitamakan Pass loop - an 18+ mile jaunt taking off and returning to the Two Medicine Lake campground.
As we pulled into Two Medicine, we drove around the campground, searching for a spot to park the van. This area was first-come, first-served, so there wasn’t a guarantee that we’d find anything. We drove around once, noting an empty spot across from the trailhead. There were two women sitting at the picnic table there, so we decided to take one more lap. If there wasn’t a trailer or car or tent set up by the time we got back, we’d claim the spot.
We rolled around, didn’t see any other open campsites, and made a beeline back to site 93. We hopped out and spoke with the women at the picnic table. They were in the group campsite down the road, this site was actually open.
We got the last spot in Two Medicine campground. I breathed a sigh of relief and started opening up the van and setting up our chairs while Barry took our payment to the self-registration area.
We took a lap around the campground on foot, visited the camp store, and watched the sunset on the lake before returning to bed. We were struggling to fall asleep, we were so excited for our hike the following morning.
It wasn't until we did the Highline trail in Glacier National Park the week prior where I hiked it, liked it, and didn't have a bunch of trauma or pain or old memories to sort through after the hike. Usually, I'm bracing for impact because hiking helps me heal some deeply buried trauma.
You mean I can hike for the fun of it?
When we looked up the Dawson Pass to Pitamakan Pass Loop, I was excited to see what it would be like to prepare for this hike in that space.
You mean going on a huge hike doesn't always lead to months and months of personal growth, connecting the dots, and doing the hard, deep, necessary work to heal myself?
Not every hike has to change the course of my life?
Sign me up!
Now, I know I'm not done growing, learning, or unlearning, not by a long shot. One of the reasons I love hiking as much as I do is because it feels like a portal for growth. It's where I find myself when I've been absent for a bit - in my head, not in my body.
Before the hike, I told myself all I had to do was walk and breathe, and for 18+ miles, Glacier National Park became the home of my walking gratitude practice.
When I was nervous about bears, I was thankful for the opportunity to be hiking in bear country.
When it got hard to breathe on a steep switchback at 8,000 feet, I felt alive, thankful for healthy lungs.
When my legs were gassed, I was thankful for the lifestyle I've created that allows me to do an 18+ mile hike on a Monday to keep my mental health in check and diabetes in remission.
When my brain started to slip back into its destructive self-talk, I was thankful for the ability to catch my tendency to do that and shut it down before it ruined the hike.
When I was trailing behind Barry before one of the most beautiful vistas, I was thankful for a partner who dropped everything to go all-in on this dream with me, who learned how to edit videos so I wouldn't chuck my computer out of the van window, and who continues to inspire me to be the best version of myself I can be.
This is still #hikingmyfeelings.
Sadness, fear, and loss don't hold a monopoly on self-awareness. Growth comes from gratitude and joy, too.
After the hike, we took a whole day off to do absolutely nothing, still camped out at Glacier National Park. We watched as the squirrels gained confidence, inching closer and closer to the van as I journaled and Barry took naps. We took another lap around the campground, went over to the store and bought some beers, and went for a walk in the woods over to the other side of the lake.
As we made our way back to camp after sunset, we saw an ambulance and a bunch of park ranger SUVs near the camp host site. As we got closer, one of the rangers confirmed we were camping in the area and asked us to walk through one of the loops instead of the main road. A man had gone in the lake after his dog and couldn’t beat the current. He drowned, and now a recovery operation was underway.
It was a somber feeling, walking past all of the rangers, investigators, and search and rescue folks. In the entire history of this lake in this National Park, there had never been a drowning. This was the first incident of this kind here, and it was a tragic reminder that the rules out here are important to follow. Coming from the city, we often scoffed at leash laws, knowing our dogs were capable of exploring off-leash at the local dog park. But this isn’t the local dog park. This is the wilderness and there are very limited, if any, resources to help you if you get hurt. In this case, failure to follow the leash law led to the death of a beloved family pet and his owner. These rules aren’t in place for funsies or to take away from your experience. They are in place to keep you, your family, the environment, the local wildlife and your fellow adventurers safe in the remote wilderness.
We made our way out of Glacier National Park the following morning and the recovery operation was still underway. As we pulled out of the park, we passed yellow tape, marking the lake off-limits, and saw some bighorn sheep confused by the tape, unable to cross the river like they usually do.
As we made our way down to Missoula, I was head down in edits again, making tweaks to the manuscript and adding stories where context was lacking. When we got in town, we went to Planet Fitness for a shower, then rolled over to the REI store to grab a photo of any in-store signage so we could promote the talk one last time before it was show time.
When we got in the parking lot, I heard someone call my name.
I turned around and saw a woman walking toward us.
It was the coordinator who had extended such a warm welcome to Missoula.
We made some small talk on the way into the store, and I was looking for signage to take a picture of to promote the talk. Right in front of the store, as you walk in, was the event board, with my session listed, nice and easy to read. Shannon showed me to the back of the store where I’d be setting up for the talk. We chatted about the A/V needs and I thanked her for everything, and we made our way over to the Missoula library.
At the library, I finished accepting the changes from my editor, and started formatting the manuscript for submission to Balboa Press for content review. I filled out all of the necessary forms regarding my design preferences and articulated what I wanted to be listed on the cover, back cover, and dust jacket of the book, as well as the sample text that would be made available for digital previews on Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and got everything packaged up and ready to go.
We closed the library down and made our way to the local Walmart parking lot for the night.
We woke up, showered, and went back to the library to get some work done. Now that the manuscript was edited and back with the publisher, I could shift my focus back to booking our east coast tour. I confirmed dates in New York and DC, and made updates to the website.
As we left the library, I let out a big sigh. We have been working so hard to make this tour happen, to make sure people know we are coming their way, and I was really excited for the talk in Missoula.
This talk was sold out. I already knew I really liked Shannon, and I was excited to meet the women of Missoula and share my story. Plus, once we finished this talk, we were headed out to the Lubrecht Experimental Forest for my first speaking gig outside of the REI tour: Becoming An Outdoors Woman.
The talk itself was one of the best ones I’ve given. There must be something in the water here in Montana because I felt like I was blacked out for a lot of that talk - in total flow state. At the end of the talk, I did the usual routine - tell folks how they can support the tour, let them know that after Q&A we’ll be giving tours of the van, and opened it up for questions. I always say “ask me anything” and when I say that, I mean it, because I really am an open book. No question off-limits. I’ll decide whether or not I want to answer it, but I always encourage everyone to ask whatever is on their mind, and I haven’t shied away from a question yet.
Pretty quickly after I got done speaking, one of the women who brought her daughter raised her hand. She shared a very personal story about how hiking has helped her heal, and the whole room was captivated by what she had survived, and her willingness to share. When she finished, other folks started sharing their stories. It reminded me of the stop in Olympia, Washington.
I asked the crowd if they were ready to see the van, and we started making our way outside so the folks at REI could close the store. We spent another two hours in the parking lot, showing everyone the van, talking about the things we’ve all survived, and how we are all way more alike than we are different.
As we pulled out of the parking lot, I closed my eyes and thought about how back in February, I didn’t know how we’d make it to Montana. Here we were, shutting down another parking lot at another REI store, having more group hugs with more incredible humans, and this was only the beginning of the weekend.
We arrived at Lubrecht Experimental Forest well after dark, found a parking spot, and stretched out. Over cheese and crackers in the van, Barry and I reflected on our time in Montana so far.
Montana is growing on me with every step I take on the trails out here, every breath I breathe, and every human I get to interact with. I was warned that this might happen, and it is.
We woke up the next morning and rolled into the picnic pavilion for breakfast. We sat down with Wayde, Andy and Cindy, and enjoyed something other than cheese and crackers for the first time in more than two days. I was ravenous and couldn’t get enough of this big cowboy breakfast - sausage patties the size of hockey pucks, scrambled eggs, and Dixon melon. Dixon melon tastes and looks like a canteloupe, but it’s better, and it can only be found in this one tiny town in Montana. People literally wait in line for hours to get their hands on one of these melons. What a treat!
As we finished eating, Wayde asked me what got me here to Montana, and asked about the story behind Hiking My Feelings. I shared the short version of the talk with the folks at the table and soon, it was time to get ready to welcome the campers.
We walked past Wayde’s truck on the way back to the van, and he stopped me to say thank you for sharing my story and asked if he could ask a question.
“Of course, ask me anything, I’m an open book,” I said.
“How many times did you consider suicide?” he asked.
The question took my breath away. Nobody had ever asked me this before. I wasn’t scared to answer it, I was relieved to finally have the opportunity to do so.
“Well, I never made a plan to kill myself, but there were definitely times where I was pretty ‘meh’ about being alive since the assault.” I started. “Most recently, right after we moved into the van last year. I had just cut ties with my family, was having a hard time adjusting to living in the van, and we were staying at a campground called Bobcat Meadows. I remember thinking to myself that I wouldn’t be mad if I got mauled by a bobcat. Like if that’s how I went out, that was fine.”
He looked at me, and I could see his whole soul in his eyes. We didn’t have to say any more words, we had an understanding. He thanked me and I thanked him back, feeling a bit lighter as I walked away.
We went to scout the trail and as we were walking, Barry and I were talking about gratitude, and how much there is to be thankful for. We decided to deem August as our personal gratitude month.
“Yeah, because August 1 is the day Adam died, so I’m always thankful for the memories I still have of him, and for the reminder to always be grateful for the time we have with people on this planet while we’re here.” I said. “And when we were hiking around Glacier, it was near impossible to not be grateful for that experience.” I continued.
After lunch, I participated in the Wilderness Survival 1 class, hosted by my new hero, Chris Dover. She’s a search and rescue dog handler and total badass when it comes to wilderness survival. Over the course of the afternoon, I made my own fire, learned more about what should always be in my backpack, and how to spray bear spray. By the end of the session, I felt like I was on top of the world. If I got lost or injured on a hike, I now had the knowledge to keep me safe and warm until search and rescue could find me. There’s really nothing more empowering to me than knowing that if I was in the shittiest situation of all time, I could survive.
After class, I went to the building where I’d be presenting for more than 100 women at this event. When I found the room I’d be presenting in, Shannon and her colleagues from REI were there setting up a photo booth, complete with props. I got my presentation set up, projector aligned, and made my way down to the dining hall for dinner, too excited to eat, but picking my way around what was available.
When I returned to the room after dinner, all the lights were off. I stood in the doorway and visualized myself delivering the best talk I’ve ever given. I envisioned a room radiating with positive energy, every seat filled with engaged audience members. I grabbed my phone and did a quick Facebook Live for the Hiking My Feelings group, turned on some music, and got in the zone.
One by one, the chairs started filling up. We started taking some photos at the photo booth, and soon enough, it was show time.
Sara from BOW introduced Shannon, who introduced me.
“Get ready, I saw this presentation last night at the Missoula REI store and it is AMAZING,” Shannon said as she introduced me.
As I made my way to the front of the room, I took several deep breaths.
“REI thinks it’s great, no pressure!” I said when I got to the front.
As I scanned the room, I saw familiar faces from lunch, class, and dinner.
“Wow, there are a lot of people in here,” I said out loud.
I started my presentation and tried to keep it together.
You can’t cry at the beginning, Sydney. Let’s do this.
As I cracked my first joke of the presentation, I was surprised by how long the laughter lasted.
Slow down, let them laugh, don’t rush the story. I thought to myself, combatting my discomfort with such a positive reaction, fighting my need to rush the laughter to get back to the story.
I was in total flow state for the first portion of the talk, and “came to” as I looked down at my belly button, describing the pain I felt on the morning I woke up and ended up going to the hospital - the visit that led to my diabetes diagnosis.
Whoa, I’m doing this. I’m in Montana, telling this story, and these people aren’t running out of the room.
As I got to the part where I read the list, I took a long pause before the last line.
I felt tears welling up behind my eyes. I read the line on the index card I’ve been using since we started the tour:
Your story is bullshit. You better come up with a new one, because nobody is buying the one you’re telling.
The tears I felt building and the feeling in my chest weren’t sadness or anxiety. These words didn’t have any power over me anymore. I had worked through the literal meaning in the months that followed my father telling me this. Between then and now, the part about nobody buying what I’m telling stung because I had been touring the country with REI for free, and it felt like my dad was right.
They may believe me, but nobody’s paying me to do this, so I must not be legit. This was a common thought I had, especially in the markets where the support was non-existent to promote the tour leading up to Montana.
These tears, this feeling, this was something else.
I knew in this moment that I was free. Free from the bullshit my dad projected onto me, and free from the bullshit I was telling myself in moments of insecurity or weakness.
Not only was my story definitely not bullshit, but this organization did buy it, literally, and this room was here for it.
I took a deep breath, shifted my weight and replanted my feet, and said it for the room to hear:
“Your story is bullshit. You better come up with a new one, because nobody is buying the one you’re telling.”
I folded the index card, put it back in my pocket, and continued the talk. I connected the dots between the sexual assault and diabetes, offered up my three takeaways, thanked Sara for having me, and wrapped up the talk.
I turned back toward the screen, taking a sip of water and switching the slide as the audience clapped.
When I turned back toward the audience, one woman was standing. Then another. Then the whole room was on their feet.
I turned away, feeling completely unworthy of what was happening in this space.
I heard a nudge, it sounded like my uncle Mike.
“Turn around and witness this, this is your moment, soak it up.”
I turned around and made eye contact with as many of the women as I could, my arm covering my mouth as I cried and looked around, trying to remember every single detail of this moment.
I looked over to Barry who was recording the crowd’s reaction, also a bit teary-eyed.
As the applause subsided, I wiped the tears from my face and jumped back into the presentation. I still had to talk about the tour and how they can support it and what’s coming up next, and facilitate a Q&A session.
I was still crying so I wiped my face, took a deep breath, and shook it all out.
“Weeew, sorry, I’m so sweaty up here!” I said, giggling to myself.
“Take off your jacket!” one of the women shouted from the back.
Once again, the room erupted in applause and laughter as I tried to get out of my jacket. As I did, I felt immediately better. I adjusted my shirt, grabbed the stool that my water had been sitting on, and took a deep breath.
“Now, if anyone has any questions, I would be happy to answer them.”