Step by Step

Guess Who's Coming to Nevada Falls?

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in Features • Illustrated by Eric Lauterbach

It is fall in Yosemite, a month past the September equinox. The air is crisp but not uncomfortably cold yet — just right, in other words. I debate between shorts and pants, ultimately choosing the former even though it is only warm in direct sunlight. My legs are covered in goosebumps but I confidently declare, “I’m dressing for the day I want to have.” 

We’d been smart, planning our trip late enough to avoid massive crowds. Children are in school, and most people are at work on this Friday. The recent Ferguson Fire has heavily impacted some areas of the park and we saw smoke on our drive, but today there is nary a cloud in sight. 

I am relieved by the sight of these calm, clear skies. The fires raged on for weeks, and we weren’t sure if we’d be able to come on this trip. Having lived in New Orleans and now California — two areas disconcertingly prone to natural disasters — I now understand on a cellular level: It is a fact of life that things beyond our control happen daily. 

I have not, however, found this truism easy to accept when it comes to my own affairs. 

“Over 600 steps,” my friend Jess says as our group of six huddles around a campfire breakfast. “Literally.” Soon we’ll depart for the popular Nevada Falls hike in the eastern Valley, and she is apprehensive about the rigorous journey ahead of us. A few days prior, she’d nearly canceled her trip from Houston after coming down with severe allergies. My boyfriend, at the time, had pleaded with her to come anyway, texting promises of smores and lots of blankets. 

I had been more direct. “I just feel like you’ll regret not coming,” I said.  

“Okay. I’ll do it,” she replied. Whether it was the promises of campfire sweets or my pragmatism that convinced her, she didn’t say. 

My ex and I were living in the Bay Area, and Yosemite had been on my must-do list since we arrived. We’d woken up early to reserve the campsite months ago, frantically playing the online lottery system as one does when vying for a spot at any of the coveted Yosemite campgrounds. (Read: all of them.) I’d somehow managed to snag our first choice, a Lower Pines spot that I’d read offered “Ansel Adams” views of Half Dome. (Site 38, if you must know.) 

I was not disappointed. Thursday afternoon, we’d arrived and quietly soaked in the sights: The Merced River flowing mere feet away, Half Dome and North Dome towering above us to the east. It didn’t look, or feel, quite real.  

Now properly fueled, the six of us take a shuttle to the trailhead and begin our ascent. Pretty quickly in, Jess realizes she can’t breathe comfortably and admits she’s considering tapping out. I can hear her labored breaths, and it isn’t long before she commits to turning back. I don’t blame her; it is apparent even this early on that the hike is rated “strenuous” for a reason. 

I lag behind the guys, thoughts churning in my head, overthinking as I so often do. I am saddened that I can’t share the experience with the person I’m closest to on this trip; I’m also concerned about what she will do all day back in the valley. Will she resent me for not going back with her? Does she regret coming on this trip? 

I worry that my fear of heights will interfere as we reach higher and higher elevation — it has before, at the saddle below the summit of Angel’s Landing at Zion, where I’d forced him to turn back with me. I want to fully use my body today, to accomplish things that intimidate me. I want to be better — and bigger — than my fears. 

Outside of my head, the world continues to spin as it always does, even when I fail to notice or engage with it. I dutifully trudge up and along, him by my side. We don’t talk much; I assume he is lost in his own thoughts. We’ve had quite the year, and there is certainly no shortage of things to think about. 

We met in New Orleans. He was a graduate student with plans to travel through India after graduation, and I was internally restless after almost a decade in the city. I was working too much, writing too little, and felt adrift on a sea of both many and few possibilities. I told him I had rules: I didn’t want to date anyone who was moving away. I wouldn’t live with someone I was dating ever again. I preferred my own company to that of anyone else. 

Then we fell in love (or so I thought), and of course I broke all those rules.  

We moved in together quickly, his trip to India was postponed, and I decided to take a huge leap of faith and move away with him. He would accept a temporary post-grad position and start looking for government jobs, and I would finally have a reason to build my freelancing business in earnest. I’d also be able to explore California, a place that had been calling to me like a siren for years. 

I ignored all of the red flags that said: Perhaps you don’t know this man too well. Perhaps your relationship is too volatile. Maybe something here doesn’t feel quite right. 

We left New Orleans on Ash Wednesday, one day after the soberest Mardi Gras of my life, and took nearly a month to drive across the country. The trip was hard, and I started to realize that I’d made a decision to move somewhere new with a near stranger.  

For every beautiful moment during that trip — the Colorado color palette outside my window, camping in Utah and catching the sunrise, waking up to snow in Taos — there were more than a handful of bad ones. So many fights. So much uncertainty. And yet what I held on to as our road trip progressed was this: We came back together, no matter how many times we were divided.  

Then we got to California. Starting over in my early 30s proved to be way harder than it’d been when I moved to New Orleans a decade earlier. I worked from home and had no friends, and my emotional and mental health suffered. Our relationship began to wear me down. I questioned myself relentlessly. I wasn’t sure of my own strength anymore. 

“Stop looking for the ground,” a friend from home instructed me one day. “It’s not there anymore, so just stop.” It was good advice but still, I found myself looking down. I couldn’t help it. 

On this day, however, looking down is a good idea. I step carefully as we arrive at the infamous Mist Trail — though it isn’t misty today. “A shame,” he says. This is his fifth visit to Yosemite. Next up: Vernal Falls, which we reach by climbing up a cliff face, followed by a brief stop at the Silver Apron. 

At some point during the switchback ascent on our way to Nevada Falls, I understand Jess had not been exaggerating about the steps. Not only are there a lot of them but they aren’t tiny steps, either.  

600 steps, I think to myself, fighting a wave of panic. This is hard. Is this too much? I feel small, unsure of my capacity to be strong enough to finish. I have no idea how much further we have to go. I am nervous about how high we are, how much higher we are going. 

I ask for a break, and we scoot our way on to a large, sheered flat boulder. I take a deep breath; the waterfall is to our left, roaring on without a care or concern for trivial matters like heights or strength. Nature just is, and unapologetically so — there’s something profoundly moving about that.   

It is in that moment I feel something — a rush, both internal and external. I blink; I cannot believe it. My period has arrived days early, a very rare occurrence for me. No way. I open the leg of my shorts and take a peek.  

Shit, I think. What am I going to do? How am I going to address this up here with no supplies, hours into a difficult hike?  

An image floats into my mind: the woman who ran a marathon with blood running down her legs. While I admire her reasons for doing so, I’m not sure I’m ready for that level of visibility. Maybe I’m about to get a much-needed lesson on letting go of control. The universe has such a twisted sense of humor.  

As my thoughts slow and I grab at potential solutions, a clearer perspective emerges. I wanted to be better than my fears, remember? I can do this. I can keep going. I can figure this out. My resolve hardens. I decide I will fold my neck bandana, place it inside of my shorts, and finish the hike.  

We pause for a moment there before standing up — just the two of us on the rocks, this secret held between us that no one else on the planet could possibly know. Two men hike past and one says, “That’s true love right there,” as he points at us. I smile like a schoolgirl. I want to believe him.  

Then we are on our way again — just like before, except not. I am renewed now, both in the flesh and in my mind. 

At the top of Nevada Falls, I eat a sandwich, then another. I think about how strong and resourceful I feel, how symbolic the start of a new cycle is. I tell myself this is a good omen, and I will embrace it with open arms and never forget how capable I feel at this moment.  

On the way down, we traverse the south wall, going in the opposite direction. I can look back and see Nevada Falls behind me now, receding in the background the way things always do, the way my blood will fade away in a few days, the way my feelings of being invincible and my belief in our relationship will be worn down soon enough, too. 

Back at the campsite, I take a shower at Half Dome Village before settling in around the campfire. I let the fire warm my skin, not shying away from the smoke stinging my eyes, boozy kombucha pooling warmly in my stomach. Jess tells me about her day; she made the most of it by walking and exploring the park at her own pace. 

As she talks, I realize: I don’t have to hold so tightly to things to make them turn out okay. 

Yes, I have felt shipwrecked for most of this year, but what’s so wrong with that? Trauma, uncertainty, chaos — it’s all part of life, and maybe we’re better for it. As Clarissa Estes writes, “Although there will be scars and plenty of them, it is good to remember that in tensile strength and ability to absorb pressure, a scar is stronger than skin.”  

How do you become strong without getting scarred first? How do you evolve without acknowledging your pain? 

That night in my little corner of the valley, I listen to the sounds of laughter and I choose to believe — in love, in hope, in growth. I have begun a new cycle quite literally at the pinnacle of a hard journey, and I will keep going. I will push through and past the shadowy doubts that hover at the periphery of my thoughts so much of the time.  

What I don’t know yet is that I will move on from this trip and someday in the not-so-distant future, I will stop drinking. Then, six months later, I will decide to leave him and never look back. But here in Yosemite, the one thing I know for sure is this: I will figure it out, no matter what happens. •

Nikki Carter is a freelance writer/editor/strategist who shares about sobriety, personal growth, tech, productivity, and more. She is currently working on her first novel-length manuscript. Nikki is passionate about freedom, telling the truth, and supporting other women/non-binary folks of color. Follow her on Instagram @nikitanola, check out her jobs newsletter, Will & Way, for Women of Color, and listen to her podcast on writing & life, Pencil Me In.

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