How a Six-Hour Hike Helped Me Confront My Control Issues

Without a map or GPS, I was beside myself

Felicia C. Sullivan
Jan 7 · 6 min read
Photo: Sasha • Stories/Unsplash

WWhile the throngs pose for selfies next to fallen Joshua trees and rock formulations, sporting their aviators and hot pants, I grip a rock 50 feet off the ground. Body covered in bruises and cactus spines when I thought I was supposed to go on a leisurely five-mile stroll through the Park. Angry that just when I’ve gotten my life together, I would probably lose it in Joshua Tree National Park.

There goes the girl in hiking boots and soft pants falling, falling spectacularly to pieces. Head cracked in two. Limbs akimbo. She makes for a terrific piece of art in the sand. A Pollock with Rothko blood.

Our guide, Elizabeth, calls what we’re doing “scrambling” while I’m screaming for a fucking helmet. We’re in hour five of our alleged hike, lost in the backwoods of Joshua Tree. The girl panting next to me offers up half her blueberry buckle because I’m talking about cannibalism.

The Donner party was real, people, I shout as I shimmy my body between two rocks. I’m chanting to myself that the only way out is through, and you’d be surprised what your body can do when you’re desperate to get home. The rocks you’ll climb, the trees and branches and spines you’ll elbow your way through when the sky burns orange, pink, blue, and charcoal. When your desire for control feels like fire ants crawling, poking, and prodding beneath your skin. Reminding you that you have no clue when you’ll make it out of this Park, that this Sunday hike has devolved into a nightmare on the level of The Shining.

Fuck my life.

II am small, cold, a breath of milk and eyes of sleep. Outside, it’s the kind of dark you have to feel your way through. And I remember waking to it, padding my feet through a four-room apartment with the windows open and the door wide open. I fell asleep to my mother smoking a cigarette, then lighting another. I woke to a house cold and empty.

A note on the kitchen table reads: “We liked watching your daughter sleep.” Because it doesn’t matter that you’re Italian, a woman, a pretty woman at that — if you owe the men money, they will come for you in your sleep.

I am a few years older — 10, I think — and I’m helping my mother down six flights of stairs. She is a weight I’m forever carrying. Her body is volcanic. It’s the smokes, she says, but I’m smarter than I should be and I know this isn’t about a pack of cigarettes — it’s about cut lines on a kitchen table. About wanting more until you’ve had too much. Suddenly, you think your heart might possibly implode in your chest and your lips and the tips of your fingers and toes are numb. I know this because I’ll go through this exact scene decades later. The man I’m seeing will carry me to bed and force a joint between my lips. Smoke. Chill. You’re golden, baby.

At the hospital, I complete all the forms and watch as they cart her away. In the waiting room, Benny Hill blares from an overhead television. Sometimes it’s Taxi, and I fall asleep on a plastic chair listening to the sounds of Judd Hirsch and Andy Kaufman until my mother nudges me awake. Tells me to get up. Let’s go. We take a car service home and the drivers always recognize us — we’re regulars on their late-night shift. They never talk to her or meet her eyes. Instead, they ask me about the school I’m in, the classes I take, while my mother rolls down the window, lights a cigarette, and stares out into the black night.

It’s always up to me to fill the empty spaces. It’s always upon me to set our world right. To clean up the mess. To be the adult in the room. To create order when none exists. To be strong enough to carry my mother up and down six flights of stairs without cries or complaints. It’s only when I’m alone in my room when I can make my mouse sounds. I bite down hard on the pillow because I can’t scream.

This is normal, I tell myself. Until it’s not normal. Until I’ve become a woman accustomed to controlling every aspect of her life because the mess — the weight and shape of it — is unimaginable.

We liked watching your daughter sleep.

ive me GPS. Give me coordinates. Give me an estimated time for completion. Give me all the things, I shout at Elizabeth, because I will murder you if you tell me we’ll be back on the trail in 10 minutes. I will impale you if you tell me to trust that we’ll find our way home. You said that five rocks and 50 feet ago. You fed me that line through your high-wattage smile as I collapsed on a cactus and cried out from the needles I’m still — even as I’m writing this — digging out from under my skin.

I’m a bitch who shakes and bites the insides of her cheeks, but I don’t cry. I know better. In a small voice, I say I have to know everything. You don’t understand. You can’t keep information from me. You can’t ask me to trust uncertainty and the unknown because you know what happens when you do those things? You drag bodies down flights of stairs and across floors. Strange, hulking men stand over you while you sleep.

You break in places you never thought could be broken. You can’t ask me to accept the possibility that I could break. Again.

Under a thicket of coarse branches and dead trees, I open my mouth but no sound comes out. There’s only air — so much of it. Hands and lips tremble — I am five, 10, 17, 25, 32, and 41. An adult cut clear out of the womb. A child who knew the liabilities of wonder and could only bear the risk of it on paper. A child who grew into an adult neatly assembled, perfectly tuned, control on cue.

I shout to no one in particular, I didn’t sign up for this.

I don’t have the luxury of maps and compasses, blueprints and architectural plans. A level, brick, and block. People hire me because I’m methodical and exacting. You give me a problem, I’ll build you a solution. This is how your girl is calibrated, and you’re asking me to change 30 years of history?

But the reality is there’s an ocean of rocks ahead of me. No way out but through, around, up, and down, and sometimes back again. The girl next to me tells me we have to keep moving if we want to find our way out. My face rearranges itself into something I can’t quite describe, and maybe it frightens her because she holds out her hand. Says, take it.

I am a walking bruise. Parts incomplete. A mountain of losses surrounds me. Where does everyone go when they say they have to go? Control bearing down the weight of my sadness. I tremble. I have to know things, I say, and the girl holding my hand says, but we don’t. To get out of here I have to accept that I don’t.

Hours later, she shines her phone on the footpath, lighting the way. We spy cars in the distance through the spread of twine, Siberian tumbleweed, and trees. I am limping. I am walking. I am plucking spines out of my hair. I ache from the pain of what transpired today and the lifetime of what has come before.

In the temporary home where I live, I shake in the shower. I bite my lip and cry into the water in the dark. Body taut and sore. I grab at parts of me — thigh, stomach, breast, and neck — I am still here. I place my hands against the wall and push the whole of my weight against it. I need to know things. I can’t know things. How I can occupy the space between the two? Can I possibly fit?

To find my way home I had to accept that I didn’t know my way back. And that I might get lost a hundred times or scramble through rocks and trees before I got it figured. Keep moving, keep going, until you find your way to yourself, from yourself. Home.