The thing about most dire situations is that you don’t realize they are dire until you’re standing smack in the center of the them. For example, when I left Kennedy Meadows to begin the Sierra segment of the Pacific Crest Trail last year, I was feeling a bit achy, a bit tired, and was having some uncomfortable cramping in my lower abdominal area. Truth be told, I felt like that pretty much all the time since the Mexican border, so no caution alarms were going off. It was 3 days into the 7 day section that I realized I was feverish and pissing blood and really in quite a lot of pain, the unmistakeable symptoms of an advanced bladder infection. At home this is a no biggie. I’ve had them before. All it means is a phone call for a Cipro prescription, brewing a witchy concoction of juniper berries and cranberry tea, and a marathon stream of Netflix movies until I feel better. In the Sierra, I didn’t have Cipro (or Netflix) and I was a healthy 3-day no-bail-out distance from my next town visit. A lot can happen with a bladder infection in 3 days. They develop into dangerous and debilitating kidney infections very very quickly left untreated which had happened to me a couple of miserable times in the past. I don’t “untreat” them ever. There I was, just getting past the point on the trail I had to be helicoptered off of the year before from a brain hemorrhage, and there was NO WAY I was going to have to be helicoptered off because of an untreated bladder infection that led to kidney failure. I refused to DIE in those mountains and this time I insisted on coming off of them on foot.
So that was the dire situation for that day.
I love emotions. Emotions connect us to one another, invite intimacy, empathy, giddiness.. Emotions cue us in to moments of great beauty and potential revelations. Emotions have zero places to stand in a dire situation. As a matter of fact, it is emotion that is calling it a “dire situation” in the first place. It’s not a “dire situation”. It’s a “problem”. And I learned how to tell the difference by inviting my emotions to play in a different corner of my brain for a minute while I asked myself these questions:
“Am I a dangerous level of hungry?””Am I a dangerous level of dehydrated?”””Am I freezing cold or deliriously overheated?””Am I unable to move?”
If the answer was “no” to all of those questions, then I could safely and exuberantly say that I have a problem to solve, not a dire situation to wallow in. Emotions are then welcome to come back and be briefly acknowledged while the more rational aspects of myself figure out how I’m going to solve this problem I have. And all problems are solvable. They really are. Not always in the preferred Plan A sort of way, but they are solvable. I created a reliable habit of reacting to trail “problems” this way. It IS what made me able to do it. I’m a bit geeky in that I love a good “problem”…math, logic, strategy, whatever..and when I see it that way, tackle it that way, figuring things out makes me happy. If I let my emotions become involved, including free reigning fear or feelings of defeat, I would have accepted every challenge on the trail as evidence of my inferiority, vulnerability, and mental weakness and decide it was time to quit.
Here I am now on the trail of life and facing what my emotions are itching to call a dire situation, basically still standing in a big fat “What NOW??” after many years of traveling with no real concrete plans on exactly how to proceed. When I feel overwhelmed by this, I catch myself knee-jerkedly asking myself, “Am I hungry? Thirsty? Cold or hot? Am I unable to move?” Of course the answer is “no” and I can relax and get scratching at the pleasurable task of crafting a post-trail life for myself. It’s just a new problem to solve.
By the way, the bladder infection problem was immediately solved upon the discovery that the person I was walking with just happened to (intelligently) be carrying Cipro. All I had to do was say something.