Learning to “Swerve” with Wildfire Magazine Founder/Editor-in-Chief April Johnson Stearns
Updated: Aug 15, 2019
April Johnson Stearns. Founder, Editor in Chief, WILDFIRE Magazine. Diagnosed at 35 with Stage 3b IDC, HER2+. April grew up on a 43-acre Christmas tree farm with horses, chickens, dogs, cats, and a couple of co-conspirators in the form of younger brothers. The closest neighbor was a half-mile away. Like most who don't know what they have till it's gone, she spent her teen years desperate to be “normal” and live in a town. Now she lives with her husband and young daughter on the coast of California in a real-life town where she can see and hear her neighbors almost all the time, but she can also ride her bike down to the beach at a moment's notice to watch the sunset. Although she does love town life, she also likes to get away from all the hustle and bustle whenever she can to hike in the woods.
It was a dark and stormy night. No, really, it actually was.
It was a Tuesday night in early April. I was in the middle of the woods, in mountains in which I grew up but hadn’t really explored in the decades since moving away from home. I had hiked 3 days and roughly 25 miles to get there, and my body told the tale: aching shoulders, bruised hips, blisters sprouting on my feet. My cell phone was dead. I’d pictured crickets chirping, constellations of stars overhead, and journaling away hours of self-exploration and flashes of inspiration. Instead, in the pitch black of night well off the beaten path under cloud cover, I was lying in my hammock under a tarp listening to the rain drops beat a staccato rhythm on the nylon above me and I was feeling really, really, really sorry for myself.
What had started as a glorious, empowering trip backpacking with my oldest girlfriend from the mountains to the ocean, had come to a head on day 3. That morning had started with a fall in the mud and ended with a really wet, uncomfortable storm in the night.
The real problem was that I had set up my rain tarp wrong. I went to bed warm(ish) and dry and woke up only a few short hours later to a river of water cascading off my tarp straight into my hammock and sleeping bag. When you’re backpacking in the rain, there really is no where to go when Plan A fails. No bathroom to hide in. No other dry clothes to somehow slip into. You’ve brought the bare, lightest minimum, and now it’s all wet, it’s only 10pm, and it’s only day 3. This is what I was thinking to myself as I stared down a loooong, cold, wet night. The other thing I was thinking: I need to get out of here. I need to go home.
It was the absolute longest night of my life. I shivered like never before. I zipped myself into my soggy mummy bag and every time I peaked out I thought for sure the sun would be rising, but it never was. I laid there and thought of all the options and really all I could think of was, is it time to quit or time to go harder? Quitting would mean finding a way for my husband to drive to us, somehow. (I imagined a helicopter.) Going harder would mean busting ass and hiking all the way to our pick up spot by the ocean two days faster than planned, blisters and wet clothes be damned. Over and over that night I flipped the coin in my mind. Quit? Go harder?
At last, I peaked out of my sleeping bag and while it was still raining, the sky was at least turning a milky pale that let me know the sun at last was rising. With a heavy heart I walked the 6 feet between our hammocks and told my friend what had happened in the night and that I had ruined our glorious, empowering backpacking adventure by getting absolutely drenched. She said, “Ok. Give me a minute to process,” and climbed back into her warm, dry hammock sleeping-bag cocoon. I stood in the rain and waited to see what she’d say while I boiled water for coffee (because even the worst nights are made better by the promise of coffee, even if it is instant).
All at once, my friend popped out of her hammock, “I have an idea!” she said. “What if we go home, get dry, and then go back out?” Just like that, she turned “or” into “and.” Go home, get dry, AND finish what we started. A simple(ish) little swerve, a little detour. Sure, the trip didn’t look like we had planned, and we were going to cut off a big part off what we wanted to see in order to hike 8+ miles into a busy, populated area for a pick-up, but that meant a dryer, a shower, a hot meal, and a warm bed. And the chance to finish what we started the next day, refreshed and recharged.
That’s what we did.
I still don’t know how you know when to quit and when to go harder. I think sometimes self care is throwing in the towel and admitting defeat. Sometimes self care is just putting down your head and getting the job done because feeling like a badass is worth the pain. And sometimes it is surrendering the problem to someone else who comes up with a little tweak that you just couldn’t see before. Rarely does life go the way we expect – and rarely can we plan for the unexpected. Survival takes a certain amount of flexibility and thinking on your feet as well as being ok with a solution that may or may not be perfect.
You know that saying, "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it?" I really got good and familiar with what that means on this particular backpacking trip. Many, many (many, many, many!) times, we came around a turn and found fallen trees crossing the trail. Obviously we couldn't turn back or wait for a park ranger with a chainsaw to come along and save the day. No, we had to assess and decide: over, under, through, or around? Sometimes it was a combo of several options. Each tree was different and sometimes my friend and I had to pick different solutions to each getting to the other side (her being taller than me sometimes helped her and sometimes I could sneak under a bit more ninja-ish). What I found myself thinking several times after resuming the trail was that I couldn't exactly plan ahead for the next downed tree. All I knew was there would probably be another. What technique I'd have to do to pass it, how long it would take, how scraped up I would get in the process would have to be specific to the tree, my body, my energy, etc.
Sounds a lot like the ish life throws at us, doesn't it? We don't know what it'll be, but it's probably coming. We don't have so solve all of life's future problems now, though. In fact, we can't. All we can do is assess and decide in the moment: over, under, through, or around?
And sometimes you buy yourself a chainsaw.