I thought I knew what I was looking for.
Last fall, when I signed up for the Quiet Adventures retreat in Big Sur, I was obsessed with Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, which is about hiking the PCT. I wanted to be the type of women who could go out in the woods for a few days and take care of herself. I thought my retreat was about information and skills. I had specific questions: How do I cook on backpacking stove? How do I build a fire? Set up a tent? Pick the best equipment? How the hell will I stay warm!?
To this day, five months after my retreat, I’m still surprised by how unaware I was of my other intentions.
I’d been working for my family’s small business for decades and I wasn’t happy. In fact, I hadn’t been happy for a very long time but there were so many issues of loyalty and gratitude at play, the mere thought of moving on cast a tangled storm of emotions. Right before the fall retreat, I had also received my first big freelance assignment for a local magazine. I’d been writing fiction and essays for years and had reached a point where my vocation was looking like it could become a feasible career. It’s so clear to me now that this was the beginning of a huge transition, something that I’m still moving through as I write this, but at the time I could have sworn I just wanted to learn how to camp!
When I arrived at the campground on Friday morning, the air was fresh and crisp. We sat in a circle as Megan handed out journals. Crumpled leaves were scattered all over the ground and I could feel the moisture in the soil beneath my yoga mat. Water trickled as it moved along rocks in the creek beside us. As we were guided through a series of writing prompts, I quickly realized that this was not just a process of obtaining knowledge, the retreat was also about undoing. It was about looking at the way you moved through your daily life and recognizing what was draining and what was nourishing.
We were going outdoors to look inward.
Over the course of the weekend, we hiked through beautiful terrain, we dug our toes into the sand on isolated beaches, watched campfire flames flicker and dance, and along the way all my practical outdoors questions were answered--from how to treat water properly when drinking from a stream to dealing with your period while backpacking. But beyond these lessons, we were also guided along another type of journey. Questions and insights swirled through my mind as we occupied each landscape. So many moments of clarity and tiny realizations began to take hold and Megan was there with guidance and practical ways for us to carry these lessons home.
Right after the fall retreat, I was finally able to face my fear and leave the job that wasn’t serving me. It wasn’t easy. In fact, it was extremely messy and I am still working on that relationship, but I felt clear and empowered enough to face what I’d been avoiding.
More importantly though, I’ve made lots of little changes that have coalesced into something transformative. Here are some examples:
1.) I’m much more conscious of the cyclical nature of my monthly hormone fluctuations and more mindful with expectations and scheduling.
2.) My boyfriend and I have gone on two camping trips since the retreat and have a reservation at Mathers campground at the Grand Canyon at the end of this month. Both of us had never camped before and each trip seems to bring us closer and reset our brains.
3.) We also started a tradition of monthly beach bonfires since the retreat. This way I can practice building a fire and then sit with my journal and reflect on the month that has passed and what’s ahead.
It’s funny because I started this endeavor looking to “take care of myself in the woods,” but what I found was much more aligned with what I loved about Cheryl Strayed’s Wild in the first place. It’s about becoming the type of woman who can take care of herself in any situation.
Not in a super-human way. Not with a do-it-all mentality. But peacefully and sustainably.
Cynthia Romanowski holds an MFA in fiction from UC Riverside's low res program in Palm Desert. Her monthly book round-up Shelf Awareness can be found in Coast Magazine and her fiction has appeared inThe Weekly Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown and on the podcast No Extra Words. She lives in Huntington Beach, California (where she is also from). You can visit http://www.cynthiaromanowski.com/ to follow her blog.