Category: Moments

Reflections and photos from my adventures.

My One-Year OCT Anniversary

My One-Year OCT Anniversary

Today marks one year since my completion of the Oregon Coast Trail (OCT), a 367-mile journey the entire length of the Oregon coast.

A year ago, I hiked 14 miles from Gearhart to Fort Stevens with my dad to complete my south-to-north journey on the Oregon Coast Trail. A year ago, I stood at the South Jetty Observation Tower in Fort Stevens State Park with my parents, overlooking the confluence of the mighty Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean. A year ago, we had a meaningful yet quiet celebration before I unceremoniously fell asleep on the couch around 8 pm in our hotel room.

OCT Finish
I hiked the final 14 miles of the trail with my dad and my mom met us at the finish. She presented me with a thoughtful gift: This custom-made medal! © Naomi Denekas

A year ago, I felt that I had both completed and begun something. Accordingly, I was hoping that this anniversary would bring a renewed sense of pride and an opportunity to reflect upon a year well-spent.

My feelings on the matter, however, are much more complicated.

I will be bluntly honest: I have cried a lot today and yesterday.

I feel like I wasted the fitness I had built up on the trail. I had originally planned to run a marathon in late 2017, and to backpack a lot. I didn’t.

I feel devastated that I have STILL not found a job, nearly a year after interviewing at a nonprofit that I used to fastidiously volunteer for. It was May 10, 2017. I remember because I had to rush back from long-overdue family time on the coast for an early morning interview slot that they insisted upon. I found out during the interview itself that it wasn’t going to work out. Job hunting since then has been fruitless and discouraging.

Above all, I feel like I should be stronger than this. Wasn’t my time on the trail supposed to be about healing and getting myself ready to face my life again? What is with all this crying and metaphorical paralysis? What will it take to get me to feel functional and capable again?

Some of this speaks to the post-trail blues that many thru-hikers face. Finding a new path, and finding success on it, can be daunting after putting your heart and soul into a singular goal for so long. Then you have to factor in the loss of the daily endorphin boost of hiking several miles with a huge pack – and, in the case of the OCT, no longer hearing the daily exhalations of waves and wind, which were a balm for my seething thoughts.

Tiny House in Seal Rock
My AirBnB in Seal Rock, while on the OCT. This tiny house was simple yet beautiful, and a welcome break from camping in the rain. Aside from wanting to keep hiking and all, I desperately wanted to just live here! I still kind of do… © Jenni Denekas

In contrast, the city is loud, jarring, and not at all like the small towns and secluded campsites of the trail. It also felt so odd to return to a closet bursting with clothes, after spending 45 days with two outfits. Accordingly, I have pared down my possessions and sold or donated a lot of clothing and extraneous items. Similarly, it feels odd to be in a spacious apartment after tents and tiny homes and cheap motel rooms. I am thankful to have my own space, but it feels strange nevertheless.

It has taken me a while to adjust, and honestly I don’t know if I will ever fully reintegrate into city life. Part of me is still on the OCT.

Some of my discontent runs deeper – actually, no, shallower. Definitely shallower.

I have realized that, shamefully, I wish I could keep adding to my metaphorical trophy case. It’s a bit of a let-down to not have a litany of stellar accomplishments from the past year to point to on this anniversary. But what the hell is the point of that?

The whole point of a thru-hike, and the whole point of anything of substance, is not to check a box and say “I did that!” The point is to immerse oneself in the journey and to learn deeply from it. And the biggest learning opportunities are the ones that you don’t plan for.

Perhaps that’s what this past year has been trying to teach me.

Indeed, I didn’t just lose my post-OCT fitness through sloth. I was excitedly running and hiking better than I had in a couple of years… until I sprained my ankle badly last June. I remember that crushing moment, panting from the pain, sitting on a rock next to my boyfriend while I mustered the energy to shuffle the final mile back to the car. In spite of my high pain tolerance, it felt almost unbearable. I was convinced that I must have broken my ankle. It was a relief to discover it was merely a sprain, but it still was a long road back from that injury. And of course, when it finally felt strong again, I sprained the other damn ankle. Just my luck.

I have also been slowed by gastrointestinal issues (which fortunately turned out to NOT be parasites from my trip), headaches, nausea, horrific depression and anxiety, and, most recently, random ovarian pain that forced me to spend a couple of days curled into a ball. It has not been an easy year for me, physically or mentally, and as much as I wish things were different, I consider myself lucky to still be here.

My depression and anxiety were really that bad for a while.

In that context, I feel silly for lamenting my weight gain and my lost fitness – which, of course, are not one and the same, as I explain here. I should focus on being thankful for surviving – and for those who helped me to pull through.

Love is bringing your asthmatic girlfriend a particle mask and chocolate while her favorite place burns
My boyfriend is a wonderfully supportive and kind person, and I feel so much love and gratitude for him. © Jenni Denekas

My wonderful boyfriend in particular has been there through all the ups and downs of this year. He helped me to get through the worst depressive downturns, to take care of me when I was ill, and to smile (a bit) when the Eagle Creek Fire tore through my favorite place on Earth. I feel so lucky to be with someone so caring and kind.

When my health allows, I also have been slowly but surely trying to find a job. I recently had an interview again – my first in nearly a year. I feel a glimmer of hope again.

As a stop-gap, and as part of the fulfillment of a longtime dream, I founded my own greeting card brand in fall 2017, Borderline Cards. It’s been an enjoyable and fulfilling endeavor, not the least because it has gotten me back into the habit of drawing regularly. But it was also somewhat born of my diminishing trust in my ability to ever find a job.

It’s also been a struggle to trust people. And perhaps not many deserve my full trust. Perhaps that has been my mistake before.

Accordingly, I have been paring down my inner circle since I completed the trail. I am done with expending more emotional energy and effort than I get in return. In turn, that gives me more time and energy to dedicate to those who deserve it. I have made a point to focus on the people who bothered to be part of my journey, and who generally give me as much as I give them.

Indeed, on this anniversary, I am reflecting gratefully upon everyone who was part of my journey on the OCT. It took time, effort, some unintended side effects (like trench foot, and the death of a cell phone), planning, caring, and commitment to make that happen, and I am very grateful for all of your contributions. Thank you, Dani, Aaron, Steph, Rosemary, Charissa, Joe, Stacey, Susan, Mom, and Dad.

And again, I feel so thankful for the beautiful relationship that my boyfriend and I have built over the past year, which has its roots in the OCT. When Aaron joined me for a weekend on the southern coast, we felt something beginning. We got together shortly after I returned from the trail, and we will be celebrating our first anniversary later this week.

Love
Aaron and I in December 2017 at a friend’s beach birthday bash! © Stephanie Hughson

Aaron has always been a dear friend, and became my rock during the horrible winter that drove me to do the trail in the first place. He joined me on a portion of my journey on the OCT, and stayed in touch with me throughout the rest of my trip. He has always been a calm, consistent, kind, and humorous source of support. (And to be clear, we do have a lot of fun together! I’m not always a crying mess!) I am truly grateful for, and humbled by, his love.

This anniversary of my completion of the OCT marks a year of unexpected events. Many were – and are – ugly and frustrating. But the truly beautiful surprises – including my relationship with the sweetest person I have ever met – are better than anything I could have planned.

And that’s the thing: Life unfolds as it sees fit, and all we can do is embrace the good that it gives us.

I will finish by quoting one of Cheryl Strayed’s many pearls of wisdom from Tiny Beautiful Things:

You don’t have a right to the cards that you think you should have been dealt. You have the obligation to play the hell out of the ones you are holding. And my dear, you and I were granted a mighty generous hand.

Banner Image: Two people who look suspiciously like me and my boyfriend embrace in a burnt forest. Image drawn by yours truly. The Eagle Creek Fire was another devastating loss in the past year, and like everything else we’ve faced together, my boyfriend and I helped one another to stay strong through it.

Redefining Fitness

Redefining Fitness

Ditch the scale, ditch the measuring tape, and focus on something real. Fitness is not about taking a perfect mirror selfie; it is a set of physical capabilities.

People so frequently talk about fitness – and the process of attaining it – and yet definitions of that term vary widely. I often hear people talking about “getting fit” and reducing their caloric intake in the same sentence. People often talk about their appearance and their “fitness” in the same sentence. The list goes on. So this begs the question…

What does fitness mean to you?

I describe it as a diversity of well-honed physical capabilities. As in, I am fit when I can run, swim, climb, hike, backpack, lift, and do various other activities with relative ease and competency. Gaining fitness, to me, is a process of becoming more physically capable.

A corrected fitspiration image. I can certainly attest to the fact that, yes, there are bad workouts. When I was a young athlete, I sometimes pushed myself too much and paid for it. I am much wiser and more cautious and methodical now, and I taught my athletes accordingly as a coach.
A corrected fitspiration image. I can certainly attest to the fact that, yes, there are bad workouts. When I was a young athlete, I sometimes pushed myself too much and paid for it.
See what I mean? This was one of the first images I came across with a Google image search for fitspiration. Ew.
See what I mean? Ew. This was one of the first images I came across with a Google image search for fitspiration. Sounds like a thinly-veiled exhortation to develop an eating disorder.

This may sound straightforward, but it took me a long time to arrive at such clearly-defined terms.

Our society has such strange attitudes about body image, fitness, weight, and more. This is an especially fraught issue for women, and women athletes. I invite you to read about female athlete triad and to think about all the damaging “fitspiration” bullshit that circulates around the fitness world. It’s hard not to get sucked in.

Fortunately, sports have been (mostly) a positive force in my own life. From an early age, athletic endeavors encouraged me to look beyond my appearance and to take pride in my abilities. In particular, I have always prided myself on being physically strong, a trait that my awesome dad has encouraged me in. He taught me how to lift weights safely and healthily, in our little basement workout room. We still sometimes do push-ups together and arm wrestle. He has always complimented me on my strength, and has always meant it.

I have always felt proud, too, of my body’s ability to put on muscle. When I’m strong, I look it and feel like it. I also have jokingly said many times that I am dense – physically, that is. That of course is because muscle weighs more than fat.

Even when I have looked thin, I have not weighed as little as some of my friends who wore the same sized clothes. I was often told by doctors that my BMI was too high, including when I was running track in college (pictured). But many times when my BMI said I was borderline overweight, I was strong, I felt good, and I don’t think I could have lost any more weight without causing myself harm. Professional athletes often face this problem as well. I have learned, slowly but surely, not to worry about the number on the scale for these reasons.

But all of this is easier said than done.

Fitness?
A photo of me competing in college. I may look thin and “fit” here, but I was severely anemic and battling other medical issues. © Naomi Denekas

Although I have always been proud of my strength, and although I (slowly) learned that BMI was a stupid and incomplete method of measuring health, I also have always worried about my weight. More accurately, I have always worried about my APPEARANCE, i.e. looking thin enough. Our society all too frequently correlates the two. I just caught MYSELF correlating the two. It’s hard not to in our society. It’s also hard not to worry about these superficial things in our society, especially as a woman.

And when I look back on my old track and cross country photos, I lament that I was so concerned.

For one, I looked fine. More importantly, worrying about my appearance was such a waste of time and energy – non-renewable resources that would have been better spent enjoying meets with my teammates instead of worrying about how I looked in my uniform. And MOST importantly, my health is much better now than it was when I was in college. At the time the above photo of me running track was taken, I was struggling with undiagnosed endocrine issues, I was severely anemic, and I was developing allergy-induced asthma. I may have looked thin and “healthy,” but my health was taking a nose dive, albeit a hidden one.

The irony is that my weight is much higher now, but other numbers indicate that I am much healthier. My iron levels, thyroid levels, blood pressure, and everything else are well within the normal range now. What’s more, I am not suffering bizarre symptoms these days. It’s pretty cool to not get exercise-induced migraines every time I try to run, I have to say! I’ve also healed from multiple severe injuries, including a concussion from a thirty-foot fall and a torn ACL, both of which I successfully rehabbed. I’d say that’s a success story in and of itself, and yet there is no good “before and after” picture that can capture those changes. Oh well. *insert sarcastic sigh*

The most important thing is that I feel grateful for how far I’ve come.

Baker Beach Friends
A much more beautiful photo: My friends and me while I trekked the Oregon Coast Trail in spring 2017. I am proud of my determination and strength, and thankful for my good health and the meaningful relationships in my life. Better things to focus on, right? © Joe Dudman

However, I will readily admit that I have felt frustration about my weight/size/shape in the past few years. My self-image took a hit when I first began gaining the weight (during my concussion and exercise-induced migraine days), but my concerns have been tempered by ongoing personal reflection. Chiefly, I know that I want my life to be about more than my looks, and I have worked hard to make it so. Dumping a superficial ex, surrounding myself with supportive people, and dating someone who actually likes how I look have all helped me to build a more meaningful life. Additionally, my experience coaching athletes – and thus being privy to a lot of other folks’ body image issues – has prompted me, time and again, to question my definitions of fitness and to ensure that what I am saying and modeling is healthy and helpful to those around me.

Indeed, it is important to remember that body image issues can be contagious. Correlating your own fitness and appearance can negatively influence others. If redefining “fitness” for your own well-being is not a compelling enough reason, perhaps the impact it has on others will be a stronger incentive. I know that has been the case for me, as a coach and as a friend.

Fitness?
I know what you’re thinking: She’s hot, right? I’m thinking: I can probably knock her down easily. WordPress Stock Photo.

It also doesn’t hurt that I’ve gotten even stronger in the past few years. In fact, I believe that my increased strength is partly related to my increased mass. I have more “oomph” behind my lifts now. When I’ve attended self-defense classes and dabbled in kickboxing, I’ve found myself capable of moving even a really heavy punching bag, and easily knocking over an opponent.  That makes me feel powerful and proud.

I am not saying that I’m complacent; I want to regain my running fitness. I would ideally like to shed some of the weight that I have gained. BUT I am content for now. I am not sweating those details, especially because I feel fit in some ways that I am very proud of. I also am well aware that my worth is dictated by far more than the number on the scale or the size of my pants.

Bottom line: I want to remind you all to consider deeply what you define as “fitness,” why, and whether it’s really serving you – and others.

I think it is vital for us to remember what we were always taught in grade school: That one’s appearance doesn’t matter as much as what is inside. That may sound corny, but when you truly value your abilities more than your appearance, to paraphrase the late, great John Wooden, you don’t become corny. You become a better, stronger person.

Cultivate strength, of body and character. That’s what matters.

Need some daily inspiration to redirect your focus from how you look to what you’re capable of? Check out my Facebook page Cut the BS – Athletes Against Body Shaming!

Check out more Reflections and Moments!

Building a Positive and Comfortable Community at Oregon Country Fair

Building a Positive and Comfortable Community at Oregon Country Fair

Nestled in the trees, teeming with positive energy, and showcasing stunning local crafts, Oregon Country Fair is an amazing experience. Held annually since 1969 in Veneta, 15 miles east of Eugene, this fun and funky event is an Oregon tradition.

I finally took part in this tradition in summer 2017, spending a long weekend camping near the fair with friends and my boyfriend. OCF far exceeded my expectations, and I highly recommend attending. The best part, to me, was the atmosphere.

Welcoming and Positive

Oregon Country Fair Stilt Walkers
Stilt walkers are a common sight at Oregon Country Fair. © Jenni Denekas

The atmosphere at Oregon Country Fair was consistently welcoming. From the moment my carpool pulled into our camp, we were told, “Welcome home!” When I was introduced to friends of my friends, I was enveloped in hugs. Passers-by greeted each other with, “Happy Fair!”

The conversations that occurred were generally upbeat. One of my friends kept steering us away from political discussions, reminding us that the fair is a special place, removed from the rest of the world. Focusing on the positive infused our experiences with a joyful, relaxed vibe.

Free expression abounded in various forms. People wore a whole array of unique outfits, adorned their camps with vibrant decorations, and passed their time with silly games. The fact that everyone was accepting and non-judgmental helped to make this possible.

A Supportive Community

Oregon Country Fair sign
Oregon Country Fair is a bit of a maze… an amazing one! © Jenni Denekas

A lot of people chose to use recreational drugs, but no one was ostracized for indulging – or for abstaining. I do not use drugs at all, and felt a lot more accepted and a lot less judged than I was expecting. As someone said, in reference to my energetic demeanor, “I take drugs to feel as good as you seem to feel naturally!” Essentially, as long as you were friendly and having fun, you fit in just fine.

Even when someone was having a hard time, they were supported. Indeed, the community atmosphere of OCF was apparent when folks helped those who were having a tough “trip.” More relevant to my personal experience, folks were also quick to help if you got lost in the labyrinthine fair.

I also saw the community spirit of OCF in action on our final morning at camp. One of my friends shouted out that it was my boyfriend’s birthday, and everyone sang to him. Afterwards, one guy gave my boyfriend the “key to his new age.” Later in the day, my boyfriend and I re-visited one of our favorite stalls. The man running the booth presented my boyfriend with a birthday grapefruit. This was apparently one of the “best grapefruits in the world,” no less.

Indeed, impromptu giving was common at OCF, and the atmosphere was welcoming and respectful. I sincerely hope this was the case for everyone in attendance.

But I want to note that, as a white woman, my appearance may have influenced how I was treated and therefore what my experience felt like. In other words, it’s time to talk about privilege, race, and cultural appropriation.

Race and Cultural Appropriation

I could see how a person of color may feel less comfortable than I did at OCF. Cultural appropriation abounded, including some people who shouldn’t have been wearing feather headdresses. (Alas, they were.) Some booths showcased traditional crafts made by people who were not part of that culture. On the plus side, there was a display about local tribes, their culture, and the genocide rained upon them in the 1800s by white settlers. I’m not trying to excuse the appropriation that I noticed, but I am glad that there was some acknowledgement of the tribes and their history, at least.

My boyfriend and I also noticed that there were not many POC at the fair. Obviously, Oregon is not the most diverse state, but the attendance at OCF still did not seem to reflect the state’s population – and I have to wonder why. Perhaps cultural appropriation makes it unappealing. Perhaps the referral system for campgrounds (which I will delve further into in a moment) means that long-time white attendees invite their white friends, thus creating a cycle. Perhaps something else is at play. On the plus side, I did see a “Black Lives Matter” poster in the fair, and my boyfriend (who is half Japanese) said he felt comfortable and welcome at OCF. Again, I’m not trying to excuse the problems I noted; I’m just pointing out some positives.

A Comfortable Space for Women

A moss peace sign near the Community Village in Oregon Country Fair.  © Jenni Denekas

On the other hand, it was really comfortable to attend the fair as a woman. This especially struck me when I went to the large bonfire/drum circle, and was dancing in a crowd of joyful hippies. I realized OCF was the one and only time in my adult life that I have danced in a crowded place and not been groped. Although that is a sad commentary on our society as a whole, it is a positive commentary on what OCF is like – at least, in my experience.

Of course, I can’t speak to everyone’s experience – and if anyone has something to share, I would be happy to help bring it to light. I did notice flyers by some of the restrooms about reducing the rate of assaults at OCF, which implies that that does happen. And of course, once is far too many times for that to occur.

However, what I experienced and witnessed suggests that it was a relatively safe space for women.

For instance, I was pleasantly surprised that I never saw any of the many topless women being catcalled, mocked for not having a “perfect” body (whatever that means), or otherwise treated any differently than anyone else. Folks seemed to maintain eye contact and treat these topless women with just as much respect as anyone else. I also was glad to see diverse body types baring it all. It seems that body positivity is alive and well at OCF.

There also was an awesome area set aside specifically for women at the fair. This space is the Moon Lodge, a magical den among lush vine maples draped with diaphanous fabric. Filled with comfortable nooks, this space provides a welcome escape from the bustle of the fair. Visitors can read feminist books, draw, chat with other awesome women, test out various tinctures, listen to a talk, or participate in a ceremony. The Moon Lodge also offered information on sexual assault and domestic violence, and free tampons and pads. It is an all-around great resource for women and girls. I was also glad that I didn’t feel the need to retreat into this haven due to anyone’s bad behavior; it was simply somewhere that I visited voluntarily, and enjoyed a lot.

Referral System for Camps

Camp at Oregon Country Fair
Home sweet home in the trees, at a camp near Oregon Country Fair. © Jenni Denekas

So how does this great atmosphere come about? I think the safe and welcoming vibes at OCF stem from the fact that the camps require referrals. For instance, to stay at our camp, one had to be invited by someone who has camped there before. Then each guest still has to fill out an application in order to be approved. Additionally, at our camp, they would throw out troublemakers and whoever invited them. By relying on networking and on strict consequences, the camps help facilitate a safe and enjoyable atmosphere.

However, as I previously mentioned, I wonder if the referral system perpetuates a lack of racial diversity at the fair. I recently heard of some discouraging statistics that indicate that 75% of white people in the United States do not have any close friends who are people of color (link here; get ready to be sad). If that is the case, then the white people who already camp near OCF will invite their white friends, and the demographics of this event will not change. Referrals will not fix this situation, obviously, so it seems necessary to implement new strategies to address the lack of diversity.

Though there are some potential areas of improvement, I was overall impressed with the atmosphere at Oregon Country Fair. Indeed, the vibe was the best part of the entire experience. I can understand why a lot of people consider it a home-away-from-home, and keep coming back.

Ready to plan your visit? Check out my Oregon Country Fair page, or visit the OCF official website.

Have you been before? Share your OCF experience in the comments!

Cutting Someone Out, Versus Being Cut Up: Healing While Hiking the OCT

Cutting Someone Out, Versus Being Cut Up: Healing While Hiking the OCT

In order to heal, sometimes you need to rip off that bandage.

Mt. Adams
Mt. Adams, viewed from Lunch Counter. My first attempt resulted in a hole in my leg, and an important lesson (or several). © Jenni Denekas

My first attempt on Mount Adams led to a hole in the back of my leg (long story).

I didn’t let it slow me down; within the next few days, I was out on another backpacking trip. Then another. Then another.

During these trips, I was careful to prevent infection: I kept the wound clean, I kept applying antibacterial ointment, and I kept changing my bandages. Frustratingly, even after a few weeks, it was not healing.

I realized that changing the bandages was actually doing more harm than good. Each time I removed the gauze, it also removed a layer of skin. I realized that I needed to uncover the wound and let it scab over. The sooner I let it out in the open, the sooner it would toughen up and begin to truly heal.

This was a distressing prospect; I have a high pain tolerance, but the hole went clear through my epidermis to the layers beneath. Anytime a branch snapped the back of my leg, I had to work hard to not scream. Showering was awful. It was going to be a painful and fraught healing process. But going through it head-on was the only way I was going to heal.

Indeed, it is often the case that the more difficult, head-on approach is what allows a person to heal.

By the way, I’m not talking about medical issues anymore; I’m talking about emotional pain.

Nearly six years after my fateful attempt on Adams, I was in quite a lot of emotional pain. There was a variety of reasons for this, but foremost was the fact that the man I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life with cheated on me. We ended our relationship, but we were trying to remain friends. I wasn’t ready to let go entirely. In other words, I didn’t want to rip off that bandage.

However, it was killing me. I was stuck in a series of highs and lows that revolved around him. I would feel low until we talked, uplifted while we conversed, then shattered when we said an awkward, halting goodbye. I felt a hole where an “I love you” used to be. I would invariably cry after we hung up.

I held onto a small shred of hope that somehow we could work things out. Then I fought back fiercely against that notion, reminding myself that what he did was a deal-breaker. That I wouldn’t stand for that sort of shit. Back and forth I would go, again and again.

I was not going to heal until I faced the entirety of the pain, until I realized we were truly done, until I realized he didn’t respect me and he wasn’t my friend. Again, I had to rip off that bandage.

I realized this throughout my trek on the Oregon Coast Trail. During my 367-mile journey, I grew stronger, physically and emotionally.

On my hike, I learned a lot about shedding the unnecessary weight I was carrying. I’m not talking about my pack when I say that, nor am I talking about the body weight that my ex apparently thinks I should lose (which was part of what made me cut him out). Rather, I’m talking about focusing on what built me up, brought me peace, and gave me strength. I’m talking about getting rid of what tore me up, brought me anguish, and made me weak. Shedding that weight was the only way I could get through the heavy mileage.

Viewpoint in Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor
Viewpoint in Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor. © Jenni Denekas

I also realized that there was a much wider world beyond my heartbreak, and I had been missing out on it while sitting alone and sad in my apartment. I realized that I would rather have the rest of the world, rather than the shattered remnants of a relationship.

I came back to a phrase that I conceived a while ago, in a different context: “You have to decide whether it’s more important to remain hurt, or to become whole.”

I don’t mean that you should bury your feelings. It is vital to sort through them in order to truly heal. Rather, I’m talking about not wallowing. Wallowing is a surefire way to remain hurt. It’s like leaving a bandage on a wound when it really needs to be out in the open, and scab and scar over. Wallowing is also a roundabout way of engaging in denial. It’s a state of waiting for someone to step in and help, rather than doing what you need to do to save yourself.

I decided that keeping my ex in my life was only going to continue to hurt me. It was reopening the wound over and over again. It wasn’t allowing me to move forward. It was keeping me stuck. It was a question of whether I should remain cut up, or cut him out.

Then my ex sent me a message that nearly literally made me see red. My decision was already made, but he unwittingly chose the moment I would rip off that bandage. In my fury, I finally told him what I should have said months before.

I was crushed and uplifted. I was pumped. I was exhausted. I was proud. I was liberated.

It was the start of my new life, one in which I did not accept anything less than the treatment that I truly deserved.

In order to get what I truly deserved, I needed to “run as far as I could in the direction of my best and happiest dreams across the bridge built by my own desire to heal,” to paraphrase Cheryl Strayed in Tiny Beautiful Things. I needed to pursue what I wanted and deserved. And the first step was getting rid of anything that ran counter to my best and happiest dreams.

Staying in touch with a liar and a cheater at the expense of my happiness and my wholeness was not worth it. Not at all.

Netarts to Cape Meares
On the hike from Netarts to Cape Meares. I felt much lighter after tearing off that bandage. © Jenni Denekas

When I cut him out, I gave myself license to enjoy the rest of the world. The next day, hiking from Netarts to Cape Meares, I was singing and frolicking. I was pensive at times, too. But I saw more, I relished more. I felt lighter and fuller. I was free.

The final portion of my trek was better due to my decision, and my life since then has been better, too. I am happier, I am more whole, and I have found love again.

All this would not have been possible without that first step of shedding what wasn’t serving me. Doing so took over 200 miles of hiking and thinking and gaining strength. But I got there. I am still moving forward, I am better for it, and I am thankful. And that is what I recommend for you all: Ripping off that bandage, shedding that emotional weight, and pursuing your dreams.

What’s ahead is better than what you’ve left behind. I promise.

Read more reflections in the Moments section.

Check out my Oregon Coast Trail journal.

Rainbow over Coos Bay
Rainbow over Coos Bay. © Jenni Denekas
Having Empathy when a Hiker Makes the News

Having Empathy when a Hiker Makes the News

It is inevitable: After someone dies or is maimed in an outdoor accident, online hiking forums are filled with conversations about all the mistakes that person made. Someone goes on about how inexperienced people shouldn’t be out there. Someone goes on about how they shouldn’t have been alone. And so forth.

Though of course we can learn from these tragedies, it makes me uncomfortable to talk about those who have died in a way that implies it was their fault. Accidents happen. I speak from experience: Even when I’ve been well-prepared, I’ve found myself in sticky situations. I am sure we all have. Many of the tragic accidents that make the news are, in fact, highly relatable for those of us who hike, climb, and run. So why the lack of empathy?

I think denial is at play when we blame those who die in outdoor accidents. We are afraid that it could be us next time, and therefore we try to distance ourselves from the situation. When we criticize the specific hiker, and emphasize the mistakes he made, we try to make it feel less likely that it will happen to us. We argue that we are smarter, more skilled, more invincible.

That is cruel, obviously, and it also puts us at risk. Explaining why we’re better and safer isn’t going to change the fact that outdoor recreation is inherently dangerous. This is another reason that empathy is important: Tragedy breaks down our sense of invincibility. It personalizes the problem, and, ideally, forces us to pay attention to what we could do better.

Which brings me to the next reason that some people discuss hikers that make the news: Learning from their misfortune. These conversations are important, but some can make me squirm a little due to their callousness. Looking at a tragedy with empathy is not only the right thing to do, but it also makes it easier to learn more from a situation.

After all, the basis of both empathy and of learning is humility. When we are willing to learn something, that means we were humble enough to recognize that we were deficient in that area. When we ask for instruction, we are acknowledging that the teacher knows something we do not. When we realize that we could just as easily have made the same mistake as that guy, we can start to see the complexities of what happened and why. This is the gateway to a more complete understanding of how to stay safe in the wilderness.

So let’s discuss what we can learn. Obviously, each situation is different, and I encourage you to delve deeper into specific scenarios to learn as much as possible. I also want to repeat that my intention is not to criticize anyone. Rather, I think that the following points are worth mentioning for the purpose of making ourselves safer:

  1. Leave an itinerary and always check in with someone when you return. Communicating your plan makes it more likely that you will be found. Simple as that. It is also important to be thorough. What if you told someone where you were going, but not when to expect you back? They may not notice as quickly as they ought to that something is wrong. What if you said you were going to Mt. Hood, but didn’t say where exactly? It takes hours to search one river bed properly. How on Earth could you expect search and rescue to comb an entire mountain? SAR is primarily conducted by volunteers, and is often tied up in multiple rescues. They’ll do their best for you, but you should also try to make it easy for them. It is critical to be clear about your plans – and to place your trust in people who are responsible enough to take action if you go missing.
  2. Bring the 10 essentials and know how to use them. There are many different lists of ten must-have items out there, and the specifics are not important to me. You probably know better than I do what you need for the types of outings you do, after all. That is why I recommend the systems approach. It is a conceptual list rather than a concrete list, which allows room for adjustment based on the type of trip and the expected conditions. Regardless of your specific gear preferences, you need: Layers/shelter (exposure can kill you in a matter of hours), a means of obtaining clean drinking water (dehydration can kill you in 3 or fewer days), a means of obtaining food (starvation will kill you in about 2 weeks), a means of addressing any injuries, and a means of finding your way home (e.g. a map and compass). And don’t assume that you are going to magically learn how to use your gear in an emergency. Take it out of the packaging, experiment with it, and know how to use it.
  3. Last but certainly not least, you need knowledge! I highly recommend becoming a Wilderness First Responder. Take a survival class. Get avalanche certified. Do your research. Know your intended route and the terrain. Read books like Mountain Rescue Doctor. Be thorough and be smart.

I’m not trying to imply that those who die in the wilderness are stupid – though arguably those who try to take selfies with bison aren’t the brightest. I’m not trying to imply that those who die are inexperienced – although in some cases that is a factor. A huge component of survival comes down to luck – and thus we should exercise humility and empathy when it comes to addressing how others have fallen prey to the elements. Don’t be proud that you have survived; be thankful. Don’t condemn others for failing; learn from them. Don’t be afraid to get out there, but do be aware of the risks and prepare accordingly.

Good luck out there, and happy hiking!

Learn more survival tips on the Nitty Gritty page.

Read more human interest stories on the Moments page.

“You’re Out Here Alone!”

“You’re Out Here Alone!”

Hiking the Oregon Coast Trail While Female, Episode 57, Day 26

Earlier in this gray, 10-mile day, I had reached the (approximate) halfway point of my hike: Waldport. I was trucking along on the short segment of Highway 101 that I needed to reach Driftwood State Park, and beach access.

I was not too happy about being on 101, especially after a pickup truck driven by a young male asshole swerved towards me and honked, apparently just for laughs. I tried to scratch his paint with my trekking pole. I was frustrated but not shocked. I had already been through this scenario before (which is why my right trekking pole didn’t have a tip protector on, so I was ready for maximum paint-scratching).

I sighed and pushed forward, knowing the best thing to do was to move quickly so I could get off the highway as soon as possible.

I was on a roll when I spotted a cyclist cruising towards me a half-mile later.

As he approached, he slowed to a stop. He looked incredulous.

He blurted, “You’re out here alone!”

Immediately I responded, with the same tone of voice, “You too!!!”

“Yeah, but, you’re… Never mind.” He seemed to think better of finishing his sentence.

We chatted for a couple of minutes. It turned out he was cycling to San Francisco on 101. I pointed out that that, to me, was crazier than what I was doing! I mentioned the truck that buzzed me a little while ago and said ruefully that I wouldn’t want to be on the highway that much.

He started to say, in that incredulous tone again, “But you’re out here by your-“

“You are, too. I guess we’re both crazy!” I kept my tone light but firm. He laughed and dropped the subject.

We shook hands, wished each other luck, and continued on our separate ways. He was going south, I was heading north.

I was glad that, only the day before, I had brainstormed snappy replies to people commenting on the fact that I was a woman hiking alone. This cyclist didn’t seem like a bad person; he seemed like the sort who probably just hadn’t thought about this issue much before. He was one of those cases where a comment like mine could, hopefully, get through to him. I sincerely hope that I made him think. I hope that I made him consider that he shouldn’t be amazed by a woman alone. I hope that when he regales his friends with stories from his trip, that I am just another endurance athlete, not an anomaly.

Bottom line: Women belong outdoors, out pushing ourselves, out experiencing the world, just as much as men do. HUMANS deserve these experiences. Male, female, trans, gender-non-conforming, all races, all abilities… WE ALL DESERVE ACCESS TO NATURE.

It starts with each and every one of you, dear readers: What will you do to make the outdoors more accessible and comfortable for all? See the Pitch In page for ideas!

Photos: OCT Section 1: Smith River, CA to Gold Beach, OR

Photos: OCT Section 1: Smith River, CA to Gold Beach, OR

The first 40-some miles of my trip were stunning. In this span, sea stacks and dramatic cliffs are interspersed with beautiful, quiet beaches and coastal rain forest. The lovely towns of Brookings and Gold Beach are great destinations.

There are many state parks along this stretch. From south to north: Pelican Beach State Park (California), Crissey Field State Recreation Site (Oregon), Harris Beach State Park, Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, and Pistol River State Park. Indian Sands, located in the Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, is on the National Register of Historic Places due to its archaeological significance. Learn more nitty-gritty details about the OCT South Coast.

I also was lucky to have a wonderful friend join me for my first four days on the trail! Thanks, dude!

The OCT: Why I Went and What I Gained

The OCT: Why I Went and What I Gained

Why hike 367 miles, enduring exhaustion, vertical rain, diagonal rain, and even horizontal rain?

There were many factors that reinforced my decision:

  • 2017 is the fiftieth anniversary of the Beach Bill, the law signed by Governor Tom McCall that expanded protections for Oregon’s public coastline. (This law allows the Oregon Coast Trail to exist.)
  • I have always been intrigued by connecting landmarks on foot.
  • I have always wanted to do a thru-hike.
  • I love Oregon and its beautiful coast.
  • I love land use (the innovative statewide program that, again, makes the OCT possible).
  • I enjoy challenging myself.

Underneath all of these good reasons to go was a much simpler one, however: My heart was broken and I needed to heal.

A lot of challenging events happened in quick succession in the months leading up to my hike:

  • The man who I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life with cheated on me. I found out three days before Christmas. Bah humbug.
  • I was let go from my favorite job, without an explanation. Not being allowed to say goodbye properly was a cruel twist to an already disappointing and unexpected outcome.
  • Soon after, a significant family emergency happened, and that has been an ongoing saga of awfulness.

The bright side of seemingly everything crashing down around me was that I had a lot of time on my hands. So I defaulted to what I often do when I am hurting: I made plans to escape into nature for a while. It was time to realize a long-standing goal: To complete a thru-hike.

The Oregon Coast Trail, specifically, appealed to me because of the reasons that I listed in the first paragraph of this essay. On top of those reasons, the timing wasn’t quite right for any of the other thru-hikes I otherwise may have considered. In particular, I have always been interested in the Pacific Crest Trail, but I was already anxious to start in February, and this winter was a record-breaking one, yielding a massive snowpack. I heard many PCT hikers were delaying their starts. The OCT, on the other hand, didn’t need to thaw out (well, aside from that snow that fell in Gold Beach a couple weeks before my hike).

Another consideration was that I hadn’t done a real thru-hike before. The most noteworthy point-to-point excursion I’d done prior to the OCT was the Salkantay Trek in Peru, but that doesn’t count as a thru-hike in my opinion, because it was glamping (it was a great experience, though; I do recommend this trip). My longest backpacking trip prior to the OCT was seven days, and my longest solo trip was a weekend overnighter. Granted, I had done those two amounts multiple times, but it still was quite a leap to plan a multi-week solo trek.

I also figured that the 367-mile OCT was a nice, moderate amount of distance and time for a first thru-hike. The frequent proximity to towns and to Highway 101 would also help to ensure that I could get any supplies or assistance that I might need along the way. Bottom line: It seemed like the most reasonable, crazy-impulsive decision I could make.

As it turns out, the OCT was, indeed, a good introduction to thru-hiking. It was both challenging and manageable, and I finished feeling healthy and strong.

And what did I gain? This is an incomplete list, in spite of its length:

  • I saw incredible scenery, experienced many lovely small towns, and met many wonderful people.
  • I learned how to hitch hike (thanks, Dani).
  • I gained new perspective and my problems now feel a lot smaller.
  • I have built a lot of mental and physical strength.
  • The awesome staff at Seven Devils Brewing gave me a rad, warm hat.
  • I found cool rocks and shells.
  • My friend Stacey and I learned that beagles and sea lions sound about the same.
  • I marched for science in Newport.
  • I read some good books (including one I got at the awesome Gold Beach Bookstore).
  • I saw tons of velella velella.
  • I got super sick, recovered, and managed to finish strong.
  • I finally, completely, cut out my ex, which has paved the way to greater healing.
  • I made new friends and strengthened already-existing connections.
  • I gained new levels of appreciation for my wonderful parents, got to hike my final day with my dad, and celebrate with my mom and dad at the finish line.

In short: Was the OCT worth it? Absolutely. I gained a stronger, better version of myself, in addition to regaining my faith in humanity, deepening my relationships with people who actually matter, deepening my relationship to my beautiful home state, and enjoying an awesome adventure.

Was the pain that led me to do the OCT worth it? Sort of. What happened in the months leading up to my trip was unacceptable, and in some cases, unforgivable. But that pain pushed me to do an adventure that has strengthened me and enriched my life. It’s also the only reality I have, and the only life I have. I have chosen to make the most of it.

I encourage you to make the most of it, too, and to get planning your own OCT adventure!

Read all of my OCT-related blog posts, or go to my OCT Journal page.

What is your reason to thru-hike? Share in the comments!

OCT Journal, Days 24-25: Friends Old and New

OCT Journal, Days 24-25: Friends Old and New

So many wonderful people have made my past 36ish hours great! Definitely feeling thankful – and warm!

Day 24: Harbor Vista County Campground to Baker Beach Trailhead, then Heceta Head Lighthouse to Carl G. Washburne Memorial State Park.

Day 25: Cummins Creek (southern side of Cape Perpetua) to Beachside State Recreation Area.

Baker Beach Friends
My friends were a lovely bright spot in a stormy day. © Joe Dudman & Charissa Yang

Amidst wet and windy weather that sometimes blotted out the headlands and lighthouse only a few miles in front of me, I trudged through a hike that my guidebook said was 5.5 miles, but was actually 8. I was on my way from a campsite in Florence to the Baker Beach Trailhead. I was not only eager to get out of the rain, but I also was hurrying because I had a planned rendezvous with two friends who were driving back to Portland on Highway 101 – after their wedding!

It was awesome to see them and offer congratulations in person (I had watched their wedding online in Lakeside, Oregon earlier in my trip). They were also kind enough to give me a ride between the end of Hike 1 and the beginning of Hike 2, sparing me from walking a scary stretch of highway which included a tunnel (This is one of the areas that I strongly recommend skipping).

Inside Heceta Head Light
The spiral staircase inside Heceta Head Lighthouse. © Jenni Denekas

Then my friends and I visited Heceta Head Lighthouse together. Constructed from 1892-1893 and lit in 1894, Heceta Head is now owned by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. Oregon State Parks volunteers conduct tours of the light on a daily basis.

The volunteer who conducted our tour was curious about my big pack (it is a good conversation starter), and I explained my trip to her. It turned out that she was going to be at the same campground that I was planning on staying that night (Carl G. Washburne Memorial State Park). We commented on how it was a small world, but I just left it at, “Cool, hopefully see ya later!”

Heceta Head Viewed from Above
Heceta Head Light viewed from the trail uphill. © Jenni Denekas

I bid farewell to my friends and headed up the hillside from Heceta Head Lighthouse. It was a beautiful and steady climb. I was starting to wear out as the day drew to a close, but chewing on a couple of sweets from a Ziplock bag that my friends gave me me yielded a new burst of energy. I smiled thinking about their visit, and continued to trudge on.

Meanwhile, the volunteer from the lighthouse got to camp well before I did. When she arrived, she told all the other volunteers at the camp about me. One of the other volunteers paid for my campsite, and someone else brought wood to my site, and so forth. When I arrived, soaked, cold, and exhausted, I was so pleasantly surprised by this kind welcome. Can anyone say “trail magic?!”

PLEASE NOTE: THIS WAS AN ACT OF KINDNESS AND IS NOT SOMETHING YOU SHOULD EXPECT OR FEEL ENTITLED TO. That is the nature of trail magic; read more thoughts on kindness and entitlement on long hikes.

Cape Perpetua Trail
Sunny, lush forest greeted me on Cape Perpetua the next morning. © Jenni Denekas

I was happy to wake up to sun this morning. I was so tired the night before that I had been a bit lazy about getting my gear dry, even though I was rapidly becoming an expert on drying wet clothes in the backcountry. My gear was soaked, and unfortunately, so was my firewood. It was pouring too hard the night before to light a fire, and keeping the wood under my rain fly didn’t keep it dry enough. I appreciated the gesture, regardless. But at any rate, lollygagging around the shaded campground didn’t seem to offer me much opportunity to dry my gear.

Nevertheless, the sun lifted my spirits. What lifted my spirits even more was that I finally met the woman who paid for my site! I thanked her profusely for her kind gesture. I learned that she recently retired and began volunteering with Oregon State Parks. She asked more about my trip. We exchanged stories for a while.

When I asked her about how big the shoulder was on 101 between the camp and my next trail, she immediately offered me a ride. I gratefully accepted.

While we drove to the Cape Perpetua Trailhead, she told me how happy it makes her to see young women who believe they can do anything, because when she was growing up, there were so few “acceptable” options for women. We talked about how there is still a ways to go, but that the world has changed a lot in the past few decades. It was a good “girl power” moment. I bid my new friend farewell and set out into the sunny, lush forest.

Cape Perpetua
The view from Cape Perpetua is stunning, and I was thankful for a sunny day to enjoy it. © Jenni Denekas

When I arrived at the Cape Perpetua Visitor Center on foot, I met this volunteer who had a great story about a friend of his accidentally pooping on a skunk (and that ended about as well as you might imagine). That, of course, reminds me of this awesome page.

While I was eating my lunch at the visitor center, a newly retired couple visiting from Washington started chatting with me (again, my backpack proved itself a great conversation starter). This couple used to backpack a lot and were fun to “talk shop” with.

They ended up offering me a ride to my camp for the night, which was super sweet and a huge help. Though I was reluctant to miss out on the trails on the north side of Cape Perpetua, I was grateful to get into camp early. That provided me the opportunity to string a clothesline and dry out everything that got drenched yesterday. So I’ll be warmer tonight, and more comfortable tomorrow, thanks to their generosity!

My new friends even gave me their card, so I can contact them if I need anything else in the next couple of days before they head back home. I appreciated the thoughtful gesture, but I figure unless I run into significant trouble, I won’t bother them. I am keeping the card, though, because it includes their mailing address. They are getting a thank-you card later! As are the volunteers that live at the state park I stayed at last night!

Then this evening, while at Beachside State Recreation Area, some of my camp neighbors came by and introduced themselves. One of the women said that she noticed that I was camping alone, and invited me to join them for dinner and drinks. I had already cooked up some of my coconut curry and started a fire, but I was glad for the company and went to sit with them.

It turned out that they had caught crabs and bought mussels earlier, and were boiling them all over their fire pit. My eyes got round, as I am always hungry, now that I am hiking every day. I added these succulent treats to my curry, gratefully sipped a beer, and enjoyed listening to their hilarious and adventurous stories. One couple talked about how they had road tripped to 49 states before having a baby (who had just settled down for the night in their yurt). The wife then revealed that she had actually been to that 50th state before, as a kid, and her husband expressed good-natured indignation that she was holding out on him. We all laughed.

We shared stories and chuckles until late, and I excused myself so I could get some rest before the next day’s hike. They wished me luck and I left with a smile.

Now, tucked into my tent with dry clothes, I am reflecting on how so many wonderful people have made my past 36ish hours great! Definitely feeling thankful – and warm!

Jump to the next day’s journal entry.

Check out the previous day’s journal entry.

Read more about the Oregon Coast Trail.

OCT Journal, Day 2: A Ride to Whaleshead

OCT Journal, Day 2: A Ride to Whaleshead

We need a lot more of these moments: When we put aside labels, when we remember that we are all human, and when we realize that we have a lot more in common than we think.

Harris Beach State Park to Whaleshead via Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, supposedly 9 miles

At the end of our second day on the Oregon Coast Trail, my friend and I were freezing and exhausted. We had trudged about 11 miles, carrying 50-plus-pound packs through relentless, driving rain. My friend’s feet were starting to suffer the ill effects of constant wet weather. We were about 2 miles away from where we intended to stay that night, and the sun was about to set. We could do it, but it would suck.

OCT Creek Crossing
Our day had involved a whole lot of sideways rain and creek crossings.

We walked into the Whaleshead Viewpoint, partly in order to get a respite from walking along Highway 101, and partly in the hope that we could ask someone watching the sunset if they would give us a ride down the road.

The viewpoint was empty, but soon a large pickup truck pulled in. The truck was driven by a high school-aged girl, and her parents were riding along. I approached the truck, asked them if they would be alright with giving us a ride down the road to Whaleshead, and emphasized that I didn’t want to rush them. If they were there to watch the sunset, my friend and I would wait until they were done. They kindly accepted, and, at my insistence, they did take a short walk down to the beach first.

When they returned, they helped us to load our gear in the back of the truck, and began asking us about our hike. Meanwhile, I was doing the math: There were four seats, and five of us. Before I could ask what the plan was for that, the tiny woman sat on her husband’s lap so my friend and I could both ride in the back seat. They cheerfully joked about how we shouldn’t worry too much, even though their daughter was driving and she just had a learner’s permit. As we drove down the road to Whaleshead, it became obvious that the daughter was a good driver, and we all continued to chat about running and hiking.

The mom expressed interest in the endurance aspect of what we were doing. She is an avid runner, it turns out. Then we learned that her daughter runs track. I asked her what events that she did, and told them that I used to coach and compete, myself. The dad talked about his days backpacking Sky Lakes Wilderness and said he still does some hunting in that area. I expressed that I still really need to spend more time exploring Southern Oregon; it seems beautiful.

Soon we arrived at the Whaleshead RV Resort. (My friend and I were hoping we might be able to rent a cabin there, since all of our gear was drenched and I was worried about my friend’s feet.) The husband kindly helped us unload our packs.

Only then did I notice all of their bumper stickers: “Infidel,” “Proud to be everything liberals hate,” “God bless Trump,” etc.

I am glad that I hadn’t noticed those stickers earlier, and that that therefore wasn’t my first impression of this family. I also felt sad realizing that I would have been really tempted to flip off a truck like that if I was driving past them – but in this case, I would have been rude to a little high school girl and her nice family!

I still stand by my beliefs and my political views. I still do not like Trump. I still have to wonder if this family would have treated my friend and I differently if we weren’t white, or if she and I were a couple. They didn’t say anything like that during our interaction, but given the current administration’s stances on a host of social issues, I have to wonder.

But bottom line: This family helped us out when we needed it, they were pleasant to talk with, and we had a lot of common interests. I am thankful for their help, and I would be happy to hang out with them if we ever crossed paths again.

In this highly polarized political climate, I think we need a lot more of these moments: When we put aside labels, when we remember that we are all human, and when we realize that we have a lot more in common than we think.