Seeking Out the Healing Beauty of National Parks
August 25, 2016
By Lynn Hall
At 10,500 feet, I sit on the end of a switchback leading up Paintbrush Divide in Grand Teton National Park. I’m supposed to continue moving—running when I can, hiking when I can’t—to crest the pass and descend back to Jackson Lake, completing a twenty-mile loop. But instead of collecting myself to continue upwards, I sit and stare. Thousands of feet below me, the basin is a fertile palate of greens: the sages, olives, and emeralds of pine trees, wild flowers, and shrubs. Across the expansive valley, Grand Teton juts into the air more than 3,000 feet higher than where I am now. Its lower, concave slopes are still snow covered, as are the upper gulleys and ledges. The grandness of this basin is nearly impossible to absorb. I have to sit a long while before I even begin to believe the beauty is real.
This summer I’m spending days upon whole weeks running, hiking, and climbing. My excuse is that I need to train for a September 100-mile ultra-marathon through the mountains of northern Utah. But the real reason I am seeking out the wilderness so fervently is that it is the only way I know to cope with mounting anxiety about my forthcoming memoir.
Caged Eyes: An Air Force Cadet’s Story of Rape and Resilience will be the first traditionally-published memoir about sexual assault within the US military. It isn’t just a memoir of the “worst night of my life,” as so many stories of rape are referred to. It’s also a candid look at the layers of entwined trauma: sexual abuse when I was a teenager, a later rape when I was a cadet at the Air Force Academy, and a subsequent meningitis infection which would cause chronic pain and end my career. There are just as many layers of antagonists: a mother who, despite her best intentions, would ultimately betray me; an institution which failed to protect me; and classmates who ostracized me.
Hardest of all, my memoir is an admission of all of my former self’s failings, my failings to help myself and to be strong. Caged Eyes is a memoir brimming more with vulnerability than accusations.
At first, writing was cathartic, even therapeutic. Writing was a way for me to explore what happened to me. I examined my reactions and found forgiveness for myself. I found forgiveness for others. When I shared those early versions and readers met me with empathy and solace, my shame slowly dissipated.
Eventually the therapeutic effects ran dry. When I forced myself to relieve these moments again and again, when there was no longer healing attached to any of it, the memoir at times became torturous.
A root symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder is the unconscious belief that whatever trauma one experienced is inescapable and permanent. As Raymond Douglas wrote in his memoir, On Being Raped, “Rape is always now.” Every time I re-immersed myself in my memoir, I experienced the rapes and the spinal taps and the intensive care unit and my mother’s abandonment and my classmates’ condemnation anew, just as if it was “always now.”
Turning the hard years of my young adulthood into 90,000 words of beauty and activism is the single greatest accomplishment of my life so far. I am equally proud of myself and grateful for the opportunity.
But it’s also true that publishing this memoir at times feels re-traumatizing. These events of those years are now even more inescapable. Each time I rewrote the manuscript, or reviewed copy-edits, or now look at my young eyes staring back at me from the book’s cover, I felt the grief return. It’s as if the eighteen-year-old who was once pinned to a library carpet and raped is forever trapped there.
I read the same plot-line for the umpteenth time, still unable to rescue her from the library floor or the intensive care unit, and her fate remains unchanged. As I am redeemed, she is forever trapped.
As I march towards publication day, my post-traumatic stress disorder has worsened. Once a few months ago, I dreamt of being forced to undergo yet another spinal tap, as if the doctor’s needle was as violating as a rape. I awoke with such vivid sensations of men holding me down that I couldn’t tell it had been a dream. Besides nightmares, panic attacks have returned. I wake in the night unable to breathe or move. During the day, I might go to Walgreens, and the antiseptic smell emanating from the pharmacy brings me back to an emergency room. Loud children in the grocery store unnerve me, as does standing in a crowd.
Preparing for the release of this memoir requires me to remind myself on a day-to-day basis that I am no longer eighteen, no longer a cadet at the Air Force Academy, no longer pinned to that library floor. I remind myself by seeking out the wilderness.
I’ve done just that all along this process. Once, I took a long hiatus from writing, and over three years I climbed each of Colorado’s fifty-eight highest 14,000-foot peaks. Eventually, I combined my passion for mountaineering with my love of running, and I began to race in ultra-marathons on mountain trails.
When writing saddled me with grief, I climbed the sandy hills of Great Sand Dune National Park with friends. When I was too consumed with rage to continue writing, I camped in Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks with my partner. After I finished the last draft, I ran in the desolate Canyonlands of Utah. To cope with the anxiety while agents read the manuscript, I climbed Mt Rainier in Washington. After I finished working on a book proposal with my agent, I scrambled on the slick rock in Arches. I ran a double traverse of Rocky Mountain National Park while editors considered the book proposal. I ran a double traverse of the Grand Canyon while waiting for the cover design and author endorsements.
And now I am here in yet another national park, the Grand Tetons, while I await publication.
Ironically, the wilderness is where I continuously re-establish my present-day safety. Here I reduce my survival to basics: Have I had enough to eat? Where will I find more water? Can I stay warm enough or cool enough? Even in these untamed places—with bears and snakes, lightning, cliffs and exposed ledges—I prove again and again that I am no longer the girl of my past. I reconnect with my most true self who has grown into her strength and confidence. I know my past is behind me.
The wilderness reminds me of the beauty in the world, in my life, and in myself. Nature’s majesty is the anecdote to the feelings of being trapped in a story which was sometimes brutal.
On this one-hundredth anniversary of the national parks, I celebrate what our wilderness gives to me and to all of those who seek out its medicine.
About the Author
Lynn Hall is an activist in the movement against sexual violence whose writing has appeared in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society and Hippocampus Magazine, among other publications. She lives in Boulder, CO. Her memoir Caged Eyes: An Air Force Cadet’s Story of Rape and Resilience comes out in February 2017. Follow her on Twitter at @LynnKHall and visit her website.