Six weeks ago, I went off the grid for six days on a yoga retreat, backpacking and camping in the backcountry of Yosemite National Park.
While packing for the trip, I left out most items I would usually bring. When camping in the wilderness, you gotta carry everything you bring, so best to pack only what you need to survive. Employing that gameplan to this story, I left out most of what I originally wrote while on retreat - taking only what I need to survive going forward. Which ironically isn’t the story of what happened in Yosemite. It’s the story of what happened before. And what happened after.
Fear is what happened before.
I was TERRIFIED to go on that trip. A couple of weeks before I departed, I actually tried to get out of it. A short list of excuses why: leaving my two businesses during a busy week, the work piling up upon return, going on an extreme trip with no one I knew, the unknown physical challenges of traveling to and living in the wilderness, thinking my yoga practice wasn’t strong enough to handle two classes a day, the trip cost more money than I had to spend on it, thinking I didn't deserve it, not knowing what would happen in the world while I was gone, it seemed like bad timing, something bad would happen, danger, injury, BEARS, MOUNTAIN LIONS, falling off a cliff, dying. FUCK. Cue the panic attack.
Thankfully, friend people swooped in and saved me. Friends Carl and Nadia said there will never be a good time to go, and I already put down a non-refundable deposit, so I might as well go. Friend Nora said not to deny Yosemite the opportunity to show me how beautiful it is. Friend Doug said that if I didn't go, he'd be mad at me.
Not wanting to argue against rationality, disappoint Yosemite, or ever be in a fight with Doug Sohn, I borrowed a bunch of camping gear, broke in my hiking boots, and prepared to go off the grid.
Shutting down my communications, magical things started to happen when I disconnected from my world and disappeared into another. After muscling through three flights, I met up in Fresno with the (as it turns out, wonderful) people I was to travel with to the backcountry. We crammed in a van for a twisty/turny four hour ride to the Porcupine Creek Trailhead. We then embarked on the four hour hike downhill to get to our campsite. About two hours into it, and with fifty pounds of gear strapped to my back, I thought my legs were going to break. Our wilderness guide, Jesse, told me with a knowing smile that it would all be worth it when we got to where we going.
Finally, the panoramic scene above came into view. I approached it in slow motion. The sun was setting against the massive Half Dome and the valley below it. I distinctly remember looking at Alex, our other guide, and quietly speaking “Have you ever seen anything like this?”. He said no, just as quietly. Its crushing beauty rendered me silent and still. I dropped my pack, and stood in complete awe. And then... six days in that place, absent of modern amenities, internet, media, and most of humanity, and full of super-sized nature and all the things that dwell in it.
Now. I could tell the stories of the week. How quickly the nine of us bonded. How we jumped into pools made by waterfalls. How we bushwhacked off trail to a cliff with magnificent views of the valley and how a tree branch ripped a badass scratch across my face. How my yoga practice thrived. How to make excellent pad thai with only a soup pot, a campfire burner, some noodles, dehydrated vegetables, and bottled sauce. How I found my tree… a stand alone pine among the millions strong Yosemite tree nation.
How an eye to eye meditation can fill you with tears of joy. How living in stripped down, wild nature can change your perspective on your place in the world. How a lady bear sauntered into our camp at night and I wasn’t afraid. How I felt a deer nudging my tent overnight, his antlers gently tapping on my back. How the deer then followed me around all week, even showing up to watch an evening yoga class. (Picture the deer version of a Ryan Gosling meme: “Hey girl… nice downward dog.”) I could write a novel on the days I spent there and never fully represent the experience.
But that stuff really only has meaning to me. While pushing through the brutal uphill hike back to civilization, my primary concern (besides not passing out) was how I was going to retain all that I got from Yosemite. How would I apply it? How would I manage to keep it alive?
The shift from off the grid survival mode to on the grid comfort mode is easy in the immediate, especially when you haven’t showered, sat on a toilet, or checked your phone in a week. But once I got back to work and life in Chicago, it wasn’t so easy.
When coming back on the grid, it’s recommended to take a day or two to re-acclimate. Reentry can be rough and if you don’t give yourself time to ease back in, you could crash and burn. Or procrastinate doing anything tangible to apply the experience. Which are exactly the things that I did.
I didn’t unpack my backpack for a week. Similarly, I didn’t compile any of my writings for longer. Thought process: If I didn’t unpack or write about it, the experience wasn’t really over. I also threw myself back into work, and paid for it in the form of exhaustion and lack of focus, which is not great when you run businesses, and have business partners and employees who depend on you to be present, have positive energy, and get shit done. Cue the denial.
Needed something from my backpack, I finally opened it, and the overwhelming smell of campfire permeated the room. In an instant, I was transported back. And then something stirred in me. I realized that I didn’t want to deny myself the opportunity to show Yosemite how I would use the beautiful gifts it gave me. So I started to unpack. It wasn’t until I took that action that the aftereffects of the trip slowly started to unfold.
As I pulled each item from the pack, a memory was triggered. I’ve found that some of the objects hold a lot of weight and emotion, regardless of price, size, or value in the world.
My yoga mat, still stuck with tree sap and dirt. Lovely reminders to think of mountains, trees, and sky to deepen my practice. My rain jacket, that I pledged not to wash until it no longer smelled of campfire. Forty days later, it protected me during a torrential downpour at a music festival -- the burnt sweet scent still lingering and the memories making me smile while getting soaked. My Camelback water bottle, straight up adult sippy cup style, now accompanies me everywhere, along with a constant mental reminder from our guides to stay hydrated. A little piece of bark from my tree that stuck to my tank top when I hugged it goodbye. It now hangs in my home as a symbol of the inspiration that comes from nature; the compassion and gratitude that came from slowing down, letting go, and giving thanks for all it.
That said, none of my problems or issues were solved in Yosemite. It did liberate me, in a way, and the power of nature certainly is healing -- but it didn’t fix anything. I didn’t transform into a entirely different, fully enlightened person in a week. The best way I can describe it is that I journeyed in looking through one lens and journeyed out looking through another. It has been tough to keep the off the grid view while being back on the grid, and back in everything that is the same before I left. The experience gifted me some new tools to help deal with life more effectively, but I know it’s on me to utilize them.
One of the best tools I received, from our guide Jesse, was the idea that nature wants to connect with us -- and there is nature to be found everywhere, even in urban dense Chicago. Now when I start to take things too seriously, lose focus, or long for that connection with nature, I’m acutely aware of the need to immerse back in it. Not having easy access to places like Yosemite, I turn to the trees that line the streets in my neighborhood, the garden I planted on the upstairs deck at work, and bike rides through forest preserves with Nora for solace, respite, and renewal.
Part of my connection to Yosemite was the people I lived with in it. Now when I want to talk about the experience or struggle with being back, I reach out to my backcountry companions for support and empathy. The group ate dinner at my restaurant recently, and I think Karen put it into words best -- with her hands folded across her heart, she said we needed to keep it alive “in here.”
On retreat in Yosemite, there was not much I had to do. But the stuff I had to do, I really had to do or else not good things would happen. Like stay hydrated, stay healthy, stay warm and dry, stay rested, stay aware of emotional, mental and physical states and address them directly, don’t put myself in harm’s way, don’t put others in harm’s way, avoid injury and death. Those solid strategies applied now are helping me survive and thrive in life on the grid.
Yosemite showed me that I want things to move me, change me, challenge me, for the better. That I want to stay more connected to nature and less connected to things that inhibit that connection. Thus, I’ve started to act more and procrastinate less. Starting with taking care of my life, which includes writing this story, and the elimination of those fears I felt before I left. Like I do deserve it, I’m stronger and more courageous than I think I am, and everything is fine at work when I’m not there.
So… love is what happened after.
Love of the things that hold the memories, that help the off the grid experiences stay alive in life on the grid. Of the people who helped me to get there, and the people I experienced it with. Of nature and all the gifts it gives us. Of what I discovered out in the backcountry, and of the commitment I make to myself to apply it. Of self, as I push forward in life unknown, new Yosemite lens in place over my eyes.
I couldn’t say if you would like going on a backpacking and camping yoga retreat in Yosemite or if you would hate it. I can’t say what you would or would not get from it, because I'm not you. But I will say there are great rewards in completely disconnecting from the world and finding connection in another, with others, with nature, and with most importantly with yourself. If you choose that mission, godspeed. I hope you do, especially if you fear it in advance.
There is never a good time to do it, so you might as well do it. Don’t deny an experience of going off the grid the opportunity to show you how beautiful it can be. And if you don’t at least try it, if only once, I’ll tell Doug to be mad at you.