Anxiety: A Love Story

When our relationship was just six months old, my significant other and I packed up his parents’ Euro van for a road trip to Glacier National Park. It was the Friday evening of Labor Day weekend, and I wanted to arrive early Saturday morning. According to Google Maps, our destination was a nine-hour drive from Rylan’s Greenwood apartment. We stocked up on caffeinated beverages and agreed to sleep in shifts.

Rylan drove the first leg of the trip, while I pressed a pillow up against Big Blue’s passenger-side window and promptly fell asleep for the next five hours. He’d later inform me that I slept through a windshield-blurring rainstorm in Snoqualmie Pass, but when he woke me at a 7-Eleven in Spokane at 3 a.m., we mostly communicated via nods and grunts. Rylan refueled the van while I fueled up on Mountain Dew.

Driving through the night had seemed like such a good, practical idea, but as I settled into the driver’s seat I found the reality of it overwhelming. I didn’t own a car in Seattle, and I hadn’t driven in almost exactly a year. I wasn’t used to driving anymore, and my last car had been a little Ford Focus, not a bus. And before that, I’d totaled my tiny Toyota Corolla. But what choice did I have now? This was my idea, and now it was my turn. I adjusted the seat and the mirror, put Big Blue in drive, and got on with it.

Rylan fell asleep immediately, and I quickly remembered how much it freaks me out to be the only person left awake in a room. Like the last kid to fall asleep at a sleepover, I felt suddenly alone. I knew Rylan was physically right there next to me, and that the music playing and the car vibrations were likely leaking into his subconscious, but it did little to reassure me. I sent up a small prayer that he wouldn’t die in his sleep while lying next to me, and then I started to fixate on the next thing.

It was terribly dark outside. I didn’t know that it could get so dark. I’d expected the Idaho night sky to look like the Iowa night sky. Nights in Iowa, when the sky was clear and the moon was out, were always fairly bright. There, I could see the road stretch out in front of me, with its crisp white lines and glowing reflectors. Idaho was eye-straining dark. I could see only feet ahead of me, not miles, only as far as the headlights reached. It was like wearing a headlamp in a cave. I kept a white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel and tried not to run us into or off of any cliffs.

Halsey’s Badlands CD repeated itself several times, but I only took my eyes off the road to blink and only loosened my grip once the sun rose up over Montana, casting everything in a soft glow. I could finally see: highway, grass, mountains, sky. Welcome to Big Sky Country. I could finally breathe.

Rylan woke and we agreed to pull over at a truck stop. We needed to fuel up, stretch out, and find a restroom. My eyelids kept fluttering open and shut. Mountain Dew was no longer doing the trick, and I knew how dangerous that was. In 5th grade, a childhood friend’s sister had fallen asleep at the wheel and died, impaled by the divider on the Avenue of the Saints. Her husband and two little kids were in the car.

I knew better.

While I filled Big Blue’s tank, Rylan disappeared inside the rest stop building. He didn’t return in the time it took for me to take a bathroom break, locate and eat a granola bar, and notice his phone still in the passenger seat. I sent up another small prayer that he hadn’t gotten his throat slit in the men’s room. He came back shortly after that.

“How are you doing?” I asked him.

“A little panic attack-y,” he admitted, even though there’s no such thing as a little panic attack. I’ve been having them since I was a kid, but Rylan is the first person I’ve dated who also has them. His anxiety often makes him throw up, while mine mostly makes me tired. I’ve read that panic attacks take as much energy out of a person as running a marathon; the difference is no one ever gives you a sticker for having a panic attack.

I drove us the rest of the way to Apgar Campground, where we picked a cute spot to park and spend the night. We registered Big Blue, paying $20 cash for the night. We made sandwiches with supplies we packed away in the under-seat cooler and then transformed the back of the van into an all-purpose room. Big Blue was to be our tiny house for the next three-and-a-half days: only 49 square feet, but my god, the views!

I was interested to see how Rylan and I would fare in such cramped quarters. We were both introverts who valued breathing room and alone time; we definitely weren’t the couple that already basically lived together despite keeping separate addresses. Now that we were so far away from home, having already survived the night and a panic attack, I couldn’t help but view this excursion as a sort of relationship litmus test.

I hoped our experiences would bring us closer, not break us up.

When we drove all fifty miles of the Going-to-the-Sun Road neither of us complained that the sun was conspicuously missing for all of it, or that the mountains were all socked in with clouds. We were excited to reach the road’s highest point — Logan’s Pass at 6,646 feet — where we traversed the continental divide. On the less scenic US-89 S, we were delighted by the cows lazing on the shoulder of the road and the bighorn sheep ambling across the street. At Two Medicine Campground, we snagged a quaint little camping spot with a picnic table and a lake view. It was in a pocket of vegetation that obscured the sight of other campers. It appeared we had the place to ourselves.

We embarked on a three-mile hike to Twin Falls, where I was tempted to pick up and pocket the purple rocks sprinkled in our path along the way even though it’s a federal crime to do so. It may have also been a crime to climb up the falls, but I scrambled to the top anyway, though I didn’t follow Rylan when he decided to walk across a fallen tree. It seemed wise that only one of us should tempt fate at a time. On our way back to the campsite, we met fellow hikers who warned us they’d seen a bear up on the cliff ledge to our left, but when we looked we didn’t see a thing. No bears for us.

Ry and I visited the campground restroom before dark, but we both neglected to brush our teeth before the sun set. So Rylan located his headlamp and strapped it on, clicking through its three settings: on, off, and strobe light. With his toothbrush in hand, he announced, “Okay, I’m gonna go rave with bears now.” He pumped his arms while making the uns uns uns beat. I shooed him out the van and watched through the side-door window as his light bobbed around outside in the inky darkness.

I shimmied into warmer clothes for bedtime and looked for my own toothbrush and toothpaste. When Rylan opened the side door, I declared, “My turn!”

“All right,” said Rylan. “But first tell me if you see what I see.” He turned his head and shined his light onto the vegetation to our right, which was in the direction of the hiking trail we’d walked earlier.

In the brush, I saw two small circles of blue-white light reflected in the dark. Eyes. They were widely spaced enough I knew they must be in the center of a giant head.

“Get in the van!” I yanked on Ry’s arm and slammed the van door shut. “It’s fine,” I told him. “I decided I don’t need to brush my teeth anymore.”

We locked the doors for good measure.

“So that was a bear,” I said, shivering.

“He came for the bear rave,” agreed Rylan.

It’s no secret that Glacier has a bit of a bear problem. It’s part of why we were camping in a hard-shelled vehicle instead of a soft-shelled tent. On our last day at Glacier National Park, we moved campsites, relocating to Many Glacier Campground, where we set out on an ambitious final hike up to Grinnell Glacier. Our path was riddled with signs warning of Bear Danger.

“Should we have gotten bear bells?” I asked.

“You know what they call bear bells, right?” Rylan asked.

“No. What?”

“Dinner bells.”

Eventually we even reached a section of trail closed entirely due to bear danger, which redirected us to an apparently less bear danger-y path. At least everyone on the trails seemed just as — if not more — bear aware than we were.

Still, I was relieved when we gained enough elevation that the trees thinned out and then disappeared. I no longer had to wonder if a bear was lurking just feet away. I could see. Oh my god, could I see! I picked up a rock and threw it off the mountain’s edge just to make sure the view wasn’t a trick, a tapestry I could tear a hole through. Every few feet, I had to stop and stare, nature demanding it.

Rylan stopped, stared, and sighed next to me. “We never go anywhere pretty,” he deadpanned.

When we finally reached the hike’s destination, we saw that thanks to climate change, Grinnell Glacier was a big beautiful ice blue puddle. Signage at Logan’s Pass had warned us about this. Glacial retreat. Melt-back. We knew the glaciers might be gone in as little as four more years, as soon as 2020.

We stayed a while, breathing in the fresh air. Bearing witness. It felt important.

I carried that feeling with me over the next twenty-four hours: as we got caught in a rainstorm on the side of the mountain, the native Pacific Northwesterner without his rain jacket; as we enjoyed a lazy boat ride back to the van instead of walking through bear dangerland; as I savored a bottle of huckleberry beer; and as we drove home again, sharing driving responsibilities, taking in every sight we’d missed during our nighttime voyage out.

Back in Seattle, outside my Fremont apartment, Rylan and I hugged and kissed and said a reluctant goodbye. I thanked Big Blue for our safe trip.

Then I did the thing I do at the end of every adventure: I stood in the shower, under the hot water and steam, thinking about how what I’d so anticipated was now over, and how now I had something else.

I swear it’s almost its own feeling, experience being consolidated into memory.

Into snapshots and anecdotes.

A story I’m telling.

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