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“It was a serendipitous moment of clarity that seemed to break through the pillar of strength I had created.”

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By Kelsey Leighton

Yes, we had a hashtag for our wedding, #BKWed2013. We did all the right things: we met at a party in college, went on road trips together, kissed under the campanile at Iowa State University, moved to Silicon Valley, raved together, took selfies, and relished the fact that we each had a partner-in-crime in this crazy life.

This is the story of one of the most defining weekends of our relationship.

It was around 11 p.m. on a weeknight. I was just about to lull into a deep sleep when my husband turned over abruptly.

“Don’t you ever feel like we are such different people? We have so many different interests, sometimes it feels like we aren’t meant to be together. What do you think?”

And, the kicker:

“I really feel like I’m no longer attracted to you. I wish you lived a more active lifestyle.”

My prince, my best friend, the man waiting at the end of a garden aisle as I glided forward, buoyed by the sound of Coldplay, just said I wasn’t enough.

He longed to bag peaks, set personal records for speed and distance in the backcountry, and go to remote areas of Afghanistan to see what very few have seen. I dreamed of eating great food, laughing a lot with friends, and being successful in my career.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. My prince, my best friend, the man waiting at the end of a garden aisle as I glided forward, buoyed by the sound of Coldplay, just said I wasn’t enough. I swear I could hear my heart breaking. I felt a physical pain split open my chest, a wound opening up that would be nearly impossible to close. How could this be true? I was almost asleep.

This is obviously a dream, I thought.

Now, this was not the first time we’d gone down this rabbit hole. When I met Brice, I knew he operated on a different intensity level than me. He’d ask me extremely deep questions like, “How would different industries be affected by the implementation of A.I.?” or “What different types of life forms live on other galaxies?” And these were just the questions he would ask me on our way to a 6:00 a.m. flight or on a crowded train ride to San Francisco. I knew full well Brice needed to be stimulated 100 percent of the time—both physically and mentally. I was attracted to his intensity because it pushed me to think more creatively. It challenged me.

Almost exactly one year before this evening of “awakening,” Brice’s serious questioning of our relationship led us to seek the help of a counselor. She was excellent, helping us grow both as a couple and individually. We benefited from the counseling, but it proved to be simply the chemo treatment to our cancer, something that merely prolonged a terminal diagnosis.

After a week of dissecting the recent evening of raw emotion and feeling a very painful version of déjà vu, we decided to spend a week apart. Basically, this meant living in the same house but occupying different bedrooms and leading completely separate lives. It felt like I was living in a story someone was reading to me: wake up, work, go home, cry, sleep, repeat. The pain, fear, rejection, and complete shock radiated through my body like an oscillating fan, never stopping.

It proved to be simply the chemo treatment to our cancer, something that merely prolonged a terminal diagnosis.

Meanwhile, Brice seemed to come alive. He ran to the grocery store and smiled incessantly. He had just freed himself of a weight bearing down on him for months, and he didn’t hide his excitement in his newfound confessions. Toward the end of the week, we shared our thoughts on the past few days.

“All we need to do is spend some time together; I just know we will find each other through this and be stronger than ever,” I pleaded with him.

During a session I frantically scheduled with our counselor, Brice clearly outlined several items he felt he needed to continue our relationship. Among them, he explained that he longed to have me on his mountaineering expeditions, that he wanted me to come “70 percent of the way” with him on these trips to grow closer and, ultimately, to continue being married to me.

So, we embarked on a trip together. I would discover whether I was physically cut out for this relationship and whether I could perform as needed by my partner. Within an hour of haphazard planning and packing, we were on the road to Ventana Wilderness, a popular Big Sur backpacking destination.

My breath immediately quickened, and it began to sink in what I had just committed to—the longest, hardest, highest backpacking trip of my life.

Throughout the week before, something had formed inside of me, an incredible pillar of strength to push down whatever horrible emotions I was experiencing, filed away to deal with later. I decided I needed to stand up and be strong for my husband, who needed me to show him how this would simply amount to another blip on the #BKWed2013 radar. We would come out of this stronger and more in love than ever.

We got to the Big Sur Campground trailhead that evening. We climbed to our first night’s campsite just as the sun was setting over the majestic Pacific Ocean. The trail was well-maintained but steep, and I hadn’t put on a pack in five months. My breath immediately quickened, and it began to sink in what I had just committed to—the longest, hardest, highest backpacking trip of my life.

To confirm the authenticity of this “experiment” (it wasn’t a test), Brice insisted that I carry all my own supplies; we would experience this trip as if we were backpacking partners, and I wasn’t to expect the same “coddling” I’d received during prior trips. And so I shouldered the most weight I’d ever carried—approximately thirty-five pounds.

This was my first evening backpacking trip. I’m the kind of person who can’t even watch horror-movie trailers and uses nightlights liberally, so night hiking had never been high on my “to-do” list. As night fell, I strapped on my Petzl headlamp and continued down the windy, cliff-sided trail.

As we climbed, we discussed our relationship, our differences.

After about two-and-a-half miles, I asked that we stop at one of the brush-filled outcroppings that seemed to have just enough room for a two-person backpacking tent. Luckily, there were two other women who had made the same decision, so it seemed safe enough. We ate a couple of the rationed ProBars and went to sleep. I woke to Brice shaking my shoulder, jarring me awake to the full reality of what I’d signed up for. I took in the scene around us. There was no denying the drop-dead gorgeousness of waking up to the Big Sur coastline, but just beyond where our tent was pitched, just out of headlamp reach, was a drop-off so steep it would have caused anyone’s demise with a couple of wrong steps on a late-night bathroom trip. We packed up camp, offered our campsite mates well-wishes for the day, and strapped on our packs to summit Cone Peak, which beckoned 5,155 feet above sea level.

As we climbed, we discussed our relationship, our differences. Brice inquired about my life’s passions and asked me to explain to him things he did not know about the various subjects. Since his “list” of requirements for continuing our marriage required that I challenge him and teach him new things, I wasn’t surprised to be questioned.

As our backpacking shoes crunched on the gravel trail and I kept the indications of developing blisters to myself, we theorized how a dating site would operate for people who were into the outdoors. I confessed my deepest fears about dating: I’m an introvert with extroverted tendencies, and the dating world was a deep sea I had no interest diving into. We talked about what our lives would be like after we were apart, and who we’d want to be. Thinking about these things prior to this adventure would have paralyzed me with fear, but my pillar of strength kept me from caving. Somehow, I stayed present in the conversation and validated everything he needed me to. I worked hard to forget the person I used to be and to embody the person he had clearly outlined in his expectations. 

Surely this would fix everything, I thought.

Just before the summit, we came upon the two women who had camped next to us the prior evening and exchanged photo-taking responsibilities. Brice, who had found a piece of trash on the trail and wrapped it around his forehead in what I think was a display of his playful and exuberant personality, stood at least a foot away from me in the photo. We learned that the girls, who had just summited, were both backpacking novices and one of them had never backpacked before.

After passing them, Brice turned to me. “The reason I’m not afraid to be alone is because I know there are girls out there like that,” he said. 

I dismissed the comment in my mind as if it was a bad restaurant recommendation.

Finally, after hours of hiking, stopping to apply duct tape to my blisters, eating half a ProBar, refilling our water, hearing Brice tell me that I’m the slowest hiker and everyone was going to summit before us, we made it to the top of Cone Peak (pictured above). It was the tallest peak I’d ever hiked from start to summit, but we took zero summit photos together. I had to ask Brice to take a photo of me at the top, because I deliriously imagined I’d want to remember the moment. Poetically, we stood on opposite sides of the summit to take in the view—me on the ocean side, Brice on the vast Santa Lucia range side.

We had to get moving quickly because it had taken me longer than expected to summit, and we still had an additional three-to-four miles to hike before the anticipated creekside campsite dinner. As we hiked, Brice asked me to lead, an abnormal request because I usually followed Brice on trips due to my fear of snakes on the trail. (I dread running into a snake and therefore always am second—or last—in a group to allow for plenty of time for my backcountry archnemesis to vacate the trail.) I jumped each time a lizard skittered by and stopped to ensure it was not, in fact, a snake. Thanks to Brice’s hyper-speedy hiking pace, he was directly behind me, and we would bump into each other often, which led to several long, frustrated sighs and commands for me to stop being so jumpy. I profusely apologized.

As my blisters grew and the day progressed, I became very exhausted—we were nearing fifteen miles and I had hiked (without a pack) that distance only once before, in the Santa Cruz mountains. I then treated myself to a serious Netflix binge afterwards. There was no Netflix, couch, or ice out here.

I tried to push the thought out of my mind that I had to do it all over again tomorrow and somehow carry myself and my thirty-five-pound pack out of the woods—both literally and figuratively.

I didn’t break my heart open, sob, get angry, throw things, or poison his breakfast like I wanted to.

We descended for what seemed like the longest four miles of my life, and pitched our tent alongside a rocky, slanted creekside. I pulled my own weight—pumping my own water, helping to pitch the tent, clearing the ground debris, assembling my own dinner, and listening to Brice devise a plan for living apart for a month following the trip, so that he could determine whether he would be happier on his own, or if we were really meant to make it through this trying time. I supported him throughout the conversation, conceptualizing what our financial, personal, and professional lives would be like without one another. As soon as I felt I had supported him in all the ways he needed, I crashed headfirst into a deep sleep.

The sun rose and filtered through the tent, and Brice, once again, made sure I woke up at a reasonable hour to make it out of the park on time, despite my tortoise-paced hiking speed. I assessed my pain level from head to toe. It felt like I’d walked on hot coals while carrying the weight of rejection and neglect for way too long. Again, I pushed those feelings aside and buttoned up my mind and body to make the last part of the trek through the Ventana Wilderness. I didn’t break my heart open, sob, get angry, throw things, or poison his breakfast like I wanted to. I surrounded myself with an unknown strength that I’ve never had before and proceeded with pleasant conversation—just like a good wife would, right?

I surrounded myself with an unknown strength that I’ve never had before.

We hiked down through many different ecosystems, and I continued to validate and echo Brice’s worries, fears, thoughts, and excitement for our assumed future together. This was all going to work out, and we were going to be stronger because of it. I wouldn’t let myself think anything else until other decisions were made.

As my body cried out for rest, I ignored the physical signs of exhaustion and continued hiking. But I stumbled among some protruding roots and almost fell off the side of the trail. I looked to Brice for support, but he was focused on drinking in every aspect of the scenery around us. He took advantage of every opportunity to absorb the sights and exclaim how alive he felt. He kept the same energy and radiated happiness with every step. He told me how excited he was to continue doing trips like this together, but higher, harder, and more often.

As we went through the last mountain saddle and over the ridge line to get a clear view of the Big Sur Campground parking lot, one of my blisters popped. I screamed my first expletive of the trip as I fell to grasp my hiking poles and utilize them as crutches. I felt like a marathoner who had just witnessed the finish line move farther into the distance. The pain increased and every searing step felt like ten.

Brice was treating me like a backpacking buddy he was jaunting around with for the weekend. He happily agreed when I finally got up the courage to tell him so. It hurt, but I swallowed my pride and asked if I could use his arm to make it through the last bit of the hike, if I could just grab onto his forearm and use it to prevent me from careening off the edge of the mountain.

“The trail really isn’t wide enough,” he said. “Can’t you just use your hiking poles?”

Somehow, I subdued the urge to use my hiking pole to push him off the edge.

We finally made it to the parking lot. I could see the car. I felt heaven raining relief down upon me. I was so happy I actually dominated the hike and survived with only minor injuries. I hoped it was enough to make him stay.

On the car ride back, I begged Brice to stop and pick up something to eat. We had run out of food, and I had consumed my last meal—a rationed quarter of a ProBar and a brownie—almost six hours before we reached the end of the trail. I was desperate for something to eat.

“So what you want is for me to try and find something open at this hour, go inside for you, and get you something that meets your standard for dinner?” he asked.

YES. Yes, that’s what I wanted! Food. In my mouth. Now.

I somehow suppressed my growling stomach and need to eat anything other than a ProBar, and happily accepted his denial. We watched the sunset as he complimented me on how amazing I had done on the trail. He couldn’t believe I made it the full 32.1 miles.

“I just know that your next relationship will be successful because of how hard you’ve worked on this one,” he said.

At this point, I was certain I was suffering from delusion.

“Oh, thank you for saying that,” I replied calmly.

My pillar of strength broke just enough to let one or two tears run down my face, as it began to sink in that these would be the last few hours I would be married to my husband.

Almost an hour-and-a-half later, I convinced Brice to stop and pick up some dim sum. From the car, I watched him exit the restaurant.

“Goodbye, Brice,” I whispered to myself.

I began to realize it was time to let him, our nearly three-year marriage, and all of the memories we had made together, go. It was time for me to admit I’d never be the wife he longed for, the partner he needed, or the love of his life. It was a serendipitous moment of clarity that seemed to break through the pillar of strength I had created to physically and mentally make it through the “experiment.” It was both freeing and incredibly painful at the same time. I began to feel something lift. By the time I told Brice I wanted a divorce, I felt myself fly away.

Later, at an individual counseling session with my therapist, she said something to me I’ll never forget.

“Kelsey, your marriage was not a failure,” she said. “Do not think of it that way. Your marriage was a success because you both knew when it was over.”

Divorce & Family Challenges Resilience Building resilience Collective resilience Divorce Finding meaning Separation Women
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