Feet pushing me out in front, leading the three behind me, legs finding my forest rhythm through the rhododendron grove. I suck in the cool, moist air, smell the rich dirt, feel the gray rock towering above me, up and out, overshadowing and protecting. A rushing creek, one-two-hop across, a waterfall, a smooth wooden ladder with worn dips in the rungs from years of climber hands and feet. Fingers trailing along cold, pleasantly rough sandstone, boots tramping up and over and beside root networks and bouncing from rock to rock by a bright blue lake glistening in the sun. The newly adorned trees whisper with their happy green leaves, welcoming. I name the walls and routes as we go by, stories flooding inside, filling with bright histories and remembered laughter. I announce when we go by, a proud tour guide come home again. D.C. Memorial Boulder (a gray hunk of cubed stone), Gun Wall (concentrated string of 5.10s), Chewy (the fun 5.10 with the bouldery start), Under the Milky Way (5.11, popular, slopey, and difficult), Satisfaction Guaranteed (sought-after 5.11a with the pinkie blood spot under the roof and the rhododendron chair beneath). The lake laps fully, contented, on the shore, previously protruding triangle boulders now humbly submerged, silver points poking out quietly, subdued by the happily returned waters, sparkling and rejoicing in the sun. I feel my spirits lift higher and higher as my feet find themselves closer and closer to the center of things, to the geographical pivot of my world, emerging from the smooth-barked saplings and wide-leaved rhododendron bush to a small, tan beach of hard-packed earth, perfect hammock trees, stretching tan-orange rock with iron bands and Hippie Dreams routes basking luxuriously in the sun–

And I am home.

I strip off my outer clothes before I can think, hot from the excited hike, and wade into the cool blue-green water, plunging beneath, spinning around like a silly mermaid, feeling the softness against my skin. What freedom there is here! What aliveness. My body waking up to vibrancy of things. My friends and I stretch out in the sun and let our skin soak in the rays, warmth radiating. Monarch butterflies float through this stretch of solitude, our corner of the world, somewhere to hold us and hide us and heal us.

I read and think and climb and laugh. Yet still the core quiet deep blue sadness remains like a permanent dusk inside. It is so weird to realize that happiness and sadness are not mutually exclusive–in fact, right now, it is impossible to be happy without the sad being there too. Here, in the place I love best, I can be happy-sad… and that itself is a gift. I am glad to be here. I am glad to be me. Here, I can rest. The missing and hurt doesn’t stop, but here I can live. It is odd, too, realizing that for the first time, being here doesn’t fix everything, fix me, even though it  does make living a million times easier. It makes me realize that yes, home is a place, but even more so, home is a person. And that’s okay. I am just so grateful I get to be in my place-home, if not with my person-home–everywhere is home when I’m with him, and I think for me, that is how it should be.

The afternoon slides by with a plethora of silliness–goldfish on a sleeping friend’s eyes and getting lost on simple paths and dizzy upside-down lake shenanigans sixty feet up in the air, hands reaching to the sky and the ground all at once, and mountains of photos, clicking away swinging on slings and hoping they hold, and traversing over lichen far from my anchors with my heartbeat pumping, and doing things that scare me just a little. What a thing it is to feel confident and comfortable in a wild place like this, accepted and wanted by it, belonging, even as my heart aches as it does. I am thankful to have a haven that doesn’t move or radically change, at least in any way that matters to me. It will always welcome me back, no matter what state of Ashley I’m in. I don’t have to worry about how it ‘sees’ me or will ‘handle’ me–there is only understanding and peace here. It doesn’t know how to be anything else. It doesn’t know how well it is a haven to so many people who feel like they have none.

We hike out with the promise of hot dogs and a campfire. The low sun is beautiful and golden, lighting up the meadow and rocky path with the majestic light of adventure, bathing everyone equally and liberally, regardless of ability or identity–just the effort put forth to exist here earning it. I am exhausted, inside and out. Sad-happy–what a strange thing. But today was one of the first in a while that felt worth living at the end. I am glad that today I was me, here, and that, by God’s grace, it was mine to live.