“I’m sorry, there’s no heartbeat.”

I am post-ultrasound and still naked from the waist down when the doctor delivers the news that the fetus inside me, my baby, isn’t going to make it. An estimated one in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage, and an unknown proportion of those miscarriages are “missed”—a loss with no symptoms. Like me, those who have a missed miscarriage continue to experience all the signs of a healthy pregnancy, only to be blindsided at their next ultrasound appointment. The shock is a one-two punch. First, the abrupt obliteration of an envisioned future. Second, the sense of bodily betrayal. Not only had my body failed to fulfill its biological purpose, it had become a mortuary without even noticing.

It was the spring of 2021 and pregnant bellies bloomed around me like saccharine cherry blossoms. Everywhere I looked I saw babies and bumps—a constant reminder of what I should have but didn’t.

“What if we left Brooklyn and traveled around the country for a while?” I asked my husband. We had been unlucky, but we were privileged to have stable jobs that we could do remotely. A change would be good, I reasoned. We could visit the national parks we’ve always wanted to see and become serious hikers. Perhaps tackling the country’s toughest trails might even help me believe my body was still capable of physical feats, despite failing at fertility.

Four months later, on a clear morning at the end of July, we left New York City in an overstuffed Honda Civic with our corgi, Loaf, headed west with no clear itinerary in mind. That first week, we relished figuring out the route as we went along. We scoured Google Maps for interesting lunch stops—the perfect powdery beaches of Indiana Dunes National Park on the shore of Lake Michigan, the cool cascades of Falls Park on the Big Sioux River in South Dakota—and we slept at cheap, chain motels with loud, clunky A/C units and free breakfast buffets (waffles if we were lucky). 

Eventually, we unpacked at a lakeside cabin in Montana, where mountains serrated the horizon and animals paraded past the back porch. It was gorgeous, and a little unnerving. A born-and-bred big city person, I am more relaxed around throngs of anonymous humans than wildlife—in order to be more confident and competent in nature, I looked up what to do in the event of a bear encounter and researched the proper way to deploy bear spray.

But I quickly learned that seeing a grizzly in real life, as we did on our first day at Glacier National Park, is not something you can truly prepare for.

The writer at the Grand Canyon

Esme Benjamin

About an hour and a half into our hike along the Highline—an 11-mile trail famous for awe-striking views and a ledge that teeters above a vertigo-inducing drop—we emerged from a section of knotty flora into an open meadow. “Wait, do you see that,” my husband said, pulling me to a stop. About 100 feet away, tucked behind a grassy knoll, a young bear was gorging on huckleberries, its huge paws pulling branches of plump fruit close.

After cautious observation and a quick discussion with some fellow hikers, we decided it was safe to proceed—bear spray at the ready. Our group, now six-people strong, passed the preoccupied bear and continued along the trail unscathed. It was the first time on the trip I felt like a proper hiker. And it gave me a new appetite: for challenges that revealed a different side of myself—a side that was braver and comfortable in the outdoors.

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