When the Smoke Clears

Words by Liz Weber  and photos by Sam Ortiz

I remained quiet as we bounced over dirt roads, windows down and dust dancing in the air. The smell of weed mingled with wet dog and the distinct aroma of a dirtbag lifestyle. The buzz of the Lil Smokies burned through the old truck speakers as the heavy smoke circled through the cab. Two huskies nestled their heads against my leg, a comforting pressure against uncomfortable memories.

I opened my mouth to speak. Something, anything. But my voice remained lodged somewhere between the beating of my heart and the sharp memory of a hand on my throat.

when the smoke clears - by liz weber

The man I shared a tent with the thunderstorm-wrecked night before was a friend. We’d scrambled up hidden peaks, camped beside glacier-fed lakes, and biked through muddied trails. We had shared huckleberry pancakes, flat beers, and the quiet moments of a star-lit sky. Through all of these adventures ran a vein of trust and respect.

But that night, through the soft haze of too many warm beers and stale fear, his hands destroyed something fragile. It was a silent struggle, filled more with confusion than anger. Sharp pressure on my neck, hot breath, and a partially unzipped sleeping bag. Giving up, he eventually passed out. But one hand remained entwined deep in my hair, anchoring me to his side.

I laid awake, counting the seconds in-between lightning flashes. Uncertain if the shaking came from the thunder overhead or my own body. Wondering where my voice had gone when I could still hear the echoes of it inside my head.

when the smoke clears - by liz weber

Outside of a few close friends, I didn’t speak of that night. The man and I never acknowledged what happened. In a small mountain town, close-knit and joined in pursuit of the same outdoor adventures, it seemed easier to move on.

But I spent the remainder of that summer in a fog of my own making. I smoked too much, drank more than normal. I ran mountain trails on an empty stomach, skipping meals and ditching friends.

More than a bond of trust, I lost the ease and comfort that seemed to come so easy when I was outdoors. The sense that it was as much my space as any others. Between the shattering lightning and rolling thunder, the safe place of respect and adventure was torn apart by searching hands.

The wild places no longer felt like home.

More than a bond of trust, I lost the ease and comfort that seemed to come so easy when I was outdoors. The sense that it was as much my space as any others. 

when the smoke clears - by liz weber

Over the past few years, the outdoor community has worked to become a more inclusive environment. Outside devoted an issue to women and pledged to be a platform for minority voices. Women-run media companies are increasing readership. Empowering adventure retreats have gained popularity. And female athletes are speaking out on issues ranging from lower sponsorship pay to disordered eating habits.

Yet, in the weeks and months after that night, I searched for similar stories. I needed to know I wasn’t alone. Besides a few nauseating, how-not-to-get-assaulted articles, mainstream adventure magazines yielded nothing useful. The women brave enough to share their experiences were few and scattered.

Without a platform for similar stories, there was nothing to shield against the twist in the gut and the toxic voice that wondered what I could’ve done differently.

when the smoke clears - by liz weber

I don’t have any answers. It’s two years later and I still hesitate to share a tent. Trust is slow to come. No longer flowing smooth and easy, it jolts and stumbles through log jams and eddies of second-guessing and self-doubt. There are rapids I’m not aware of until I shoot through them, drenched and gasping for air on the other side. Bear spray is packed to ward off two-legged predators more than any four-legged, furry ones.

But I do know this: I keep going outdoors. I find solace in the night sky cascading with bright stars. I invite the burn of my calves and the ache of my shoulders as I reach another summit. I seek out companionship and connection in the wild, lost places of the map. I find inspiration in my fellow outdoorswomen and men who move through this world with compassion and strength.

I’ve learned something important since that night; piecing it together with equal parts sweat and tears, from peaks to glaciers to crashing coastlines. My love for wild places is stronger than anything one man can destroy.

when the smoke clears - by liz weber

My love for wild places is stronger than anything one man can destroy.

I’ve stopped hiding my voice behind a fog of smoke and confusion. It moves free and strong. Stark like lightning. Deep like thunder.

Liz Weber is a freelance writer currently exploring the wonders of the PNW. She can often be found with wind-blown hair, dog-eared notebook, and too many travel dreams. Follow her journey on Instagram.

Photos by Sam Ortiz. Sam is a freelance adventure photographer based in Tacoma, Washington. Despite years living in the PNW, she remains entranced by the fog-shrouded mountain peaks and misty shores. Follow her on Instagram.