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Meltdown memories: Learning from the tears

  • Author: Alli Harvey
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: March 7, 2020
  • Published March 7, 2020

You could call it an adult temper tantrum, or simply a meltdown. My husband calls it kicking the dirt. It’s that feeling when, as a fully grown person, you are overwhelmed with frustration but you’re just not interested in working through it in any way that could be called productive.

Cue the tears and expletives. A meltdown can happen at any time, really, but it seems the likelihood goes up when you’re outside.

It’s a potent thing, needing something to blame and having no clear outlet. The fever pitch of feeling fed up or worn out, often with no end in sight, creates a negative loop that snowballs. And sometimes, with nowhere else for that energy to go, it volcanoes up and out over whoever happens to be in spitting distance.

Here are three vignettes of adult temper tantrums I have had over the years, all of them with my husband, listed in progressing order of severity.

The Great Sit Down

We were new in our relationship and I was visiting from Alaska back when he lived in Reno, Nevada. We’d met at a Patagonia conference, so it was no surprise that we shared an interest in being outside. Thing is, Reno is at altitude, 4,500 feet, and for this asthmatic flatlander it took a long time for my lungs to adjust every time I flew there. When we went hiking I felt surprisingly sluggish and winded.

One visit we set out to climb this mountain just outside of Reno called Tule Peak. I learned that many times in Nevada, a “trailhead” is simply a GPS point somewhere on a rambling dirt road. It took 30 minutes of rambling along a washboard road with the CD player installed in the center console wiggling like a loose tooth in the Duracell bunny. When we arrived at what we were 75% sure was our destination (no sign), there was no trail. It was a make-your-own-adventure kind of thing.

I looked up at what appeared to be the peak. I forced a smile. I gamely picked my way through desert plants, forging a path up.

About three-quarters of the way to the top, I sat down. I was breathing hard. I had a headache. Internally, my voice was screaming, “Why didn’t you tell me it was like this?!” Externally, the honeymoon phase in our relationship won over and I said mildly, as I sat on the ground, “I think I’m done.”

The honeymoon’s over

The next visit signaled the official end of our honeymoon phase.

We were on a backpacking trip with a group of volunteers in the Santa Rosa mountain range in northern Nevada. This trip was what sold me on Nevada, above meltdown aside. The desert was beautiful, surprisingly full of water, and there were no other humans in sight for an entire five nights of backpacking.

Our first night out on the trail, my then-boyfriend and I hiked fast because our plan was to meet up with the rest of the group the following day. When we were tired we stopped, unrolled our pads and sleeping bags, and slept under the stars — pretty much unheard of in Alaska.

The moon was big, the air crisp and dry, and I didn’t know enough about mountain lions to be worried. I was still in that phase of our relationship where everything felt like fireworks. The beautiful desert night was a bonus.

But once we rejoined the group, the serenity of just the two of us vanished. My boyfriend’s attention focused on his pals. I was new to the group and thought he didn’t do enough to invite me into conversations when we were all hanging out and cooking dinner. The feeling of being left out grew over the hours until it reached a fever pitch and was unleashed as soon as we walked away from the group to set up our tent.

There were tears. There was confusion. More tears, more confusion. Eventually, after an exhaustive talk, we came to an understanding and went to bed, again, under the starry desert sky. The honeymoon was officially over, but a new phase had begun.

The Tolovana train wreck

Eight years and a wedding later, our adventure to Tolovana Hot Springs was my husband’s Christmas gift to me last year.

I wrote about our trip, which is truly an Interior adventure. The word “adventure,” by the way, is sometimes a euphemism for major pain in the butt. Halfway through our cross-country trek over various domes, my husband asked, in his most innocuous tone, “Do you want to turn around?”

“No,” I said, emphatic because I was winded and spitting out words, and because I suddenly realized there really was no way but forward. I was in the middle of a struggle uphill with my skis, and I needed to get through it.

My meltdown was not directed at him. I wasn’t blaming anyone — well, except for maybe the many people who got a faraway look in their eyes when they talked about Tolovana but had never fully said: it’s HARD.

With my adult temper tantrum contained to that moment, I thought maybe I had finally grown up.

If growing up is just knowing what a meltdown is when it’s happening, there’s power to that. It still doesn’t keep the tears away, just trains them in a different direction — these days, usually away from my husband.


Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.