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Taking the First Step

Last week I spent four glorious days in solitude deep in the Nevada City woods and the only thing that I was afraid of was myself.

I went out to the woods like many spirit seekers before me, hoping to unplug from the near constant ‘on’ position my nervous system operates in most days and to awaken a deeper part of myself. Since beginning my journey towards self alignment and care I’ve taken almost yearly pilgrimages to sit with some of the most holy living people. I meditated my way through much of my adult life with the likes of Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama. At the end of each retreat I left a little kinder towards myself and a little less sad at the state of the world.

Since my early 20’s I’ve also had an insatiable desire to immerse myself in powerful places on earth, to release, rebalance, and recharge myself. Pristine, natural environments have played a major role in my spiritual adventures and I’ve been fortunate to visit many healing places. From out of the way hot springs in Oregon, to spiralizing vortexes in Sedona, to the most beautiful lake I’ve ever seen in Canada, to the nourishing abundance that is Kaua’i, to the Galapagos Islands last summer with my brother. And it’s with so much gratitude that I am adding Nevada City, and more specifically the Southern end of the Yuba River to this list.

The majority of the summer I’ve felt the call to go out into nature alone and to be honest I was scared to go. That fear kept me from telling my partner that I desperately needed this trip. The longer I waited to tell him, the bigger the fear grew. Then one afternoon during a Skype call with a kindred spirit overseas, I broke down in tears. I MUST GO ON THIS TRIP, I told her. She said she understood and that I needed to talk to my partner, Nic about it. Up until that point I hadn’t had an issue letting him know about trips I wanted to take. For some reason this solo adventure felt scary because I had known that I needed to go for a couple of months and the fear was active in trying to get me to stay home! Thankfully that Skype chat was the boost I needed to talk with Nic, receive his support, and book my reservation. Now one big hurdle was clear, all I had to do was get myself there.

Without realizing it I booked my trip to begin on an epic Lion’s Gate Portal, the day after the full moon in Aquarius (my Sun sign), in the middle of two eclipses. Yep. I pretty much had it cosmically coming to me. All signs pointed to LET THAT SHIT GO, LIKE FOR REAL THIS TIME and GIRL, YOU BETTER WALK YOUR TALK. And somewhere in there in the softer voice, YOU’VE GOT THIS BABE.

On the days leading up to my walkabout as my Dad likes to call my solo adventures

(had my first one at age 14 courtesy of him sending me to Germany to visit a friend for the summer, which ended up being the coming of age tale of two young girls on the train to Amsterdam to buy hash, trying to get backstage at a Radiohead show in the middle of a flower field and shop lifting from H&M. It was spiritual in a different kind of way on the outside, the intention memo read: Go To Europe, Find Yourself, not so different from the current: Go To River, Heal Yourself)

I felt a great deal of tension and holding in my shoulders. I was irritable, snappy and I could sense the fear creeping in pretty hard. This was a newer experience for me. On the majority of my previous trips (definitely not the time I went on a silent meditation retreat for my 30th birthday, I mean who does that?!) I felt excited and ready for the unknown adventure. This time I felt agitated, bursting at the seams with frustration, yet somewhere very faintly in the background was the whisper of excitement.

Boiling it all down, I was simply afraid. Afraid I would get out there and be attacked by a scary guy in the woods. Afraid I would cry so much that I would become depressed and not be able to come out of it. Afraid I might discover that my intuition didn’t lead me up north and that I’m really supposed to be back in LA full time. Afraid that this new energy I was gaining would be taken away and I’d go back to feeling depleted and exhausted and unable to get out of bed. Afraid that if I slowed down and attuned myself to the speed of the earth I would completely disappear.

No wonder I was tense before I left. I was distancing myself from Nic and starting to go down the familiar road of pulling back, disengaging from our connection and from myself.

Taking the First Step x Ashley Neese

That first night in the tiny cabin flowed easily before the sun went down. I prepared a simple salad with chicken and watched a fluorescent sunset between the mountains. I made friends with the property dog, Howler who, not so shockingly came though as I was cooking the chicken. We had a little chat and I decided not to indulge him with my dinner that night. The other nights I made a different choice and we were both glad about it.

As it grew dark my eyes began to play tricks on me and I of course started thinking about those terrifying zombies in the new Twin Peaks series coming into the tiny house asking Gotta Light? and crushing my skull with one hand. I know. It’s gory and gross and I can’t even believe I’m writing about it here, but its what was happening and I always appreciate full disclosure in personal writing, especially when it’s unexpected.

I immediately jumped up, locked the door and decided I would just pee in a cup until daylight as this was a pee-outside-tiny-house. The more hilarious part of all of this is that I peed in the cup upstairs in the loft bedroom because I scared myself so badly that I didn’t want to go back down the ladder, because you know, the zombies from David Lynch’s dreams would get me.

Thankfully, I woke up the next morning in good spirits, enjoyed a hearty breakfast and ventured out into the locals only river spot where I spent the next three days facing my fears, surrendering to the precision of the present moment, and allowing the river and the land to simply hold me.


I’d love to tell you that day one of my trip I was making tonal sounds in the river naked like a radical wild woman and letting my fears clear through my throat chakra. That wasn’t the case. Instead, I oscillated between feeling in awe of the sheer beauty of the water and the land and being startled by every sound that I couldn’t immediately distinguish. As much as I am nature lover, and I am, the weird truth is that I tend to feel safer in cities. Helicopters flying overhead all hours of the day in busy Los Angeles, neighbors partying at 3 a.m. in Berlin, the constant barking of neighborhood dogs in Oakland, these are all sounds I know intimately and don’t register as dangerous.

On my way into the river at around 8 o’clock that morning I saw only three other people, all older men. I made sure that I was at least a good mile up the river away from them. So there I am, out by the river, alone. The sounds of the squirrels leaping from tree to tree made me jump each time as my eyes darted around to see what was there, but mostly to make sure it wasn’t one of those men coming down to bother me.

While I sat by the river I thought about why I was afraid to be alone in nature and recognized it was because I was raped. That probably seems obvious to those of you who have been reading the journal for a while, but I was amazed that I still had energy in my system to discharge from that experience so many years ago. In some ways, recognizing that I was still dealing with the effects of sexual trauma from my past made me sad. For a few moments, I shuddered to feel the heaviness of all of the women who came before me and will come after me who will go through this and much worse in their lives. God it was heavy. And then, after sometime, I opened my heart to beauty of that next piece of awareness and gratitude for all the privileging that I have, being able to come home and actively start working to shift that next layer of discharge.

And with that heaviness and with that gratitude I decided to take a big risk. I chose, in a moment of feeling the intense activation of my nervous system at every unknown sound, to take off my clothes and jump in the river anyway.

And god was it such good medicine.

In an attempt to walk to the other side my feet slipped on the algae covered quartz riverbed. I fell quickly and softly into the gentle current. I got up and I laughed loudly. Looking up I noticed two squirrels watching me as a bright blue dragonfly zipped overhead. Every cell in my body burst with excitement, as if to say, YES GIRL, YES, YOU’RE ACTUALLY DOING IT!

I noticed a piece of quartz that seemed like it would perfectly hold my hips. I sat down on top of it and my legs stretched out in front of me with very little effort. The clear green water flowed around me and in this perfect moment I let out a deep sigh. My nervous system relaxed enough for me to feel okay.

I closed my eyes and for several minutes allowed the river and its bed of quartz to hold all of me. I didn’t resist. I didn’t hang on tight. I let the water remind me that this is why I came out here, to initiate my spirit and begin the next phase of my journey as a woman with a steadfast willingness to do exactly the thing that she is most afraid to do.

After a few more minutes passed I floated around the area of the river that I claimed as my healing pool and stepped out onto dry land with a renewed sense of purpose and an inner strength. I dried myself off with a cozy towel and laid it out on a giant rock to sunbathe.

Taking the First Step x Ashley Neese

The next day I visited a new spot down the river with a very steep trail down to the water. Of course I was wearing my Birkenstocks and knew I would spend the majority of the way down sliding on my butt, my hands gripping any available trees for support. I passed two young women about halfway down the makeshift trail who said that it was much easier coming up. WHAT A RELIEF, I thought to myself. I made it down without many issues and spent the next two hours floating around a swimming hole in the blazing sun totally content. My mind was free of its typical chatter and ongoing commentary. The only clear thoughts I seemed to be having where, THIS FEELS GOOD. I LOVE THIS RIVER. MY BODY IS CONNECTED TO EVERYTHING. It was a huge shift from the previous day when I went through a good hour of feeling scared of being alone. That was such a powerful reminder of how much things can shift in 24 hours.

As the light began to change, I felt the setting sun drawing near. I decided to make my way back up to the main trail. I figured it would take me a while given how steep it was and I didn’t feel like rushing.

The first few minutes were pretty breezy. A few slips here and there in my worn out Birks, but I recovered quickly and kept going. Then things got challenging. The incline was so steep, imagine your hands directly over your head and your feet right below, each food balancing on a thick tree root for support. I was pretty much vertical and the second I turned to look behind me my chest constricted and I felt my heart rate jump. OMG, I thought. I’M GOING TO FALL, SLIDE DOWN THIS GIANT MOUND OF DIRT AND REALLY HURT MYSELF. DON’T LOOK DOWN ANYMORE. YOU ALREADY KNOW THAT IS A TERRIBLE IDEA.

Deep breaths.
Slow and steady.

I looked back up at my hands. My legs started to tremble as I took turns feeling around the dirt for something to hold on to. I grabbed what I thought was a rock, applied a little pressure and the hardened ball of dirt completely disintegrated into my hand as it slipped down towards the water. OH MY GOD. My breath increased. I could feel anxiety building in my chest. My eyes shot around looking for something, anything to hold on to so that I could push myself up onto the next part of this trail. WAIT, WAS I EVEN ON THE TRAIL ANYMORE?OH MY GOD.

I took a very deep breath and at the bottom of my exhale recognized there was nothing, not one thing I could hang onto for support. There was no path in front of me. It was dry, dusty, and I was again, totally alone. All of the people had cleared. If I fell I would spend the night out there hurt until the next day and god knows what kind of animals would have come to visit me in the night. Probably just an owl and mosquitoes but still, I was terrified. My mind began to race, my legs grew tired and sweat poured down the sides of my face. I took another deep breath and looked around.


After looking around one last time and getting clear that this was the only way up to the main trail I realized I had two choices: stay in this position until my legs gave out and I tumbled down the hill OR place one of my hands on the unstable ground and push forward. I took another deep breath and a third option came to me: ASK THE LAND TO SUPPORT YOU.

I closed my eyes.
I took another deep breath.
I said a prayer and pushed my way to the top in one graceful movement.

When I came to at the the trail my entire body pulsed with life force. I raised my hands in the air and let out an audible YES and THANK YOU to the universe. I FUCKING MADE IT!

I skipped the entire way back to my car in a swirl of joy and gratitude, my body that had felt so exhausted all summer felt incredibly alive, strong, and integrated. It was as if for the first time in ages my heart and mind felt like they were working together as a team and everyone was winning.

You know that feeling you have after a really good massage or breathwork session where your felt sense is present and your system is grounded? That’s how I felt the entire last day of my trip to Nevada City. It was the most peaceful day I’ve had in a long time, a day of complete restoration and unwavering awareness without any blocking or closing my heart. The felt sense of being totally embodied and content is one that I have come to treasure and hold in very high regard over the last years. It is such a gift.

There are experiences that one can only have in solitude, away from the hustle of everyday life, away from the energies that pull with great force on your system, away from the day to day distractions that make living an inward facing life challenging. When I felt into the quietest part of my heart and asked why I needed this solo trip so desperately, the answer was clear: I wanted to know who I was, when nobody was looking, when I didn’t have to show up, and when I could just lie around and be completely free. Also, at a cellular level I needed the kind of deep reset that one can only receive from being surrounded by clear, cleansing waters in a forest of old growth trees, happy little squirrels and bright blue dragonflies.

When I set out for my trip I had no idea what was going to surface. All I knew was that I had to go, there was a sense of real urgency, my spirit was calling. And I listened to that call as I have learned to do over the years. I followed through, despite the resistance and the fear, I went to the woods and plunged into the water. And in that follow through, that trusting of my inner compass, the next phase of my healing was revealed and I see now just how ready I am to completely let the energy from the trauma go. And wow has it been a such a wild and teary-eyed road since I returned.

Thank you river and woods for teaching me that I am a woman who will go to great lengths to listen to herself and practice trusting by reaching through fear.

Thank you river and woods for reminding me that we heal in stages, in cycles, when we are loved and when we are fully ready.

Thank you river and woods for showing me what is next guiding me towards the strength that lives within and the support that is always, always waiting to hold me. 


All my heart.



  • Julia

    Such beautiful words as always Ashley. You’re so brave- following your heart with such faith. It’s a scary thing to do and for so many of us, it seems at times like too bold a feat to take. But stories like yours remind us that no matter the devils on our backs, if we breath and let the universe rush into our hearts, it will give us all the strength we need. Xoxo

    • ashley

      Hello Julia,
      Thank you for taking the time to reach out, I really appreciate it. I love your words so much, they are such a beautiful affirmation and reminder that when we open our hearts and share our vulnerabilities it connects our worlds in powerful ways. Grateful for you this afternoon! Sending love and light. xo

  • Marlon

    It is so great to hear from you Ashley :) I burst out laughing when you mentioned doing a silent retreat for your 30th birthday because I am turning 30 this December and was researching silent retreats last night when pondering what I should do !! I so appreciate your candid description of the fear being out in the wild can bring; it is somewhere I feel at home but all the same that fear can become all consuming. I haven’t spent much time alone out in nature at nighttime, I am rather afraid of the dark, and am seeing maybe that’s something I need to lean into. It sounds like you listened to what you needed to do, and followed through. Best wishes <3

    • ashley

      Hello Marlon! It is wonderful to hear from you! I love that you are looking into going on a silent retreat for your 30th birthday! It was such an incredible experience, highly recommend it. Leaning into fears is such a wild and incredible practice. It’s becoming more and more of a daily thing over here. Amazing how there is always so much room to learn and grow isn’t it? Thinking of you and sending lots of love your way. xo

  • Katie

    Thank you so much for posting such a beautiful and personal reflection. Your words and honesty resonate with me on a soulful level and give me the courage to listen to the inner heart tugs that are pulling me to places I need to better connect with myself. I needed this today, thank you.

    • ashley

      Hi Katie,
      Thank you for taking the time to be part of this conversation. Your words are beautiful and so perfectly echo the sentiment behind this piece. Sending light your way for listening to the inner tugs, I’m finding it’s the deepest and most subtle work I’ve done. Grateful for your willingness and to know you’re on this path too. x

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