How Hiking Enriched My Life

I can’t pinpoint exactly how it started. I don’t remember picking up hiking as a conscious choice. It’s something that got into my bones over time, through a variety of subconscious channels and experiences, until one day it was just a necessary part of my life. 

Can you believe this was me?

Can you believe this was me?

A few years ago my life looked very different. I’d spent the entirety of it rejecting things I knew were healthy for me, like getting outdoors, eating well, or laying off of drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes, because I’d grown up in a conservative and often misogynistic environment in a swampy southern town where getting outside meant a menagerie of dismissive statements about how I throw/run/whatever Like A Girl. I dove into the arts instead, following a career in the music industry that brought me to New York and Los Angeles. While fulfilling and exciting, it also rewarded my worst rebellions; being depressed and pale and sickly all the time fit perfectly into the character I thought I had to play in order to be successful in rock music. Exercise and sunshine were for goofy, carefree people, not brooding poets. What’s funny is I didn’t put two and two together at the time that my low energy, horrible mood, and general sourness had a correlation to how I was treating my body. I thought that was just my personality. Eventually, though, something gave; I’m not sure if it was my millionth lung infection, or the disappointing discovery that #MeToo offenders are equally rampant in my artistic “safe space” as they were on the playing fields in Texas, but suddenly it wasn’t worth it. I didn’t feel like being contrary anymore; for what reason? For who? 

I started with giving up bad habits, slowly at first and then cold turkey. I found myself in nature more, taking the Metro North out to the Appalachian Trail in New York on weekends, or exploring Mt. Wilson, Death Valley, or the Redwoods when I lived in California. It wasn’t immediate; I relapsed back to my old ways a few times in between. Sometimes I still do. But in the end it’s become undeniably apparent that getting outside and hiking or backpacking is where I thrive and feel most at peace. It’s taught me to be calm, patient, strategic, brave, and grateful for and connected to my body and the world around me. I feel more accomplished when I complete a strenuous hike than I ever felt from professional praise. A hike is tangible, and it’s for me, not for anyone else. And it’s totally punk rock. Let me count the ways:

Body Acceptance

Most chicks grow up trying to be as thin and unassuming as possible, to take up the least amount of space possible. I’ve never been particularly resistant to those fucked up messages. A few times in my life I’ve become worryingly thin, and other times I’ve swung the opposite way in rebellion. Since I’ve discovered a true love of hiking that exists in and of itself, separate from any desire to burn calories, my mindset has shifted to focus on my body’s strength and endurance. I love how my body feels when it’s working hard. I eat to fuel myself, and when I’m training or hiking I provide that fuel with love and not with guilt; being able to revive my aching muscles with nutrient-dense protein and carbs feels like a gift. When I exercise, I’m thinking about how each workout is optimized to strengthen areas of my body that will need to show up for me when I’m carrying shelter over mountains and through canyons. My back, shoulders, and core must bare the unwieldy brunt of a 30 pound backpack (though I’m working on converting to more lightweight gear, trust me), and my legs must leverage it all over inclines and stop gravity on downhill grades, while pivoting with uneven ground and sometimes clumsy footing. When I really think about it, that’s pretty metal. I find myself thanking my body for rising to the tasks at hand, and though I notice I may look small in the mirror, I don’t feel small after a hike. Currently I’m training remotely with Luis from Soho Strength Lab so I can put more muscle on for longer endurance hikes in the future, and that newfound strength should also allow me to pack more quality food weight and worry less about resupply, malnourishment, or muscle loss. It may be the first time in my life I’ve hoped to watch the scale go up!

Mental Health

I truly believe the hippy-dippy idea that man has wandered too far from our natural state, and that we suffer for it. I think we’re meant to be nomadic, and the fact that we instead sit for hours every day at a desk, eat processed man-made food, and have so much idle time to worry about how we compare to our peers impacts us physiologically, causing disease and depression. Park Rx and Healthy Parks Healthy People believe in prescribing time in the outdoors for people dealing with mental disorders (not just for the Vitamin D), and that’s also what I prescribe myself every time I start feeling off-balance. Nothing sets me right like a hike. I can’t fully explain how it changes me, but I imagine it’s something to do with the perfect combination of fresh air, exercise, open space, and being fully occupied in something that doesn’t allow me to multi-task or overthink. I love how free and clear my mind is when I’m hiking, and how fully satisfied and content I am during and afterwards. I want to live in that state continuously, which is part of why I’m so interested in thru-hiking later this year and/or early 2020.

It may be TMI, but I’ve also noticed an overall decrease in menstrual pain and pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder, which for most of my life has greatly, negatively impacted my mood and ability to maintain feelings of well-being. In my worst months I could feel completely nihilistic. Something about getting outside, and probably a combination of other lifestyle changes, has had a hormonal regulation effect that I’m counting my blessings for. 

Community

Words of encouragement at Manzanita, North Kaibab Trail

The support and encouragement from the online hiking community is unmatched. Sites like Unlikely Hikers, Women Who Hike, and She Explores celebrate inclusiveness; they make me feel incredible about my choice to try, and validated even when I “fail”. The stories from other people getting out there despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles are incredibly motivating, and remind me what it’s all about - the fun, and the effort. Not competition, not elitism. I’ve also found a wonderful group of people on Twitter via various Twitter Chats (#ParkChat, #RoadTripChat, etc) who I can go to for advice in a matter of seconds - just look how many helpful responses I got to my question about bivy sacks! Prior to my Rim to Rim to Rim backpacking trip, while one of my male coworkers gossiped that I’d probably end up having to pay for a duffel outbound service to drag my heavy pack back out of the canyon because I’m not strong enough to haul it myself, my Twitter community was showering me with words of encouragement, well-wishes, and excitement. I completed that hike without a single hiccup. 

I also love the hikers I meet on the trail. It’s a wide range of folks, but it’s always going to inherently be someone with an adventurous spirit, enthusiasm, and curiosity about the world. Sometimes I meet people with a zen-like attitude, and other times they’re like puppies engaging with everything around them wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. Regardless, they’re always badass and full of stories. Sometimes we stay in touch, other times we never see each other again. But they remain in my memories clear as day, because we shared a very specific experience together in that moment. 

Self Reliance

Relying on myself to take this picture of myself

Relying on myself to take this picture of myself

I don’t think this is in opposition to appreciation of community: I don’t like to rely on anyone or ask for favors. I wrote a bit about where that comes from here and here. I don’t want to inconvenience others for something I can do myself, and I think it’s crucial that, should a threatening situation arise and no-one else is around to help, we all have some basic ability to take care of ourselves. It bums me out that because of modern convenience, many of these skills are lost (I’m not immune - I can’t remember how to change a tire because I was taught once when I was 15 years old but have never had to practice it, knock on wood. And I barely bother with road maps because I just let my phone tell me where to go). If you think this is depressing and hermit-like, unfortunately traveling and hiking solo have only further bolstered these values.

Earlier in life, uncertainty about my outdoor knowledge and physical abilities held me back from ever being truly self-actualized. My ideas about self-reliance couldn’t fully align with body and spirit. But lack of ability wasn’t the problem; you can always become more able, more knowledgeable. What I lacked was confidence and belief in myself, and the devil-may-care attitude that enables us to cast off concern about failure or judgement from others. But now, knowing that I can strategize how to get myself anywhere in the world, by plane, train, hitchhiking, mule, or my favorite: by foot, I have confidence in my ability to do what I want. I don’t say “complete confidence” because doubts are healthy and force us to plan ahead and proceed with caution, and there are a billion hikes and destinations I’m not quite ready to try. But I know that if there’s something I really want to do, I will be able to figure out how to do it, and safely. I’ve known this about traveling for quite awhile, but now knowing this about hiking is like the final piece of the puzzle. It is the most stripped down version of self-reliance; there is nothing in the backcountry but your own two feet and your pack (not even cell service!). To make it work out there, and then be rewarded with fantastical views and a flood of endorphins, is the greatest reassurance that everything will be alright. I trust myself. 

It Keeps Me Searching

There is always another destination, another trail, another peak, another view. There is always new gear coming out, more lightweight, more durable. There are always new studies being done on optimizing athletic performance through training, nutrition, mindfulness practice, or medicine. From my community I even learn regularly about plants, animals, and wilderness areas I never even knew existed. When I arrived at the Grand Canyon I was so pleasantly overwhelmed with new things to learn that I’ve maintained a constant state of being intrigued up until this very moment. Looking forward at all the innumerable options of things I could try next, I am almost overwhelmed to the point of tears. I could hike the West Highland Way, Camino de Santiago, the Julian Alps Trail, Kumano Kodo, the Pacific Crest Trail, on and on forever. Every day I read fellow bloggers’ descriptions of faraway lands, so I know that the bitter idea that there’s no more Last Frontier left to explore is not true at all. To me, all of life is like a Louis and Clark expedition, and hiking brings me places that planes can’t go. When I have a day off, instead of sitting around watching Netflix like some long-ago version of me might have done, I take to the trails and I discover new worlds (even when they’re only in my own backyard). How fantastic that something so profound is so simple to do. 

Nature

It’s fucking beautiful. And it smells good (usually).

< Take that, John Muir, Gertrude Bell, and Ansel Adams. How you like that nature writing?


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