I’m sitting in the car, watching the trees blend together like a bunch of blurry pixels as the speed increases. The soft light of dawn is spilling in, stealing the remainder of the night, and coating everything in its golden hue. This is the only time you can look right at the sun and not get blinded. Mornings have stolen my heart. Everything has such beauty before the sun rises to the center of the sky, acquiring the ability to turn my skin bright red like a geranium (the color before it cools to a tan). And how everything is quiet and all the bodies that rush past me on the sidewalk in the afternoon are still asleep. And all the streets and valleys are stained grey and blue.
My father is driving, blasting his sometimes strange, alternative music right through the windows and letting the wind blow around the overgrown locks that he’s very proud of. It’s early, maybe around five-thirty or six in the morning. And I’m still sleepy, struggling to keep my eyes open after a late night, but I won’t give in- I have my headphones on to amp me up. He insists we be up super early so we can make it to the trailhead before it fills up. Ever since COVID, they’ve been blocking the streets from parking to limit the amount of people entering. We won’t miss our chance to be there on time and grab a spot.
My boots are tied on tight, as tight as I could get them. If they aren’t snug enough, your ankle will be more unstable. I can tell, he’s excited, but I’m still a little anxious as always. We arrive at the trailhead at seven a.m. sharp, and I hop out of the car to prepare my trekking poles for impact. My boots touch the soil, and the energy surges through my body, marking every cell until it lights up my brain. The nerves are gone- it’s time to get moving.
The outdoors haven’t always been my “thing.” Even growing up on the shore, and making any place by the ocean, my home, I didn’t have that connection to nature. I was never good at sports, and I definitely didn’t enjoy anything we did in gym. I sat out a lot. And the friends I had usually did some kind of activity. Or had a club to go to. I always wanted some kind of hobby to call my own. Perhaps it was because I longed to have a team, but maybe not- I don’t exactly enjoy being watched by a crowd and I never felt comfortable speaking out loud at club meetings. I’d rather just be alone.
My dad, on the other hand, has been doing some kind of outdoor activity since forever. I wouldn’t exactly call him a “team player” either, but he eats, sleeps, and breathes the outdoors. Mountain biking, road cycling, hiking, climbing- you name it. We didn’t have many shared interests. I was kind of artsy, and he’s more techy- me, more easygoing, and he, more rigid. He pushes himself to the absolute limit and that’s always been a bit much for me. I can’t lie- I like the safe side.
Just a few years ago, he asked me to come hiking for the first time. I agreed. Near where I live, there are a lot of brisk hikes and walking trails, but there isn’t anything within an hour radius that’s too long and/or challenging (I know this is my opinion). So there aren’t a ton of places to get decent practice and work your way up, unless you’re trail running for endurance or training at the gym. Both of which I had/have trouble being consistent with.
We started in Bear Mountain, New York, working our way up from four to seven to ten to thirteen-mile hikes, routinely getting Mexican food afterward- I suppose that’s what reeled me in. Months and months passed. I hiked on again, off again- mostly staying in New York, but touching Vermont, New Hampshire, and some parts of North Jersey. We would rise early and throw on our packs. Or we’d camp- falling asleep to the smell of a dying fire, the fireflies acting as a string of lights hanging outside the tent, and the crickets chirping away.
After I proved myself to be worthy and committed, I acquired hiking gear and was very excited about it. I had my own stuff finally…and a few more pounds to carry on my back. I became an adventurer who was ready to set foot on land I’d never seen before. I may have looked and acted absolutely miserable in the moment. But I seldom came off the trail feeling unaccomplished and weak. It wasn’t until recently that I started feeling ready for the challenges thrown at me- eager to do it again.
Of course, everyone hikes for the views: the breathtaking peaks and the valleys below them. You’re on top of the world. Pine trees tower over you as you watch the beetles and daddy long legs crawl over the rocks. You have the opportunity to see all the lakes, ponds, and waterfalls the world has to offer- you might even run into some wildlife. You observe how each ecosystem thrives. You feel freedom. And your heart starts to grow bigger for the wild. Each inhale is an opportunity to receive, and each exhale, an opportunity to give.
I was in a lost place in my life when I started, and hiking/nature gave me a sense of belonging. I struggled a lot and held it in because, perhaps, I have too much pride to speak about when I’m in pain. Mentally, I was struggling to keep myself all the way there and to talk myself through it. Eventually, hiking becomes less about the physical and more if you’re mentally able to handle it. Your body is on autopilot, but can you get yourself to keep moving? Emotionally, I felt many feelings coming up I had to deal with and sort through. And I wasn’t in proper physical shape, but nothing my young body couldn’t get used to. I just kept pushing myself. All the way through those swollen feet, blisters, and achy joints.
The more experience I gained, the more I began to realize what this activity really meant- that it isn’t just an “activity.” It is a practice. A ritual.
My feet touch the ground. I feel it pumping beneath me as if it’s propelling me. Each step is an exploration of the floor and what’s underneath it. Every joint in my body lifts and extends. It becomes a gentle flow of movement. And suddenly I’m not trying, my body knows exactly what to do, and my brain is the commander in chief. My thoughts come in and out at their own will. I’m in a meditative state. I release my soul while my body is treading forward. It dances freely in the space around me- jumping from tree to tree, kissing me on the forehead, then returning to the heavens before it has to come back to its temporary home. Happy.
While the above is taking place, this is also- the droplets of sweat running down my cheeks transform into waterfalls. The villages built over my skin are being flooded over. I’m struggling now, but I can’t turn back, especially after I’ve walked a few miles already. You got this- nothing you haven’t done before. I ate breakfast, a hearty bowl of oatmeal, but my stomach has emptied itself again. My belly is grumbling. I long for my bed. My knees and hips ache. Weird insects are getting lodged in my ear, even as I swat at the air. But I tame myself, learn to be content and accept discomfort. Let it be. No, I’m not always the most graceful hiker (if that even exists). I’ve fallen hard and eaten shit a few times (not literally, if I must say).
I used to be afraid of what was hidden behind the trees and under rocks. But hiking taught me to just let go of the fear. How will I ever learn, or see, if something is in the way? All those bears and snakes, that you fear crossing paths with, want to protect themselves just as you do. They are living their own lives, basking in their beautiful homes. There’s no reason to afraid, just be smart and respectful- this goes for the plants too. Nature is unpredictable and can be as harsh as it is beautiful. I began to connect with the world around me and ground myself. Then I learned how to do it over and over each time I returned. The fleshy barrier separating the two of us disintegrates. I am the air and the dirt and the sky. I am the light on every passing stranger’s face and they are the light on mine. I am infinite in my movement and space.
And although it has made me feel eternal, it has also shown me my humanness. I’m not invincible. I’m in no control of boulders slipping out from under me, or a sudden thunderstorm coming over in the alpine zone, or a rattlesnake that I didn’t hear warning me. I have to be careful. I have to focus. I can’t be in la-la land all the time, floating through this emerald dream. I’m not the only one on the planet and I am not immortal. I’ve been shown my time here is fleeting, going by just about as fast as my car passing the street signs, scenic views, and ambitious bikers.
Hiking is how I explore myself. It has allowed me to connect to myself in a way I never even knew existed- who I am really, beyond my barriers, why I do the things I do, and think the ways I do. I don’t know if I was taking care of myself properly before, but it taught me how to do that too- how to fully rely on myself, especially for protection. It taught me how to push myself without hurting myself. It gave me no choice but to nurture myself when I needed it and to love myself as if no one else in the world exists or has the capability to do so. I have everything I need inside, and it unlocks and explodes with the simple caress of my own fingertips. Sometimes the person I need a hug from most is me.
And it has gifted me the chance to connect with my father. It has become a place where there is neutral ground, where it’s safe. I speak and communicate the best when I’m there. I’ve gotten to learn about him and his life, and he to learn about mine. And even though, it is my father with whom I share this, I feel my mother’s spirit running through me so strongly. It is her fortitude that I bear with me. And her heart that I hold. When I’m having a difficult time, it is her courage and his security surrounding me. I feel like I can consciously heal both of them through my movement.
My experiences have let in new ideas and showed me that a lot of what I think matters in my life, actually doesn’t. Everything I learned from the “civilized” world and media is minuscule and superficial and unimportant (mostly). It doesn’t matter what I look like. It doesn’t matter if my legs are shaved, or if my armpit hair is so long I could probably tie it, or if I smell like I’ve slept in a garbage can for the past week and made friends with all the creatures that come out after dark. Who cares if I’m skinny if I am strong? And the length of my hair doesn’t measure my femininity in the woods. My skincare products and hairbrush and outfits are just material items that can be taken away at any moment. What do I need all of it for anyway?
There is nothing in this entire world more comforting than the thought and the embrace of the wild. As UNCOMFORTABLE, as UNHAPPY, as BREATHLESS, as FRUSTRATED, as SCARED as I have been, I would return over and over. I would give it all up to go be an untraceable, insignificant speck in the forest. There are no walls there. The Earth, and the privilege of hiking, have torn down every wall I had, then made me look me right in the face. Naked and bare and raw I am in the face of mother- there is nothing she cannot see past. And still, in that state of unadulterated vulnerability, I have felt more whole and accepted than I ever have in my life. Braver. And more connected to all that is. And all I had to do was walk. I didn’t have to be a writer or a daughter or a student. I didn’t have to be happy or sad or angry. I was just me and that was enough.
The physical pain I’ve experienced, although I have a limit, is no match for the gift I’ve received of being mentally determined. I have been given a strength that no one can ever take away from me because it burns so brilliantly inside me. That same strength has faded every scar and cured every sickness plaguing my heart. Birds whistling and the clicking of cicadas are the sweetest sounds. And I know that if I ever feel lost, I have somewhere I can return to. A home. And this home I will righteously protect until the day I am no longer here. I have learned to let in something so much greater than myself and then love it unconditionally. To give back the same it has given me.
This is what my soul yearns for.