I love to hike. It sounds like a simple statement, but it wasn’t always the case.
The first time I went hiking I was around 13. We moved from the middle of Georgia to the coast of North Carolina and my best friend, Mary-Ann, took me on a trip with her parents. I was so excited to have been invited it didn’t really matter to me where we were going or what we’d be doing when we got there. It was the first time I’d ever felt chosen. So, I didn’t take in the fact I was meant to walk for miles and cart my chubby, out of shape, asthmatic carcass up a mountain. So, imagine my surprise when I stepped onto the dirt path and realized what I had gotten myself into. My legs were aching, my lungs were on fire, and I was self-conscious and miserable the entire time.
The three of them, on the other hand, looked like it was the easiest thing in the world- they barely had the decency to sweat.
The more I struggled, the more smiley and encouraging they got, which felt sadistic and patronizing even though I knew they were only trying to be supportive and motivate me. I was dragging behind them like an anchor that fell from a boat. I started to get angry with myself because I couldn’t enjoy this, I couldn’t be happy with them. The first time someone ever wanted to include me in something and I was blowing it. I wanted to cry. I wanted to sit down in a nest of dirty roots and bawl like a baby because this was really hard. Every time the path tilted up in the slightest degree, a wave of dread washed over me.
I don’t remember the trees, or the air, or the animals, or the laughing, or the view when we reached the top, or even if we did. That’s been something I’ve regretted all my life. I don’t remember anything but shame and struggle, much like my life up to that point.
The next time I went hiking was a few years later.
I was with my family, back in Georgia, and we were hiking up Stone Mountain. Everyone was buzzing with excitement where as I was just praying it was easy, that it wouldn’t take long, and anxiety was draped around my shoulders like a freezing cold blanket. Each step was more difficult than the one before and I could feel the weight of my body pulling me back towards the start. I leaned forward, pushing against it like a fish swimming against the current. How long had we been climbing? Hours? Days?
The heat relentlessly smothered us and my sweaty skin was gritty from the dirt of the trail. There was no relief, no choice but to push through the pain. The last part of the hike was a steep crawl up bald granite, my calves felt like molten lava and my lungs felt like a pressure cooker about to explode. My body was screaming at me to quit, but, for some reason, my heart was dismissing that entirely. I didn’t want to stop. I just wanted to get out of this all consuming misery, this agony. I thought about my old friend Mary-Ann and how I missed an adventure because I couldn’t cope. The same thing was happening all over again. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, both hands gripping the stone beneath me. Then, something incredible happened…
I gave up.
Not physically, that would be a horrible story to tell you… mentally, I stopped caring. Weird, right? I didn’t stop hurting. I just accepted it. I stopped focusing on it and I noticed a gust of wind was caressing my skin, filling my shirt like the sails of a boat. The sensation shot a bolt of electricity through me and I climbed the rock like I was chasing the breeze. Suddenly, I was almost to the top. I heard my cousin laughing at something and turned just in time to see her smiling up at me. That’s right. Up. I had passed her. I was still struggling, still burning, still aching, but I could see the city in the distance, the faint skyline of Atlanta sitting like a trophy among the trees… and clouds… and birds. I walked slowly around the summit for a long time thinking, “This is it. This is my peace.. and it’s the one thing I thought I hated.”
The more I focused on my goal and the good things around me, the less I noticed the struggle.
On the way back down the mountain, having made a significant breakthrough, I merrily bounded along the path almost at a run, when I passed a young couple on their way to the top. The man looked up at me and frowned, “I wish I had that much energy.” I laughed and almost shouted back, “You do! It’s in there! You just have to find it!”
Everything seemed so much clearer… so much easier.
Now, pushing through a hike always feels like pushing through life- it gives me peace when I’ve reached the goal and it teaches me patience and endurance along the way. I’m over twice the age I was when I first climbed Stone Mountain and I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve climbed it since. It’s actually one of the easiest hikes I’ve taken (I’ve scaled a freakin’ volcano) and I use the lesson I learned from it for my life, as well as on the trails- Sometimes the path is narrow, or rocky, or hidden, or straight up. Sometimes it’s hot, or painful, or tiring, or hard, but keep moving and don’t miss the beauty of where you are or where you’re going.
Quitting is easy. You can walk away at any time, but don’t keep dreaming about the summit if you’re willing to give it up.
I’m still chubby and asthmatic, but I don’t let things like that hold me back. In fact, it’s funny how unyielding I can be, how unwilling to stop or to settle, once I have the vision of the summit in my mind, once I feel the wind on my face, and how often I find myself having to sit and wait for other people to catch up, but like I said, I love to hike.