Mild (Not Wild): On Hiking & the Great Outdoors
My 7-year-old recently developed an interest in fashion. He’s suddenly very conscious of what is on trend, and extremely particular about what he wears. He favors head-to-toe black ensembles (same, bro), mostly Under Armor running tights (“tight pants”) under basketball shorts, and always with “tall socks”. He’s even taken to laying out his clothes for the week each Sunday so he can stand back and admire the assembled outfits.
The force is strong in this one.
Last week as he was picking out a coordinating black Under Armor hat at the sporting goods store, he saw the displays of soccer and football cleats and said, “Mom, I might sign up to play a sport if it meant I could get some new shoes.”
There it is: that is my DNA surging into the lead.
For Alex and I, there’s no activity we won’t try if it comes with a great accessory. Most people walk into the sporting goods store and think, “Look at all the things we could do!” I walk in and think, “Look at all the things we could wear.”
So when my therapist mentioned her weekly hiking group, my first thought was, “Yes. I need that. My soul needs that.” My second thought was, “Oooh. That will require an outfit.”
Historically, when it comes to hiking and the great outdoors…
I don’t hike, I don’t bike, I don’t climb. I don’t fish or hunt or camp or generally explore (although I deeply enjoyed David Attenborough’s narration of the Planet Earth series). I grew up in suburban tract housing with a chemical-filled swimming pool in the backyard, and grandparents (and aunts and uncles) who all lived on manicured golf courses.
Despite living along one of the Great Lakes and having an extended family who lived on the ocean, I don’t remember ever swimming in the lake, and I have but one memory of hesitantly tiptoeing along the ocean’s shore around the age of 9. For my family, vacations=resorts. I am a girl who likes her water chlorinated and artificially blue.
We DID camp as a family - in an air-conditioned popup camper which we parked on a site in a campground that included an air-conditioned general store with MTV, video games, and hot pizza. We had electricity, queen-sized mattresses, and full, hot meals (who has sauce and meatballs and ratatouille on a camping trip? We did).
We did not hike.
I was in my 20s before I discovered the joy of ocean swims (but only in the warm, clear, tropical waters of our favorite Florida beach). And I was 43 before I took my first hike.
I have always wanted to hike and bike and the few hours I’ve spent on my new kayak have been some of the most peaceful of the last two (incredibly difficult) years. But much like golf lessons or taking up piano and tennis again (childhood pastimes), I just didn’t have the resources to give that gift to myself. Most of all, I had never hiked because so much of my life was driven by caution and fear; the need to be in control of everything and never take a risk meant that hiking (bears! Snakes! I will get lost) was out of the question.
My therapist, M, leads weekly hikes through the fall and winter here in Western New York where seasonal depression is a very real thing (our local weatherman once said, “you know, everyone complains about the gray skies here but we only have 70 more cloudy days here than the national average.” Excuse me, sir - I know you majored in meteorology but are you aware of the number of days IN a calendar year?)
My first hike took place at a beautiful park about 40 minutes from my house in a brand new pair of hiking boots I found on clearance at REI on the way to the hike.
First, we buy the shoes. Then we do the things.
Obviously these aren't my hiking boots but I'd rather post these because I just really like them.
We hiked a 3.5-mile trail around the water, steely gray under the raw November skies, although M tells me that in the summer the ponds here are lush with lily pads. But on this frigid Saturday the lily pads were nowhere to be found. The leaves had fallen away and the trees were bare; the wind had kicked up and the temperature had dropped into the low 40s. November in WNY.
It felt wonderful.
If you grew up in a climate where the leaves fall each season, you know the distinctive feel and scent as they crunch beneath your feet. There is a feeling of winter in the air, and the only sounds are the geese passing overhead, occasionally touching down in the water on their way to warmer climes.
Few people know that Emmett Otter's JugBand Christmas was actually filmed right here along the Genesee. The Nightmare got their start at The Penny Arcade.
I’ve written before about walking toward the pain; about how I walked my way through some of the worst of my fear, shame, regret, and indecision; how I walked my way into my truth. It felt good to be walking again, and most of all, it felt good to walk the woods; not for exercise; not toward a destination, not for any reason except the joy of doing so. And while it may seem contradictory to say I walked simply for the joy of it and then offer a takeaway, my introspective writer’s soul can’t resist (I can’t help it; I’m a Cancer).
Here’s what I have learned from my Saturday hikes:
Hiking, it turns out, is just walking. A trail hike is just a walk with more hazards. Sure it can be more treacherous than my usual sidewalk strolls, but it’s far less treacherous than walking through my teenager’s bedroom in the dark.
Tiny little yellow witch hazel flowers, winter berries, and a few green ferns dotted the brown and gray landscape on our first hike, a landscape that looked more wintry on that cold afternoon than autumnal, reminding us that somewhere, something is always blooming - even in the bleak midwinter.
No matter what your age, whether you are canine or human, everyone gets excited when they see a horse.
New shoes really do make everything more fun.
The destination is the least important part of the journey. Having never visited this park before (having never even hiked a trail), I didn’t know how long it would take, what we’d see, where we were going…and it was glorious. I walk because it gets me out of my head and into the present. I am happiest when I don’t set a destination or duration; when I am simply walking with myself, toward my peace. Having a guide that I trust to lead me boldly through the woods while I imagined book titles and interviews with Oprah and dreamed of post-hike hot tub soaks was a tremendous blessing.
Stop being afraid of everything, Allison. All those years I never hiked because what if I fell and got hurt? What if it was hard, what if I got lost, what if I got blisters, what if I didn’t know what I was doing - what if I didn’t know what I was doing and looked like it? What if there were snakes (SNAKES; Jesus God, why are there snakes? At all?) Just…what if? Hiking was the unknown. And I do not like the unknown.
The fear of the unknown.
If I have learned anything in these last two years it’s that we are never in control and that nothing we do can protect us from pain. Believe me when I say, if worry could prevent pain, I’d live in constant bliss.
While this sentence you’re reading would have given me nightmares and heartburn two years ago (and nightmares about heartburn), I can now say with peace and certainty today that pain is an intrinsic part of being human and a crucial part of all personal growth; and that fear has never protected me from anything.
Without pain, we do not grow. Without pain, we cannot feel joy. Pain, like joy, lets us know that we are alive.
I know, I still don’t like it either. But I am learning to live with it peacefully because - lean in close - fear is pain. Anxiety and chaos are just pain in another outfit.
How much have I missed out on because of fear; how much have I done to hurt myself and others all because of my fear of experiencing pain.
Isn't it wild? The things we do that hurt us most, we usually do because we are afraid of something else. We choose the pain we know out of fear of pain unknown. We stay small, we betray ourselves - and sometimes others; we avoid and we numb and we drink and we shop and we judge and we stay in unhappy marriages and shitty jobs…out of fear that there's something even worse on the other side.
I have done all of these things out of fear.
Let that sink in; I chose to live in pain out of fear of…pain.
As my friend Israel often says to me, “Make that make sense.”
It sounds absurd, obvious, but my fear was very real to me; a lifetime of trauma and loss made my fear and anxiety consuming. And yet my fear never once protected me from anything.
All that vigilance, sleep lost worrying about tomorrow, days lost missing out on the present over worry about the future, and for what? Avoidance did not protect me; it hurt me. Fear did not keep me safe; it merely robbed me of my joy. No amount of failing to live could keep me from the inherent pain of being alive - the beautiful, miraculous experience of being alive.
Like the steep hills or the bracing wind, there will always be uncomfortable parts of the trail. You will always face the unknown, and with it, hardships. There will be hills and storms. There will also be flowers and cardinals and beautiful views and freshly baked cookies after a hard climb. And yes, sometimes the worst does happen. Blisters and snakes.
Sometimes we don’t just stumble; sometimes we fall - hard, and far. Sometimes we are not just hurt; we are devastated. But I also know this: once the worst happens, you don’t have to be afraid of it anymore. And the same force - God, or love, or your own resilience, or all three - that has carried you through before will carry you through again.
It has for me.
You have survived before. You will survive again. Just keep walking.
If you fall. If you get muddy. If you get lost or get a blister, or (God help you) see a snake (Lord, when we finally sit down for appetizers and chablis, we need to discuss why you told Noah to put them on the Ark in the first place).
To build a life around fear is to not live at all. Avoidance of pain is the avoidance of life; and the avoidance of true joy and fulfillment.
I will probably never become a “real” hiker. I do not want to climb steep peaks or belay my way down anything, ever (I am trained in Project Adventure and as a social worker, allowed juvenile offenders whose home visits I controlled to belay me two stories down gymnasium walls - I am done now). But for the first time in my life, I’m not afraid to try. If I wanted to, I would. That has never been really and fully true for me before, but it is now. I am brave enough now to leap into the unknown, to take chances that once scared me, with only my own heart and hands and wisdom to lead me.
And maybe a new pair of shoes.