When it comes to exercise, “ability” and “skill level” are emotionally and politically fraught. So is “exercise.” Our bodies are not safe in this culture, some are less safe than others. We are constantly criticized and bombarded with messages that aren’t even in our best interests about what we need to do with ourselves. Personally, I believe what we do with our bodies is nobodies business, but our own. Exercising is often a public endeavor and it can be vulnerable for anyone. I’m finding I cannot talk about my body without telling stories. It deserves that much from me. I have dropped a lot of story bombs between the following lines. There are many more I haven’t even mentioned. Give me time. Or, maybe, give me an editor.
In the two years since I started hiking as an essential part of my lifestyle, I unearthed a major discovery: my physical ability is mostly in my mind. Had anyone suggested this as a possibility to me, I would have written them off as fatphobic and ableist. However, in a relatively short period of time, I went from not being able to walk short distances without becoming short of breath to hiking miles and miles up and down actual mountains. Mountains! I learned no matter how intimidating a trail is, I can do anything for another mile. I’ve learned what my body is made of and what it can do. When I didn’t know these things, I felt ashamed and unable. “Fifty steps then ten deep breaths” has been my mantra on many trails and it works every time. Another thing that works for me, I start early so that I can take all of the time I need. So what if it sometimes takes four hours to go six miles? It’s the Doing It that matters. It’s the journey. On the hardest parts of a trail I often say out loud, “I’m so happy to be here.”
Up until the age of eight, I was as active as any kid who grew up before everyone had Nintendo and the Internet. I biked, rollerbladed, boogie-boarded and skateboarded whenever possible. It was exciting to walk the mile to the 7-11 or stop at McDonald’s on the cheap day to get one of those flaccid cheeseburgers. My parents weren’t around on weekdays, both working sixty hours a week or more. And then there was the evening shift my dad took on a barstool at the bottom of the hill. My two sisters and I did as we wished. My parents took us camping a couple of times, but we complained about the heat, dirt, bugs, the peeing outside. We hated it. We were city kids.
I was always bigger than my friends, taller, thicker, not exactly fat. It was my dad who gave me the first clue that my body was not safe. He beat my sisters and me. Early puberty storming my too young girl body, was my next clue. I became too insecure and vulnerable to participate in PE or anything athletic. The jeering comments by jealous, flat-chested girls, the burrowing eyes of strange men, I was constantly reminded of the lack of safety my body provided. I became an indoor kid. I also started to gain weight which gave way to starving myself. This became a cycle, the gaining and the starving.
In 2003, I turned twenty-one, moved to Portland and began my requisite stint as a car-free cyclist. I fought to love my body and biking helped, but ceaseless sexual harassment, PTSD-induced chronic pain and suicidal depression made it become impossible. Most things became impossible in those years. In 2007, I got a car and aside from drug fueled dance parties that lasted long past the sun came up, I never exercised. Exercising made me feel bad about my body. Plus, it hurt.
In 2012, just before my thirtieth birthday, I started dating a girl who, despite having nearly everything in common with me, loved the outdoors. If anyone could make that interesting, it was her. Secretly, I was actually excited to get to know the many worlds that lie outside of Portland. My life was a fog of drug and alcohol drenched hangovers and depression, jailed by my own mind and body. On the day of my thirtieth birthday, she took me on our first hike together. It was technically not my first hike, but it was my first non-begrudging hike. It was a short leg of the Maple Trail in Forest Park. I definitely was not dressed for it. My breathing was labored and my sweating embarrassing, but as we stood at a viewpoint overlooking industrial north Portland, something bloomed inside of me.
I want to say this was the beginning of my nature life, but there were many beginnings. I spent the following year still in The Fog, but I also hiked a little. More like, walked in nature. I started camping, too. Brie, my girlfriend, and I opted more and more to stay sober so that we could enjoy nature more presently. A lot of times, we used camping to dry out. Two years ago, we went on what was my first difficult hike, Angels Rest, a 4.6 mile trail with a 1,500 feet gain. It is a hike that has become easy for me since then, but that day it was anything but. I cried! I threatened to turn around. I took a break every few steps and every new switchback made me think I was about to reach the top, but I was wrong many times over. I felt awful and hopeless and when I magically got to the rocky outcropping at the top, I looked out over the Columbia River Gorge and I felt like I did something so good, something so much better than anything I’d done in years. I felt like hell and gold and like I would trade in all of the bullshit in my life to feel this way again and again. In baby steps, I kind of did just that. In the following months, I was doing nine-mile trails. Less than a year later, I was regularly doing ones that climbed more than 2,000 feet. I started hiking anywhere from one to three times a week and at some point, the chronic pain I experienced all through my twenties lessened. The depression mostly did, too.
My body still mostly looks the same as when I started out, but it feels unbelievably different. My relationship with it is still complicated. I am reminded every day that not being thin is one of the worst things I can be in this culture. I often feel like ownership of my body is dangling before my eyes like a carrot, but I can’t go long not appreciating all that it does for me. It proves to me time and again that I can do anything. This body has been with me through it all.