A few days ago, I returned to one of my first and favorite hikes, the Mirror Lake trail to Tom Dick & Harry Mountain on Mt. Hood. I’ve done so many incredible trails and have the longest list of ones I have yet to do, but some call me back over and over. This is one of them. It had a bone to pick with me and I’m relieved I showed up for it. As I bear down and make this writing practice a thing, I am constantly confronted with how PTSD and drug and alcohol use has wiped huge chunks of my memory clear. I feel these memories screaming to come out, but when I sit down to tell their stories, it’s all dead ends and it keeps me from finishing most things I start. When this trail called to me a few days ago, I knew I had to find out what it had to reveal to me.
Tom Dick & Harry Mountain is all instant gratification. Beautiful through and through. Six-point-four miles, an elevation gain of fifteen-hundred feet and plenty of nature prizes to propel you to the summit where the reward is a three-sixty view. On a clear day, that means Mount St. Helens, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, Mt. Jefferson and, of course, Mt. Hood, are all in view. It’s spectacular.
Not even a hundred yards in from the trailhead, things started to come to me. I did this trail for the first time seven or eight years ago, a few years before I even got into hiking. I was with my boyfriend at the time and two friends of ours, one of which had recently finished the PCT. This friend was the only one of us who was at all outdoorsy, so he picked a trail he thought was good for a bunch of perpetually hungover beginners. I’m remembering now I didn’t even really know what the PCT was or, maybe, I just hadn’t fully absorbed the magnitude of it. I must’ve been vaguely interested in going on a hike, or I wouldn’t have been there. The first mile-and-a-half to Mirror Lake was incredibly difficult. I didn’t like to walk back then, ever. Not even a couple of blocks to the corner store for more soda water for my whiskey. I was probably wearing awful shoes, like Converse. I found out what a switchback is and I did not favor it, but I did favor a few things. The beauty and magic of the woods was not lost on me. The scent of pine needles and earth, warmed and sweetened by the sun, reminded me of the few times I went camping as a kid. This was my first time truly getting into nature in the five or six years I’d lived in Portland, shocking to me now. When we reached the lake, I had my first sense of what I’d later call a “nature prize.” It was a beautiful spot to take a break. I haven’t forgotten the reflection of Mt. Hood in the water. I also had my first salmonberry. Golden, gemlike, triumphantly plucked by my own hand. The rest of the hike was a disaster and that’s about all I can recall. I remember crying just before the summit because I was so frustrated and ashamed of how hard it was for me. I don’t remember a sense of pride or accomplishment. I can assume I was angry with my friend for picking a hike so out of my league and angry at my boyfriend because I needed someone else to be angry at.
The hike was too hard for me and likely scared me from hiking for a few more years, but I know it sparked something. As I was hiking this trail again the other day, I thought a lot about what it felt like for me as not just a beginner and not just as an out-of-shape beginner, but as an out-of-shape beginner who is also fat. The amount of fear, anxiety, frustration and general sense of being out-of-place is enough to keep anyone from even trying. Being in shape or fit is not at all about body type or about being able to do everything. I don’t think it’s something very general, either. It’s about what one is trying to do and having the endurance and muscle for it. A bodybuilder may be someone we’d easily say is “in shape,” but could very likely have no endurance for running. As for myself, I always say I don’t run unless I’m running from something, but I can hike more than a dozen miles with steep elevation gains like a total boss. Sort of. Usually.
There are so many things I wish I’d known when I started out, though it’s likely I wouldn’t have believed them anyway. One thing, and perhaps the biggest of them all for me, ability is almost entirely in my head. Yes, of course, there are very real things that inhibit physical ability and mobility, but that’s not the real issue for many of us. I never exercised. It was uncomfortable, why would I want to feel more uncomfortable and possibly embarrass myself? No fucking thank you. The thing is, this line of thinking gave way to feeling like there were a lot of things I couldn’t do and I was stuck in it. Depending on what trails you choose, hiking is hard the way any exercise is hard. Sounds simple enough, but that wasn’t obvious to me when I started out. Many of the signs of hard physical exertion like sweating profusely, breathing hard, fast heartbeat, etc. resemble panic feelings. Those are not comfortable feelings when we don’t know them out of that context. When I didn’t know this, it was easy to decide in the moment that something was too difficult for me. It felt scary. I didn’t know I could push past it and that it was ok to feel this way and the more I did it, I’d not only regard it differently, but… I’d actually learn to like the feeling. It makes me wonder if I thought everyone else was just doing this stuff with the greatest of ease.
Some advice for beginners and those who think they “can’t:” Stop often. Take breaks. Challenge yourself to see what you might miss if you are always on the move. Take photos. Admire the flowers. Think about the way things smell and what these smells remind you of. Do breathing exercises. Take forty steps, stop and take ten deep breaths. Repeat. Fuck how fast you’re going! It’s the Doing It that matters. It’s the journey. Let yourself be in it. Be gentle with yourself, always. When you’re at the top of a hill or mountain, think about what your body just did for you. Be grateful. You are a powerhouse!
Yeah, yeah, that’s all well and good, but it’s soooo vulnerable doing it in front of people. It’s hard to get past those feelings when you’re already not feeling great about yourself and everyone is zooming past you, even the people you’re with. Honestly, I hike alone so much of the time so that I don’t have to deal with the weird shit that gets poked in my mind when I’m slower than others. Most of the time, I really do love my body. I’ve fought tooth and nail to get here. I know how powerful and capable I am, but I’m not always as strong as I want to be, physically and emotionally, and sometimes things get to me. Catch me on the wrong day, or even in the wrong moment, and I can be knocked down with a damn feather. All of the old internalized messages from the dominant culture about “right” and “wrong” ways to be “healthy” and how to have a body start excreting themselves from the lining of the places I’m always tamping down.
Listen: ALL of those internalized messages are big, fat lies and they STINK. In case you need to hear it because you never have before: You Are Allowed To Be There. You have as much right to be on that trail as anyone else even if you don’t see anyone who looks like you. Nature doesn’t care about size, gender, race, ability, gear, etc. Nature doesn’t care about how shitheads regard you or even about your puny human feelings! The most badass thing you can do is to keep doing it. Get out! Do you. If you’re struggling with your confidence, shoot me an e-mail and I’ll give you the pep talk of your life. I am serious: email@example.com
As I was trekking up the mountain the other day, I felt some of these little lizard-brained tricks creeping up on me. I’ve done this trail at least four times now. It’s become an easy one for me, but there I was struggling a little. I needed a few breaks, which is totally reasonable, but it bothered me in the moment. It bothered me that my girlfriend kept a good thirty or so paces ahead of me, which would also generally be fine. Our bodies, like our minds, have good days and bad days, or even good stretches and bad stretches of time. Life happens! Real things come up that keep me from doing a lot of the things I want to do, even when I’m working hard to make them happen. Sometimes, I’m not able to nurture and maintain my hiking lifestyle as much as I want to and my personal fitness decreases. Unfortunately, that usually means my mental well-being decreases, too. Recently, I was so stuck in a shame spiral about not being able to hike enough and feeling physically and mentally bad when some merciful force reminded me, oh yeah, I had sciatica really bad for a few months. Was I actually pissed at myself and letting my self-esteem plummet because of something I had no control over? I also work on my feet, so I had little time to relax and rehabilitate and it took it’s toll on my whole body. I went soft, I lost a lot of my endurance. My one-to-two times weekly hikes became more like, twice a month, and they were more difficult than I assumed they’d be. As these thoughts came to me, I tried to visualize them coming toward me like objects, blowing them away with my exhales and watching them disappear in the distance. It is so important to be gentle and greet ourselves where we’re at no matter what we’re doing. I can’t always be in top form in every area of life. Berating myself without an examination of the roots of things, is pointless and disrespectful to myself. My body doesn’t feel good does not have to equal embarrassing-unhealthy-ugly-shameful-hopeless, etc. My body doesn’t feel good can mean: I have a physical injury./I haven’t been getting enough sleep./This is actually too hard for me and that is ok. And so on.
As I neared the summit, a person on their way back down said, “You’re almost there. You’re reward is near.” I was deep in my thoughts about my first experience on the trail even if I hardly remember any of it. I’m in such a different place now. Who knew hiking would eventually become a huge part of my livelihood? That it would actually make my shitty life better? I responded with, “Yeah, but the journey is good, too.”