What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
For our tenth anniversary, my husband Dennis and I drove to Montréal for a couple of days, and it was lovely once Dennis got over the hour or so he spent confronting a sudden and near-irrational phobia of not being able to speak the common language there, which is French.
After a pleasant stay, we piled back into the car on a Saturday around noon, and took a leisurely return route to Boston, with plans to stop at Vermont’s Cabot Creamery for a cheese factory tour (and yes it was JUST LIKE THAT SESAME STREET SHORT) and next to stop at the American Classic Arcade Museum in Weirs Beach, NH.
In between, we drove through New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Even though I’ve now lived in New England for almost as long as I lived in Florida, I will never cease to be awed and mesmerized by mountains, a landscape so radically foreign to the wide flat barely-above-sea-level spaces where I grew up. (This is similar to the way that I will unfailingly yell “HORSES!” whenever I see horses, even though I am 36 years old.)
Naturally, I had to go to the bathroom while we were driving through Franconia Notch State Park on a spindly thread of Interstate 93 tucked snugly between mountains impressive for their size and remoteness, if not for their frequent and technologically modern conveniences. Indeed, I had no idea where the next bathroom might present itself, so when I saw a brown state park exit sign with an arrow that simply read, “The Basin,” I got off the highway, much to the relief of the people behind me, as my constant admiration of the surrounding landscape meant that I was driving a little slowly on the single lane available to us all.
“The Basin” sounded like something you might find in a bathroom, I rationalized, as Dennis, annoyed by the lack of cell towers in the area, grumpily followed me from the car to a path with a universal stick-figure restroom sign on it, and a hopeful arrow. We walked for a couple of minutes and then I stopped, listening. “You hear that?” I squeaked, barely restraining my joy, “That sounds like A WATERFALL!!!!!”
If there’s one thing I love more than a mountain, it’s a waterfall.
We found the bathroom next to a shallow rocky meltwater stream. I call it a “bathroom” but it was really one of those camp toilets in which a door and a seat mounted over a dizzying depth of human waste are high luxury. I was disgusted and elated -- CAMPING! -- and bounded out of the fecal-spotted hell energized and demanding that we keep walking to see what this waterfall business was all about. Dennis was sufficiently relieved to be out of the car that he agreed.
What we discovered was The Basin, a unique geological formation wrought by thousands of years of glacial melt, rocks and sand starting at the end of the last Ice Age. The result is a 30-foot wide circular basin into which meltwater still swirls today, creating a shaded rock pool that 1858 guide book author Samuel C. Eastman described as “a luxurious and delicious bath fit for the ablutions of a goddess.”
According to the informational plaque at the site, Henry David Thoreau visited The Basin as well, a fact not lost on my once Thoreau-obsessed inner 15-year-old. We read “Walden” in my American literature class sophmore year of high school, and my present-day fixation with survival shows can probably be traced back to Thoreau’s influence -- also my love of being lost in the woods, a more dangerous pursuit now that I live in a region with winters. And bears.
The area around the basin itself is chockablock with waterfalls and cascades, and Dennis and I spent maybe twenty contemplative minutes exploring the trails. Eventually we came to an intersection where two other trails led off into the trees, and a sign promising that the Cascade Trail would lead to Lonesome Lake after an entirely-reasonable-sounding number of miles, briefly meeting up with the famed Appalachian Trail, I would discover later. At this sign, I turned to Dennis and exploded, as though I couldn’t keep the notion to myself any longer, “I LIKE HIKING!” and to my utter shock Dennis replied that he liked hiking too.
See, never assume that being married to someone for ten years means you run out of surprises.
Dennis and I are not what you would call outdoorsy people. Indeed, we’re barely active people -- most of our activity comes from dully stomping away on the treadmills at the gym, and picking up weights in a variety of ways before putting them down again.
For me, exercise is primarily useful for stress management and just general fitness; I have zero interest in running a marathon or building up to any particular athletic goal. I am happy in my hamster wheel life, and generally satisfied to maintain a constant level of daily activity such that when we go to Disney World (like we do) I can walk ten billion miles and not get tired. That’s about it -- I exercise because Disney World.
But then I wanted to hike. And, you know, hiking is not like a treadmill. Like it is DRAMATICALLY DIFFERENT from a treadmill. For one thing, the ground is not specially designed for shock absorption. You can’t control the incline by leaning on a button. Also, there are INSECTS, often insects that can infect you with horrible diseases. Lyme disease is not a thing we had much of in Florida; while I did a lot of wandering in the woods as a kid, mostly at summer camp, I never learned to methodically CHECK FOR TICKS after doing so, and it kind of horrifies me that this is necessary.
Plus, when we first started talking about this and planning local places we could go, Dennis was all, “You really should wear pants for this,” because EVERYBODY ALWAYS ASSUMES YOU CAN’T DO CERTAIN THINGS IN A DRESS, an assumption I love to refute. And then when I first started putting hiking-related pictures on Instagram, everybody was all “YOU’RE HIKING IN A DRESS that’s awesome/bananas.”
But let’s remember that in the late 1800s, women were hiking glaciers and climbing actual mountains in corsets and petticoats and full-length woolen dresses. Although as turn-of-the-century mountaineer, explorer and author Annie Smith Peck noted, this was probably short-sighted:
“Men, we all know, climb in knickerbockers. Women, on the contrary, will declare that a skirt is no hindrance to their locomotion. This is obviously absurd… For a woman in difficult mountaineering to waste her strength and endanger her life with a skirt is foolish in the extreme.” Peck, Outing Magazine, “Practical Mountain Climbing,” 1901.
I love that women like me have been going “NO, NO, THIS DRESS IS NOT A PROBLEM” for over a hundred years. Peck defied the social propriety of her era and wore pants, to be sure, but she also lived before spandex, or leggings. (Seriously, you want to waste an afternoon, research early women explorers and mountainclimbers. They were often a bonkers bunch of shade-throwing broads in constant competition to climb the highest and most remote shit ever.)
So this new hiking endeavor has been a series of compromises and educations in several ways. But most illuminating of all -- I’ve discovered that I kind of suck at hiking.
In the past month we’ve gone on hikes locally at least once a week, sometimes twice, usually lasting an hour to ninety minutes, and the plain truth of the matter is that this is a thing I am not naturally gifted at. Dennis -- who is extremely close to me in size, so I don’t think this is just a fat issue -- goes bounding up rock-strewn inclines like a fucking jack rabbit while I have to stop halfway and wheeze for a minute or two, cursing my asthmatic lungs and the natural processes that cause big-ass hills to be formed anywhere on the planet, and wondering if “I SUCKED AT HIKING” will wind up being my epitaph.
Like many people, I have a habit of avoiding doing things I am not good at, or for which I don’t sense I can develop a talent. I don’t sense any latent hiking abilities; my sense of direction is mostly defined by panic, and my balance on sharp slopes is so bad that I had to buy a ridiculous “trekking pole” to lean on, because I was legitimately afraid that at some point I was going to fall on a bunch of scrabbly rocks and smash my head open -- and possibly take Dennis out and smash HIS head open as well, leaving neither of us conscious enough to seek help.
I am just not good at this. But it’s actually OK. It’s OK if Dennis gets ahead of me, because unlike pretty much everything else I do, I am not competing against someone else to be the fastest or the smartest or the best. I am competing, if anything, against myself, confronting my own limitations and pushing just past the point where I think I’ve reached my limit, and then pushing a little more, even when I want to give up, which is pretty much all the time.
Having Dennis as a hiking partner is a huge benefit as well, because he refuses to let me quit; even when I am literally wailing “THIS IS TOO STEEP I’M GOING TO DIE,” he is cheerfully insisting that I keep going, usually from about twenty to thirty yards ahead. And then when I get to the top, I realize, HEY, LOOK WHAT I DID, I DID A THING I DIDN’T THINK I COULD DO! THIS IS AWESOME. I AM AWESOME.
I push myself in lots of ways in my life, and always have, but I have rarely done so physically, never athletically -- this goes back to the first time, in elementary school, when another kid told me that I shouldn’t be so good at kickball because fat kids aren’t good at sports. And I made it true, by believing that I was messing things up by not keeping to what my peers expected of me, so I stopped playing. I doubt I ever would have been much of an athlete, so this wasn’t a huge loss -- my coordination just isn’t that good, and I hate playing competitive team sports more than I hate going to the dentist or getting unsolicited diet tips.
But there was a time when I did physical things that were challenging to me because they were fun, and because I enjoyed them, and for no other reason. This is why I’m trying to learn hiking now. Because I don’t have to be good at a task to get gratification and joy from it.
I just need to get better at remembering that, especially at that horrible wheezing WHY AM I DOING THIS point halfway up every hill. And also that the view from the top is pretty grand.