I went on a night hike with about forty people I met on the internet and it was pretty much one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. See, earlier last year I found myself in a physical slump. Besides being a mom–which is its own bag of rewarding yet tiresome shit–juggling two desk jobs while trying to meet my freelance writing deadlines had begun to put a damper on my gym schedule. But since I have my own rules about policing my weight, I purposefully didn’t weigh myself much. Then boom. All my juggling suddenly (or rather gradually but without me noticing) turned to jiggling and I decided to make a few lifestyle adjustments to get back on track. Something had changed for me, though. I began to realize that putting on weight didn’t prompt me to jam more gym into my schedule this time, and it dawned on me that the reason I’d allowed myself to slip into a lazier routine in the first place is that I’d become utterly bored with my regular one.
What I needed was a little variation and a way to burn calories without my brain categorizing it as a task on a checklist, something I could do with friends so it felt less like a chore. That idea seemed simple at first, but I soon came to realize all my friends were on different points of the workout spectrum. They were either gym rats or proud, card-carrying sloths. So I gave up on the idea of getting them together and searched for stuff to do outside, skipping everything too costly or too far away. What I eventually settled on was hiking. Soon my mind conjured up images of me trekking up rocky, steep paths alone with the wind in my hair and animals scurrying all about me while I convened with nature.
But I still wasn’t thrilled.
I guess it was the ‘alone’ part that curbed my enthusiasm. So, after a quick online search and found a site that turned out to be the holy grail for finding folks with similar interests. After cruising the site for awhile I joined several outdoor groups and waited excitedly for the day I could get my hiking fix. I picked a night hike of a trail called Old Rag, which is a rocky, eight-mile path in the Shenandoah Valley system in Virginia, for my first adventure. Even though the trip coordinator had described the hike as ‘moderately difficult,’ I boldly RSVP’d because my brain still equated hiking with walking–and not with being on a stair climber for several hours.
As with most things I plan to try, I kept myself psyched until the very day the hike was scheduled to go down. What finally put my resolve in danger for this venture was the fact that the hike was on a Friday night. This meant a long day of work, a commute home for a brief nap, and a night of hiking until dawn. By the time I packed up my things to leave work that fateful Friday and head home, I was already tired enough to start hatching any excuse to withdraw my RSVP. Also, having decided that I was indeed going to chicken out, I swung by a happy hour after work with some of my work buddies. Ironically, had I not stopped there I probably wouldn’t have gone on the hike. But, unfortunately (or fortunately) my drinking lead to posturing and I told my coworkers I was going on a night hike when I left there, even though I already knew I wasn’t. The universe intervened that evening though.
A guy I really respect and admire just happened to be there (he’s kind of big deal at work, by Capitol Hill standards) and overheard my semi-drunken boasts . He approached me to ask if I’d hiked Old Rag before because if not–and at this point he gave me a brief once over–it might be “grueling for me.”
And there it was. My bluff had been called. Despite knowing that his remarks came from a place of genuine concern, I was slightly inebriated and very aware of his err…non-blackness in that moment. I’m sure my cheeks went red for an instant while trying to discern if his words were just about me being a hiking newbie, or about the stereotype that black women don’t connect with the outdoors. In hindsight, I reacted that way because I’d read-and totally internalized-an article on HWB around that time and I was likely projecting. But at that moment I’d decided that his dubiousness warranted only one response from me: get my arse up that damn mountain. And just like that, the hike was back on again.
I hopped the train home and prepped my pack to head out without taking a nap like I’d originally planned. Besides my water and other provisions I brought my compact and some eyeliner because at this point I was certain my night would end with me taking an amazing selfie on Old Rag. I arrived at the rendezvous point around 10:30 p.m. and met up with the group leader and another hiker. She was a tiny, quiet girl wearing a pack that was nearly the size of her body. Other hikers started to trickle into our group either timidly or full of zeal and soon we were all assembled. After our group leader divvied us up to carpool we drove to the trail. Sleep seized me on the hour drive to the trail and when I awoke I immediately regretted not bringing a thermos of coffee.
Hiking for eight miles isn’t particularly hard. Four miles up and four miles back and down? Easy-peezy. But hiking half drunk with a heavy backpack and a cheap headlamp with about forty strangers in the middle of the night is arguably a little hard. My headlamp only allowed me to see a few feet in front of me and I struggled to keep up with the front of the group even though the pace in the back of the group was more suited for beginners because I knew I’d need the room to lag a bit if I slowed down. I was correct. The first three miles weren’t so bad. I chatted with the tiny, quiet girl or listened to the loud, crunching sounds beneath our feet during our collective stints of silence. I shed layers and I toiled upward, zigzagging up Old Rag’s challenging natural staircase. After the first two hours I felt as if I’d sweated out all my alcohol and was running on pure adrenaline. It felt…great. Then, we hit our fourth mile and the hike went nearly vertical. I couldn’t believe that the event coordinator hadn’t mentioned that at one point in the hike we’d be crawling through, jumping over, and climbing hand-over-foot to reach the summit. Just seeing the first of the rock formations toward the top caused me to fall behind. They looked endless and I was already exhausted. The hit to my morale was accompanied by serious thoughts of me curling up under one of the larger rocks and throwing myself my own little better-luck-next-time party by eating my soggy peanut butter and jelly sandwich while I lay in a fetal position on the comfiest rock I could find.
Perhaps it was that I was very aware of my size. I’d done a quick survey of the group when we’d arrived at our rendezvous point (as best a survey as I could conduct with no light) and came to the conclusion that I was the largest woman there. The burden to prove that I had some level of athleticism had weighed more heavily on my back in that moment than my pack full of water, soggy sandwiches and first aid supplies. Even as I smiled and made small talk with my new found hiking comrades, I thought about my appearance. I didn’t have the toned arms and sinewy legs of a seasoned hiker, but I decided that I did have did have a particular type of grit that was fueled by my need to avoid public failure at all costs. So I marched my heavy frame onward and upward carrying my pack and all the mental baggage black women often feel when we are the only black woman in a room. Or on a mountain.
If I said it was all smooth sailing from that point I’d be lying. I got separated from my group when I caught a leg cramp. It was the longest ten minutes of my life. Also, it was nighttime, pitch black with a few feet of light jutting out from my headlamp. Again, I considered heading back down. That is, until I finally saw tiny little blades of yellow from the others’ headlamps cutting through the darkness and followed them back to the rock scrambles that would lead me to the summit. Up, up, and up. I jumped and grunted, my fingers slipped and sweat got into my eyes. The blackish sky had bled off layers of purple and was melting into a brilliant array of tangerine and sienna–and I was about to miss it all. Fear of missing the entire sunrise gripped my frame as my calves began to burn and stiffen again from dehydration. The pain was enough to stop me in my tracks. Frantically, I tried to balance myself on a rock and fish water from my pack, but it took longer than it should’ve because I struggled with my straps in frustration. At that point I was so close to the top I could hear, boots, hoots and hollers of others in the group who’d zipped past me to grab their seat on the rocks to catch some well-earned rays. I chugged the water and flexed my calf repeatedly, wincing from the pain.
But I made it.
And it kicked off something pretty rewarding for me, too. While I probably won’t be hiking the Adirondacks any time soon, I’m also not the girl who sits in the car at family picnics because I’m afraid of a tree spider falling in my hair anymore. (Yes. That was once a very real fear of mine.) Best of all, that guy I mentioned earlier–the one who was uncertain I should pop my hiking cherry on that particular trail– got the answer I promised myself I’d give him. I posted a pic of myself on Facebook so my friends, coworkers, and the rest of the free world could get an a eyeful of me on the summit. But I think what I got was a lot better. After all, my brain had worked out a simple concept for me during the hike. Simple–but useful.
The way I figure it, performing any task in which there’s no way to go backward or be still forces me to rally through it, rally forward. The body heat from my constant movement kept me warm on my way to the top of Old Rag, so I’m certain that if I’d just sat on a rock I would’ve frozen my nips off. Or I could’ve turned around and trekked back down alone…but then all my efforts would’ve been a complete waste of time. But instead, I ventured outside my comfort zone to shock and challenge myself a bit and found the lessons from that to be its own reward.
Surprisingly, shedding a few extra pounds ended up being less important to me than gaining perspective on what breaking out of my comfort zone means for other parts of my life. And while I haven’t figured the latter out entirely, I can at least say that lately I’ve been finishing everything I start. And I can say I make an effort to give my stillness purpose when I must be still, and then use that same sense of purpose to propel myself forward when I must move forward. Apparently, purpose is flexible in that way. Having learned that piece of it, I can proudly say that I’m ready for bigger mountains.