Hiking Away Decades of Self-Doubt
A physical challenge that started as a pandemic distraction becomes so much more for this grandma
The Mount Tammany trail begins with steps wedged into the mountain’s rocky terrain — lots of steps. For more than an hour, I continue climbing up along the steep ascent, fueled only by my determination to reach the top. Fatigued and breathless, I stop suddenly at the sight ahead: Massive stacks of boulders loom, scattered across the path, blocking the trail.
“What fresh hell is this?” I exclaim.
“It’s a rock scramble,” my husband, Greg, replies. “We have to climb over it.”
I am a 5-foot-2-inch, 61-year-old pear-shaped grandmother, so clamoring over a scramble — of any variety — holds no place in my world. Surveying the unfathomable obstacle, I note the height of the rocks. Clearly, some rival my leg length. Finding a way up and over appears unlikely. More annoyed than concerned, I choose to move ahead because, after all my huffing and puffing, there’s no way I’m going to miss the summit of one of New Jersey’s most popular mountains.
Carefully placing my hiking poles into the crevices between the stubborn stones, I inch my way forward, moving up and over the rocky mess at a pace that would embarrass any self-respecting snail. As a well-meaning teenager glides past me, she says, “You’re amazing. My grandmother would never attempt something like this!”
How thoughtful. Except I never told her I was a grandmother.
Arriving just in time for sunset, I take a moment to bask in my accomplishment as I gaze over the Delaware Water Gap at the rolling hills of Pennsylvania in the distance. After a few moments, Greg becomes restless and suggests we start our descent via another trail. “We just got here,” I reply. “I worked hard for this sunset and don’t want to rush the experience.”
He shrugs and waits beside me.
Then, as the brilliant orange sun sinks below the horizon, leaving a pink-tinged sky, I realize the obvious: When the sun sets, darkness rapidly envelops a forest, meaning we’ll now have to make the 3.5-mile descent to the bottom of Mount Tammany with nothing but headlamps to show us the way.
Uncertainty and anxiety ensue, given my inherent clumsy nature, the innumerable loose rocks underfoot, and my native New York City husband’s complete lack of knowledge about wild animals and reptiles residing in the forest. Lamenting my frustrations all the way down the mountain, I remind him countless times that he chose this ridiculous route, and that it would be the last time he would choose a hike without my giving it a thumbs-up.
When Hiking Became a Necessity
Greg and I live in Harlem in the Big Apple, and when COVID gripped the city in spring 2020 — earning it the unwelcome title of the pandemic’s epicenter in the U.S. — escaping became a priority. After surviving a bout with COVID myself in March of that year, time away from the constant shrill of ambulance sirens and the incessant news reports tallying the death toll became necessary. Escaping the city through hiking adventures served as my mental health break.
Seizing every opportunity to be outdoors and out of the city, Greg and I traded flying to faraway locales for road trips closer to home, with hiking being the main event on each trip. While challenging, most of our trail experiences have been incredible, with none as nerve-racking as the aforementioned New Jersey hike. We chased rainbows in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, venturing up to Rainbow Falls one day, then finding our way along the trail to Abrams Falls the next to admire the thunderous power of the water. We hiked portions of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, where grassy, flower-strewn meadows begged exploration. We also discovered numerous hikes closer to home in New York’s Minnewaska State Park, where a combination of carriage trails and footpaths yield experiences across all four seasons.
The teenage girl on the hike to Mount Tammany’s summit was right: I am a grandma and — although my efforts seemed to amaze her — I’m not the only one of my generation strapping on hiking boots and hitting the trails. But most of the older adults I see doing so are tall and slim with legs made for climbing up and down rocks with ease. You won’t see those folks gingerly creating never-before-seen pretzel-inspired poses on a rock scramble. But let’s face it, not all older trailblazers are created equal. How are the clumsy, less mobile folks supposed to take the advice of spending time outside in these COVID times? What about those of us with thicker thighs?
What I Learned From Hiking
An unlikely hiker, I found myself in unfamiliar and somewhat frightening territory when the pandemic initially inspired me to consistently opt for the outside. Grace and speed fail me. Yet, to my astonishment, I’ve logged well over 350 miles on trails throughout the Northeast and South since spring 2020. Simply breathing in the fresh air does wonders for me. But I’m also proud of the level of confidence I’ve built. With my short, stocky frame, I thought I couldn’t climb rocks, but I’ve learned that I can.
On my best days, I hike with abandon, embracing every step as I pause to take photos of stellar views, shy deer and frisky chipmunks. On my rough days, every hike kicks off with me questioning my abilities and, worst of all, my body. “I’m too fat to do this,” I repeatedly lament to my extremely fit husband, nine years my junior. “I’m too old, too short.” Greg invariably rolls his eyes as he reassures me that I belong on the mountain or in the forest as much as anyone else. Then he coaxes me along our chosen trail — preapproved by me, of course.
So each week I stare down my self-doubts and conquer new goals — things like not falling off a cliff. Once safely home, with a hot shower behind me, I post myriad photos on social media displaying the remarkable scenery, along with the obligatory selfie or two of me and my fit Mr. Right.
A Role Model?
While I felt alone when this hiking obsession began, I’ve now learned that others plagued by the isolation of the pandemic and a plethora of self-doubts needed their own escapes. And to my surprise, my escapades provided encouragement to them to follow my lead and take on the trails themselves. Who knew? Self-questioning peers from around the world comment on my posts. “You’ve inspired me to start hiking,” says Traci. “Hey, Terri, have you ever hiked trails in Connecticut? What do you recommend?” asks Brigette. “My wife and I look forward to your post each week,” shares David, a high school friend. Women previously apprehensive about hiking due to concerns about fitness or age have begun their own journeys. Still others suggest we plan a hike together as COVID restrictions loosen. Some actually seek my advice. My advice? Are you kidding me? I’m not a hiker. Oh, wait, maybe I am.
For those of us who didn’t spend our youth conquering mountains, who constantly live with the battle of the bulge as we travel life in the lane of the vertically challenged, struggles with self-esteem often steal our confidence. I survived COVID partly because exercise already held a regular place in my life through routine gym visits and the occasional cycling class — good-for-you habits that could not be done when pandemic concerns mandated closures. That realization continues to motivate me to push myself farther down the fitness road through my trail-hopping.
My youth will never return. Life as a tall, thin, elegant woman will elude me. Awkward, unflattering moves are part of how I do rock scrambles. Younger, fitter folks and anyone with a pace greater than a snail’s continue to pass me on the trails. Yet I’ll persevere, pushing my personal boundaries. This hiking lifestyle began as an escape from the daily reminders of COVID. It continues to remind me of my worth, step after step, as I move toward a life with fewer self-esteem struggles and more mountain summits — preferably reachable before the sun sets.
Terri Marshall, a New York City-based journalist, now empties her brain and fills up her soul on hiking trails wherever she roams. Her stories have appeared in The Ladder, TravelingMom and Girl Camper magazines.
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