Defying Gravity

I climbed a mountain yesterday.

This school year has been hectic, more so than usual, & so we haven’t made it to the mountains as often as we would have liked. I love the mountains. Living car-free in New York City somewhat limits our options, but thankfully the trains can take us right to the feet of several peaks of the Hudson Highlands. I’m a bit picky, though – I love being outside among wild things & dizzying heights, but a steep uphill walk is not my idea of a good time. About six years ago, a coworker introduced me to Breakneck Ridge. It was the first time I had ever “gone hiking,” aside from a few walks through meadows or manicured forests during my Girl Scout days. I showed up in denim shorts & well-worn Chuck Taylors, not exactly prepared for the might-as-well-be-vertical rock scrambling the path demanded. When I hauled myself over the last boulder to rest at the first summit, overlooking the Hudson River from my newly acquired vantage point of about 720 feet up, I felt something in the basin of my gut take root & bloom. I was hooked & nourished at once, & I knew right away that I wanted to do this again tomorrow, & every day for the rest of forever.

breakneck1

Just a walk in the woods up this cliff face.

Of course, when I woke up the next day unable to move anything besides my eyelids, I considered taking a few days off.

Still, that deep sense of fulfillment was awake inside of me, & it wanted more. But over six years, much has changed. My favorite mountain has gone from a moderately well-known weekend destination to being named the best hiking trail in the Hudson River Valley. That title has warranted an extended train schedule, a free trolley from the nearby town to the trailhead, & the attention of every daytripper in the tri-state area. This past Memorial Day weekend, the trail saw over 3,000 visitors. Yesterday, the train we took to Breakneck’s sister mountain was completely full, with at least 80% of the riders heading to the Ridge.

Sharing the short but intense trail with crowds is not exactly peaceful, & it definitely does not create the best conditions for clinging to the side of a mountain. It’s a lot harder to focus (not to mention more dangerous) while a line of people waits for you to find your path & keep moving. Add in that many of these hikers are the same people who barrel down the streets of Manhattan, attempting to walk through people who get in their way, & it just doesn’t make for a fun day anymore. So we sought a different mountain.

The hike we chose, Mt. Taurus, is not my favorite kind of hike to begin with, & the morning was just not on our side. Instead of being able to sip iced coffee & munch breakfast sandwiches as we strolled over to the train station from our apartment, a late start found us hustling to the crosstown shuttle, running through Grand Central to make our train only to march grimly through the packed cars until we found a space to stand. Under-caffeinated & cranky is not my favorite way to start any day, let alone a mountain-climbing day. We breakfasted late in Cold Spring, watching large groups of hikers wander through town as they made their way to Breakneck, & honestly, I was really more ready for a nap than a 1,200-foot climb when we stood up from the table.

As I mentioned, steep uphill walking is my least favorite, ever. I’ve certainly had less fun on a hike (my feet spent so much time pointed upward when we hiked Mt. Beacon that I could hardly extend my ankles for a week after), but Taurus was no joke. We were immediately on an incline; my breakfast was a small bowling ball pressing against my ribs; I was sweating within one minute; I needed a rest in two.

& again, & again, & again. The whole way up the mountain, my body demanded rest. Time & again, I stood to the side of the trail & let other hikers pass me as I tried to breathe through the uncomfortable sphere of toast & eggs pressing on every organ, or through the pain in my calves & hamstrings. This kind of physical activity pushes every single one of my inadequacy buttons. Normally, by my 3rd rest, I would have been near tears of frustration, trying not to hyperventilate as I inwardly berated myself for: my condition, my body fat, not getting up an hour earlier, not wearing shorts, eating, resting, embarrassing myself in front of other hikers, holding my boyfriend back, not ordering contact lenses a month ago, not doing research for a better hike farther away from Breakneck, etc. Inner me usually has a lot to say.

myteam

Oddly, though, inner me was pretty quiet. Through exhaustion & pain, I had only a few words to share with myself. “Rest,” I told myself. “Rest now.”

“Look at your feet.”

“You can get up now.”

& after boyfriend gave me this note to take some pressure off my overworked calves, I took to reminding myself: “Articulate through your feet.”

I didn’t love having to stop for rest so often – it made me angry more than once – but inner me was reassuring. “You’ll get back up. But you have to rest right now.”

Once, as I tried to push myself along, I felt an out-of-body numbness – I saw my feet plodding along, heard my noisy breaths, but they belonged to someone else. “You are here,” said inner me. “Touch the leaves, touch the rocks. Articulate with your feet, dude.” I reached my hands out to the earth & felt myself settle back into myself.

I wrote that & felt like it was too surreal to admit to, but I don’t have other words to describe that dissociation that I know is common among those of us who struggle with negative self-talk & with self-compassion. & honestly, the truly surreal thing was finding that I was on my own team. I have heard for years the reminder that I should not say things to myself that I wouldn’t say to my dearest friends, & I have always inwardly dismissed that advice. Sure, I wouldn’t talk this way to my friends, but that’s because I chose them, or because I knew myself better – I knew all the terrible things about myself that mean I deserve to be treated badly. Not very long ago, I believed this. Finding myself on my own side was an absolute shock.

Usually, it takes a lot of convincing to root for myself. Apologizing, even. I have to argue with inner me about why I should be kinder to myself, more understanding, more forgiving. & inner me never quite buys in. I realized yesterday that I have never really been on my own team. I had no idea what it would feel like, look like, or sound like.

It felt good. It reminded me that I could do it. It allowed me to remember, with no shame, that this is often what I go through on a hike, even at my beloved Breakneck. It literally helped me climb a mountain.

breakneck5

First Breakneck summit, 2013. Forced positivity outside, shame & self-doubt inside. 

& it’s not just that I was new to Mt. Taurus & her spectacular views that I felt so deeply fulfilled & grateful as we reached the highest outlooks. All the times we climbed Breakneck & I felt accomplished & proud, it was also validation that I was seeking & at least temporarily finding. The celebration of carrying myself up the mountain was always a conscious exercise, a deliberate recitation. I was saying the words without meaning them; I believed that I hadn’t made it up the mountain because of me, but rather in spite of me.

But being on my own team means knowing that I can do it, believing that I’m capable & worthy no matter how many times I need to rest & breathe & pick myself back up. It’s knowing that I’m going to pick myself back up. It’s knowing that I am the solution, not the problem.

I know that I can’t trace this growth back to one practice, or one moment. I know that I am seeing the result of years of work. & I know that this doesn’t mean I will never doubt myself or be mean to myself again. But the idea that this could be in me – compassion, understanding, patience for myself – it’s like discovering a new world. It’s like going to the mountaintop for the first time.

mttaurus

View from the way up Mt. Taurus


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