Here’s how I feel about hiking:
When I was 17, in my last year of high school, I took a statistics class. Notoriously bad at math, I braced myself for a semester of angst. Instead, I found that I understood the course material, loved my classmates and had great rapport with my teacher. Encouraged, I signed up to take the Advanced Placement statistics course and corresponding exam the next semester. My parents were understandably wary; they’d witnessed a decade of temper tantrums and failed math tests. But, I stood my ground. I wanted to take this class, and I did. The class was tough, but not impossible. I passed the exam. Now, almost a decade later, this is one of my proudest moments. No one thought I could do the thing, and I did the thing anyway.
My recent fascination with hiking is ridiculous: I am an indoor kid. I love Netflix, snacks, sleeping, that Bubble Spinner game and owning a thousand books. Sweating makes me panic. I have never gone on a run for fun. I’m scared of bugs and the dark. I’ve never peed outside. What possible success could I have on the trail?
I want to prove to myself that my soft, pale, weird body can do hard things. I want to rise to the occasion of living. I want to learn to love the outdoors before I get some life-altering injury, or become too addicted to my phone, or die, or something else. I want to be able to say, I did that. I can do that, too. I am strong. I am capable. Honestly, I don’t know if I’m stable or hardy enough to learn to love hiking, but I want to give it a fair shot. I owe myself that much.
I can’t hike right now (excuses, excuses) because I’m out of town for a wedding. So I’m reading about hiking. Below are seven stories about the outdoors, outdoor apparel, hiking buddies, bodily transformation, body image, abuse and sufferfests.
1. “The Source of All Things.” (Tracy Ross, Backpacker, December 2007)
In 2009, this essay won the National Magazine Award. It is the basis for Ross’ memoir of the same name. It is about reconciling the horrors of the past with the gifts of the present. Beginning when she was 8, Tracy was molested by her stepfather–the same man who loved her mother, took their family on wonderful adventures, and instilled a deep love and respect for nature in Tracy herself. Now, Tracy returns to the site the abuse began–the Sawtooth Mountains–with her stepfather/abuser by her side.
2. “Here’s What Happens to Your Body When You Hike the Appalachian Trail.” (Robert Moor, BuzzFeed, August 2016)
Robert Moor is the author of On Trails, a book conceived as Moor thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail. In this essay, Moor details his on-trail transformation and the painful readjustment to life after hike. (Pro tip: Don’t Google “macerated feet” unless you love gross stuff, like I do.)
3. “The Woman Who Hiked 10,000 Miles (No Exaggeration) in Three Years.” (Elizabeth Weil, New York Times, September 2014)
Sarah Marquis half-plans and fully executes some of the toughest journeys imaginable, whether she’s hiking across Australia or Siberia. What compels her to pursue these sufferfests?
4. “The Days You Feel Beautiful and the Days You Don’t.” (Myla Fay, Jezebel, February 2015)
Myla Fay writes candidly about wanting to be “carelessly thin” and taking to the Continental Divide Trail to transcend negative body image. I can relate. I, too, want to drastically change the way I relate to my body. I want to be grateful to my body, to work in tandem with it, rather than despise my body for what it doesn’t look like or can’t do.
5. “Selling the Great Outdoors: The Billion-Dollar Brand Battle for the Casual Camper.” (Chavie Lieber, Racked, May 2015)
Nike, Lululemon and a bevy of indie designers are foraying into outdoor apparel and gear, going up against brands like REI, Patagonia and The North Face, who’ve outfitted adventurers for decades. Will fashion trump function once and for all?
6. “Outfitting for Adventure: The Problem With Women’s Outdoor Gear.” (Kate Worteck, The Toast, April 2016)
The company reps Chavie Lieber interviewed in the previous story would do well to read Kate Worteck’s insightful essay at The Toast about the dearth of clothing options available to women hikers. Fuchsia, lavender and other stereotypical “girly” colors send Worteck and other women hikers running to the boys’ section in search of apparel that suits them inside and out. It’s not just pastels–women’s outdoor gear often lacks important features (like deep pockets) or is skin-tight and therefore uncomfortable for extended wear. Worst of all, Worteck explains that men’s apparel isn’t designed with women in mind and may compromise their safety.
7.“You Think You Have Time: Hiking the Lowest to Highest Trail.” (Carrot Quinn, The Toast, June 2015)
One more from The Toast (RIP). On the Lowest to Highest Trail, the hiker walks from Badwater Basin to Mount Whitney, the lowest and highest points in the United States, respectively. Carrot Quinn writes about her hiking companions, her addiction to transience and her unstable childhood. You’ll want to hike alongside Quinn after reading this. Check out her book, too: Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart.