there’s a trail near my house that goes straight up. it’s the perfect place for a girl like me to play. unfortunately i lack many friends who live nearby and wish to get their asses kicked by a mountain 2-3 times per week after work. so, i’ve started hiking it alone.
the trail starts with a gradual incline just steep enough to remind you that you are not in good shape. at. all. after the first mile or so, your calves are asking what on earth they could have done to deserve this (nothing, unless you count that time in fifth grade when you missed the kickball and landed flat on your back and everyone pointed and laughed). but soon you forget the pain in your legs (especially the right one) as you continue up and up and up and your destination comes into view. it’s miles away at the top of a ridge with rock formations peeking just above treeline. your mind goes somewhere else.
“if i were a mountain lion,” you think to yourself, “this would be a lovely place to call home.”
i’ve never actually seen a cougar in person. of course i’ve seen the sad one at the zoo (and the terrifying warning picture on the information board in front of it with the cute family in the foreground and the unnoticed lion crouching in the background. yeah, you know what i’m talking about. haunting.). i’ve heard one scream. i’ve even seen tracks. once while looking for a christmas tree, i stumbled upon a feeding ground full of leftover bones (three and a half carcasses, i think).
but for as much time as i’ve spent outside, i know for certain at least one has seen me.
to be honest, bears don’t scare me. well, black bears don’t scare me. they just want berries and beetles and pic-a-nic baskets. in fact, i’m more afraid of moose (this one time, a moose came across a tent in the middle of the night and trampled it repeatedly until all of the people inside were dead. super rude). grizzly bears just don’t matter in the state of Colorado. i’m afraid of all birds (predators or not), but in a hey!-please-don’t-fly-directly-at-my-head kind of way (my grandpa once asked me “what’s wrong with your hair?” eluding to the fact that it looks exactly like a bird’s nest six days of the week). wolves are my spirit animal so i really don’t have anything to worry about there. but mountain lions? talk about the king of the woods.
i can’t lie to myself. i know that i’m a runt. i’ve heard enough short jokes from my mother alone to make me understand this. to a mountain lion, i look like dinner and taste like a curly haired pale girl who voted for barack obama. twice. without a pack on, i’m the size of a child. i know it’s true because i buy my clothes in the kid’s section (what? youth boy’s rain jackets are approx. half the price of ladies’ ones). the truth is i probably weigh the same amount as a doe, but with plenty less hair to get through. if i were silly enough to wear a bear bell, i would literally be announcing supper with each step.
so for the last few nights i’ve been out on the trail, i can’t help but feel like i’m being watched. i wonder if what i’m doing is really very smart. i wonder if i should have brought trekking poles, you know to use as a sword or light saber or something. i wonder if i should have borrowed (stolen) a dog to come with me (appetizer?). i worry just enough to worry, but not enough to make me turn back. i mean, there are regular cougar sightings in the area and i just so happen to always be out near dusk..
as the trail continues, it starts to get steeper. soon it starts looking less like trail and more like boulders and tree roots and creek crossings. as it climbs higher and higher directly towards rocks that are undoubtedly used as a den full of singing hyenas dancing around elephant rib cages, i start to forget that i’m supposed to be scared. my heart is pounding. my breathing is loud. the creases of my elbows are sweating and my face is a very attractive shade of red (as is my whole body all the way down to the knobby caps of my knees). my thighs demand to know what they’ve done to deserve this (nothing, unless you count the time when you tried to ride a bicycle and couldn’t). all i can think about is up.
in this moment, by yourself, it’s incredibly easy to say “you are weak. you are tired. you should stop.” without a companion with you to not only help fight off the thousands of lurking, drooling mountain lions, there’s nobody else around to make you accountable. there’s no chance of being competitive. there’s no reason to keep going if you don’t want to. after all, you are weak. you are tired. you probably should stop.
when i through-hiked the Colorado Trail with my brother, i spent almost everyday hiking alone. my brother could have hiked those 500 miles to Durango and then hiked all the way back in the time it took me to get one way. i like to blame the fact that i’m almost a foot shorter than he is and carried the same amount of weight in my pack (a response he will quickly shut down with reasons of science and things people say as they push their glasses back up their noses). maybe i just wanted to vagabond more than he did (i’d spend a half hour trying to get the perfect picture of a flower, or to actually take off my pack and enjoy a snack, or even stick my feet in the river. he would simply just want to “crush it”). regardless, the trails were mine alone to conquer. i knew i had to keep going until i found whatever spot he had chosen as home for the night, if anything else because he was carrying the other half of the tent in his pack. hiking with someone so clearly better, faster, and stronger than me made it easy to feel worse, slow, and weak.
but i’m so thankful that i literally ate his dust because in those 36 days, i had to learn that when you’re ready to give up, it’s the perfect time to keep going.
now when i hike alone i still get tired, weak, and want to stop. but instead of giving up because i can, i choose to tell myself the truth instead: “you are healthy. you are beautiful. you are strong.” it’s a little song i first taught myself up the steep saddle of Mt. Yale, and continued it down a very slippery rock slide near an old mining cabin outside of Silverton. i used it all the way from Denver to Durango. it’s exactly what i tell myself every time i climb this mountain near my house and i will sing it proudly when i climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.
there are a million reasons to be scared when doing something alone. you could get eaten by a mountain lion. you could slip on some gravel because you were watching a mountain jay hop on a log instead of paying attention to your own footing. you could have a bug fly into your eye, only to smush it while trying to get it out, and spend the rest of the hike wondering if there’s any chance of contracting HIV or the bird flu or anything else that way. you could give up just because you can.
but for every reason to be scared, there’s a reason to still do it. when i hike alone, i’m not distracted by conversation (though cherished when shared, of course), or a barking dog, or even a slow hiker. today i stopped and smelled a tree. i counted all the beetles i passed along the way (three black, one red). i noticed new wildflowers and tried to remember their proper names. i spent time thinking about people and places that i haven’t given much space to recently. i felt pride for accomplishing something just for me. i even cut 10 minutes off my time.
the reality is, life is full of weakness and exhaustion and fear: a death or a car crash or some rare form of cancer (probably contracted by bug/eye juice contact) or heart break or an unresolved argument or a steep mountain or even a hungry mountain lion.
no matter what happens, fight. always fight for it. because even when you don’t feel like it, especially when you don’t, you have to remember you are healthy, beautiful, and strong.
as for me? there are real lions in africa. i better get ready.