Chapter Sixteen: Lessons From The Mountains

Robin standing on the summit of a mountain enjoying the view.

Shortly after I went into treatment for my eating disorder I read Cheryl Strayed’s amazing memoir “Wild.” I identified so strongly with her reckless abandon, with her need to run away, with her longing to do something monumental in the face of personal upheaval. I had the summer off before my wedding in September, so I thought to myself “why not hike the Long Trail? I could do it.”

Spoiler alert: This isn’t an insightful, poignant recollection of my experience thru-hiking a major trail a la “Wild.” I didn’t actually hit the trail shortly after finishing the book. But I started to plan. Swept up in my excitement, I called a friend who had thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail and started to tell her about my intention.

She laughed at me. I was pretty hurt by the reaction and asked her why she thought it was such a ridiculous idea. She asked me if I’d ever even backpacked before. Reluctantly I admitted that I hadn’t. She asked me when I’d last hiked. I shot back that I hiked all the time, which was marginally true. When I was training martial arts, hiking was pretty good cross-training for my “rest days.”

I expected her to change her tone in response, but she remained skeptical. She told me that the Long Trail had some pretty difficult climbs, especially near the peaks of the mountains, and there were a lot of mountains on the trail. She pointedly questioned whether I’d ever even climbed any of the mountains in Vermont. I wanted to retort that I’d climbed Mount Philo several times, but even I knew that Mount Philo is a hill by Vermont standards. I admitted that I hadn’t. She laughed again and said maybe I should start there before I started gearing up for a thru-hike.

Though I was disappointed that my lofty plans had been dismantled, I knew she was right. I asked her which mountain I should start with to get myself “in shape,” and she told me if I really wanted an idea of what hiking the trail would be like I should hike Mount Mansfield, the highest peak in Vermont. Of course, I liked the idea of tackling the hardest thing first, so I made plans to hike it that weekend.

That’s when I started learning the lessons about my body that mountain climbing had to teach me. I’d never climbed a real mountain before. I had no idea what I was in for, the physical or mental challenge that lay ahead. In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t. I might not have gone.

I picked the trails I would take to get up and down the mountain — the Sunset Ride trail up and the Halfway House trail down. I wasn’t a fan of out and back hikes, so I wanted to do a loop. The night before I packed my day pack with some snacks and water and I loaded the car for a one-night camping trip in the campground where the trailhead was located. I felt absolutely prepared for this monumental undertaking.

I arrived at the mountain around nine in the morning prepared for a six-ish hour hike, according to the trail guides I’d read. I was full of energy and optimism as I walked out of the parking lot with my pack slung over my shoulders. As I crossed the treeline I felt the peace I’ve always associated with the woods. Many of my happiest childhood moments were in the woods behind my house or the woods surrounding my grandparents’ house. The earthy smell of dirt, leaves, and trees was like aromatherapy.

For about a mile and a half, the hike was pleasant and relatively easy. I had a lot of time to think, to process the big feelings and racing thoughts that had been dominating me since I started treatment.

A bit before mile two everything changed. The trail got steeper and rockier. I had to pay way more attention to my body and my movement than my thoughts. In order to stay safe, I was thrust into listening to what my body was telling me, something I’d been avoiding for years. And when I tuned in, I didn’t like what I was hearing. My body was sore and tired even though I was miles away from the end of my hike. I was hungry. I needed to take a break.

It had been so long since I’d actually acted on the messages that my body was sending me that I didn’t really know what to do with them. I was used to denying hunger and fatigue and pain. I was used to pushing through them and continuing as if they didn’t exist to prove that I could, in fact, control my body, my life. So, that’s what I did on that hike.

It quickly became apparent that ignoring my body while climbing a mountain was very different than ignoring my body while I was training martial arts. When I started to feel weak from hunger, pain, or fatigue at the gym, I always told myself that I just had to make it a little longer. Each round was only three minutes. Each class was only an hour. I could do anything for three minutes or an hour. But ascending and descending a mountain takes several hours, and it feels much longer than that when you’re exhausted, sore, and hungry.

As the climb got steeper and more technical, I noticed that my legs felt wobbly. This happened semi-frequently when I was training, but I didn’t think it was a big deal. I just stopped doing kicks and focused on my punches or getting to the ground to grapple. But when I was miles up a mountain, trying to navigate steep rocks, when every footfall was crucial, wobbly legs were a big deal.

The natural response would have been to take a break and eat, but I thought I was close to the summit, so it didn’t seem worth it to stop. I used the delaying method I used so often in training and told myself I’d rest when I made it to the summit.

Not long after that, I crested a ridge I was sure would reveal itself to be the summit. As I paused on the overlook, taking in the view of the idyllic Vermont landscape, I felt so accomplished, like a champion. Then I saw some people disappear onto a different trail off the overlook, a trail that seemed to lead upward. Deflated, I asked someone else who’d paused on the overlook how far we were from the summit. They assured me that it was less than a mile away.

I crumpled down on the rocks, devastated. The climb had already been so difficult. I was already so tired and sore. I’d felt so prepared for this hike and I was so clearly not prepared. I didn’t know if I was going to make it to the top. I felt as if the mountain itself had defeated me.

Then my stubborn side kicked in. I’d said I was going to summit that mountain and god damn it, I was going to do it! Instead of continuing to rest, having a snack, gathering my strength in a physical sense, not just a mental sense, I stood up and dragged myself to the trail.

When I finally emerged on the summit I was so depleted that I stumbled to the highest point in Vermont. I finally sat down and ate. As I stared at the vast expanse stretched out below me, I felt the boundlessness of the world. I basked in the accomplishment of completing this incredible challenge in spite of my body’s reluctance. I felt like I’d found my place in the world.

I wish I could say I had some huge revelation about all the things my body could do and how I needed to take care of it better so that I could do these incredible things, but I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t allow myself to eat until I was satiated. I ate what I considered to be an “acceptable” amount and stopped, even though I was still hungry. I didn’t rest until my body felt capable again, I rested until I lost the high of accomplishment. And then I got up and started the long journey down the mountain.

I didn’t know at the time that even experienced hikers don’t recommend taking the Halfway House trail down the mountain. It’s very steep with a lot of rock scrambles — rock faces that require some technical climbing skills. It’s a challenging hike up, but a potentially treacherous path down, especially for an inexperienced mountain climber, like me.

The hike down was excruciating, especially on my wobbly legs. I almost fell several times. There were quite a few nasty trips. Bruises and scrapes added to the pain of my spent muscles. I vividly recall texting a friend to let them know what trail I was on in case anything went wrong.

When I finally made it down to my campsite, I collapsed in my tent. I was immensely proud of myself for sticking it through, for making it up and down the mountain regardless of how my body felt. Instead of recognizing that the hike would have been much more enjoyable and easier if I’d listened to my body, I celebrated the conquest of my body by my pure determination.

I fell in love with the rush that came with summiting mountains — the high of achievement, the superiority that came from doing something others admired, the confirmation of my discipline and determination. So, I decided to hike all the 4k foot mountains in Vermont, because I can’t do anything halfway. I spent the rest of the summer in the mountains.

In hindsight, I’m really sad that all of those hikes went much like the first one. I pushed myself way beyond my limits. I abused my body instead of honoring it. It took me years, and dozens of hikes and climbs, to realize that my eating disorder was in charge every time I hiked. Even long after I’d given up most of my eating disorder behaviors, treating my body well during a hike still eluded me. I never quite figured out how to eat or drink enough to fuel my body for the enormous endeavor or how to rest so I could gather my strength for the undertaking ahead. Even as I began to backpack and long-distance hike, I couldn’t master these skills. And I paid for it each time. I have some epic stories about trail fails that were all a result of not listening to my body.

The last time I backpacked, my body was so run down from the way I was pushing it that my pace slowed to a crawl and I ended up hiking in the dark. I got lost off-trail. I might not have made it to the shelter before morning if my friend hadn’t backtracked to find me. I don’t think I’ve fully processed how terrifying that was.

It’s been over two years since I climbed a mountain or backpacked. My son is 17 months old, so that’s the clearest explanation of why not. But there’s more than that. Since that last backpacking trip, I’ve had to face how I used hiking and climbing as a way to disconnect from my body, to relish in pushing it too hard, to abuse it. And I still haven’t worked through all of that.

Fortunately, I have learned to love the woods again, in new ways. I’ve learned to love short hikes with smaller climbs. I’ve learned to love slow, meandering hikes led by my toddler. I’ve learned to love standing, sitting, or lying amongst the trees and feeling the earth under me. I’ve reconnected with the aromatherapy of the forest and the calm it brings.

Maybe I’ll be able to summit Mansfield in a healthy way soon. Maybe even this summer. But I’ve promised myself I won’t until I can do it in a way that respects my body and my mind.

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This Body Of Mine

A collection of personal essays exploring how my experience of my body has shaped my identity and my spiritual, emotional growth. Written by Robin Zabiegalski.