Warning: if you're looking for motivation to get into shape, this is probably not the column for you.
I had this aha moment while hiking the other day. Aha moments while hiking are usually great, and occasionally even life changing. Sometimes hiking helps me get crystal clear on what I want for dinner. Other times, step by step I chart different paths forward in my life through difficult circumstances.
Hiking is cathartic. But what I realized this time is that hiking is also difficult. It always has been, and so I suppose it always will be.
I didn't grow up with parents who were constantly getting me outdoors. I know those kids as adults now. Many of them have innate energy that I envy. They "bound" up hills, whereas I lumber. They sprint, and I plod along. People reared with exposure to and experiences in wild places are the kind of people who will somehow go an entire day on the trail and forget to eat.
Forget to eat?!? You should see my face right now. That's not something I forget to do.
I remember vividly when I first decided to start hiking. I chose it because as a young asthmatic it sounded like the most difficult thing I could do, and the people I admired most were into it.
These people were capable, determined, energetic, thoughtful and, above all, odd. Their personality quirks gave them a unique take on life coupled with a sense of humor, because each of them had a great sense of self.
It seemed like the common denominator among these people I admired was that they were hikers. I wanted to be a hiker if it made me more like them — meaning, more like myself, and better able to be that self in the big world.
Hiking turned out to be very, very difficult. Hills were steep. Everyone was faster than me. I sweated profusely. My cheeks turned red. I kept at it. It's bizarre, looking back, that I didn't give up. How did I know there was something better on the other side of all that pain?
Of course now I know that I was right to stubbornly pursue that path. Hiking helped me manage my asthma and step into another identity. For years that identity didn't even include fitness or the outdoors, because somehow those weren't "me." Those were activities those other people do, the ones I admire. I was tagging along, struggling ever upward.
But I did learn how to push steadily forward to achieve what once seemed like an impossible result, and that played out in many facets of my personality and life.
Now I'm realizing that all these years later not much has changed. Hills are still steep. I'm still slow. I still sweat a lot. My cheeks don't get as red now, I guess, yet walking uphill is always a daunting task.
What has changed is the hills I climb have gotten taller. I started on those cute hills Massachusetts people call mountains. Then I walked up the New Hampshire mountains that are mostly also cute hills by Alaska standards. Then I came here and have slowly, over the years, kicked my own butt up bigger and bigger slopes.
It doesn't get easier. But it does help me more fully become who I am.
That's the joke, and a theme I've noticed in other parts of my life. I am constantly working at the edge of what I know how to do. This isn't because I'm some sort of masochist or challenge-addict. It's because for every step forward I take in life, it brings me once again to the brink of the unknown. Circumstances that once seemed daunting and insurmountable 10 years ago are now a cakewalk, but I have no idea how I'll handle that thing tomorrow.
Hiking, and life, never stop being difficult. Both are a practice. And for both, if I don't try, I won't get anywhere at all.
So I keep on pushing, even though I still get winded, still sweat a lot, and still go slow. I'm not really a natural at anything, but I have seen that by stubbornly moving forward, I've become stronger.
Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.