One of the first times I hiked was as a college student. I was a brand-new counselor at a camp in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the day before our first session started, fellow counselors were taking a hike to a nearby waterfall. I knew nothing about the hike, and set off without eating breakfast or taking food or water, yet ready to make friends and spend some time outdoors. Having grown up in flatland, I was not prepared for the switchbacks and stairs that descended into the ravine, where we rock hopped our way up the river to the base of the waterfall. My leg muscles were shaky (on the way down! At the beginning of the hike!), and I was hungry, but I tried to put on a brave face for my new potential friends. The waterfall was beautiful – the frigid mountain water cascading into a pool where we waded, cooling off in the warm afternoon sun. There is a picture of me and two other girls taken at the base, perched on a rock, looking happy and relaxed. Looking at that picture now, no one would be able to tell that I was physically exhausted, my mind running through how I was going to make the uphill climb back to the car.
It was no small feat getting back out of that ravine. I was slow, and I was embarrassed that I had to keep stopping. Mercifully for my ego, a girl from our group gashed her knee on a rock and had to be practically carried back, which slowed the group considerably. I was able to stay close to the pack because of that, and a fellow counselor offered me some of his water upon returning to the car. I had made it! But I was so busy worrying about what other people thought that I didn’t give myself space to enjoy the outing. That experience stuck in my psyche for years to come, despite doing many other mountain hikes. Was I cut out to be a hiker? If I called myself a hiker, didn’t that mean it was supposed to be easy?
Four years later, I was working as an intern at a different camp, and part of our internship involved a trip to Chile that included a one-night overnight backpacking trip in the magnificent, rugged Andes Mountains. I was mostly looking forward to the trip abroad, but when I thought about the hiking portion, my stomach was in knots. The familiar feelings of inadequacy and nervousness about being the slowest haunted me. As we got out of the car the morning of our hike, the snow-capped mountain loomed in front of us. We would be hiking uphill until we reached the summit, then descending to some hot springs where we were to camp that night. While the worrying threatened to take over my fun, I decided I wanted to enjoy the journey; I put the final destination out of my mind and took it one step at a time.
We had people of all ages in our group, so no one expected to move quickly. In fact, we stopped more often than I would have on my own, and the hike truly became all about the journey! It didn’t matter that I was keeping up with the pace of the group, or that some others needed more time. We were in the Andes, and it was incredible! The scenery changed around every turn, and the mountains stretched out on all sides. We got above the tree line and a slippery layer of snow greeted us, despite being summertime. There were icy-cold creek crossings and jagged rocks underfoot. There were shady green sections with wildflowers in bloom. Where we camped felt otherworldly, like we had landed on the moon. We slept under a brilliant canopy of stars that night, the moon shining bright over us. And while worry about the hike back still tried to creep in, I remembered that day’s successes and assured myself I could do it – as slowly as I wanted to, enjoying each step.
I’ve thought about both of those hiking experiences many times since then. I’ve still said no to some hikes with friends for fear of embarrassment at being the slowest, but I have also said yes to some really hard hikes where I was the weakest link and survived – stronger and more resilient because of it. Either way, I’ve learned that going slowly means I can more thoroughly enjoy the journey, which is just as worthwhile as the destination.
Abby Friend is an outdoor adventure lover who lives in Northern Virginia. She is the author of the memoir, All the Days, which includes a story about her hardest hike to date, a four-day trek to the ruins of Choquequiroa in Peru, which she hiked very slowly.