Why I Hike
The idea of taking hours, or days, as well as expending enormous amounts of physical energy to reach the summit of a mountain never appealed to a younger version of myself. Waking up at two in the morning, or starting a hike at midnight to arrive at a crater rim, campsite or glorified patch of dirt by sunrise didn’t hold anything special for me. I’ve always considered myself a lover of nature, and someone who can appreciate the seemingly infinite well from which wonders both natural and, sometimes, supernatural can spring forth from, but for the majority of my life, I viewed mountains to just be a large pile of rocks. No more, no less.
It was after years of spending the bulk of my waking hours indoors, even in the summer, looking at the screen of a computer, that something changed within me. The incessant honking of taxis, epilepsy-inducing city lights and inescapable advertisements tightened their grips around my wrists, ankles and neck making both falling and suffocating unavoidable. This is when I began to realize that mountains weren’t just large piles of rocks; they were an escape. An escape from city life. From suffocation. And, from falling into a place where many people find themselves. A place where you can dwell for decades making money, forming wrinkles, producing offspring and gaining status without ever feeling as though you truly lived. That’s the terrifying irony of this place. You gain all of the accoutrements of having lived without ever actually feeling it. I didn’t want that.
So, I began hiking. From overgrown hills in Iceland to tropical forests in Indonesia to volcanos in Guatemala and many mountains along the way, I put one foot in front of the other and reached unimaginable heights; places where I couldn’t see half a meter in front of me, others where it was so cold I huddled with strangers for warmth and many where the sun never looked so good rising from the east. But, regardless of what I hike, or where I do it, I’m fortunate enough to learn something new each time; lessons I take with me off of mountains and into my own life.
10,000 to 1
After hiking a mountain for hours, you begin to wear down. The energy and enthusiasm you started with can gradually dissipate, and you may find yourself wanting to nod off for a few minutes before resuming. Your feet may not be as sure as they once were, and you can become prone to slipping and tripping. This happens to me, once in awhile, and I sometimes become a bit frustrated. “Just press on!” I say to myself. But, it’s in these moments, when I’m more likely to miss a step, that I realize just how many correct steps I’ve taken. That for every one incorrect step, I’ve taken 10,000 correct ones. It’s something to be proud of, and is an unfortunate reality that we’re more conditioned to focus on the one wrong step versus the 10,000 right ones. However, almost paradoxically, it’s important to not forget the power of one step. Because even though we may be right 9,999 out of 10,000 times, it can be that one incorrect step that undoes us.
The Reality of the Journey
Despite all of the sunny Instagram photos with exotic flora and birds magically perched atop a hiker’s fingertip, hiking isn’t the prettiest activity; especially when you’re on a multi-day trek up to the summit of a mountain. I’ve found myself climbing rocks with my hands for hours, literally crawling up the side of a mountain with not much else other than trees and clouds in sight. And, it’s at these moments that I usually end up laughing to myself. Laughing because the old adage, “It’s about the journey, not the destination,” is both right and wrong. The journey is the struggle, the meat of the whole experience, but the destination, for me, is often the prize. I’m a goal-oriented individual, and while I hike to experience the infinite beauty of nature, I use reaching a specific point as motivation to get me there.
Hiking, like life, isn’t always pretty. In fact, depending on what you do and where you go, majority of the journey may be lackluster. But, we still press on because we’re on the search for something. Something that may be more internal than external; a sense of self-worth, feeling of accomplishment or breaking a barrier we’ve set for ourselves. The journeys we embark on may not always be the prettiest, but, hopefully, they are the worthiest.
Focusing on the Next Step
When experiencing immense fatigue and the pain of your quads, calves and arms being set on fire, the worst thing you can do is think about how far you are from reaching your destination. You may be hours away, and each second becomes that much more discouraging the more you focus on the next 10,000 steps you need to take versus the next two. Yes, the next two. Left foot, right foot, repeat. When we think about the distance between ourselves and a goal – days, weeks, months or years – we can easily become discouraged. “Why bother?” is a question that often, like cream in water, rises to the surface. But, if we realize that the only way to reach any goal is by breaking down the journey into smaller, more attainable steps (literally, in the context of hiking), everything becomes that much more enjoyable and manageable. We can see ourselves taking the next two steps, which will undoubtedly build up to the rest in order to get to where we want to be.
The View from Where You Started
There have been times when I hiked for hours without looking behind me. I don’t know if it was because I was only focused on what was in front of me, if I felt no value in looking backwards, or something else, but I’ve been there; so consumed with the task at hand that everything else fades into the background – trees, flowers, clouds, family, friends and others – which can sometimes cause us to become narrow-minded to the beauty around us. And, it was only when someone called my name, or I had to take a rest, that I looked behind me and saw just how far I’d come.
The higher and farther you go, the better the view is from where you came from. It’s a perspective that you can only truly appreciate after having dedicated yourself to a worthy task. But, the trick is to not lose sight of everything behind you just because you find yourself at your goal, or even beyond it. Because if we don’t take the time to reflect on who and where we were in the past, then we can’t adequately decide who and where we will be in the future.
Silence is Key
Regardless of if you’re hiking alone or with a group, it’s a lonely pursuit. This is because no one is pushing your body up a mountain for you. Sure, friends may be there to cheer you on, extend a hand to pick you up after you’ve fallen, but it is you and only you who can get those legs moving, arms pumping and heart beating. It is because of the solitude of hiking that many do it; the silence that you not only experience around you, but within you, is powerful. It’s meditative. And, within meditation there are answers, real answers to questions you may have about yourself and the world around you; answers that you can use to positively affect your life and the lives of those around you. But, you can’t just accept the silence around and within you, you have to embrace it. You may be surprised what you find there.
A Bond Through Adversity
We never truly know what someone else goes through until we’ve experienced it for ourselves. The abyss from where hallmark cards, fortune cookies and quotes about “the road less traveled” come from also contains the maxim that for someone to truly develop empathy, they need to walk a mile in another’s shoes. When hiking with others, you can keep your shoes on, but still develop a real and tangible bond with them if only because you’re all experiencing the same blood (fairly common), sweat (extremely common) and tears (seldom common, but happens) getting to wherever you’re going. And while hiking can be a lonely pursuit, arriving at your destination with others is anything but. A bond is formed through adversity. And those who are there with you are there for a reason.
To appreciate those around us during the hardest times of our lives is a duty, because to have them around us during those times is a gift. In the same way that not just anyone will wake up at two in the morning to hike up a mountain with you, not just anyone will be there for you when you’re at your lowest of lows, which is why the bonds we share with those who are around are sacred and meant to be treasured.
Why I Hike
The idea of taking hours, or days, as well as expending enormous amounts of physical energy to reach the summit of a mountain never appealed to a younger version of myself. Waking up at two in the morning, or starting a hike at midnight to arrive at a crater rim, campsite or glorified patch of dirt for the sunrise didn’t hold anything special for me.
But, today I am a different man. And I have many “piles of rocks” to thank for that.
Check out my other popular adventures:
- 9 of the Best Places to Meet Other Travelers in Havana, Cuba
- An Accident of Brothers (or scooter safety 101 in Thailand)
- Hiking the Incredible Mount Rinjani with Adi Trekker
- Travel Guide: What’s There to do in Havana, Cuba?
- Thank You, Nicaragua: A Place of Unforced Coexistence
- Thank You, Thailand: The Perfect Adventure
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Mateo is a writer who quit his flashy job in NYC to live life on his own terms. He’s done everything from working at an orphanage in Nairobi to building a new university in Abu Dhabi to sleeping on volcanos in Guatemala. And right now, he’s working to get his novel published. His writing has been featured internationally in publications including Matador Network, GoAbroad, Víkurfréttir, Caribbean News Now and Black & Abroad. Regardless of where he is, he’s always working. To keep up with him, follow him on Instagram & Twitter at @AskMateo and read one of his elaborate stories at SwagPapi.com