For years, many of my adventures centered on scenic locations where I took hikes that helped me defy stereotypes about my own body. I forged ahead on trails, pushing myself and punishing myself with a fierce determination to stand at the ultimate destination – the summit of a mountain, an alpine meadow, the secluded lake, cliff dwellings at the bottom of a canyon. You name it, I’ve seen it through eyes burning with sweat, shaking legs, blistered feet, and soaked t-shirt. While my fellow travelers would feel a natural and healthy sense of pride at reaching their destination and enjoyed the reward, my mind swirled with mostly relief that I was able to once again prove I could do it despite my size.
ALL of that changed after a hike in the Amazon. I was staying with a family as part of a G Adventures Local Living tour in Ecuador and they guided us on a hike through the forest. The stay until that point had been remarkably relaxing – an afternoon swinging in hammocks and a dusk walk to receive a natural mud mask treatment by the river. The morning of the hike our guides created a pre-hike ritual by using nature’s colors to paint our cheeks red with various symbols (mine meant “woman of the river”), and crafted braided headbands. Then they helped us pick out rubber rain boots that would help us with traction on our walk, which caused a moment of panic because boots and my calves are a bad match. Thankfully, an angle-height style fit.
The hike included walking through and along a river, complete with a series of small waterfalls, and a precarious walk up a felled tree trunk. There were ropes to hang onto at times, but even so I found myself accepting help from my guides, something I almost never do because I’m too nervous that I’m going to hurt someone. Those mini obstacles were merely lead-in trials for the main challenge – ascending a 9 meter (27 feet) waterfall. I have never been so scared to do something in my life. I was the last to go, watching each person navigate the route to the top, or at least what I thought was the top as the rock outcropping obscured the top of the waterfall and left the final few meters a mystery. The guides asked if I wanted to use the harness. I sheepishly asked if it would fit, and thankfully it did.
I scampered up the first boulder, a steep and narrow rock that I had to pull myself up to even begin climbing the waterfall. I gripped the rope. The next big step was to get my short legs across a wide gap, placing me in an L position where I then used my arms to hoist my upper body back to an upright position. The next part was scuttling across the widest part of the waterfall, which wasn’t technically difficult but required careful timing and foot placement while enduring the onslaught of rushing water. After that I could clearly see the top! The final part was the most difficult because I wasn’t tall enough or strong enough to easily get onto the next rock. It took several attempts as I mustered all my flexibility, strength and resolve to get onto that stubborn, slippery rock. I eventually flopped onto it like a seal, but that step was the key to everything. From there it was just a few more steps to the top and I did it. I climbed a waterfall! I don’t think I’ve ever felt as purely joyful and triumphant as I did at the top. Since I was the last to go, an entire legion of travelmates awaited at the top, cheering me on and we all celebrated reaching the top of the waterfall.
The rest of the hike was also brutal – further uphill then a long stretch of downhill hiking in uneven terrain. Our guides made it bearable by singing “Despacito,” but I still managed to grab an untethered branch and fell on the way up, then smashed my toe in my water logged boot on the way down.
It was the most challenging hike I’ve ever done. I could have felt ashamed that I needed the harness and helping hands. I could have been disappointed that I was the last to get back home long after the others. I could have cursed at my sore, bruised legs. But all I could think was gratitude for my body. Thankful for my legs that powered me through the ordeal. Appreciative of the muscles that were challenged and never quit on me. Grateful for the deep lungsful of air that fueled me. For my arms and hands that reached out and accepted the help of others or even a handy branch along the way.
Since then, I’ve learned to appreciate and trust my body a little more. It’s far from perfect, but it is enough to get me up a waterfall, and that means a lot. After that day, I also stopped hiking to prove I could, and started hiking for the sheer joy of it. The magnitude of climbing a waterfall taught me that I have nothing left to prove to anyone, including myself. This means that now I sometimes choose to walk a flat path to a majestic redwood tree rather than up a steep mountain pass, and feel no shame in doing so. It also means that I take on a hard hike when I genuinely want to see the view from the summit, and let myself fully and unequivocally experience pride at getting there