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Climbing Mt. Mitchell: A Hiking Year in Retrospect

Happy Monday, internet people!

You may recall that last year I traveled with my boyfriend to hike the highest point in New York state, Mt. Marcy. Or, as my Medium post about the experience recalls, most of Mt. Marcy.

That hike took a lot out of me, and not only because it was the longest distance and highest elevation I had faced to date. I met those miles at a point in my life where I’d really lost faith in my body and what it could do.

While I hadn’t quite yet developed my chronic pain disorder, a few things in my body had felt decidedly not right since mid-February of 2019. I had been experiencing such severe back pain and sporadic right-shoulder numbness that I’d been to the doctor numerous times, each visit bringing a new set of exercises and diagnoses.

So, when I started up Mt. Marcy, it was in a body that still felt unbalanced, unsure of this body that felt so strange and so different from the runner’s body I had cultivated the year before.

I bring this up now because I couldn’t help but think back on this experience as I laced up my (new) hiking boots the morning of Andy and I’s hike up Mt. Mitchell. It doesn’t hurt that both mountains have “M” names, but the association went deeper than that for me. I’ve got a very link-happy mind, making connections wherever it can, and these were the two most significant hikes I’ve braved in the last two years.

2020 has been a year unlike any of us anticipated, to be sure. I don’t want to downplay the sheer scale of horrors that are taking place in this country and this pandemic. Yet it can also be true that even though this year has been terrifying and challenging on a worldwide and national year, 2019 was deeply challenging for me on a personal level.

So, as we began our drive towards the trailhead for Mt. Mitchell, I took stock of how far I have come in the last year.

Here I was, staying in a little AirBnB in the woods surrounded by hand sanitizer, a buff around my neck in case of humans during the hike–all precautions and considerations that year-ago me, in spite of her health anxiety, wouldn’t have given a moment’s thought.

My legs felt strong, solid coils of muscle poised for hiking. Unlike when I prepped for Mt. Marcy, I had a recent sense of what my legs and lungs could handle. Like so many people, I’ve funneled a lot of my rage and fear and despair into running this year, and am in arguably the best shape of my life.

I did not feel the same low and steady hum of doubt and fear that I had on the morning of hiking Mt. Marcy. Instead, I felt calm, sure, and determined.

The hike started off less than ideal, as Andy misread the map in his eagerness to get moving and led us a couple miles going the exact wrong direction. I stayed in high spirits, excited by how energized and powerful I felt. Does that mean I didn’t tease him a few times as we passed several “To Mount Mitchell” signs the moment we started down the trail the other direction? No, it does not.

Hiking Mt. Mitchell wasn’t easy. I wouldn’t say any hike where you summit a mountain is easy. What I will say is that it felt good, achievable, in a way Mt. Marcy hadn’t. Though I still had to take frequent breaks on the uphill bits, of which there were plenty, I could feel the difference a year had made in my body. My legs stronger, my core slightly more capable of supporting me, and my lungs and heart a bit more conditioned to cardio after so much running.

Andy’s surprise made me quietly proud as he remarked on my speed and stamina. In his mind, I could tell he’d been ready for another slow and tearful slog, complete with more than a few stumbles. This hike was different because, after so many doctor’s appointments and examinations and receiving my diagnosis, I was different. Am different.

There are some experiences you just don’t live through without learning a thing or two, and for me, 2019 broke down my safe assumptions about my body and replaced them with a deeper, more honest relationship with my body. 2020 Amanda might be a bundle of anxiety, nerves, and existential dread, but the “I can do hard things” mantra is one she has lived and truly learned to embody. Most days, anyway.

That’s not to say I didn’t try to give up when we passed the mile marker indicating we had 2.5 miles to go to the top, of course. This trail has mile markers every .5, which feels great when you’re fresh and watching them tick by, but feels like an eternity when your body is starting to get tired and you swear you passed that 2.5 marker already.

True to form, Andy didn’t let me quit. And by the time we passed the 1.5 mile marker, I’d caught a second wind. Hot, sweaty, and proud, we emerged at last onto the summit of Mount Mitchell.

I may have only been to the tops of two mountains, but I have to say, I’ve seldom encountered so stark a contrast. While climbing to the top of Mount Marcy meant scrabbling up bare, naked rocks, the top of Mount Mitchell is a paved tourist attraction. There’s a road you can take up to a parking lot a short distance from the top, where they’ve built an overlook (closed due to COVID-19, of course).

The view, I have to admit, didn’t even remotely compare to the top of Mt. Marcy. It didn’t help that there were people everywhere, most of them clean and fresh from their cars, while I was drenched in layers of sweat.

While Andy went in search of water for our return trip down the mountain, I sat smiling as people complained of the distance up the paved road from their cars to the top. Funny how perspective can change a distance–to them, it seemed far to far up the steep path when they’d bargained on a drive to a view, whereas to me the view didn’t seem worth the 5.6 (+2) mile hike we’d taken to get there.

Nevertheless, we checked off another highest point on Andy’s list, and I marveled at how different the experience had been in my body just a year and some change later. Even as we made our way back down, my stamina held up.

When we got back to the A-frame, another, smaller adventure awaited us–a shower in a bag. Andy trekked down the hill to fill the bag up with hot water from the main house on the property as I prepped myself for a new experience–showering with water hung from a carabiner clip on the back porch of a cabin in the woods.

That night we enjoyed the still silence of our little cabin, and when I woke up the next morning, I was surprised to find my legs barely sore, though my abs certainly had a few complaints to offer.

I like moments of symmetry in life, when our experiences allow us a quick and easy compare-and-contrast. Compare 2019 Amanda having a panic attack 98% of the way up Mt. Marcy to 2020 Amanda, chuckling and facemasked, watching tourists wander by on the crest of Mt. Mitchell.

In many ways, it hardly feels like a full year has passed. So many of the ways we usually mark our time have fallen away in the wake of COVID-19 and related precautions. No clear end to the school year, no clear start to summer, not even the clear weekly markers of working in an office. In some ways I feel I never turned 28, that we are still more or less in the beginning of this year.

And yet, when I think about the distance between who I was atop Mt. Marcy and who I am sitting here today, it feels like it’s been far, far longer than a year.

It’s hard to say what next year’s retrospectives will look like for each of us on a personal level, much less on a national level as we reckon with so much ugliness being brought back into the glaring light, to some of us for the first time. I hope 2021 brings with it more hope, more growth, more chances to renew and begin again.

More than anything, these moments of sudden comparison remind me that we don’t have to wait for some arbitrary reset to try something new–it doesn’t have to be New Year’s Eve, or our birthday, or the anniversary of this or that. We can pick up a hiking pole, a book about anti-racism, our first protest sign or voter’s registration card, at any moment in our lives. Always, we have the potential for change, but like my Passion Planner reminds me, it begins at the end of our comfort zone.

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