The Mountains are Calling, Even When He Isn’t

Two years ago, I started climbing mountains because of a guy.

Most people who know me would find that fact fairly surprising, considering I pride myself in being an adventurous feminist who revels in her independence. It’s true — I take myself out to dinner and on vacation, and I’d be excited to be a single, 40-year-old writing novels and traveling the world — but I’m not immune to adopting the interests of the men I deem attractive.

Every time I develop feelings, things get ugly. When I say every time, I mean I have never once walked away from someone I truly liked and thought, “well that went well.” I’m always left with a crumbling heart over a person I usually find mediocre two months later, but I will say this: I’ve turned every failed pursuit of the other gender into a reclamation of happiness by stealing one of their interests and making it my own.

Usually, it’s music. Kanye West is my top-listened-to artist on Spotify every year because my high school crush showed me My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and I became obsessed (with the album, not him). Sometimes it’s TV; I watched It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia for five hours straight with a guy I saw in college, and now I can recite every line from “The Nightman Cometh” episode because I watch it once a month. One time I even decided I liked M&M’s because of a conversation I had with a guy about M&M World. Then I proceeded to go to M&M World and buy $18 worth of candy.

It’s one thing to start a new show and eat a new food; it’s another to conquer a fear and dabble in a completely different lifestyle.

Two summers ago, I had a harmless crush. I didn’t know him very well, and I wanted to change that, but, as I have insinuated, I suck at love. It took a two-hour conversation with a group of friends — during which I was spectacularly drunk — to figure out how to ask this guy out without asking him out. Because, you know, crippling fear of rejection, et al. Ironically, he was invited to hang with us that night but had plans to go camping. We (read: I) came up with some terrible, sophomoric ideas: keep having group hangs until he showed up; invite him to smoke weed after work; have one of our friends tell him I liked him and see what he said (yes, I was 23 years old at the time). By the end of the night, I decided I should just never talk to this kid ever again.

At 4AM that morning I woke up in a cold sweat with an idea (which I promptly texted one of my friends who was most certainly not awake) of the same caliber, in my mind, as the invention of the airplane: I should ask him to go for a hike! We could climb a mountain! Hiking was casual and friendly, and he was literally in the woods amidst our drunken charette; the answer was there the whole time.

I was athletic — a distance runner — but I was not a hiker, and I was certainly not an outdoors person. My parents took me to the Grand Canyon when I was nine, and I complained the whole time. We went on a family trip to the wilderness in Maine after I graduated high school, and I cried before, during, and after. My friends took me to a small mountain four years ago, and I almost refused to go to the summit because I was tired. Bugs and squirrels disgusted me, walking up hills felt more strenuous than running 15 miles, and I hated being too hot or too cold. But time had passed; I was fitter and more mature, right? I was open-minded because it was a clever in with a person I liked, but I was also excited about the prospect of trying something new.

We made a plan, and I looked forward to hiking my first-ever 4000 footer. He wound up having to work the day we talked about going, but I had my heart set on climbing a mountain, so I said, “fuck it,” and went alone.

I woke up at 4:00AM that August morning and made the two-and-a-half hour drive from Boston to the White Mountains in New Hampshire, by myself; the longest solo drive I’d ever made. I played Kanye the whole ride up and saw the lipstick stained kiss of the sunrise over I-93 North. I traversed from a city of car horns and crowds, shackled in a 100-degree heat wave, to a crisp, green dreamland that smelled of sap and sounded like the breath of a rushing river.

I stepped out of the car, and it felt like home; like returning to a place I’d never been. In that moment, I belonged. I wore a wide-brimmed cap; North Face trail shoes; a cropped sports bra with a pocket where I stored my phone and a paper map in a Ziploc bag; and a running vest packed with a 60 oz. bladder, a bag of trail mix, and a bagel. I wasn’t legit, but I could pretend.

The hike felt like the first moment you realize you’re in love. When I got glimpses of the royal nation of trees below me, I felt powerless in my reaction to freeze solid and unblinkingly gape. My heartbeat, my body, and my gaze belonged to the green. It was my first time navigating an unknown world alone, and I got lost twice, but I knew the rocks and roots would lead me home. In the mountains, I was safe. I was a philosopher, a poet, and a superhero. 

Standing at the summit, I could have been on Mars, staring at the world from a foreign planet. From the top, Earth was humble, graceful, quiet. I could whisper my secrets to the mountaintop, and she held them in her rocky grasp. Peanut butter tasted like a luxurious filet. My phone couldn’t store all the pictures.

I reached the bottom and felt I was breathing changed air. Pine needles, glass-smooth water, and the feel of the sky and clouds on my shoulders spoke to me on the ride home. I woke up the next morning with an ache in my body like I’d been hit by a car and an ache in my heart that I needed to return soon.

Since that perfect day in August, hiking has become mine. I fell out of touch, brutally and fairly, with that potential suitor, but I fell in love with the mountains. I’m far from the first or last person to find herself while losing herself in the woods, but nature has a way of making you her own. I am thankful for the way climbing to the top of the world has given me love — for the independent, fearless person I have become — and obsession — with the prospect of returning to those glorious hills for the gods.

I’ve been climbing mountains solo for almost two years now. It has inspired me to do much more alone, too: six months after that hike, I traveled to Europe alone for the first time (and proceeded to take several other transcontinental trips by myself). It’s taught me to figure out what I want, keep an open mind, make an agenda, and stick with it no matter what. If anyone wants to join, that’s great, but I’m not missing out or upsetting the balance of my life because someone tries to become my priority. If that sounds selfish, it’s because it is. I put myself first; shouldn’t we all?

The mountains are a part of me the way love is a part of me. They’ve been there for me through the hardest of times: when I needed a place to escape from a job I hated, or when I felt far from patriotism on the 4th of July. They are a place to go with friends and a destination for sweet solace.

From the outside, it appears I have failed in all relations with the other gender, from meaningless crushes — like the guy who showed me Kanye or the one who inspired my hike — to all-encompassing true love. As the one on the inside, however, I see how I have made each of these encounters successful. I always find something to be happy about when my heart is broken. I always find both intrinsic and tangible wins. Maybe the love of my life is not some stranger off the streets who thinks he discovered what’s already one of the most popular artists or TV shows out there, but, rather, my ever-changing self. If someone wants to join me on my hikes and adventures, I’m more than happy to share the trails, but honestly? 

I prefer climbing 4000-foot mountains solo.

Me on July 4, 2020 on top of Mount Moosilauke, the tallest mountain I’d climbed to date.

Ahmaud Arbery: More Than 2.23 Miles

The most afraid I’ve ever been on a run was last June, when I got lost for nearly twelve hours trying to run the 31-mile Pemi Loop and wound up running a random 26 miles. I had to call the police when I got out of the woods to take me to my car. When I glimpsed the tall, white policeman pull up to me, I saw him as my way home, not as my potential murderer.

I was afraid on this run because I was alone and didn’t know how to get off the trails and back into civilization. I never feared for my life. I’ve never thought I would be murdered — shot to death — by strangers. I’ve never feared I would be killed by running, or for the color of my skin. Because I am white.

Ahmaud Arbery felt real fear while running. He felt terror he wouldn’t make it out alive because of his skin color, and on February 23, 2020, he didn’t.

Right now, people in my community — runners — are outraged and spreading news of this egregious act of racism and violent injustice. This is more than politics: it’s murder. It’s a boy’s life, and it’s two murderers — with video evidence against them — who were not arrested until May 7th, 2020. So, it’s heartening to see the response in my community, from people who are usually active to people who are usually silent.

Many of us, however, including myself, are guilty of putting more effort into Ahmaud’s case because he too was a runner. There is a common bond. We can put ourselves into his running shoes and jog the miles with him and imagine if we didn’t come home. We can imagine how our parents and roommates and relatives and friends would feel — the sickening, icy way his did. But we must remember: Ahmaud didn’t die because he was a runner.

He died because he was black. We can choose to run, but he did not choose to be black. And he certainly did not choose the systemic racism that killed him.

I hope moving forward, the running community — my friends and teammates and competitors — will care as much about all cases of racial injustices as we do about Ahmaud. This is more than running or running safety. This was a lynching; it was far from the first, and it won’t be the last.

Running is a freedom white people take for granted, so to see a fellow runner be publicly stripped of that right hits home to us. Again, though, he did not lose his life because he was running; the horrifying, ever-growing list of black people who are murdered because racists see them as criminals proves it. Ahmaud lost his right to life while running, just as Trayvon Martin lost his while walking home, just as Jordan Edwards lost his while driving home with friends, just as Atatiana Jefferson lost hers while being in her own home, just as, just as, just as….

My friend, a black man, made a heartbreaking point: racism doesn’t just show up in the deaths. It’s all around black people, all the time. Microaggressions, overlooked by white people, are what lead to murder. I wish they weren’t called “microaggressions” because that makes them sound small, but for black people, they’re overpowering. That comment, that look, that cultural appropriation, that mistreatment…they aren’t harmless. They are dangerous, and they cost lives. As my friend told me, the black person shot and killed — whether running or not — could have been him.

Ahmaud was the same age I am now. We think of age 25 as adulthood, but truly, I still feel like a child in some aspects. I’m sure he did too. I still cry when I’m upset. I still bring laundry home when I visit my parents. I still don’t know how to do my taxes. America strips black people of their youth. You can see it in racist portrayals and language. Teenagers are “men.” 12-year-olds are killed for playing. Ahmaud was 25 when he was murdered, and 25 is a step beyond childhood.

Let’s pay tribute to Ahmaud and shed light on injustice, but let’s not do it because he was a runner, something we can relate to. Let’s do it because he is human, like all of us. Let’s fight against white supremacists — like his killers — who do not view black people as human. Let’s work to make running and walking and driving and playing and being a right that is extended to black people once and for all.