I want to love the wild. I really, really do.
I’m hiking up the Pipiwai Trail near Hana, Maui when the open landscape of moss, ferns, and majestic banyan trees suddenly gives way to bamboo forest. Thousands of stalks, just inches from each other, reach 80 feet into the air, blocking the midday sun and all noise. That’s when my lizard brain jerks awake, wondering how we went from day to night in mere seconds.
My heart thumps, my skin tingles, and a dawning sense of paralysis slows my pace. Stop! says the lizard. Turn around! It’s dark in here! I argue that we’re almost to 400-foot Waimoku Falls, the bamboo will soon open up and the hike will be worth it. But now I’m trembling, withdrawn into my own jagged thoughts.
Then I see her: a young, heavily pregnant woman dressed in a tube top and loose skirt, golden hair tumbling over her brown shoulders and bare, swollen belly. She is coming towards me in flip-flops, feet covered in mud, holding a baby on her hip.
“It’s gorgeous in there,” she says radiantly as we pass, referring to the falls just up ahead.
She is a wild forest nymph, at one with all of nature. And she’s my polar opposite. Because after years of trying, I’ve finally admitted that I am the most pathetic hiker on the planet.
The Maui earth goddess hasn’t been the only one to put me to shame. On the 1,000-foot ascent to Yosemite’s Columbia Rock, I stopped my ex-husband after what felt like the hundredth switchback to catch my breath and started crying. “I’m so tired,” I moaned like a child. The trail — ranked “moderate” — was populated by actual children, and as they passed us with their parents, I couldn’t continue to justify my sorry state. I took a big slug of water and pushed on to the vista point, feeling semi-triumphant as I gazed over all of Yosemite Valley toward the granite profile of Half Dome.
Why, I ask myself, am I so awful at this thing that many 7-year-olds have already mastered? It can’t be purely physical. I’m a yoga teacher who’s exercised in some shape or form for most of my life. It can’t be for lack of aspiration. I scroll through the Instagram feed of my sportiest friend drooling over her latest shot at the top of a Montana peak. I wander through REI touching adorable plaid Patagonia shirts and moisture-wicking socks. I devoured Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of overcoming personal tragedy via 1,000 solo miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. I actually teared up watching the movie’s trailer, which had Reese Witherspoon traversing snow and rock with Emily Dickinson’s words echoing in her head: “If your nerve deny you, go above your nerve.”
Since I moved to California for college, I’ve always wanted to be the kind of person who finds rejuvenation in the woods. But the fact is, walking uphill under a hot sun into unknown territory exhausts me in a way no 90-minute aerobics or vinyasa class ever has. And it frays my nerves to no end.
I fear no man, but I do fear mountain lions and bears, wasps and snakes. I also harbor realistic concerns about dehydration, missed turns, and broken ankles that could trap me beyond the easy reach of help. These what-ifs buzz at a louder pitch with each outbound step I take, and only begin to subside after I turn around and begin the descent.
In a word, I fear the wilderness — the same wilderness John Muir and all his disciples, including every man I’ve ever loved — have turned to for replenishment. Maybe it’s because I didn’t grow up hiking and camping. Maybe it’s because I have a proclivity for panic attacks in general. The word “panic” actually comes from Pan, the half-goat, half-human Greek god of nature. This cannot be a coincidence.
I’ve known two acquaintances who died hiking. One fell while night-hiking alone out in Joshua Tree. The other walked into the Ventana Wilderness near Big Sur never to be seen again. Their deaths underscore the reality that governs the world beyond our fabricated cities, suburbs, police stations, and hospitals: Mother Nature holds sway. One slip, one wrong fork, a few too many degrees of heat, and we’re in trouble. In 2014, for example, 3,409 people required search-and-rescue assistance in U.S. national parks; 164 of them died. Day hikers accounted for 42 percent of those emergencies. That’s not a lot given the hundreds of millions who visit the parks annually, but it’s more than enough for my risk-averse mind to chew on.
Admittedly, my forays are weak compared to, say, a solo trek through a remote and unforgiving landscape. I bring a friend, wear a hat, stick to the trail, and have never even attempted anything labeled “strenuous.” And I still don’t like it. For some reason, though, I keep at it. I’ve combed the rocky hillsides of Lassen Volcanic National Park (on Day 1 at least; on Day 2 I left my friends mid-hike and went back to the car to cry). I’ve sidestepped along 10-inch-wide footpaths in the red rock canyons of southern Utah, jumping crevasses to keep up with the group. I’ve dizzily braved the uneven periphery of Mount Tamalpais north of San Francisco, keeping my right eye glued to the green mountainside while my left wandered down the foggy slope all the way to the sea.
My attempts have at least yielded one main nugget of self-knowledge, best expressed by a mantra I received from a Tahoe ski instructor: Nothing will ruin your day like trying to keep up with someone more experienced than you. I used to regularly fail at skiing before I learned this. And since everyone I know is a better hiker than I am, that means I no longer do much keeping up. Luckily, most are willing to slow down a little for my sake.
What keeps me going back for more? My undying admiration for people who immerse themselves in nature and come away renewed. My experience of overcoming other fears — like flying on airplanes, for instance — and looking back on them as illusions that kept me trapped. My memory of spending childhood afternoons running through the woods, playing in open fields, splashing along creekbeds, happy as could be. I want that back.
I recently spent six years living in Los Angeles very close to Griffith Park, a 4,300-acre swath of rugged mountains that can quickly make you forget the city surrounding them. There, I noted grandfathers with their families footing it up the short but steep fire road leading to Griffith Observatory. If they could get there wearing black slacks and sandals, I told myself, then surely I’d survive with my Camelback and Keens, no matter how hot and breathless I became.
My boyfriend loved to hike a 5-mile loop up to the park’s second-tallest peak, Mount Hollywood (of course he did!). It was a steady, hour-long climb through dense chaparral up to 1,600 feet. At the top, a panorama of the Los Angeles basin sweeps over the white dome of the Observatory, past the symmetrical downtown skyline, and all the way out to sea.
Last time we were up there, several elderly Japanese women in tracksuits and visors were exercising on the viewing platform, their water bottles and oranges lined up on a picnic table. My boyfriend took a deep breath, savoring the view. I tried to appreciate it while feeling slightly nauseated and wondering how the hell I was going to make it 2.5 miles downhill on such shaky legs.
But as we pulled away from those women doing their side bends and spinal twists and high kicks, I thought to myself: By the time I’m their age, I’m going to nail this hiking thing.
Originally published in the March 2018 print edition of Sunset magazine.