A couple of years ago I painted my friend E a card that paraphrased a Carrie Snyder line that struck us: “Do the hard things that make you feel alive.”
I am a great believer in doing hard things, which generally happen in the exercise arena, the easiest and safest place to introduce this kind of challenge, because you know your suffering has a purpose. You also know it will end. The first is not true of all of life’s suffering alas, but thankfully the second is. And it’s a good thing to remind ourselves—because so many hard things feel like they never will.
It’s easy to fear life’s hard things—they’re unpredictable, they’re sometimes cruel, they always hurt—but it’s important to remember they make us stronger. If that sounds like easy romanticization, it is. It’s written from a place of comfort, where getting stronger is all academic and generally sounds like a jolly good idea.
But when you’re in it, really in it, it can feel like the worst idea you’ve ever had. The year I turned 30, under the sway of reading Wild, E and I decided to hike the East Coast Trail, which is 215 km from Cappahayden, Nfld, to St. John’s. She’d just done her first marathon, I was a near daily exerciser, and we thought it would be hard, but fine. (It’ll be FINE is in fact one of our favourite stoic things to say to one another.) Neither of us had backpacked longer than three days, so the jump to fourteen was considerable, but we were excited—nature! Strength! Perseverance! Character!
After not long on the “trails” (a generous term for the tree-choked deer paths of calf-deep mud strewn with fallen logs*) in the constant rain, we realized that we’d underestimated our task. On day four, I hit my rock bottom, sobbing in the shelter of a large boulder. I removed my boots, which now seemed too small (that classic Wild blunder I swore I’d never make), and if feet could exhale, they would have. They were swollen and blistered, every step hurt. I was bone tired, sore, and also embarrassed—I’d made a navigational error that meant we’d missed a crucial grocery stop by 2 km, which meant we’d have to double back, earning us an extra 4 km of walking. (That may not sound like much, but consider the heavy packs. Consider the state of my feet. Consider the other 20 or so km slated for that day.) I’d hidden my tears, but not my frustration, and E had offered to leave her pack and go back to the store. I used the time to blubber and consider whether it was possible to quit. Ten more days of this seemed unthinkable.
I called my partner for the first time on the trip and explained what had happened. “I thought . . . I thought I was tougher than this,” I choked out.
“But this is how you get tougher,” he said.
I was furious, and also knew he was right. People aren’t born tough, they’re made that way—and what we might look and think of as a fun training montage is so much longer and harder when you’re living it.
Before I left for that hike, people said things to me like “one step at a time,” which I thought were cliche. I inwardly rolled my eyes. But when I lived that mantra, oh so literally, I had time to think about what that felt like and how important that saying is. Because when you’re in the thick of the hard thing, each step is a challenge and each step is a victory.
We finished that hike despite a lot of setbacks—an injured knee, a broken tent pole, and two head colds among them. There were moments of beauty, but a lot more of tedium and suffering. We were too tired to climb to extra viewpoints, even to appreciate beauty that was right in front of us on rare occasions the fog cleared. (Which, it should be said, is an important lesson too.)
I thought the thing I would remember most about that hike is reaching the end of the trail, that a moment of freeze-framed glorious triumph would be burned into my brain. But in fact the moment I’m most grateful for is that breakdown, the shameful low point I didn’t expect, that I almost didn’t make it through. That’s how I know it was really tough, and that’s how I know I got tougher. Because I walked on, one blistered step at a time.
* It should be said I don’t blame anyone for this: it had been a bad hurricane season, and the trails aren’t easily accessible, and are thus difficult to repair. The ones further from St. John’s also see less traffic (we saw only a couple of humans over days of hiking) and thus get less maintenance attention. I don’t blame the Trail Association, which I’m sure does the best they can. But also, it was BAD.