“Well, someone is looking chipper.”
She’s sitting on one of the larger rocks off to the side. A fellow hiker, one of the countless people you meet and effortlessly talk to and then equally as effortlessly part ways with while on the trails. I’m probably a quarter mile in to what is about a solid half mile of pure uphill rock climbing. I’m far enough away that she can’t hear my huffing and puffing (I’m assuming).
“Look at that smile. You look like you could go another 10 miles of this,” she adds on. Her pack is off and she is in the middle of eating. A break from the trail.
“Don’t let the demeanor fool you,” I reply. “My legs are absolutely pissed I’m putting them through this.”
And they are. My calf muscles are screaming and my quad muscles have fatigued out. I’m already having trouble lifting my feet high enough up and I keep tripping over roots. I’ve been periodically pushing myself up the mountain by clamping down on my bent leg’s thigh and pushing off it, as if to simultaneously keep the knee down while propelling the rest of me up.
It’s fitting that I’m having this conversation. Perhaps a mile or so back on the trail, back when the terrain was relatively level, I had just realized that, when I’m knee-deep in the trail and too physically exhausted for the chitter-chatter of my mind to sustain itself, the corners of my mouth naturally turn up.
At that point, I was about two or so miles in to a solo hike, getting what might’ve been my last hike of 2016 before training and travel and work would fill up my weekends from now until the holidays. I was already breathing heavily, my mouth slightly agape (and…smiling). It was an expression I would keep as the terrain got rockier, as the incline got more extreme, and as I found myself essentially on my tiptoes as I scaled the mountainside.
“You couldn’t tell with that smile,” another hiker interjects, responding to what I had just said about pissed off legs, hoisting himself up the rock with hiking sticks that I start wishing I had brought along as well.
My natural smile as I hike. Perhaps even part of why I hike in the first place. But it’s not the expression I tend to get in other forms of exercise.
When I run, there’s almost a scowl on my face. Brows naturally furrowing, as if focusing in on a complex question — or determined to push through an arduous project. If my race pictures are of any indication, I can even look angry at times. It’s as if running is a slow burn to whatever it is I’m dealing with. Like I’m unearthing every demon, forcing them to the surface so they can be dealt with accordingly. It’s really no wonder, then, that nearly every running playlist has Eminem’s “Not Afraid” on it.
But it’s time to exercise these demons / These motherfuckers are doing jumping jacks now
Surprisingly, none of that anger shows up behind the heavy bag. The look I get when boxing or kickboxing is more laser-focused. Instead of a slow burn, I feel like Artemis, goddess of the hunt, zeroing in with the kind of clarity a mountain lion must feel before striking at its prey. It’s a similar look I get when practicing yoga. Stoic grace. Zeroed in. A heavy calm.
And, when I hike, apparently I smile.
I spend a good portion of my remaining hiking contemplating this. The faces I make as I get too exhausted for anything else but the activity at hand. When the chitter-chatter of my brain is mercifully turned down and pretenses fall by the wayside and all that matters is that I keep going.
It’s beautiful, in a way. The way they’re all so different. The smile, the scowl, the focus. Each activity bringing out something that — I hope, at least — rests at my core. The furious, determined side of me. The precise and focused side of me.
And – most importantly – the content side. The side that is at peace. The side that smiles effortlessly. The side that, despite the brain’s chitter-chatter and the fatigue of it all, makes people go, “You couldn’t tell with that smile.”
I finish the trail in half of the time I had allotted myself. I use up the other hours meandering back, avoiding the highway and opting instead for the deliriously gorgeous backroads. I end up at an intersection in Meredith, NH — one that is about 15 minutes from the highway, with a McDonald’s and a few traffic lights and nothing else.
I’ve come to this intersection by accident once before. Thirteen months back, when I was driving up to Freedom NH to find my childhood campground in a fevered haze, just days before my father would pass away. When I realized what I had found back last September, I burst into tears.
It’s one of those memories that make no sense as to why they stick the way that they did. The way a child’s mind will latch on to a passing sign, or a casual comment by an adult, and remember it for the rest of their lives.
But that intersection meant something.
I have a snapshot-like memory of it, coming up to it in my father’s pick-up truck, knowing that it meant we were almost there. Almost to the campground. Almost to vacation. After an exhausting 4-hour drive through Boston and into New Hampshire, we were barely 30 minutes out from that beloved childhood campground — a campground that has long since gone out of business and replaced by a more upscale RV-and-cabin company.
This time around, I calmly pull into the McDonald’s — something we never did as a family, no matter how many times we passed it — and order myself a post-hike treat. I gravitate towards the things that feel like poetry, and I try to piece together exactly why this gesture feels as so.
It’s been an intensely retrospective year, and an intensely introspective past few years. All of it marked by runs and hikes and time behind the heavy bag. Time on the yoga mat and time teaching alongside it (fittingly enough, when I teach yoga, I naturally smile, and the chitter-chatter of the mind mercifully slides away). All of it marked by things that remind me of what I am of. The strength. The anger. The determination. The focus.
And the natural smile. What rises to the surface when everything else is too tired to take up space. A reminder of what I am at my core.