As a weekend warrior, hiking in the mountains almost every weekend, I’ve always known that hiking was good for me.
My weeks were full of long working days most often not returning home until after dark. I spent hour after hour spent hunched over my computer or trying to stay awake during seemingly endless meetings. Invariably I would end up mapping out my hiking route instead of taking notes. I was always counting down the days until the weekend when I could be in the mountains again.
Heading to the mountains have always been my solution for everything. When I need the answer to a problem I’m facing, the mountains almost always provide it. This is supported by research which shows that hiking makes you an incredible 47% more creative, along with a host of other benefits.
The mountains are the perfect way to celebrate, seeming to cheer me on step by step. Nothing beats stress like a few deep breaths of crisp mountain air. It has an almost immediate calming effect – even before I’ve started hiking. When a close family member was battling cancer, I spent most of my waking hours either crying or trying not to cry. The mountains provided a respite and felt like a warm hug from a close friend.
When Things Started to Go Wrong
Flash forward to two years after I’d moved to Germany. I’d just had surgery, was suffering the ill effects of medication that didn’t agree with me and left me feeling like a fat blob. I’d just found out that another operation was inevitable.
The news didn’t go over well. I started sleeping until noon, then watching back to back episodes of The Bachelor. Given my slovenly routine and disdain for leaving the house, I didn’t see the point in getting dressed. My light flannel PJs were so comfortable and then really what was the point of showering?
On day eight of this, my husband delicately suggested that maybe you’d feel better if you showered. I shouted at him that he didn’t understand and accused him of being unsupportive. His response? I’m sorry, but you really stink. One thing about being married to a German is you get used to honesty, even when it’s brutal.
My slovenliness went on for a month. I didn’t recognize myself physically or emotionally anymore. Something needed to change badly and soon.
At this point, one of the lowest in my life, I once again, turned to the mountains for help and for a good reason. A study from Environmental Science & Technology, reports that outdoor exercise results in greater feelings of revitalization and positive engagement, decreases in tension, confusion, anger and depression, and increased energy, exactly what I needed.
But this time I wanted to something epic. Something that I thought I could do but wasn’t totally sure. I wanted an adventure that would inspire awe from other hikers and in myself.
After searching in Google for epic long distance hikes of the world and variations of it, the Tour du Mont Blanc kept coming up. It was on every list. Words like epic, one of the world’s classic hikes, one of the world’s best hikes flashed on my computer screen.
Hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc in France, Italy, and Switzerland
The Tour du Mont Blanc is a beautiful 160 km long trek around Mount Blanc, the second highest peak in Europe and the highest peak in the Alps. It takes hikers through three countries; France, Italy, and Switzerland.
I knew almost immediately that it held the answers I was seeking. It would be my first long distance trek over 50 km, and despite valid concerns from my doctor, I knew that I could do it. I HAD to do it.
Convincing my husband wasn’t so easy; but I thought we were going to go to Italy for a relaxing vacation, he protested. Not being a fan of changing plans in general, and especially one which seemed like a lot of work for a vacation according to him. I finally won him over by promising to shower every day. Yes, the hygiene situation was that bad.
I may not be able to control other things, but I could control each step I took to complete the TMB.
And step-by-step I did complete it. When the going got tough, and my muscles ached, I would repeat to myself, Just take the next step. Sometimes I would repeat this mantra hundreds of time throughout the day. It’s what got me through the tough sections.
I’d be hiking with tears pouring down my face but gradually over the next eight days, I found myself smiling, something I hadn’t done in months. Then grinning for no reason. On day six there were only smiles, no tears.
I was on my way back to finding the person that I’d lost through endless doctor appointments and medication that made me feel sub-human.
The strength I gained from hiking the TMB, didn’t just stay on the mountain. Back at home when something wasn’t going as planned, I’d think, Just take the next step. It worked for you on the TMB; it will work for you in this situation too. And it did. The TMB has provided me with lasting strength that has transferred to many parts of my life.
It gave me strength at a time that I was feeling powerless. It gave me the confidence to attempt challenges that I had previously lacked the confidence to take on.
To this day I tell myself, If I can trek the TMB, I can do anything. There’s something incredibly powerful about taking the time to listen to what your inside voice is telling you while being surrounded by the healing powers of nature.
Little did I know at the time that it would be the first of many long distance hiking and cycling trips.
Hiking to Everest Base Camp
Seven months later I had the opportunity to hike to Everest Base Camp, a 12-day hike reaching the highest elevation I’d ever been to, xx m, at Base Camp. I’d just had another unsuccessful surgery and while I wasn’t in the same despair that I had been months earlier, I was definitely in need of a pick me up.
I developed a lung infection, bronchitis and suffered from altitude sickness fairly soon into the trip. My head was pounding 24/7, and every breath I took was a loud gasp. You can’t do this; you should quit, a not so little voice inside my head told me, battling the other one, You’ve got this. Quitting isn’t an option.
But I realized that I didn’t want to waste my time focusing on how sick I was. For crying out loud, I was in the Himalayas, the most incredible mountain range I’ve ever hiked in, and that’s saying a lot given that I grew up hiking in the Canadian Rockies. If I believe in the healing power of nature, surely her powers were in full force here.
My epiphany on this trip was to learn how to find joy in each moment by redirecting my focus. Instead of paying attention to the constant throbbing in my head and gasping for breath, I’d focus on my surroundings. Looking up, up, up in awe at how quickly the mountains rose from the valley. Observing how the scenery changed every day becoming more barren the higher we hiked. Watching the sun move across the mountains changing their appearance.
This gift has stayed with me. Whenever I find myself complaining or upset about something, I try to redirect my focus, just as I did while hiking to Base Camp. The more you practice it, the easier it becomes.
Cycling the Danube from Passau to Vienna
Two months later I did my first cycle ride over 40 km – needless to say that I wasn’t much of a cyclist. I cycled the Danube River from Passau, Germany to Vienna, 250 km over three days. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not much of a challenge for a proficient cyclist, but for me it was. This time I did it with two friends. Unlike the two previous hikes I had done, this lesson was different.
It wasn’t just about me and what I needed from the experience but supporting my friends and giving them what they needed as well. Whether it was the encouragement that we were almost there, or just telling a joke to contribute to the fun – something that complaining about saddle soreness didn’t accomplish.
We can get so wrapped up in our lives that we don’t reach out to loved ones as often as we should. This trip helped me make more time for family and friends and find ways to show them how much I cared for them. I’m far from perfect, but much better after this trip as I’m conscious that I need to make an effort.
Cycling 1350 km Across Finland
A month after this trip, I undertook my biggest challenge to-date, a solo 1350 km long cycle trip on the Iron Curtain Route in Finland. I had serious doubts that I could do it given that I’d my longest cycle trip to date was 250 km.
Also, I’d be cycling solo over 18 days. What if I got lonely? Or lost? Or my bike broke? Doubts flooded my mind with my stubbornness just barely winning out.
This was the most time I’d ever spent alone in my life. I had a LOT of time to think and be with myself. I waited for DEEP THOUGHTS to appear. It was by far the biggest physical challenge I’d ever undertook so shouldn’t the epiphany be just as big?
I waited and waited but no DEEP THOUGHTS emerged. It wasn’t until a week after the cycle trip was finished that I realized that I never got lonely. Not only that but I liked my own company. I just needed to spend uninterrupted time with myself free from distractions to realize it.
Hiking the Wicklow Way in Ireland
Flash forward a year later and I was hiking the Wicklow Way in Ireland, a 123 km long hike on Ireland’s oldest marked trail. I was almost as excited for the epiphany and what I would learn as I was for the hike. Just like while on the previous cycling trip, DEEP THOUGHTS never fully materialized. Instead, I realized that I was having fun, alone, enjoying my own company. This was starting to become a theme.
Hiking the West Highland Way in Scotland
A few months later I asked my friend Simon from Wild About Travel to join me in hiking the 150 km long West Highland Way in Scotland, together but separate. I’d just suffered a devastating miscarriage that had required yet another surgery and knew that I wanted time alone, so we agreed to share accommodation, have breakfast together and start hiking together for a few minutes then each go our own pace.
Our arrangement worked brilliantly for us and was the best of both worlds with having time to myself and a lovely person to regal in the stories of the day in a warm, cozy Scottish pub while reflecting solo while hiking on beautiful trails past lochs and rolling hills.
While I braced myself that DEEP THOUGHTS might not emerge again, this time they made a grand entrance. Regardless of what happens, I’m going to be OK. I might not like the result, but I’m going to be OK.
After seven surgeries in four years, this was the first time I felt like I’d be OK. Previously I’d told myself that I’d only be OK IF such and such happened. If it didn’t, it was unthinkable in my books.
I went home and told my husband that no matter what happened, I’d be OK. He looked incredulous saying, You seem like a new person. I was a new person. One that would be OK, even if things didn’t go the way I wanted them to.
Long distance hiking and cycling trips have had a profound impact on my life. By developing the physical and mental strength to get through the journey, it transferred to so many other areas of life off the trail. I’ve learned so much and learned to love and appreciate myself. It was always inside me; I just had to take the time to do it.