In 1996, when we were both 22, my husband, Curry, and I hiked the nearly 500-mile Colorado Trail from Denver to Durango. I had very little backpacking experience, but I’d always wanted to disappear into the wilds of my home state.
A year out of college, with few job prospects, we figured a two-month hike would be a good way to cement our new and mostly long-distance relationship – and put off adult responsibilities a while longer.
That hike proved to be the hardest thing I had ever done. My pack was heavy. My boots gave me blisters. My shoulders hurt. It rained. It hailed. It snowed. I got lost. My journal entry after the first day was simply, “Ouch.” I whined. I moaned. I cried. But still I hiked, and Curry stuck with me.
Eventually we finished the trail, got married, had kids, built a house, got jobs, and took on those dreaded adult responsibilities.
A couple years ago, exactly 20 years later, I got it in my head to go back and hike the trail again, this time with our three sons in tow. It took some time to convince Curry and the kids that we should do it, but they came around. So last summer, we spent the 20th anniversary of our first Colorado Trail trek hiking it again with the boys, ages 11 (twins) and 15.
Again, hiking 500 miles was hard. I was 20 years older, with 20 more years worth of wear-and-tear on my joints, and 20 (okay, a lot more than 20) pounds more weight on my body. In some ways, though, hiking the trail was easier the second time around.
Our packs were much lighter, thanks to a revolution in lightweight backpacking gear. We hiked earlier in the season and so had longer days and better weather. Twenty years of a casual yoga practice had improved my balance, so I didn’t fall into every stream I crossed. But the biggest reason the hike was easier this time I attribute to being a mom, which has greatly improved my ability to handle discomfort and adversity.
I know gross from gross
Anyone who’s ever gone backpacking can tell you it’s disgusting. You have to dig a hole in the ground and poop in it, sometimes several times a day, depending on your diet and your body’s reaction to the water you drink. You go days, sometimes weeks, without a shower, while sweating profusely all day, every day.
If you’re hiking in the west, you likely have to camp in and collect drinking water from cow- or sheep-infested areas. All anyone wants to talk about, other than food, is flatulence, feet, and feces. But it’s pretty hard to gross out a mother. I have been through childbirth, during which nine out of the 10 bodily fluids oozed from my body while I crouched naked in a room full of strangers.
I have been the target of projectile baby poop and spit-up. I have woken up with my child’s vomit in my hair and cleaned up matching slug-trails of spinach-souffle-colored diarrhea left behind by a pair of crawling babies with an intestinal virus and inadequate diapers. Backpacking’s got nothing on motherhood in the gross department.
My pain tolerance has increased
Five years after hiking the CT, I gave birth to a nine-pound, sunny-side-up baby. Four years later, I carried twins to term and underwent a c-section. Nothing can be as painful as pushing out a child the size of a bowling ball or recovering from abdominal surgery.
So even though that second hike hurt every inch of my middle-aged body, I carried on with more strength and grace than I had 20 years earlier. Even when I developed shin splints and every step of a 19-mile day felt like I was banging my shin into the sharp edge of a coffee table, I knew I would make it through and come out the other side stronger.
There’s an old saying in Colorado, and probably some other states, too: “Don’t like the weather? Wait five minutes, it’ll change.”
This goes double for parenting. When my first son was a baby, I thought I might actually spend the rest of my life breastfeeding and changing diapers. But as the years went by, I came to realize that the only constant in parenting is change. Whatever feels especially annoying or difficult or wonderful about my child at any given time will likely be replaced in a week or a month or a year with a different trait or challenge.
This has helped me develop more equanimity as a mom. Knowing it won’t last, I’m more tolerant of the difficult side of my kids and more appreciative of the great stuff. During our hike, this understanding helped me persist in the face of bad weather, steep climbs, and physical discomforts. It also helped me appreciate the magnificent views, gorgeous wildflowers, and the quiet solitude of the wilderness.
I’m more compassionate
Being a mom has helped me to see the world from other people’s points of view, from my own children to other parents to random strangers. This has made me more understanding and forgiving of everyone, including myself.
My 1996 trail journal depicts a young woman frustrated with the difficulties of the trail, and frustrated with herself for not being stronger, braver, faster, and for not having a more meaningful, life-changing, spiritual experience.
I now look back at that woman and feel a surge of compassion. She did have a life-changing experience; she just couldn’t see it for what it was yet. She was strong and brave in ways that someone more naturally muscular or athletic wouldn’t need to be.
I still experienced frustration on the trail last summer, with myself and with my family. And while I handled that frustration with varying degrees of maturity, it didn’t translate into a desire to pack it up and quit the trail, like it had 20 years earlier. I persisted and, eventually, understood and forgave myself and my family members for the difficulties.
Parents spend a lot of time reading books and articles about how we can become better parents. We rarely stop to think about the ways that parenting itself helps us become better people, or how the skills and traits we develop can improve our experience in other areas of life – even an endeavor as seemingly unrelated as hiking 500 miles.