Heavy and Hiking

“Is it okay if we pass you?”

We stepped to the side and allowed the two speed-walking women to glide past us up the trail.

“It’s not a freaking race,” I muttered under my breath.

My partner and I were only a quarter of a mile into the trail toward Tamanawas Falls in Mt. Hood National Forest, and people were already passing us. I’d made the mistake of not trying on my new traction spikes until we were on the trail, and of course they didn’t fit over my boots. My tentative steps on the icy trail contributed to my slow speed, but I wondered how much my weight was slowing me down too. I wasn’t trying to move slowly; trail conditions considered, I felt like I was keeping a brisk pace. But here I was nonetheless, holding up the hikers behind me only a few minutes in.

From the very first time my partner and I explored a trail together, it has been apparent that a fast pace for me is intolerably slow for others. On one of our first dates, we biked on a multi-use trail in Forest Park. I had done little hiking by this point, much less biked on a trail. Within minutes it became clear that in order to accommodate me, we would need to crawl up the trail at a snail’s pace. I was fairly mortified to have to yell out for him to wait for me every two minutes as I struggled to pedal forward, terribly self-conscious of how I must look to this cute boy, hunched over my bike, huffing and puffing.

Later that year, we hiked to the top of Multnomah Falls with a group of guys from his college dorm, most of whom played sports or worked out regularly. I was excited for the hike as I had never gone all the way to the top of the falls before, but I was also keenly aware of my personal pressure to keep pace with the group. I lagged in the back the entire way up, struggling to move myself up the steep incline, my stomach filling with dread at the sight of every switchback. My partner kept pace with me, but the distance between us and the rest of the group grew larger and larger. When we made it to the end of the trail and the top of the Falls, we found the other members of our group patiently lounging around, having clearly finished the hike a while ago. No one said anything about having to wait for us, but I was embarrassed at being the big girlfriend who made everyone wait for her.

Since those early hikes, I have learned my limits and what hikes work best for me. I have learned to prepare myself with the proper footwear and gear to help facilitate a good hike. I never underestimate the power of a full bottle of water to refresh myself when I need to pause on the trail. My partner accepts what I can and cannot do physically and never makes me feel bad for setting a slower pace than he would on his own.

What still bothers me is how rarely I see other people on the trail who are heavyset like me. Nearly every fellow hiker I encounter is thin and toned, blasting along at a pace that requires me to step off to the side to let them carry on. It’s a common courtesy to step aside for faster hikers, but I still feel a sting of shame when I see people half my size speeding through a trail that has me sweating profusely.

The lack of people of my size or larger on the trail extends to stores and advertising related to exercise and the outdoors. I can’t recall ever seeing anyone considered plus-size in an ad for camping, hiking, or just exploring nature. Finding hiking pants, leggings, jackets, or other breathable and durable clothing for outdoor adventures is never a simple process. Stores carry a lot more inventory in x-small through medium than for 1X, 2X, and so forth. Is it really so difficult to imagine people weighing 200 pounds, 300 pounds, or more wanting to get out and enjoy nature just like anyone else?

I have been overweight my whole life and I have mixed feelings about my responsibility for it.  Many women on both sides of my family are overweight, some severely obese, so it didn’t come as a surprise to anyone that I was a chubby child. Pizza rolls and Top Ramen were common meals in my family of origin, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner alike. Camping was a central feature of my summers as a child, but it mostly entailed running around the forest off-trail and eating s’mores. Hiking was a pretty new concept to me when I moved to Portland for college, and one that physically I was not prepared for.

In theory, I now have the power to choose to eat healthier foods, to limit my eating portions, to intentionally exercise, and to create a body that is more prepared to tackle the many amazing trails Oregon has to offer. I have made some better choices for myself and for my body and health, but the result has not been weight loss. Hiking has become a much easier and more enjoyable endeavor than it used to be, but I still struggle to not mentally take note that I am almost always the biggest person on any given trail.  

At the end of the day it shouldn’t matter if I manage to lose the weight or not. The mountaintop doesn’t care how long it took for you to make the trek, just that you got there. Whether it was the most challenging climb of your life or a walk in the park is irrelevant. The mountain doesn’t care what you look like or smell like or sound like. It just wants to show you the amazing view it has to offer. But it’s easy to forget, struggling uphill while other hikers pile up behind, that I have the same right to be in nature and utilize the trails as anyone else.

As my partner and I made our way towards Tamanawas Falls on that cold and icy day, it was disheartening to see people who had passed us earlier in the day already looping back around to the parking lot when we hadn’t even made it to the main attraction. I pushed on, reminding myself that the view at the end would be worth it. We trekked on at a vigorous but comfortable pace, stopping for breaks as often as I deemed necessary.

As we neared the end of the trail, snow began to fall in thick, fluffy flakes. The scene around us became a winter wonderland. I couldn’t help but drop my voice an octave and sing out “it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” We came around the last curve, and the falls came into full view. The cliffside opened in front of us like the gaping mouth of a beast, sharp rocks like teeth protruding downward. The falls slid off the earth, cascading 110 feet into the river below, where thick layers of ice encapsulated scattered boulders. I stood there in awe of the water, of its power to take time and gravity and carve into the very earth.

As my partner set up his camera to capture the scene, I rested on a boulder protruding out from the snow. More hikers arrived, and one woman’s dog came up and gave me a friendly sniff. A couple and their two kids came around the last bend. The father set up a tripod, and he and my partner chatted about the logistics of protecting a camera in wet weather.

At that moment, my frustration at not feeling fast or fit enough for this hike melted away. I had made it to the same scene of natural beauty as everyone else on the trail that day. As my partner packed up his camera gear and we hoisted our backpacks, I took a deep breath of the fresh mountain air. The hardest part of the hike was over, and I started back down the mountain with a smile on my face.

Comments

7 comments have been posted.

I'm not sure, but I think happiness is in the direction of being somewhat less concerned about what other people think. Are they judgy? Heck with 'em! Perhaps better yet as a previous poster wrote, hope they become more enlightened. They don't know you. They haven't walked in your shoes. Why should you care what they think?

Random Adventurer | November 2020 |

Great piece, Karina! Much of our life is already too fast-paced. Why should trails be the same? A slower pace allows for more time in nature and an opportunity to spot more wildlife. Trek on!

Stephen Gallivan | October 2020 | Pittsburgh, PA

Thank you for sharing your experience with the world, Karina. Beautiful words and proud that you’ve found ways to conquer those hikes and enjoy the outdoors!

Cheyenne Schön | October 2020 |

High quality writing! Very impressive! Nice job! :)

Gabriel wihtol | October 2020 | Portland, OR

Sweetheart the lesson or challenges you endured on your trek is no different than driving down the road or working out at the gym. The mind will always take you somewhere. As you grow older I would hope you will revisit this story and see how things have changed over the years. It's a condition called Growing Up. I'm so proud of you that you express your thoughts on paper. It's no doubt you will write a novel. Always remember; learn to forgive those in your life and yourself. Love- Uncle Adam

Adam Agbisit | October 2020 | Richland Washington

Your story is beautifully written. I am the moderator of an online group and we all come I different shapes and sizes and you are right, it’s not a race. Why rush up a trail to get to a viewing area only to miss the interaction with other hikers, wildlife and just the sounds and smells of the outdoors. You are an inspiration and an excellent writer! Hike your own hike.

Rafael | October 2020 | Brooklyn NY

Great story and love the inspiration!

Divina | October 2020 | WA

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