I’m an extrovert go-go-go person. Annoyingly so, to some, as I’ll talk to anyone, anywhere, in great depth, and plan outings like it’s my job. These are perfect traits to have when you’re a travel writer. I hate to sit still and love to meet new people and see new places.
And then I was forced to sit still even before the pandemic.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the end of 2017. I spent Thanksgiving week in a hospital having surgery that nearly killed me. I spent two months attempting to get strong enough to begin chemo, which stretched another four months and included one more week-long stint in the hospital due to an infection that tried to kill me, too.
Within 6 months, my active, carefree lifestyle came to an abrupt end. I couldn’t climb the stairs to kiss my son goodnight. I couldn’t walk around the block without a rest. I lost my job. And all of it was too much for the man I was living with and he moved out. I spent a year feeling as alone as I could ever be.
I was 47 and starting over in every aspect of my life when my ex-boyfriend, my “one who had gotten away,” learned of my illness. Tim and I hadn’t spoken in 8 years although before we had been a couple, we had been very good friends for a decade. Turns out I was his “one who got away” and he didn’t want me dying without rekindling our friendship.
A Step (actually a lot of steps) Towards Change
He had a proposal. He and mutual friends were going to hike 96 miles across Scotland along the West Highland Way. They thought it would be just what I needed to get me back on my feet: Something to train for and to be excited about. It would be his gift to me to take me.
This group had hiked Denali, Patagonia and Machu Picchu. I never climbed a peak in my life. I’m sure it was all the drugs I was on that made me say “yes” but I did, and I had three months to train.
Every day, I began walking with a FitBit, happy when I could complete 1 mile and then 5. But walking isn’t the same as hiking, I had to start training with big hikes in the hills on the weekend, just like an endurance runner.
My first endurance hike was 12 miles on flat meadowlands in Rhode Island. I figured this should have been a piece of cake, and it ended at a winery, so I had motivation. It wasn’t too bad. I’ll admit, about halfway through I was wondering what the point of all the walking was about. I was getting pretty tired of putting one foot in front of the other, but the wine awaited and I completed my first challenge.
My second test was in the hills in Pennsylvania. A 9-mile loop. I started off strong but as the hills got steeper, I learned the word “scrambling,” which is pretty much clawing your way up almost on hands and knees. Halfway through the walk I realized there were no shortcuts… just 4.5 more miles that I had to do for the pain to be over. With just 2 miles left to go, I was so exhausted I lay down on the ground and nearly cried, asking Tim to go on without me. He just sat and waited for me to dry my tears, take a break, and eventually finish the hike.
Next we hiked in the San Francisco Bay area. I had gotten a new travel job and he accompanied me on a trip. We hiked the whole of Angel Island on one day and a portion of the Dipsea Trail near John Muir Woods another. I was surprised how much I was beginning to enjoy the feeling of finishing a new trail: covered in dirt, feet sore and swollen, sweat in every crevice. It was actually rewarding.
I was ready.
The West Highland Way can be completed a number of ways. Some camp as they make the trek, but at our age, we were staying at lovely inns with big dinners every night. Our days would consist of waking at 7, eating a hearty breakfast, hiking by 8, finding an inn for lunch by 1, then hiking until we reached our overnight accommodations. Our group of hikers finished much earlier than I did every day, but Tim walked as slowly as I needed to and let me stop whenever I needed a break. Of course by then, we had become a couple again and I had back the man I had loved for 20 years. My life as I walked the Highlands of Scotland was literally on the up and up.
Each day’s hike ranged from difficult 9-milers to “easy” 18-milers. And while you may think you’ll talk to your hiking companions the entire time, eventually you stop trying to fill the space with conversation. You begin to move away from one another and take up your own space while taking in the views, which in the Highlands were unlike anything I had ever seen before. Fields with purple thistles, waterfalls flowing over moss-covered rocks, deep blue lakes, forest beds of ferns, and of course, the picturesque scenery we often only see in film where the hills roll along and the fog sets around them in a mystical, magical way.
It’s about this time when I began to realize I had no thoughts as I walked. I was the most “in the moment” I have ever been in. I wasn’t thinking of my kids, of deadlines, of bills, of things I needed to do. I was only thinking about where to put my foot down for an even step. Up and down, up and down, rising and falling on the mountains as my legs and feet were rising and falling to propel me forward.
And when it came to the day we actually made it into Fort William, the Way’s end, that the exhaustion finally hit and any last remnants of tension left my body. Not just from the hike, which took a week, but from the last year and a half of my life. The tears that flowed were happy tears. I had done something that felt impossible: I had walked 100 miles and I did it nearly a year after finishing chemo. I felt strong. I wasn’t just a survivor; I was a bad-ass warrior.
I couldn’t thank Tim enough for the gift he gave me, except to say yes to marrying him (finally!). He was going to stand by my side and make sure I never fell down again. Until March 10, 2020, when he was hit by a car crossing the street and died instantly.
Two days later, my state went into lockdown due to the pandemic.
I was lost once again. What should have been a Lifetime Channel movie with a happy ending was gone. How could this be? How would I get back off the floor this time? A year when the travel that rejuvenated me — and employed me — was gone? When seeing friends was next to impossible? When my heart was ripped out because Tim was gone?
I did the only thing I could do during a pandemic. I went hiking.
The early hikes felt as difficult as my training the year prior because this time my head was spinning with thoughts. But just as it did in Scotland, the long hikes began to clear my mind. I went back to that tough 9-miler that nearly broke me. I saw the places where Tim and I had stopped. This time I kept walking, proving I could do it on my own, feeling stronger with each scramble and each step.
My friends have teased me about how much hiking I have done during the pandemic. I guess that means I really am a hiker. Being on a trail isn’t just about the fabulous views — and those are definitely worth a climb — but to me hiking cleanses me, strengthens me, and rejuvenates me. Whenever I’m feeling pent up, sad, angry, stressed, whatever, hitting a trail and honing in on the steps I am taking centers me again.
Hiking didn’t just change me; it saved me. Twice.
Lissa Poirot is an award-winning lifestyle writer who covers health, wellness and travel. Her work has appeared on websites such as WebMD, FamilyVacationCritic and the New York Times, as well as print in magazines including Vegetarian Times and Arthritis Today.