“You’re only as fast as your slowest hiker,” Instructor Larry repeated, woods code for, We’re a group. We stick together. The other students who’d had water and trail mix, who were laughing and talking while they rested and waited, slung their monster backpacks on as soon as he and I reached them. All I wanted was to ditch my beast of a fucking 60-pound pack—almost half my weight—that knocked me over and sideways, that scrunched my spine, that pummeled 5’2” me. I secretly begged for a break, pack off to massage my bruising hips and fire feet, to calm my looping thoughts: I suck at this. I shouldn’t have come.
“Keep your pack on,” Larry said. “Have some water.” He handed me my water bottle, my chest heaving against the snug chest strap, sweat pooling in every dip of me. “We gotta keep going.”
I was on a National Outdoor Leadership School 30-day wilderness course in the Wyoming mountains with 14 other students and three instructors. Students as young as 15, as old as 30 something. I was 22, following an impulse I couldn’t explain to myself. Magnetized to the woods to find my heart, my voice. To remember who I was before I felt lost in the world.
I’d hiked but never backpacked. My once dancer’s body had plumped to a not-moving-too-many-late-night-snacks college student body. I smoked too.
I was finding out part of who I was that summer: the slowest hiker.
Deep woods hiking. No trails. Forest thick with downed trees. Bushwhacking through underbrush scraped and tugged my calves and thighs. Scraped and tugged my grit.
Every night, after hiking 10 or more miles each day, after popping up our tent, cooking dinner on a softball-sized stove, scrubbing dishes with pinecones, I’d slink away from the group in search of a crying spot. The first two weeks it was too much. All of it. My pack, the hiking, my blisters, my group that was all faster and stronger. “You’re only as fast as your slowest hiker,” the instructors reminded us, and angry eyes lasered on me. The first week I wordlessly begged for an escape: It’s too hard. What was I thinking? Please get me out of here. I imagined side doors in trees, trap doors in the forest floor. Any door I could conjure to slip through and out of the woods.
In the mornings, I’d be grateful for a cup of boiled coffee grounds and remind myself: Push on. Don’t quit. I’d put fresh moleskin on my blisters, pack up camp, strap on my 60-pound backpack—that slowly, slowly, morphed from monster to home—and go.
While I struggled to keep up, swearing all the swears I knew, I pushed on. When a bear batted my sleeping bag and chewed holes in my sleeping pad while we were away from our campsite, my stomach felt full of rocks. I sucked in courage and slept on the uneaten part of my pad. I had wild dreams.
The terrifying two days lost in a snowstorm with three others where we tripped off course, I kept my spoken voice steady, countering boy voices, “We’re going to die” with, “Nope. Not today.” Even though inside me I was all Fuck, fuck, fuck. We might.
Snow pummeled our nylon tent. Lightning cracked the night sky. And we could have died. It happens. Nature doesn’t care if you’re bad at reading maps. But we were lucky. Our group found us when the storm cleared, yelling our names and we shouted back, “We’re here! We’re okay!” We joy hugged everybody.
That month in the Wyoming mountains some nights I slept outside of the tent under star blankets—the Milky Way splashed against midnight black, waxing moon, waning moon. Me, held by the night sky.
My pace picked up. I never got fast, but I did get sure.
I learned to pitch a tent faster than my tentmate could scoop water from the nearby stream.
Learned to pee and poop in the woods.
Not care about a shower.
Stop smelling my pits because I was past onion, past earthy, past decay smell.
Learned to make a splint out of tree limbs.
I asked, “What now?” instead of saying, “I should have,” when I tripped and crashed in a boulder field, got stuck between rocks bigger than my VW Bug.
“What now?” right after “Fuck!” when I fell off a zip-line crossing an icy river with my pack on.
Every blister, tear, bruise, cut and mosquito bite:
To straddle The Continental Divide, 11,000 above sea level. One dusty boot in the west. One in the east. Me at my fault lines.
“I did it!” I shouted to treetops, to seersucker-blue sky, to mountain air so pure I hiccupped when I gulped it.
“It’s me!” I shouted to heart-mashing beauty all around me.
My body in a capital X. My voice like a bell shouting, “I did it!” Me and my bruised, pummeled, mosquito chewed, sunburned, stinky, muscle strong body. Me and my greasy hair, hairy legs, bushy pits, and wild brows. Me and my heart.
I straddled the Continental Divide and remembered Nike, Winged Victory of Samothrace, welcoming all at the top of the Daru staircase in the Louvre. I’d seen her the year before. Gawked at her gorgeous female form, all power and grace, all Don’t fuck with me. Nike. Messenger of the gods and goddesses. In pale-blue marble. One foot touching as she lights on earth. The power of Winged Victory’s form surged through me like lightning strikes.
Muscle legs. Hips bruised and leathery. Power hips. Shoulder and arm muscles brawny too. I sucked down mountain air. Lungs puffed. Breasts rose. Heart banged bones. Blisters, scrapes, cuts, bug bites, skin dirt—forgotten. I blinked the Wyoming sky. I threw my arms wide and stretched to the endless blue, to the lemon sun, to the one cloud shaped like a crown. I could have eaten it.
Anne Gudger is an essay/memoir writer who writes hard and loves harder. She’s been published in The Rumpus, Real Simple Magazine, Sweet Lit, Tupelo Quarterly, PANK, Citron Review, Cutthroat, CutBank, Columbia Journal, The Normal School, and elsewhere. She’s won four essay contests and has been a Best of the Net Nominee twice. Her debut memoir THE FIFTH CHAMBER is forthcoming with Jaded Ibis Press September 2023. At the start of the pandemic, with her beloved daughter, she co-founded Coffee and Grief: a community that includes a monthly reading series focused on grief in its many outfits. Everybody grieves and when we share grief we feel less alone. More at Annegudger.com, Anne Gudger on IG and fb. Coffee and Grief Community on fb.