Four Saturdays ago, late in the morning, I stood on the summit of Half Dome.
Standing 8,800 feet above most everywhere you’ve ever known, on top of the granite mass you traveled 3,000 miles to climb, after six hours of constant uphill hiking, summons a singular mix of sensations; at once, adrenaline gushes forth and bones liquefy. In that moment, at that height, it felt like the only thing holding my wavering spine straight was the actual sky.
Chest swelling, I looked out, far out, finally, at the tops of so many domes and crags and mountains I knew I might never reach but now could confidently, completely imagine. My eyelashes grazed each one.
And then I looked down – at as sheer an angle as I could stomach – at the green-and-gold pointillist valley five thousand feet below. My eyes traced the side of Half Dome for as far as they could before the rock face dropped straight out of view. I remembered being down in that valley only a few hours earlier, and how I had slowly woken up with the last bits of disbelief and doubt still stuck to me, pieces of a cracked-up shell. I exhaled heavily through chapped lips. Breathing out felt like making space for the reality of what I had just done and where I was now standing.
Remembering that moment now, I know the force of my breath, uneven and heaving, must have disturbed those last bits of shell just enough to break them clean off of me. I imagine how they must have fallen, slapped against the granite, and then bounced, shooting down through the air.
For a long time, hiking was hardly a part of who I was. As a kid, I truly loathed spending time outdoors. Skittish around insects and intolerant of dirt, I dreaded Girl Scout day hikes and camping trips. The very thought of them made me anxious, and at that age anxiety often translated into a holding-in of pee. So being “lost” in nature – with no end, or shower, or toilet in sight – was an idea I was intensely fearful of. On one of the few and most miserable occasions that I agreed to go hiking, I endured a full bladder for six hours before wetting myself in the back of a friend’s parents’ car on the drive home.
As I got older, though, hiking grew on me. Learning to squat – and learning that peeing in the woods is not embarrassing but rather necessary – definitely helped open my mind. But more importantly, I began to understand what natural trails and spaces could offer to someone as introverted and self-conscious as I was. Hikes in the woods soothed so many of the parts of life that I struggled with, giving me peace and quiet, disconnection, private practice grounds for growing my self-confidence, and needed bursts of endorphins.
Most of all, though, hiking offered me a clear reflection of my self and my life through the earth’s vast looking glass. The most precious part of days spent hiking, for me, is the use of a mirror far more revealing than the one hanging over my bathroom sink and far more eloquent than I might ever hope to be. Every process I see unfolding within it – lichen covering the bark of a tree, long shallow cracks on a wall of rock – reflects at me the vocabulary with which to articulate my life and the imagery to understand it.
I can see my self in it too – not just my body, but my whole, dynamic self. Often, day-to-day life obscures the changes we experience so much that sloughing off the layers and cracking up the pieces of an older self can be an unseen process, undetected in the bathroom mirror. But a hike – a look into the earth’s quiet expanse – reveals that process, drawn-out and slow but clearly visible. It reveals to me who I am becoming.
When I hike, I see my new self taking shape. Each time I push harder, go farther, tolerate more dirt, and feel more and more comfortable with my bare ass flapping in the wind as I hide behind a tree trunk. I can see all the new pieces of me that are pushing away at the surface.
But these days my anxiety many times translates into disbelief. I continue to feel that the new me I’m revealing is a sham. I continue to believe that I won’t know how to understand my self if the doubts and fears and distastes that used to shape me crack off and fall away.
So I am often simply stunned by what I’m seeing. I am stunned by the swiftness with which my grasshopper legs bounce along the trail after so many years of wearing a shell shaped by high school gym class. I am stunned by my husband, always in the reflection with me, and by the realization that our relationship is now my most important one, a part of the new me I am still learning to keep in frame.
The woman I am seeing is so different from who I think I am. I watch her move, disbelieving.
So of course Half Dome provoked anxiety in me as much as I was captivated by it. Never mind that I’d hiked similar distances before, or that my body comes alive when my boots touch the trail. Half Dome’s 18.4 miles of round trip distance and 9,600 feet of total elevation change would comprise the longest and most physically demanding hike I’d ever done. This is not to mention the trail’s signature 400 feet of cable climbing at a 60° angle over the rounded back of the dome, across long, curving exfoliation joints where the granite surface, over time, has become uneven.
I’ve surely made progress cracking up my old shell, because I booked the flight and planned the trip. But this particular challenge, with all of its switchbacks and stairs and sheer drops – stirred up strong disbelief. Just looking at pictures on Google Images was defeating. It seemed like an accomplishment meant for someone else.
But it turned out that Half Dome was absolutely meant for me.
Pressing my nose against that stretch of the Sierra Nevada was the most reflective hiking experience I have ever had. Maybe it was the distance, or the difficulty, or the gradual realization that I was actually doing this thing I thought I couldn’t do, but the contrasts between who I was and who I am becoming were so striking they were undeniable.
At 4:30 am, walking the first mile of the day to the trailhead, I leaned my head back to take in the thick sprinkling of stars in the sky and believed I was this person, in love with nature so much that I had woken up so early to spend my day deep inside it.
As daylight came and we climbed higher and higher, Half Dome peeked out here and there through the trees. Every time I was less fearful of it, visualizing myself not sitting at the base but climbing over its joints and cracks.
At mile 8, standing at the base of the cables, I believed that the strength of my legs and arms made my fear of falling an irrelevant piece of my past self.
On the way down those cables, I genuinely enjoyed the company of other hikers without feeling obligated to the preferences of an older, shier me. Those people made it possible to look down – at how far I had to fall – and know it wouldn’t happen.
At mile 11, 40,000 steps in and water blisters pulsing, I believed my feet are incredibly resilient, not that their narrow shape makes them a disadvantage.
At mile 13, squatting behind a tree and completely relaxed, someone happened upon my sweaty bare ass and all I could do was laugh.
At mile 16, tearfully exhausted but almost done, I believed my husband when he told me it was okay to be frustrated. And I believed that crying just means I’m feeling deeply. And that is a very good thing.
Standing on the summit of Half Dome at 11:15 am that day and seeing what I had done, I believed I could no longer harbor any disbelief in who I am.
Those flashes are burned into my brain, but when I think back on that day the memory that has really stayed with me is of the moments after we finished out the hike and finally returned to the campground.
All the way back down in the valley, I sat on the floor of our stuffy tent cabin with the door propped open so I could look out at the trees. We could not – I still cannot – get enough of Yosemite’s trees. Left leg raised, plank floor burning my bony butt and pants smelling of pee and sweat, I watched my husband – a newly revealed part of me, I was figuring out – pop the grape-sized blister on my pinky toe with a pocketknife and a Handi-Wipe. Surgery successful, we shared ibuprofen and a lazy kiss.
Afterwards, we ambled slowly, hand-in-hand, across the gravel parking lot. My knees were tight and swollen but I felt pain and bliss equally. Dust and dried salt itched my skin but the last thing I wanted to do was remove my clothing and clean up, instead fascinated by the new self I was tolerating.
The best view in that campground is arguably from right there in the parking lot. You can stand in any spot and look straight up at the northwest face of Half Dome, looming tall over already impossibly tall trees. The sight is stunning, even more so at dusk when the granite reflects pink light. We stopped and stared. I traced my eyes up to the top, where I had been standing only seven hours before.
I remember what it felt like, layers loosened and sloughed off, the last cracked bits long since gone, to look up and marvel at what I had done with awe but not disbelief. It was the first time I saw myself not for who I used to be, but who I am now. Who I am becoming.