The last time I was in Colorado, I was freshly twenty-one and co-leading a wilderness orientation trip for a small group of incoming Calvin students. It’s a job I’m pretty sure I got because they needed a warm female body who could legally drive a twelve-passenger van— Kai and Ian did all the orienteering whereas my main contribution was doling out bits of a squashed Snickers bar when everyone was at peak exhaustion. My enduring memory of this trip is reaching the top of a gentle peak in the Maroon Bells wilderness, tired and pleased and proud of the kids for making it that far, and meeting a woman who was out trail running our whole backpacking route as her workout before going into the office. She was very friendly. I wanted to stab her with the jagged edge of a Light My Fire spork.
We’ve been out in Colorado again this week, partly visiting my uncle, partly taking a vacation that coincides with my twenty-ninth birthday. And I am sharing here my new motto for this technically thirtieth trip around the sun: I am not out here to impress anyone.
Would it be very cool to be the kind of person who trail runs for double digits of miles at altitude before going into work? Sure. Would I enjoy the look of awe, envy, and fury on the part of struggling hikers when I passed them and their sweaty, blistered students? Sorry, Jesus, but I absolutely would. I love to be good at stuff, and I love when other people are jealous of how good I am at that stuff. And yet, in the spirit of this new motto and the wisdom of my increasing age, should I now at twenty-nine finally accept that I will never trail run for double digits of miles at altitude before going into work and perhaps stop hindering my own enjoyment of the Great Outdoors by imagining that I must be—or at least appear to be—this kind of person?
I spent a lot of time climbing and hiking and backpacking and running while I was in college. I am grateful for those experiences, for the friends I shared them with, for the skills I acquired, all that stuff. I find, though, that they’re hard to extricate from the insecurities and competitiveness I felt then—I wanted and want to be good at it all and to look cool doing it, to have a laissez-faire attitude about danger and feats of physical fitness. (This is perhaps not unrelated to my total emotional buy-in to 1990s “girl power” movie tropes about impressing boys by beating them at sports—see Becky “Icebox” O’Shea of Little Giants and the two girls in Mighty Ducks.)
But I will be honest with you now in a way I was not, at that time, honest with myself: I do not have a laissez-faire attitude about danger. For example, I hate, hate, hate crossing steep snowfields, and just this week I sobbed my way up 400 feet of elevation gain on our thwarted attempt to summit Buffalo Mountain because it was slippery and it was steep and I was scared. I also do not have a laissez-faire attitude about feats of physical fitness. I am not someone who can trail run double-digit miles. Or road run them. Or even bike them. I dislike going down hills (it’s too fast) and up them (it’s too hard), and also, biking makes my butt hurt.
I did, in fact, do a little biking on this trip. I even played some disc golf with Nathan, despite the fact that he is very good and I am mediocre and that always grinds my gears. And this very evening I’m going climbing at an indoor gym for the second time this year, where I will be much, much worse than I was in college, and no one was particularly impressed by my skill or strength even then! But when I went last month, after a years-long hiatus, I remembered that it was fun, and also that my relative prowess did not matter to anyone but me. So I am embracing the spiritual practice of being bad at stuff. Plus, no one even needs to know that I’m bad at climbing or that I cried on our hike because I was scared of falling down the mountain. Except that I just told you all—but I think you see my point.
When we pulled into the parking lot of Great Sand Dunes National Park on the morning of my birthday, I discovered I had packed only the case for my sunglasses—the shades themselves were still in the glove box of our Prius in Ann Arbor. I had to borrow some from my uncle, one of those free pairs you get as promo material and leave in your car. I made a comment about them looking kind of silly on me to which he replied kindly, “You don’t know anyone here but me and Nathan, and we already know what you look like.”
And, you know—I’m not out here to impress anyone.
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.