An hour into our three day hut-to-hut hike in the Dolomites and it was clear that my friend Jill and I were having very different hikes. I watched her glide ahead, her backpack bobbing no matter how fast I tried to catch up. Every break, while she was exclaiming at her energy and the beauty of the mountains around us, I would be lying on the ground, unable to even take my backpack off, wheezing so hard I was barely able to reply.
For the first bit I alternated between feeling bad about myself and being annoyed at Jill for being so good. I was re-learning the same lesson that I’d first faced on a trek to Machu Picchu six years prior—altitude does not care how fit you are at sea level. But this time I had prepared, hitting the treadmill multiple times a week for months, bringing the incline up to max. I had visualized Italian mountains passing by me, my legs stretching far ahead like a cartoon God covering miles of ground with ease. But altitude did not care that I was meant to be good at hiking, or that I was diligent with my training.
"The altitude did not care that I was meant to be good at hiking, or that I was diligent with my training."
As the landscape shifted to loose gravel and white jagged rock with a direct uphill climb that seemed to stretched on for hours, my heavy backpack and loud breathing jabbed a pointy, gnarled finger right at me—who do you think you are? It was so hard. When we finally reached our first hut of two, Rifugio Lavaredo, my legs felt like rubber and my ego was feeling worse.
After we had our coin-operated timed showers and settled in with a drink, the mental door I had shut swung back open. Dramatic mountains in a postcard-perfect vista laid out in front of us, like a giant’s bottom row of teeth reaching up to touch the sky. The buzz from my generously poured Aperol spritz merged into a glimmering awe that had eluded me during a day spent cursing every step.
We made friends with a group of early 20s Aussie guys who only had old Gatorade bottles to carry water, and two mountaineers in their 60s. After dinner we all walked outside to see streaks of orange and red across the sky, thick clouds descending to wrap around the mountains as the sun set, tipsy on our unlikely camaraderie on what felt like another planet.
The next morning, we said goodbye to our new friends and continued on. Weary from sleeplessness after sharing a bunk room with men who snored so loud I could hear them through my ear plugs (impressive), I felt dread resurface as I contemplated another day of struggling through the elevation.
By midday, as I realized that the elevation gain was more of a moderate up and down rather than the hellish straight incline from the day before, I finally settled into a steady pace and an agreement with the exertion. The deal was that I didn’t get to be as good as I wanted to be, that I had to go at my own pace.
I moved slower than I wanted, slower than Jill, but it was a necessary pace. I realized that if I let myself go slower, and rested more often, I could access the flow state that had remained out of reach the day before. Letting go of how good I was supposed to be it became easier to enjoy what I had come to see, to really let myself be immersed in the breath-stopping beauty of the Dolomites. I realized it would have been a shame to let my obsession with perfection impede the reason I came.
"Letting go of how good I was supposed to be, it became easier to enjoy what I had come to see."
This pattern, common to other children of immigrants like me, is the drive to be brilliant beyond belief. To make the struggle of your parents' lives justified. To build a sense of self-sufficiency and protection against harm, pain, being hurt. To succeed your way beyond poverty, to reach another class and lifestyle dangled before you like a carrot your whole life.
It followed me through school, through climbing the corporate ladder, through building a business and being an artist. Nothing was exempt—my relationships, both romantic and platonic, my creativity, even the way I moved (I once spent a week single-handedly moving an entire house worth of belongings, on foot, without help for no reason).
When I started powerlifting at age 19, my unyielding obsession with perfection was a perfect match with the calorie-counting demands of bulking and cutting. Being good at exercise enabled this deeply rooted pattern of intensity and endless achievement, of running away from being still to get to yet another level, never quite satisfied at the achievements I did manage to reach.
Hiking, especially in altitude, is one thing that cannot reinforce this pattern. No matter my desperation to do well, the elevation has my ass in a chokehold, reminding me that I get to be exactly the way I am, which is a wheezing sweaty rag of a human being. It reminds me that it’s okay to be that. It asks to consider the simple joy of being outside as a reason to move, rather than the dogged pursuit of some elusive personal best or set level of performance.
The rest of the second day was more forgiving once I accepted this. Rocky, exposed terrain changed into rolling fields of wildflowers speckled with patches of rock, leading us to a little hut sitting in the shadow of a giant jagged dagger.
Jill and I had somehow missed the fact that most mountain huts do not accept credit cards. On our last night we could only afford to pay for one shower token with the money we had left. Jill started the timer on her phone when we put the coin in, our naked bodies switching places, making the most of our allotted five minutes of water.
After scrounging around our backpacks for every possible coin we could find we had just enough for one last Aperol spritz each. We brought them outside after dinner at dusk, walking away until we could fit the hut into the palm of our hands.
The next day, after hours of mountain-goating our way down a foggy steep decline, we made it back to our hotel in town. There, I was surprised that I wished we had an extra day of hiking. I missed passing by fellow hikers, comforted by the shared struggle in our own private worlds of physical agony and elation, united by the same impulse—to be carried by our feet through impossibly beautiful places.
On our down climb, Jill and I talked about going to Patagonia next year. I knew that by then the memory of struggle will have faded. I’ll watch season whatever of “Love Is Blind” for months on a treadmill, and tell people I’m not worried about it. I’ll probably go through the same process all over again, resistance giving way to pure presence once I relearn the lesson of pacing and acceptance of things as they are, of a purpose to movement beyond hard work and achievement. I’ll bitch and whinge, and watch as my ego is flattened by larger than life landscapes that will loom ahead of me, impervious to my expectations and my tiny feet making their way, one excruciating step at a time.