Living on unceded, ancestral Coast Salish(Squamish Nation, Tsleil-Waututh and Musqeum) territories means that by luck, and easily, I am knee deep in the outside. Big beautiful mountains, beaches for days, rivers/creeks, wild and urban animals…you get the picture. Living in Vancouver means that I am subjected to witnessing constant expressions of outdoor culture. For example, every time I walk home I see three ski hills on the mountains north of my house; I’ve been told stories of tinder dates on Quarry Rock; well intentioned colleagues wear hiking boots with slacks to work meetings; the car share I’m a member of has bike/ski racks by default; and my instagram feed is increasingly filling with “outdoor porn” taken from so near to here (and I just can’t stop following those dreamy adventurers).
Hot takes about the bullshit of outdoor culture abound (eg. 1, 2, 3) and I quickly get behind these writers and hikers doing the important work of holding a mirror to this world. There is so much that is hard to see-hear-smell-taste-feel in the outdoor community, and in Vancouver the perpetual colonial whiteness of much of this city’s cultural current pretty much dismiss any opportunities for self-reflection or inclusion. Being outside, moving your body and living that healthy lifestyle actually feels really awesome, but being able to participate has a high cost (financially, emotionally, intellectually, socially). With wages so low and rent so high, getting outside in Vancouver can be nearly impossible.
Until recently, I had a lot of hang ups about getting outside. Who am I kidding: I still have lots of hang ups about hitting the trail. What I mean is, I recently decided I could move through it: my hang ups wouldn’t hold me back anymore and that the external reality of me putting my hang ups out on the trail, almost on display, was something I am enthused about. I grew up outside, breathing crisp northern air, but have felt unsure and incapable in my body since early adolescence. 25 years of feeling not good enough to move my body outside or to take space on a trail is mentally and emotionally exhausting. I kind of felt that if the lore of going outside being “good for you” was real, I wanted those benefits, I wanted in.
This confidence comes with great emotional privilege (even to just roll my eyes at spritely white dudes bounding up the hundreds of stairs I am trying my hardest not to cry on). This is both a privilege I am learning to acknowledge and grow into. I have long been lured onto trails without proper info, wearing sandals while scrambling over glaciers. I’ve been taunted in boats on lakes, the violent rocking of a canoe by a not-so-safe adult causing utter despair in a rainstorm. Been given a too-small life jacket when trying to kayak for the first time, being told that losing weight would make me better at the activity I was about to embark on. Or as an adult, being scolded for having a panic attack on a ski-hill when all my previous experiences were being abandoned on the slopes by a not-so-safe adult when I was a child. Every step I take on a trail, every stroke I make in a lake, every tent I set up not only requires a kind of brazen confidence, but a willingness to remember and work through a host of traumatic memories and rebuild trust for those outside with me and in myself.
Once I began to work through all of these bullshit experiences from my past it became really clear that I had developed an intense anxiety around outside activities. My anxiety restricts my life in many ways, but the firm grip I felt anxiety had on me being outside was a welcome surprise. For me, feeling like I didn’t have the right clothes or know the right trail info or couldn’t go as fast as others on the trail manifested itself as an anxiety response. Realizing this, I began to address the anxiety as its own thing and set out to let the other stuff go.
While so much of the way people experience anxiety is situational (late capitalism, new situations, poverty, not having control, etc), anxiety is still a mental illness. It’s a biological, somatic, physiological experience. This means that sometimes trails come with panic attacks or are followed by a deep depression. Sometimes self-shaming sets in and a hiker may force themselves up a trail they’re not ready for, putting them and their mental health at greater risk. Outdoor discourses say that getting outside will make you feel better, but often the hike itself doesn’t dissipate the anxiety. Instead, strategies for managing the anxiety itself are what can actually reduce the anxiety response.
For me, giving my emotional and intellectual self a break (“it’s not me, it’s anxiety”) was a major first step. Acknowledging the past traumas that flamed my anxiety about being outside has also been important in giving myself the space to get outside. Planning ahead by reading trail reports and maps, going with friends, packing sufficient snacks and getting as much rest as possible before I set out have all been helpful, too. I’m starting small (2-3 hours) and getting excited about tackling higher gains and longer trails.
The biggest break I’ve given myself is to not get to the top. When outdoor culture seems to require vertical gain, ridges, summits and the heavily edited sunset photo from the mountain top, it’s easy to feel pressured to produce a similar experience. That way of commodifying your deep breaths, the smell of sap running off the trees you pass, the glimpse of a silent heron or the crunch of small rocks, shells and pinecones beneath your feet is not necessary to being outside or moving your body. These lands are the oldest lady we have the honour to know. All she requires is that we return to her, humbled and loyal, committed to her care and longevity. Being outside, however I get there or whenever it may be, is where the trail will hold me. In the warmest of embraces we have each other, as we are, out here.
See you on the trail, Di.