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I Needed To Heal My Body Image. So I Went ‘Off The Grid.’

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I Needed To Heal My Body Image. So I Went ‘Off The Grid.’


I stand in laced-up hiking boots under ancient pine trees that glow in the morning light. I notice that Craig, our tall and bearded guide, has dashed back from his van in Yosemite’s Glacier Point Parking Lot, with a variety of protein bars for us hiking enthusiasts.

What’s the appropriate amount for a long weekend of sustenance? Am I doing this right? The others in our small circle navigate this decision. They take their handful without a second thought, opening and reclosing zippers in one swift motion. I’m not there yet.

I was able to enjoy the expansive views while driving up these 3,000 feet of elevation, but now I face off against the mount of plastic-wrapped bars that sits on top of Craig’s blue tarp.

Of course, there were times when my relationship with food was worse. I’d be holed up in bed clutching my stomach after eating my way through the fridge in my studio apartment, lethargic from bingeing and from yet another weekend of containing life to the four walls of my bedroom. Twenty-something me couldn’t have imagined this trip.

Yet here I am, 35 and vaccinated in sturdy hiking boots. Before we head into the wild, Craig goes around the circle holding up two dozen or so watermelon-flavored gummies designed for athletes, and single packets of electrolyte powder that will turn the contents of our water bottles into lemonade.

“I thought sugar was bad for you,” I say to nobody in particular, grabbing a few.

“When you’re active, it’s good,” says the guy who has introduced himself as William, a father and triathlete. “This is sugar for fast energy, not the kind that makes you fat.”

A few people release a knowing laugh, but I’m quiet. Where does my body vigilance come from? What purpose does it serve? After years in recovery, the question is less a why and more a why, here?

Within the first couple of miles, I learn that the others who have signed up for this trip through my local sporting goods store hold impressive outdoor resumes. They have biked through France, swam to shore from Alcatraz, and climbed Kilimanjaro. I suspect I’ll discover what it means to brave an ongoing challenge, as they have before. But most of all, I’m here to experience my body for once without analyzing it.

I speed up to walk in tandem with Craig’s footsteps and focus on the path toward our first campground, something with “Falls” in its name. That will rinse away the noise, my own self-criticism and society’s.

The pace and sound of Craig’s feet on the trail keep me steady, one, two, one, two. My cellphone has lost reception, leaving no chance to curate my self-image or reproduce this excursion for anyone else to consume.

I’ve repacked my belongings three times to pare them down to the functional: synthetic T-shirts, wool socks, travel-sized sunscreen. Mirrors didn’t make the cut. Who looks at their reflection on Half Dome?

The rock formation with its firm vertical drop was pictured on our trip’s registration page and now that we’re catching glimpses of the real thing from the trailhead, I’m committed to studying only that which lives beyond the surface of my own skin.

I get into a rhythm and my gaze is drawn to everything: movement and stillness, sunlight and shadow, the color green in such varying shades that some look almost yellow. Tree barks are covered in soft moss, jolting me with awe about how one element of nature feeds another, a mystical balance.

As we hike downhill into the valley, with a brief incline on the opposite side, I can’t help looking down at the strap from my backpack cinching above the hips, with the telltale bulge above. I fidget with my tank top, pulling it away from the waistband on my shorts as I walk. But my gut refuses to comply with hiding.

I want to keep studying the infinite views, how the earth and sky introduce themselves anew at each turn. I urge myself to look for summer wildflowers and soon, I start to listen to the tingle of energy in my thighs, and the sensation of sweat announcing itself across my chest.

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Photo Courtesy of Babette Dunkelgrün

We arrive at our campsite and I unpack my sleeping bag and place it in my tent. Minutes later, we’re in bathing suits, splashing water on ourselves in the quiet stream that sparkles in the afternoon sun. My black shorts double as swimwear, and so does my athletic sports bra with its significant coverage that I hope reins in my upper back flesh. The stream cleanses me after our ascent in the summer heat, removing dirt and salt.

Laying ourselves across rocks warmed by the day’s sun, I bask in the pleasurable sensations of cold and heat at the same time. How simple it is to share in this physical delight with people who were strangers a few miles ago. I lie back and straighten my legs in an attempt to flatten my belly. Still, I soak my hair in the current and let it float off in all directions.

There are men in the group, but right now the genders stick together. I appreciate the sisterhood in our bathing ritual. The handful of women at the water’s edge are all in their mid-30s, too. Alicia, who hasn’t stopped flashing her wide smile since this morning, leans back to rest on her friend Maya. She slides around until her toes dangle in the stream.

“Shift your head lower down my torso,” Maya says to her friend. “You’ll be more comfortable with some padding.” Her tone is neutral.

Padding, like the stuff of a jacket. How did she get there? I look up at the clear sky, wondering how I, too, could move on from the topic of having a body and what it looks like.

In the middle of the third day, the altitude hits me all at once. I’m resting against a tree trunk, viewing mountain peaks, green meadows, and a massive waterfall that snakes through the canvas. A few times, I watch couples and families taking selfies. The tops of their heads align with the clouds. Look how high I’ve carried you, my body says.

For the hours we spend rising back out of the valley on day four, it seems that this incline will have no end. I remind myself of the views, willing my feet to maintain their momentum. I try leaning into the hill for support and observe my fingernails that are lined by dirt. Alicia and Maya overtake me; they’re exchanging affirmations.

“You are strong,” Alicia says.

“Your legs will keep going as long as you need,” Maya replies.

I nod with every word, acquiescing in the truth.

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Photo Courtesy of Babette Dunkelgrün

As soon as the parking lot reveals itself, I begin to undo the straps on my pack. We give each other sweaty hugs and thank Craig for guiding us back. Then, I get into my car and grab the tweezers I keep in the glove compartment, but the dirt under my nails wants to stay put. Before starting the engine, I look in the mirror for the first time in four days and there it is, a big black hair sticking straight out from my chin. I pluck it and get on with the business of driving.

The road back into civilization feels long; while I charge my phone and stop to get gas I’m aware that this wilderness-endorphin high won’t last forever. Before long, I’ll be adding filters to the photos I already plan to share with family and friends. I’m not returning home fully recovered, but I’ve received a dose of healing. Yosemite showed me the connection and wonder that is possible when I’m willing to be in my body.

Pulling into my street at dusk, I park behind the car that’s in my usual spot. I read a bumper sticker that quotes Thoreau. “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” I open the door and leave the contents of my trunk for tomorrow. Just for today, as the recovery saying goes, in the presence of my body’s soft center, strong women, facial hair and dirty nails, I am preserving mine.

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