When I was young, I didn’t feel like I would ever fit in anywhere, didn’t feel like I belonged. I had friends but I never felt completely understood.
I grew up on a Christmas Tree Farm in upstate New York in a relatively small town. We learned from an early age to work with our hands, to take care of the trees, to nurture growth. We would take nature walks with my mom, go camping every summer in the Adirondacks, and stay in a cabin for a week. I grew up with an understanding that the outdoors were there for you, even when people couldn’t or wouldn’t be.
But I still wanted connection from the people around me.
At 15, feeling listless and lost, I started to drink alcohol. It was like a booster shot for all the things I had thought I had been missing. I felt confident and part of the group, felt cool to be invited to parties, chased being included in any social drinking events. I lost my attachment to the outdoors, thinking it made me different from others around me, and didn’t see the point of it anymore.
When I was 24, I was living in Brooklyn and was the unhappiest I had ever been. I knew living there and participating in the lifestyle of a young New Yorker was making me depressed. So, I uprooted my life there and moved to Boston, my sister offering me refuge from myself. I quit my job on a Monday and moved to Boston that Saturday. With support from my sister and her now-husband, I felt loved and like I belonged somewhere. I started to slowly come back to the outdoors. I started to slowly creep out of drinking so much.
There was a moment during this time that I will never forget. I was hiking by myself up Whiteface mountain in the Adirondacks. Whiteface happens to be one of those mountains where there is a road that people can take to drive up to the top. There is a point in the hike where the trail hits the road and the trees thin out for a bit.
Up until that point in my adolescence, I always felt disconnected from my body. I never felt like it was mine, more that I was floating above it and witnessing all it was experiencing. This hike up Whiteface was the first time I felt like it was me. I was in my body, I was feeling each burning step, feeling the sweat trickle down my face, my arms grabbing rocks and trees to continue to propel myself up this old, rugged trail in the mountain range that raised me.
When I got to this open point near the road on Whiteface, I did something I didn’t normally do at the time. I looked back. I looked back at how far I had come, how high I’d climbed. And I started to sob. I stared out at the blue and green hues of the Adirondack Park and felt completely connected to it. I finally felt what I had been looking for in alcohol, a sense of belonging. I knew at that moment that this is how I wanted to live my life, outside, pushing myself while also appreciating the mountains.
I began visiting the White Mountains most weekends to either climb, hike or camp, or a combination of all three. I also fell into deep love for the first time in my life, feeling the type of connection that I never thought I would find. I realized that, sometimes, someone needs to show you you’re lovable to start loving yourself. And he did that for me.
We started framing our life around being outside, with each other and with whatever friends we could wrangle for weekend adventures. We were insatiable, dirty, tired and starting to tap into something big. We were finding out just how we wanted to live our lives.
I started dabbling in trail races. My first race was a marathon in Stowe, VT, and it was a double loop of a half-marathon (in retrospect, I will never do another race like this because it is too tempting to drop out at the halfway mark). It was very cold and wet and rainy that day, but I plodded along through charming Vermont and before I knew it, I was nearing the end of the race. I was hitting a wall, I hadn’t trained like I should, and I wasn’t prepared for all the hills. At a point of utter frustration and, if I’m honest, pain, a woman appeared as if out of nowhere, and simply uttered, “what a beautiful day to be out in the woods.”
I never saw that woman again, on the trail or at the finish line, but it was the type of comment that helped me shift my perspective immediately. As I was nearing the end of the race, there were a few other stragglers like me. We decided to finish as a pack, having found each other for the last few miles, and encouraging each other to finish strong together. We cheered for each other, we all hugged and hooted and hollered as we crossed the finish line together. I didn’t know any of their names, but there was a oneness we created in those last miles in the woods, a deep connection. We were all out there for different reasons, but we were all out there together. I had found where I belonged.
I have found everything I was looking for when I was young, primarily in the bottom of a bottle or in the validation of inconsequential people in my life. I found it on muddy trails, I found it while I lugged my backpack over mountain passes to try to find a home for the night. I found it during climbing days at the crag, and while car camping in the desert. I had been looking for a connection all along, and I had fought and scraped to get it, and now I had it, with myself, with my people around me, and with the Earth. Some of the fighting to get there was ugly, but I know now, more than ever, that this feeling of belonging, and even more importantly, helping others to feel like they belong, is what truly fuels me.