My Hiking Identity: Mourning My Losses 2

img659So in yesterday’s post, I mentioned some of the ways in which immigration has changed and/or affected my identity. It used to drive me almost postal that I wasn’t valued here as a librarian, and that–as far as my knowledge and skills were concerned–I was placed on par with people who didn’t know on which continent one can find kangaroos or that the Netherlands isn’t anywhere near Russia. But I got a masters in English Lit and turned to translating Dutch fiction (and later non-fiction); I became a mother of two fascinating kids, and over time the frustration over the loss of my librarian identity grew less.

I gradually got friends over here, and though these friend relationships are different, I think I’ve adapted reasonably well to those differences. We don’t celebrate one another’s birthdays and we usually don’t meet at home, but when you have a cat with bladder problems, that’s actually not a bad thing.

I became more independent, of course. I got my driver’s licence after a while, so I could get around independently. I had a job, and then another, but at least that meant I was contributing financially, even if it was only an assistant’s wages.

What I still miss the most is my Dutch body. My Dutch friends all look exactly the same as twenty-five years ago, but with a few more wrinkles. Nobody got fat. Because they all still walk and cycle and do the same things on vacations that they always did. They still camp in tents and go for hikes or bike rides in the mountains, etc. Becoming obese while my friends and family stayed the same feels a little like being an astronaut who becomes detached from his spacecraft and sees it moving away. Everything I ever was floated away with it, and I find myself grasping at it, to no avail.

Okay, that’s a little dramatic, but still–a large part of my identity was linked to what my body could do, although at the time I really wasn’t that aware of it. Cycling to work was normal; not even changing gears to go up that one steep hill was normal; sprinting to catch a bus or train was normal; hiking all day in the Cairngorms with a 25 to 30 pound backpack for at least one month out of every year was normal.

I often feel that what I miss the most about living in the Netherlands is being able to go on those hiking vacations in Great Britain. It was a way of life. The lightest 3-season sleeping bag, lightest 3-season mat, my 1-kilo 2-person tent, the bare minimum in clothes, travel-size toiletries that all fit in a little pencil case, cooking utensils in another pencil case, the tiniest stove, dried food meals that I put together in advance, trying out everything new at home first, like when they came out with powdered eggs.

And after some trial and error, I also had the best darn hiking boots on the market. (Yes, my first pair made my feet look smaller, but they sucked!)

You know the bumper sticker “My other car is a pair of hiking boots”? That was me, minus the car. When my friend H and I crossed from Rotterdam to Dover or Hull on the ferry, we’d usually sleep on the benches outside, because indoors was smokey and loud and we wouldn’t get any shut-eye there. We’d place our backpacks under the bench, and we’d put our hiking boots in our sleeping bags with us, and I would have my camera around my neck as well. That was always the first night of the vacation: sleeping outside on a ferry, hugging my boots and camera in my sleeping bag, which I had tied up over my head (It’s cold at night on the North Sea).

Once in England, we’d hitchhike to whichever national park we’d chosen, and then we’d look on the Ordnance Survey map to see what looked like a good spot for camping  and we’d head into to mountains. I had my compass and knew how to use it, so even if we decided to cut across country off the trail, we’d always arrive with laser precision at our evening destination.

We drank (boiled) water from streams and most of our food was a matter of adding boiling water as well. For breakfast we had a dense oatmeal with raisins and nuts and milk powder; for lunch we usually had Ryvitas with salami or peanut butter from a plastic tube; and for dinner we’d have dried stamppot with salami or dried vegetable pancakes (once we had egg powder) or some kind of mix with instant rice. No cans, no packaging–the only trash would be some thin plastic baggies that we’d carry back down with us at the the end.

We washed ourselves and our clothes in streams and if you’ve only ever used toilets, you’re missing out on the best views in the world–halfway up a hill, at a good distance from the water, of course.

Almost no women did this, and definitely no women by themselves. Most camping folks we met up there were men. It didn’t seem important at the time, but looking back, it gave me a sense of being extra tough and empowered.

That kind of life disappeared abruptly when I emigrated. T and I lived in the Rio Grande Valley, where it was too hot to even go for a stroll most of the year, and there were no areas of natural beauty to speak of anyway. Our vacations were road trips, and even when we began having longer vacations to national or state parks where we could conceivably go back-country camping, we didn’t because we had small kids. There’s no way I would risk losing them to a mountain lion or a bear. We did go tent camping at a camp site once when B was three and R a little crawler, but just the fact that it took almost an hour to set up our ridiculous tent and get everything sorted, instead of five minutes, made me so grumpy that I simply avoided the situation from then on.

So I became the person I so snobbily derided back in my twenties: an RV camper who sees most of the country at overlooks along the road. Pull up, park, get out, take a picture, and get back in the car. And at some point I became so heavy and out of shape that I felt I couldn’t go for a decent hike in the mountains even if I wanted to. The past couple of years, when I saw mountains or hills in Britain or Ireland in a movie, I not only missed them–I was acutely aware of the fact that I’d never be able to have that kind of vacation again.

Notice the past tense in the last paragraph? To be continued. Meanwhile, if you’ve emigrated, or moved to a completely different area of the country, has it changed your fitness level or the way you spend your vacations? If so, how and why? If not, how were you able to maintain your fitness level or your vacation style? Or has it improved?


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