We are celebrating women in the outdoors through REI’s #ForceOFNature project. This is not a sponsored post, we just want to keep sharing our thoughts and feelings about what it means to be a Force of Nature.
Did you go through a rebellious streak as a teenager, trying to fight your own insecurities and figure out who you really were? Today Ruth opens up about finding herself, how the outdoors helped and what her very first hike (at age 26) felt like. You’re going to like her honesty.
Photo courtesy Ruth Schmidt
Everyone around me seemed to have expectations for my behaviour, my appearance, and my future plans.
I got a thrill from not conforming to those expectations and I tried to cultivate a rebellious attitude, never realising that I was simply conforming to a different expectation: my own fantasy of what a ‘strong woman’ should look like.
I thought that this ‘fantasy-Ruth’ should be completely self-reliant, aloof and should never be influenced by other people’s opinions.
‘Fantasy-Ruth’ had to avoid showing too much emotion and never admit to enjoying anything ‘cute’ or ‘pretty’.
For a long time, the fact that I was so isolated by my self-imposed rules made me believe that I was unique and special.
I’m embarrassed to admit it, but the idea that no one understood me was exhilarating.
I went for my first hike when I was 26 years old, and by then I had already given up on much of my rebellious teenage behaviour.
The isolation had stopped being exhilarating and started being lonely, and trying to emulate the fantasy ‘strong woman’ in my head had become exhausting.
I’d begun to realise that I had been forcing myself to conform to an ideal, which was the very thing I’d been worried society would do to me.
Ruth hiking with her son. Photo courtesy Ruth Schmidt.
That first hike was an experience I will never forget.
My husband and I went with friends who were experienced hikers.
Our friends did their best to make sure that we understood the challenges of the route we were to attempt, but ultimately no amount of research could have prepared me for the real thing.
I made an effort to train in the month or two leading up to the hike, but I had never thought of myself as an unfit person, so the physical challenge that the hike posed didn’t seem like a problem to me.
Ruth and her husband Thomas on Ruth’s second hiking adventure. Photo courtesy Ruth Schmidt.
Wow, was I ever wrong about that!
A few hours into the first day of hiking up steep slopes with a heavy backpack, I was convinced that I was going to die somewhere on the trail.
I was far behind everyone else, with my husband stoically sticking by my side.
The more experienced hikers kept having to stop and wait for me to catch up, but no matter how much I mentally berated myself, I just couldn’t make my legs move any faster.
Every step was a struggle, and as each foot landed I fully expected to collapse in exhaustion.
It was painful, and humbling, and a bit embarrassing, but it was also a huge revelation.
Despite my certainty that I would die out there, I didn’t.
I realised that my preconceptions about my physical abilities were completely wrong.
Ruth slogging through her first hike. Photo courtesy Ruth Schmidt.
Slogging through that first hike gave me a far clearer idea of my limits, and the exhaustion that went with it left no room for pretenses.
The old feeling of exhilaration was back, and this time it was because of the freedom I finally felt from the ‘fantasy-Ruth’ in my head.
I have now been hiking for several years, but every hike is still an opportunity to get to know myself a little better.
The hard days when the terrain is unforgiving or the weather turns against me or my body just wants to give up are also the moments that give me the greatest gifts: opportunities to meet the real Ruth.
And the more I get to know the real Ruth, the more I realise that ‘fantasy-Ruth’ is simply a limitation.