The first time I set out to summit a mountain, our group had decided on an alpine start, meaning that we woke at 2:45 a.m. – in the morning – and were setting out hiking by 3:30 a.m. It was a late July morning, and there wouldn’t be any snow, but the early start would allow us to beat other teams to the summit and also return before it got too hot. Not having ever hiked at such a crazy hour, I had no idea what to expect but was only naively excited for the adventure.

It was also going to be the longest hike I had ever done as well as the most elevation gain with very little training.

Within the first 15 minutes, I found myself stumbling over tree roots, frustrated that my headlamp didn’t tilt enough for me to see the trail. I was already sweating, having overdressed from the chilly dark morning weather. My trekking poles wouldn’t seem to stay adjusted. I was already falling behind the faster hikers and found myself out of breath. My ankles hurt and so did my knee.

“It’s not too far for me to go back alone,” I thought in my head. “I could just go back to bed and hang out at camp while the others hike”, “I’m too out of shape.” “What am I doing out here in the middle of the night?” were the thoughts circling around my head like a swarm of black flies.

However, I didn’t say any of this to anyone and kept going. One foot after the other, one switchback after another passed. After about the first half mile, we stopped to each take off a layer and drink some water. I fixed the length of my trekking pole. Another team member had an extra headlamp that tilted and was happy to let me borrow it. My knee and ankles seemed to warm up to the movement and I got into a hiking groove. My lungs seemed to open up and I could catch my breath. By sunrise, we were more than halfway to our destination, and I felt energized, incredibly happy, and motivated by the beauty that had opened up around us.

Since then, I have climbed several other peaks and have gone on other longer day hikes. Each time, I am always surprised by how hard the first mile seems. Even if it is a mile that is in the shade with no elevation, it always takes me about that long for my body and mind to adjust. I always seem to have to adjust layers and adjust my backpack and figure out what is comfortable for the moment. There might be times when I shorten my hikes due to how I’m feeling or how much time I have. Of course, safety and wisdom have to prevail in certain situations.

But, I have learned to never judge how a hike is going to be in that first mile.

Not only do my legs have to start acclimating to the movement of hiking, but my mind does as well. When I first arrive at a trail in the woods, it seems my mind is always filled with the lingering anxieties of every day. It might be that I doubt how long I can hike that day, if I packed the right layers or enough water or just residue from work or life. It always takes me about that first mile before that starts to melt away. Once it does, I can then regain my forest legs and clear my mind. The trees and valleys open up before me and the rest of the stuff, doesn’t really seem to matter. After the first mile, I can then reassess how I’m feeling and I’m usually exactly where I want to be. In the woods, amongst the tall trees, clean air, and feeling alive and ready to keep going.

As with most things in life that you start (a new job, a new town, a new hobby or skill), it takes some time to adjust. The best gift you can grant yourself is patience and kindness. You can’t judge your strength or worth by the first mile. Just keep hiking, walking, and learning. The best next thing might be just around the bend.

4 comments on “The first mile

  1. I’ve always called it the hiker mile lol. Every hike, every time the first mile to mile and half is the hardest. After that it opens up and becomes easier and more enjoyable.

  2. Great article, Sarah! I feel the same way during hikes. At the beginning of a backpacking trip it can be especially daunting to feel like maybe I can’t pull it together and get to the destination, but my body and mind always adjust if I just keep moving at a steady pace. And it’s always so worth it in the end!

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