“Pretend you’re a pioneer,” my mother would say, when as a child I’d become too tired (read: too lazy) to walk any farther. My father took the car to get to work and she and I walked wherever the daily errands had to take us. It seemed like trudging many hot miles through barren desert to my 4-year-old feet, though when she speaks of it now, I realize it was just a few city blocks this way and that.
Despite this inauspicious start, walking—and later, hiking—became an important part of my body’s meditation. Soon after my husband and I decided to split up late last summer, I spent an afternoon hiking in the Catskills. I was ill-prepared (Converse sneakers will make for some excellent blisters trekking up rock scramble), but it didn’t matter much. I’d come for the company of good friends and the scent of early autumn in the mountains, the trickle of sunlight through leaf canopy, and the ritual of hard walking.
A friend of mine, a very experienced hiker already familiar with these woods (with, ahem, more appropriate gear), led us through the trails. And while I kept the pace I realized that though I could see where the stamp of footfalls had left the dirt pounded and clear, when the earth became more obscure I was left at the mercy of someone else’s knowledge. I didn’t know how to read trail markers beyond “follow that color.” I’d appreciated this practice without digging into the subtleties of cairns and blazes; I mostly trusted my instincts and the premise of plain communication, though I couldn’t then tell you the difference between a spur and a turn.
And that’s the thing: It’s awfully simple to read these signs. A 15-minute Googling is all it really takes to learn how to discover and decipher these very basic markings. So unlike marriage, it’s one of those rare and lucky occasions where simple is actually the same as easy.
Later at home, I sat down and cried—that peculiar and hilarious sort of weeping that is also half laughter, stricken so you are with self-realization—when I saw, in that moment, how the signs of our unraveling had always been there. How when I looked for evidence in the experience I could see how it appeared in conversations we had with ourselves and with each other, how these signals materialized with every step we took toward a future that was unstable and unsteady and then, ultimately, separate from each other. I’d missed it while it was happening.
The signs of deterioration are easy to look for, and likely, we already know them from past relationships and the better dramatic movies. The looking, then, is simple. It’s the seeing that’s not.
In the past year since that solid cry-laugh (“Craugh?” Can this be the new hangry?), I’ve gotten much better at seeing. In the same way my yoga practice reminds me to enjoy this moment, this breath, my hiking practice prompts me to pick my head up and notice where the path is leading and not just where it is.
Pace by pace I’m interested more in the origins of my own investigations. It’s a fine line between introspection and navel-gazing, but it’s worth treading. Eventually it’s not enough just to learn, just to grow. We must ask ourselves with some regularity what light it is that we are turning toward. It’s the difference between actual pioneering—and just settling.
Photo by Jake Laub
Jessica Kulick is a certified vinyasa and hot traditional yoga teacher, as well as freelance writer. She has contributed travel writing to sites such as Matador Network, Literary Traveler, and Spotted by Locals, and currently manages the offices of Wanderlust’s Brooklyn headquarters. You can find her on Instagram (@jess_kulick) where she is usually chasing sunshine and eating pistachios.