Blistered and Brazen

For anyone who’s ever believed they need to stifle their true selves, a meditation on pushing through pain and finally believing we are exactly as we’re meant to be—on the trail and beyond.

By Shelby Rush

Salty fingers wrap themselves around padded shoulder straps. Eyes scan the earth passing below rhythmic legs. Sweat slides from nose to the open crevice between parted lips. This is what exhaustion tastes like, I think.

My two partners and I were on day three and mile 40 something of a 4 day, 60-mile trip and I couldn’t remember if there was ever a time my feet didn’t hurt. This trip had been hard.

Day one we had descended miles of dried out stream beds, a tetris-like maze of slippery stone. Fog settled between rock and land, making it seem as if we were searching for solid footing in a cloud.

Pelting rain fell from charcoal sketched skies. My boots became lakes, filled with droplets sliding from the lip of my pants. Even in the hours it slowed, we walked through a dense sheet of mist. My dry wool socks became saturated sponges. The tender skin on the bottom of my feet turned into a boulder field of blisters. That evening at camp I stared at soaked leather boots, knowing with only rain in the forecast, they were going to stay wet.

My mind warred with itself as I picked my way down rocks and ridges. If you’re going to bail, this is it.

Day two brought long stretches over boggy terrain. Dark gritty mud ridiculed efforts to care for newfound sores. Mole skin be damned. Bandaids? Useless. Tape? In vain. Nothing would stick.

My blister count rose to 13. This is my life now. These are my feet forever.

That second evening, thunder rummaged through black sky. The gentle swing of my hammock did little to soothe the throbbing in my soles. Concerns pooled in my mind like the stale water still saturating my socks.

How will you get through tomorrow? I started calculating. You are 36 miles in. That’s 24 miles to go. Our boots aren’t the only things drowning here…  

We made our last steep descent on day three into a state park. I was acutely aware of each individual step I took. Every pebble, every bump, every change in terrain made my feet silently scream. Changes underfoot brought new pressure on plump pockets of ooze that brushed against the interior of my shoe. Paper thin skin threatened to rip against woolen fibers.

My mind warred with itself as I picked my way down rocks and ridges. If you’re going to bail, this is it.

A pebble slipped out from under my toes. I stumbled, sucking in at the heat that flashed over my heel. Does my blister count go down if one of them pops? I wondered.

I took that question as my sign. Mile 46; it was time to call for a ride.

As my partners ran off to use restrooms, I waited for service bars to glow on my phone, but nothing came. Eyebrows knitted together, I willed service to drop out of the sky. When that didn’t work, I paced in the parking lot. Still, my screen read, “No Service.”

I slumped onto a bench. My stomach settled low, acknowledging what my brain would not yet admit.

Deep breaths. Deep acceptance. 2 miles to camp and 12 miles to the end. “I am finishing this,” I said out loud, as if saying it would somehow make it true.

Do you want your life to be defined by what you don’t face, or by what you do? I ask. Keep moving.

A laser focus took over after that declaration. I concentrated on making it through one step by one step, by one step… My self-talk started to change. The pacing of my thoughts became methodical, matching the cadence of my legs.

Pain is a part of life. We can handle pain, I think. The chatter around me became distant. Words hung like a haze. My only conversation was with myself.

Do you want your life to be defined by what you don’t face, or by what you do? I ask. Keep moving. Tender flesh stretched like plastic wrap as foot struck earth. Toes curled under, desperate to create space for swollen skin. I bit my cheek to goad some kind of counter pain.

Press into discomfort. You’re not injured. This is just uncomfortable. Uncomfortable is okay. I glued my eyes to the ground, committed to conquering the next six-inches in front of me.

Think of the people you admire most. They were who they were because they overcame difficult things. You want to be like them. So be like them, right now.

Every step was a choice. Every choice, a revolution of self. On that last day, I found a rhythm that allowed me to tap into a version of myself that was far more resolute than I realized.

Since those 60 miles, I have prioritized time to get outside on adventures or big days that replicate the headspace I experienced on that trip. Seasons turned, my physical limits stretched, and the friends I did my adventuring with changed. But that spacious sense of self returns to me each time I push myself to my limit outdoors.  

I am inhabited in a way when I’m backpacking, rock climbing, or hiking that I struggle to replicate in day-to-day living. Getting outside isn’t just about recreation for me, it’s about meeting a challenge. It’s about getting to the edge of my body and seeing if it will cover more ground.

My adventure partner and I refer to these kinds of boundary pushing days as “sufferfests.” Where we rise before the sun or our families to hit the trail early and crank out 15 miles before noon.

He calls it “type two fun.” A specific taste preferred by a minority subset of people. Which makes sense to me. I have always found myself positioned as someone else’s type-two.

I have one sister. She was and is everything my parents expected in a daughter. Quiet. Unassuming. Dainty. Peace-keeping. She was their calm; I was their storm. I was formidable. I spoke my mind. I named problems and demanded solutions. I challenged things I thought were wrong.

The compromising-of-self can be difficult to shake of muscle memory. And that is the dissonance I feel in my everyday life, that I don’t feel when I’m pushing up mountains, climbing boulders, and chasing vistas.

When I was a kid, I was talked about like a horse that needed breaking. I was “stubborn” and “strong-willed.” My dad used to joke, “When your sister gets married I’ll ask her, ‘Honey, are you sure?’ But when you get married, I’ll make sure your partner knows what he’s in for.” I laughed along at the joke, but internalized the message: I wasn’t whatever way I was supposed to be.

In those early years, I learned to hover over a hollow form of myself, escaping the feeling of being out of place. Like a marionette my limbs were pulled by definitions of womanhood others pronounced all over me. And little by little, without realizing it, I traded circulation in the parts of me that made others bristle, for a sense of belonging.

Experience has shown people are more likely to partner with me, if I am “less assuming,” “less confrontational,” “less forceful,” and “more cooperative,” “more self-controlled,” and “more willing to compromise.”

Now, barreling toward 30, I find myself sitting across the desks of superiors in attempts to address problems that require overhaul measures. I still speak my mind. I still ask for clarity. I still demand solutions.

But my directness is returned with vacant stares and careful glances I know well. It’s the look of discomfort. The look that lets me know I have to make a choice.

Often my response is automatic. Internal dials start accommodating. Eye contact softens. Face relaxes. Tone becomes genteel. Their body language changes in response. I have them back on board, but at the cost of finding myself again floating above my body.

The compromising-of-self can be difficult to shake of muscle memory. And that is the dissonance I feel in my everyday life, that I don’t feel when I’m pushing up mountains, climbing boulders, and chasing vistas.

…the expansiveness of trail and horizon isn’t intimidated by how assertively or directly I express myself to them.

My commitment to take on challenges just to see if I can, my willingness to bend knowing I might break, is often interpreted as a liability in the front country. At work it makes me appear “demanding.” In relationships it makes me seem “too intense.” But in the woods, I am free to test out how prevailing I can be, without feeling like I need to mask it or turn it down.

Out there, I don’t have to hover above myself to accomplish what I set out to do. Out there I find, I am myself.

There are so many things I love about backpacking. I love the sound my cinch cord makes as I tuck all my gear into my pack to head out from camp in the laden mist of early morning fog. I love the way my ground pad embraces my hips and shoulders like a gentle hug from an attentive friend when I crawl into my hammock. I love cool night breezes that rock me to sleep as I listen to cricket symphonies and the way I secretly think my sleeping bag might actually be filled with fluffy cumulus clouds, still warmed from kissed sunlight, instead of down. I love the physical and emotional stability I feel under my feet when they’re laced into boots reserved for miles clocked on rough terrain. I love the meditation of those first few steps on the trail you’ve married yourself to, mind quietly sinking into acceptance of all that lies ahead.

But most of all, I love that there I am allowed to be as strong as I want to be, and the only consequences for that expressed strength are positive. There I don’t have to make myself smaller, because the expansiveness of trail and horizon isn’t intimidated by how assertively or directly I express myself to them.

It’s the place I am allowed to focus only on the challenge before me without worrying who I might be offending in the way I tackle it. My speech becomes more honest, because I don’t have to edit. My vulnerability, more natural, because I don’t have to protect myself. My laughter, more sincere, because I am reconnected to my unencumbered self.

Being a woman in the outdoors has been an important part of understanding who I am allowed to be as a woman in the world. I am relearning to be formidable, openly independent, fiercely communicative, and unapologetically myself. I am relearning to be relentless without shame in the front country, like I do in the back.

Part of that process has required trying to remember the little girl I was before the expectations of others tinted the wonder I had for myself. Catching her isn’t always easy, but I find when I close my eyes and sink down in myself, I can glimpse memories of her I’d lost.

Like sandy colored suburban sidewalk peeking out under toes poised and pointed, as if walking on a beam suspended in sky. I watch as 6 year old me breathes deeply into her lungs, ravenous with the intention to hold as much of that moment as possible.

Dark skies come into the view of my memory, the air smells like rain drops. But all she can sense is the burgeoning atmosphere and the wonder that she is part of it. Full of it. Her arms open up as wide as they will stretch, legs drift across an unseen tightrope, floating on tempests that threaten to steal her away. Unruly wisps of face-framing curls whip across round cheeks, as wind picks up speed.

Catching her isn’t always easy, but I find when I close my eyes and sink down in myself, I can glimpse memories of her I’d lost.

Tingles spread from feet to ankles and up little legs, like a million giggles wriggling their way through every nerve. Joy explodes like fireworks in her belly at a single thought, I can’t believe I get to be part of this world. And while storm and gale threaten to overtake, she dances in the wind.

Memories like this, remind me, maybe I’m not type-two. Maybe I’m just the way I always was.

But this isn’t just about the little girl who lives in my memory. This is about every little girl who fills my life now. I want so much more for them than I was even aware I could have. I want them to know they have choices about how they are themselves in the world. They shouldn’t have to chase some vague sense that they are allowed to do and be more, like I did. I want them to carry that knowledge like a shield. Not a weight.

But I know I can’t want for them, what I am not willing to demonstrate before their eyes. If I want to offer them a better story of what womanhood can be, I have to embrace a better story for myself. I have to show them the way. Maybe they won’t have to become blistered, to learn just how brazen they can be.

Every backpacker knows the feeling of incline under foot. Just the slightest change in elevation and our legs exhale recognition and get to work. Our toes dig into the dirt beneath us, our breath deepens, our mind slows. Briny drops wet eyelashes and slip down determined faces.

As I push myself up mountainsides, as I question whether it’s my chest that’s tight or just the strap that runs across it, as sweat takes its accustomed course from brow to nose, as my body propels itself ahead—I am sure in that moment I am exactly where and how I am meant to be. With the salty crust that layers my skin, the sweat that melts my manicured hair back to its unruly texture, and the happy exertion that warms my muscles in those moments, I am returned to myself.

And when sore feet hit vista, and tired legs make contact with whatever closest dusty ground, log, or rock they can find, I look out over sloping tree lines framing miles of horizon covered by liquid sunset, or a moon glowing in a black velvet night. I feel a burgeoning in the atmosphere.   

The dissonance quiets. My life comes into alignment. And for a few solitary moments, I am once again, just a fierce little girl, dancing on wind, knowing she is exactly as she is meant to be.

Photos courtesy of Hailey Hirst


Shelby Rush runs resiliency programming for at-risk kids in Northern Pennsylvania. When she’s not social working, she’s likely to be found with a friend in search of miles on trail, boulders in the woods, a historical woman she read about and named a plant after, or a really good cup of coffee.

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