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Photo by Robin Jane Roff.

Trails Gave Me the Space to Become Myself

Taking a step back can help put things in perspective. One hiker had to let trails go first before she could learn the power they have to transform. By Robin Roff.

I grew up in a hiking family. Most weekends found us up some mountain or along some lonely valley path. But I hated to hike. I was the smallest, my back hurt, my feet ached and it was boring. As soon as I could, I stopped. I gave up the trails for city streets and friends, late nights and loud concerts. I was not “outdoorsy” like my parents. Or so I thought. Looking back, I treasure these memories — learning the names of wildflowers and animals, holding my father’s hand and listening to my mother sing to distract us from the climb.

My teenage years were challenging, as they are for many. I was bullied; I was different – both from my peers and my family. I formed a band and dove further into urban life. My parents ceased to understand me. I know my rejection of their woodsy ways hurt them, and that hurt me too, but I couldn’t change. Things started to unravel.

A hiker carefully climbs up a snowy hillside.
Photo by Robin Roff.

When I left home for university at 19, happiness became elusive. I know now that my depression was emerging and the world was getting complicated. I bounced between emotional extremes — one minute laughing uproariously, the next wailing into my pillow, then fuming with anger deep within my chest. I raged against the traps of expectations, of what a young woman is supposed to be. I wasn’t any of it. The more I pushed, the deeper I fell into the darkness. I didn’t know who I was.

My school was in a sprawling city of grey concrete and glittering skyscrapers. People hurried between impatient cars, their voices barely audible over the cacophony of human busyness. I thought it was what I wanted but I quickly became restless. I was tired of being closed in — in my apartment, on buses, in bars. Everything was glassed in, walled off. My mind ached from constantly feeling “less than.” 

Without a car and with more time than responsibility, I started to walk. Sometimes I had a plan — a store or neighborhood I wanted to see — but mostly I just wanted to escape the negative voices in my head. My legs got stronger, and I found pathways and parklands, forgotten forests and bits of abandoned marsh. Little trails lovingly kept by neighbors and bigger ones built by community organizations. 

I started to learn the names of local plants and where raspberries ripened. Though I never escaped the sprawl, the world seemed brighter on my return from these meanderings. I didn’t know it then, but these discarded green spaces were the beginnings of a therapy that I would engage in for the rest of my life.

Photo by Robin Roff.
Photo by Robin Roff.

The day was hot — over 80 by 9 a.m. Every step sent shooting pain from my hip to my gut. My shoulders burned, the skin rubbed raw by my pack. We were only hours into a 3-day family hike up San Gorgonio, an 11,000-foot peak, in California’s San Bernardino Mountains. It was my first backpacking trip. The path was relentlessly steep, and we were heading to a dry camp. Jugs of water swayed below our packs. It was excruciating. 

When my mother had suggested a family backpacking trip, I had eagerly agreed. My repertoire of urban hikes had expanded, but something was still missing. In my early 20s, I felt increasingly lost, overwhelmed by fears of the future and doubt that I would ever measure up. Everything felt hard. I was on the cusp of graduating, and I was walking into an abyss I wasn’t ready for. 

The trail up to the aptly named “Dry Lake” swung through countless, scorching switchbacks that sapped my excitement.

“This sucks,” I growled inwardly. “I’m not going to be able to do this. Why did I think I could do this?” 

The old hatred for hiking bubbled, and I fell into the deep grooves of insecurity. My mind was dark and told me to quit but there was no other option than to continue.

A hiker stands in front of a dramatic mountain range covered in larches.
Photo by Robin Roff.

That night, in a fire-less and water-less camp at almost 10,000 feet, I looked at my family. They laughed and groaned at various aches. No one thought less of themselves for being in pain. We were all sore. I couldn’t help but laugh with them. The forest quieted, and a different kind of darkness descended. It felt cool and comforting. Calm. I went to bed enjoying the creak of my spent muscles.

Morning brought more grinding uphill, thankfully without much weight. But I was lighter in another way. My mind felt clear, focused. I had only one thing to do: walk. No one expected it to feel easy. So that is what I did — all the way to the summit.

The simplicity of hiking that sun-burnt trail stripped away self-doubt, anger and fear. Every aching muscle was a call to pay attention to moving — nothing else. My mind settled for the first time in months. I started noticing the grass and rocks, the slow thud of our steps. We climbed steadily, and without realizing it, we reached the peak where the grey-green wilderness stretched before us. A golden-mantled ground squirrel scurried over my foot, making me laugh. I was freer than I had been since childhood.

That trip marked a major change in my life. It showed me that there are places where nothing matters but the sound of the wind in the trees. Where laughter twists through the air like birdsong and success is measured in pleasure, not other people’s opinions. My urban explorations had given me strength, but that hike taught me I had the power to change my own perspective. It taught me that I could overcome.

A hiker wearing a backpack stands on the edge of a subalpine meadow.
Photo by Robin Roff.

Life is about learning different ways of being in the world and hoping they bring us closer to a satisfying way of living. For me, the best changes have come from the trail, and I seek out wild spaces whenever the world gets too complicated or darkness creeps in. Most weekends find me up a mountain or along a valley path, taking in the medicine that is all around. Through hiking, I’ve learned just how much I can handle (a little more every time), to look for joy in the smallest things, and that slowing down is a power, not a weakness. Most of all, it has taught me who I want to be in the world: me.

On a recent trip over Spider Gap, I spotted a mountain goat high up on the ridge. Without thinking, I jumped and clapped my hands in wild abandon.

“You’re acting like a kid,” my partner said, smiling as he turned to look where I was pointing.


I often think back to my mother’s songs and the feel of my father’s grip as our arms swung at our sides. The pain is not forgotten, but it means less than the names of the flowers at my feet. My parents tried to give me this gift, but I had to give it to myself. I had to let the trails go to learn the power they have to transform.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.