This story appears on the Out There podcast. Listen along:
There’s a hard side to the trail that is dirty and damaging, and it brings out my wrinkles – and my vanity. I am exposed and vulnerable here, alone on this remote part of the 500-mile Colorado Trail that takes me through a vast expanse of open-range cattle country.
The sun has been etching new lines into my middle-aged face – a face that looks and feels foreign to me, naked without the familiar mask of makeup I usually wear to cover my flaws. Instead of being focused on practical survival and safety planning, I’m obsessed with my skin and protecting it from aging.
In addition to wearing my standard baseball cap and sunblock, I hold a ridiculous-looking silver umbrella over my head as another layer of protection from the same harsh sunrays I used to worship as a teenager.
This makes me think back to my 17-year-old self – to that insecure girl plagued by acne and a mouthful of crooked teeth. It didn’t take much to break my fragile self-esteem and trust back then. A little teasing here, some misplaced pity there, and the silent rejection of not being asked to the dance.
I smiled with my mouth closed, and I cupped a hand over my teeth when I laughed. I spent hours applying makeup to hide my angry red blemishes. I avoided eye contact, thinking if I can’t see you, then maybe you can’t see me.
The more I worked to hide my flaws, the more I blended in, and the verbal judgments eased up. I learned that it pays to hide.
By the time I was 22, I had fixed my teeth, but my bad complexion persisted well into my 40s. On the surface, there are physical scars caused by a lifetime of relentless acne, but the psychological wounds run much deeper and continue to fester. The social anxiety and shame. The depression and self-loathing. The consistent messages from our culture that appearance matters and perfection pleases, and I didn’t measure up.
I once dated a guy who refused to hire employees with acne because it “wasn’t good for business.” Terrified he would reject me when he saw my freshly washed face for the first time, I broke up with him so he couldn’t break up with me – a pre-emptive “breakout breakup” you might say. His parting words to me were, “I don’t like how insecure you are.”
You and me both, I agree, thinking back on that hard truth as I hike alone on this desolate section of trail.
As I walk along, I’m pelted by a barrage of mindless, kamikaze grasshoppers. I stop to pull one off my hip belt, careful to remove a claw so I don’t rip its leg off, and then hold the body inches from my nose. I stare into its smooth and lifeless compound eyes.
“The trouble is,” I say to my captive audience, “I don’t know how not to hide.”
I place the insect on the flat palm of my hand, and it jumps, finding refuge among the bleached vertebrae of a long-lost cow, now nothing more than a skeleton scattered in the brush.
I compare my brown arms to the white bones on the ground. Despite daily slatherings of sunscreen, my skin is tanned chestnut like a leather purse I saw at Macy’s last fall. It’s strange to think about department stores and shopping after walking 300 miles on a trail so far from home. I lift a forearm to my nose and take a long sniff of weathered skin, curious if I smell tangy like a new handbag.
My feet ache, hot and throbbing, from the day-long march over deserted trail and dusty ranch roads booby-trapped with cow shit landmines. I’ve worn most of the tread off my shoes from dodging and sliding and walking. Endless walking. I scout a good place to make camp, pitch my tent and rehydrate a prepackaged dinner.
You would think after hiking all day I would pass out in my sleeping bag like the dead, but so far on the trail I have yet to get a solid night of beauty sleep. I wake up at least once, if not multiple times each night, feeling small and alone in the dark backcountry.
There are few creature comforts on the trail, but plenty of creature noises that make my whole body tense and alert. Lying wide awake, I turn in my sleeping bag, trying to ignore heavy mystery thumps on the ground outside, and twigs snapping just beyond the thin nylon walls of my tent. I hear tiny claws scurry nearby and I squeeze my eyes shut. I yank the top of my mummy bag over my head, and pull the drawstring tight, hiding from the outside world. Only my nose and mouth are visible.
I whisper, “I am safe, all is well, I am safe, all is well, I am safe, all is well” over and over until the words run together and lose their meaning.
I drift in and out of sleep, breathing and snoring through the small blowhole in my bag, and I wake up for good around 5 a.m. to a cacophony of bird song. This is usually one of my favorite sounds on the trail, but when I’m this exhausted, the pre-dawn chorus sounds like a pre-recorded loop of three desperately happy notes made by birds who are trying too hard. I want to huck one of my trail runners at the loudest one singing its guts out. I tell myself to get a grip and just enjoy nature, for fuck’s sake.
The morning air is cold and crisp, and my body is deep-tissue sore and sluggish, so I stay in my sleeping bag for a while as I build up enough nerve to start the day. Out of habit, I grab the first aid kit and pull out the signal mirror, a cheap piece of plastic meant to be used in case of emergency. The idea behind packing the mirror is that if I’m lost or injured, I’m supposed to sit tight, hold the mirror at the precise angle needed to reflect the sun back to points along the horizon line, or maybe up at a passing airplane, and then flash my would-be rescuers so they can see me. There’s a warped, fun-house quality to the mirror and the scowling face glaring back at me, and I lose myself in its distorted reflection. Instead of a rescue, however, I’m now taken prisoner by my inner critic as it takes inventory: irregular spots and dark patches on my cheeks, old scars, new lines around my eyes – the list goes on. My skin is haggard, and the combination of high altitude, poor sleep, and the salty dinner I ate last night has made my face so puffy that my eyes are nearly swollen shut.
Squinting, I reach for the small container that holds my contacts and unscrew one of the caps. Holding the mirror in one hand, I insert my index finger into the solution, pinch the contact with my thumb, carefully balance it on my dirty fingertip, and stick it onto a bloodshot eye. It stings slightly. I repeat the process for the other eye, and then put the mirror away, but not before I rifle through my first aid kit again, locate the tweezers and pluck a rogue whisker out of my chin – the one I’ve been obsessively fiddling with since yesterday afternoon. I heave a sigh, disgusted by my addiction to the mirror, yet relieved the wild hair is tamed. For now.
My addiction to the mirror is not about being the fairest one of all. It’s about making sure my imperfections are hidden or removed so I can avoid potential scrutiny from others – so I can simply face the day. Even out here in the wilderness, where I might see a handful of dirty hikers on any given day, I feel compelled to dab a spot of concealer on a tiny blemish. I tell myself I’m being ridiculous and that no one cares what I look like out here, but the teenager in me has her doubts. Old habits die hard.
I’m not afraid of losing beauty as I age. That’s not it. I realize I’m afraid of aging because my body is starting to produce new flaws at a pace I can’t keep up with – flaws that are getting more and more difficult to conceal. Liver spots are the new acne! Yay.
I fear that hiding – my coping mechanism from Hell – is about to go into overdrive as I age, and I’m exhausted just thinking about it.
I change out of my pajamas and into my hiking pants and shirt, while I’m still in my sleeping bag. The clumsy process makes me look like a wriggling caterpillar about to attach one end of my body to a branch, flip upside down, split my skin, and turn inside out to form a chrysalis. When I finally clamber out of my bag, I do not emerge transformed as a delicate and graceful butterfly. Rather, I unzip the tent door, slide my feet into size-10 flip-flops, lose my balance and stumble out of the vestibule to greet the dawn. The stumble gains momentum and I trip over the guy line to my rainfly, sending a tent stake sailing through the air, end over end, never to be seen again. This is the third tent stake I’ve lost in as many weeks, and I’m beyond getting mad about it anymore. What is so hard about getting out of a tent? I wonder. Apparently, I’m my own worst enemy, and resign myself to the fact that I am awkward by nature.
I trudge off away from camp to relieve my nagging bladder. It seems weird to squat on top of this lonely, open mesa, and I glance around to make sure I don’t have an audience. There is nowhere to hide out here, and I’m scared of being seen as I do my business.
Looking toward camp, I spy a pine tree. Its bottlebrush needles are orange and the bark is riddled with small holes, both tell-tale signs of a deadly beetle infestation. I know the tree is doomed and I contemplate its mortality from my crouch position. I touch my face and lightly trace an old scar before standing to pull up my pants.
I walk back to camp and get busy heating water for breakfast. I squat again, this time making the food I need to fuel my body for today’s 16-mile hike. I hug my knees, and for the first time in three weeks, I notice the muscles in my legs have definition, and the scrapes from an earlier fall are healing.
The water boils and I pour it over the green tea bag in my metal camp cup. I sit on a log and sip the hot liquid as I watch the first rays of morning sun hit my tent. I make oatmeal and alternate between taking bites and placing the wet, spent tea bag on my eyes, one at a time, in an attempt to reduce the swelling.
“It’s spa day,” I joke out loud, trying to boost my spirits. As if in reply, a wild yipping and yapping starts to echo across the nearby meadow. It sounds dog-like, but I know it’s not a dog, and it scares me. I stand up too fast, making me light-headed and wobbly, which causes the tea bag monocle to fall from my eye and onto my foot with a soft plop.
And then I see it, the lone coyote, darting in and out of the sickly trees that border the meadow. The early morning sun is making the coyote’s coat glow amber, and the little clown is pogo-stick jumping and pouncing and playing with, what I assume, will be its breakfast. Loping, panting, laughing – I swear, it’s laughing – all by itself, its own creature comfort.
I once read that some Native American tribes view the coyote as a trickster, shapeshifter or transformer, often the mythical anti-hero revealing the truth behind an illusion or deception.
I am mesmerized by the wild coyote’s nonsensical dance, and its song is my soundtrack as I brush teeth and break camp. I finally hoist the full backpack onto my shoulders and stand there admiring the coyote’s natural ability to live fully in the moment, ignoring me in favor of playtime. Coyotes have sharp eyes and ears, and a keen sense of smell, so it must know I’m here. But it couldn’t care less about me or my appearance. It couldn’t care less that I am watching its every move. The coyote doesn’t hide from me – it only cares about playing in this grassy meadow in the middle of nowhere. And this beast is beautiful.
I close my eyes and turn my face to the sun. As I soak in its warmth, I forget about the aches and pains, the wrinkles and puffiness. I stop caring about covering myself – the hiding – and let the mask slip away. I want to live and trust and dance in the skin I’m in.
When I open my eyes again, the coyote is gone.
I start walking down the trail and a smile spreads as I think about how far I’ve hiked, how brave I’ve been, how many mountain passes I’ve been up and over, and how strong I feel right now. The smile transforms my face, now soft and relaxed in the morning light. I begin to sing new verses to a made-up song, and as my voice gains strength and clarity, I stop to unbuckle the hip belt and chest strap on my backpack. I set my burden down on the ground and rifle through my pack until my hand rests on the thing that weighs heavy on me. I grab onto its slick surface, and without giving it a glance, I shove the mirror to the bottom of the pack. I look up to scan the empty skies and open horizon, seeing the world with fresh eyes. Seeing myself for the first time in a long time. Ready to hit the trail. Ready to be seen. Feeling comfortable in my own skin.
Becky Jensen is a freelance writer based in Fort Collins, Colorado. “Coyote’s Beauty Secrets” originally aired on “Out There,” the podcast that explores big questions through intimate stories in the outdoors, and was adapted from Serendipity on the Trail, a book Becky is writing about her time on the Colorado Trail. More info at beckyjensenwrites.com.