Tea Tag Makeover

“In the beginning is you, in the middle is you and in the end is you.”

I normally find the sage advice on these teabags inane and infuriating, but this one now lives in my wallet. I made this particular cup (or rattling metal pot, as the case was) of tea in a hut in the Nelson Lakes region. The rain had been pouring down for a day already, and with swollen rivers and gale-force winds battering the pass we needed to cross, we were stuck. I was antsy and cranky from the forced zero day; it is much easier on a hike like this to preoccupy yourself with the “how” of travel. It’s on days like this, stalled 2,000 kilometers in with 1,000 left to hike, that the much more complicated “why” creeps in. This little pearl of wisdom was the absolute last thing I wanted to hear and the absolute first thing I needed to.

“You alright there? You’ve been staring at that teabag for twenty minutes.” I’m not sure I answered; I was somewhere else.

“In the beginning is you, in the middle is you and in the end is you.”

The seminal movies of my adolescence included: She’s All That, The Princess Diaries, Miss Congeniality, and Sabrina (Hepburn, not the teenage witch). In each of these films the dorky and bespectacled/curly-haired/naive/unfeminine heroine has a makeover that completely changes how the world-and, most importantly, the men in her world-reacts to her. Hepburn did this best by going to culinary school in Paris with an old man who made fun of her ponytail. Sandra Bullock was not so lucky and was waxed, buffed, painted and starved in a warehouse by a whole team of cosmetic technicians. The prevailing moral of these stories was always that this woman was already awesome, contained multitudes even; all she needed was a flat iron and some contacts to release her full potential and win the heart of the handsome leading gentleman (here Hepburn wins again). And although I’d love to say I saw right through this twisted narrative, I ate it up and have harbored astronomical expectations for each new haircut ever since.

It wasn’t until I was confronted with that damn teabag that I realized I had expected this trail to be my makeover. Not only was I going to come back thin and fit and tan, I was going to glow with inner peace, smiling that obnoxious half-smile of a real life Mona Lisa, solid in my sense of self and at peace with the world. And in my mind thigh gap and inner peace were inseparable, indistinguishable.  It took one month to realize the trail wouldn’t be the makeover of my adolescent dreams and another month, staring Bluff straight in its cold, windy face, to get over that disappointment and realize it didn’t need to be.

Spoiler alert! I hiked across a country and I have neither thigh gap nor a tan. It’s a relief to know that I tried my best and my body said, “Yeah, sorry, that’s not us,” and now I can move on! And stop blaming myself for not living up to an expectation that is literally impossible for my body to healthily achieve! I can move on at a comfortable pace of 20 miles a day and still have energy to dance and be goofy, because yo I am really fit right now (although I think my calves ate my biceps).

And moving on (sometimes) from my preoccupation with the shape of my body has freed up some brain space to do some real work. I have been lucky enough in my relatively short life to have lived in many places, nurtured a number of varied skills, and experienced much of what this world has to offer. And I have been lucky enough to call a diverse group of individuals friends. Given the variety and my own need for control, I have spent most of my life carefully trying to compartmentalize work and personal, city life and wilderness, different sets of expectations and the different versions of myself I present to the world in the face of those expectations. When you’re only ever making room for one part of yourself, you never feel whole.

Given how singular my life has been these last five months-every day the same aim to march, the same socks-it would make sense that my sense of self would become overwhelmingly this outdoorsy, unwashed version of Ella. But one night in a hut in the Tararua Ranges, kept awake by the cacophony only seven sleeping people can create, I found myself mentally running through cello scales I hadn’t played in years. Chatting with French-speaking trampers from all over the world reacquainted me with the satisfaction that comes from connecting with people in another language who would otherwise remain strangers. Lentils and rice reminded me of all the delicious food I’ve eaten; wearing the same ratty t-shirt made me realize that I do indeed express myself through my clothing, even if what I’m expressing is, “Yes, I appreciate the ease and durability of Carhartts again today.”

The simplicity of life on the trail gave me space. I expanded into that space until I was big enough to fit all of the parts of myself into one me. I already had all of the pieces, I just needed time to examine each one and figure out how it fit with the rest. And not just the shiny, pretty pieces–there’s room for the impulsiveness, the selfishness, the short fuse and insecurity, as well. There has to be. Hopefully even enough room to keep a watchful eye on them. Although logistically each day (and even each week and frequently each month) doesn’t have room to physically realize all of my interests, skills and desires, I no longer feel like different Ella’s leading different lives. I am one complex, frequently contradictory, and always flawed human lucky enough to live a most colorful existence filled with beautiful people who would all probably get along if they were, say, stuck in a hut in the rain together for two days.

My story may not contain a dunderheaded Prince Charming to drive the point home, but like Laney Boggs, I too have been liberated from the single dimension identity of my rom-com aspirations. Only instead of tweezers, body glitter and platform heels (bless the 90s) I got there with a shaved head and a pair of boots. No less painful, but a hell of a lot more fun.

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