I wasn’t born to become a hiker.
At least, that’s what I thought then. In fact, I’m a first generation Filipina who grew up in Manila. At the age of 13, I moved to Seattle, Washington with my family. I spent my college and law school years in the same state but despite the abundance of hiking trails in the area, I didn’t bother to hit the mountain trails until 2003 when I spent a couple of months in Guatemala while in-between jobs. At that time, I completed my judicial clerkship in Washington, D.C. While waiting to hear from prospective employers, I decided to fly to Guatemala on a solo trip where I enrolled in a Spanish immersion course in Antigua.
That was my first time traveling alone. But also, it was when I first discovered hiking. The first time was unexpected. It was a hike up an active volcano,Volcan Pacaya.
With sneakers and overalls, I was hardly prepared to hike up the summit of an active volcano with my fellow students from the Spanish school. It was the most difficult experience I ever had then. I recall how I felt upset at myself for allowing my fellow students to convince me to go on this hike given that the peak was at an altitude of 8,373 feet. The trail itself was well trodden only in the beginning which turned rather horrendously erratic as we were left to trudge up an unofficial path to the summit. This meant hiking through mid-thigh high ashy conditions and the unrelenting smell of sulfur gas. Looking back, I’m of course grateful as that opened the door for me to discover the beauty of hiking.
Meanwhile, not a lot of people know this, but I have struggled with weight all throughout my life. In my childhood years back in Manila, I earned several nicknames.
I never looked at it as a barrier, however. I always felt as if people tease you only because they like you. At least, that’s the way it is in the Filipino culture. When I arrived in the U.S, I quickly realized that name calling can be malicious and has the propensity to hurt others. In some ways, I’m grateful that I didn’t encounter this kind of bullying in the U.S.; nonetheless, like most women, I had to live through the societal pressures to be thin and remain thin as a way to define the word “beautiful.”
In my adult years, I continued to struggle with the weight, especially in my late 20s up until my early 30s. Due to difficult relationships that rendered me to become out of touch with the essence of “self-care” and “self-love,” I struggled with maintaining a healthy weight.
It didn’t feel good. Health-wise, I suffered from back pain as a result of the weight gain and living an inactive lifestyle. Despite discovering hiking in 2004, it wasn’t until a year later that I became seriously interested in spending more time in the outdoors. Part of the motivation came from trying to improve my health, both physically and mentally, after enduring a difficult relationship.
So, I spent most of my weekends in the nearby parks outside of Washington, D.C. and went on day hikes, which soon transformed into overnight wilderness backpacking trips. Ultimately, I started organizing trips through the platform, Meetup.com.
Through Meetup, I was able to share my passion for the outdoors by organizing local day hikes, overnight backpacking trips and eventually overseas treks to Peru, Nepal, Tanzania, Chile, Mongolia, Nicaragua, Indonesia, South Africa, among a few others. As an organizer, I witnessed first-hand how hiking can impact people in such a positive light. I met people who were trying it for the first time, and those who have been at it for decades with no sense of stopping. I rediscovered the benefits of hiking through the people I met along the way on the trails from losing weight to finding a sense of peace and stillness in their lives; while some overcame their fears, especially when trekking overseas, and others challenged their limits physically and mentally as their means to achieving self-growth. I was inspired by all of them, regardless of where they were in their so-called hiking life. It was such a fulfilling experience to play the unique role of a hiker and the hike organizer, all at the same time.
Since then, hiking has gone far beyond just maintaining my health at an optimum level. It has enriched my life with stories from various corners of the world while teaching me the value of accepting my self for all that I am, and not.
In essence, it reconnected me back to my life in the Philippines as every country I visited with the group of people I organized via Meetup proves to share the same hospitality that I constantly long for in my home of origin. I learned to appreciate the diverse group of people I met all over the world and the countless fearless women who hike solo or with others from various ethnic backgrounds and culture. Moreover, my trekking companions became some of my trusted friends with whom I share a unique bond that developed from the numerous trekking adventures we’ve had locally and abroad.
Over a decade later, I’m still at it. Hiking on weekends, organizing trips locally and overseas, while still working as an attorney at my day job. However, one thing has changed. This time, I married the mountains.
I obtained a business license to start my social enterprise, Peak Explorations, which will continue my efforts to inspire people to trek globally with a focus on solo travelers and women. I also co-founded a non-profit organization, Trails Without Borders, to support social projects and trail building in remote mountain regions worldwide. Both organizations aim to promote local tourism while connecting trekkers with nature.
A year ago, I returned from a one year sabbatical from my legal career which allowed me to trek some of the most remote trails in the world. Towards the end of that journey, I vividly recall a gentleman I crossed paths with who candidly said, “You’ll know how to define your own freedom,” as a response to my concern about returning to the mundane rituals of my 9 to 5 job.
He was right. In my world now, the ultimate goal is freedom to roam the mountain trails as my alter ego, Brown Gal Trekker, and completely retire from my legal practice to spend the rest of my lifetime trekking in the mountains and promoting my two enterprises. Traveling and mountain trekking have added immense joy in my life, so much so, that I am dedicating my life to pursuing both endeavors on a full-time basis while inspiring others to discover their own definition of freedom.
Some of us may not have been born to be a hiker, and that’s okay. But sooner or later, your heart will remind you if you truly are one. Only then, you will realize you have no choice but to listen to it, and perhaps, even marry the mountains, like I did. Either way, spending time with nature leaves you yearning for freedom, whichever way you wish to define it.
IN THE MOUNTAINS, I’M FREE.
-Brown Gal Trekker
NEXT READ: BGT’s Mission and Projects.