She Thought She Could, So She Did

I dropped down to my knees, slowly rocking backward so that I could finally sit and take the weight off my aching legs. The hot water of the shower washed away the week’s worth of dirt that had gathered with every mile covered. My mind was blank, the throbbing feeling in my legs encompassing all thought. I looked at my legs, these strong, powerful legs that had carried me more than a thousand miles to reach the point where I now sat. I appreciated the hell out of these legs, the freedom they gave me, the journey they allowed me to partake in. A quiet smile spread across my face in the poorly lit shower, as I sat on the floor and thought about this day that was coming to a close, the epic task that I had decided to tackle, and how far I had come since the day I first stepped foot on the Appalachian Trail.

90 days. Exactly 90 days prior, three months in total, Ale and I had climbed Mount Katahdin in Maine on our first day as Appalachian Trail thru-hikers. That climb kicked our asses. We were both so exhausted after the ten mile ascent and descent that we fell asleep in our tent after a light feast of fruit snacks, too tired to even fathom the energy to cook dinner.

The next morning we awoke to aching bodies and heavy packs. We struggled to walk a total of eight miles that second day. The first week it felt as though we were moving at the pace of inch worms, and an entire day of exhaustive effort that took everything we had, hardly seemed to make a dent in the 2,180 miles in front of us. Our emotions were taxed, our bodies exhausted, our minds gasping for a productive way to pass the time when all we had to fill it was walking. The thought of reaching Springer Mountain in Georgia, the terminus of the trail, just seemed so impossibly far away.

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The early days on the trail when 10 miles in one day was no easy feat.

Flash forward to this moment, this night that I am smiling to myself sitting on a shower floor of some random hostel in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. This day I was reflecting on began early, before the sun broke the horizon.

My alarm went off abruptly at 4:00am. I sat up in the hammock immediately, my heart jumping into my throat with anticipation for the day. I heard rustling from the other hammocks as the rest of our crew began to pull themselves from sleep. I clicked on my headlamp, nudged Mango (the trail name Ale went by as a thru-hiker), telling him it was time, and dropped my legs over the side of our hammock. Everyone got ready quietly, packing up camp quickly. My pack felt so light in comparison to most days. In preparation we had all rationed our food so that we would only had enough to get through the next 16 hours- a meager effort to save ourselves from having to carry more weight than we absolutely needed.

What were we about to attempt? On the trail, it’s a little thing called the Four State Challenge where you hike across the borders of four sates- crossing from Pennsylvania, through the entire state of Maryland and West Virginia, and end in Virginia- all in one day, covering a total of 42.9 miles.

We began in the dark with a swift pace, headlights bobbing along the forest path, the dead leaves, dry from the summer draught, crunched beneath our feet as we cruised along silently. After five miles, we took a break to drink water and eat a power bar. The day before, we had all decided it would be best to manage our energy this way, hiking hard in five mile increments, then breaking for 20 minutes to replenish energy. We maintained this technique for the entire day, and I think it was essential for us to actually pull it off. The trail took us through towns, through developed parks, though nature preserves and wild woods.

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Taking a moment to rest and enjoy the sunshine during our Four State Challenge

The sun shone strong, the sky was blue and the breeze was light. It was a beautiful day. All along the way we passed shelters that looked enticing with valley views and campfire pits, but pushed on anyway. As the evening rolled in, the air turned cooler, and I felt as though we were literally walking into fall when we reached West Virginia. A grey fog rolled in and the wind picked up. We pushed onward, the miles melting beneath our strong legs and wild hearts.

After about 14 hours of hiking at the strong pace, I could feel the exhaustion of my muscles settling in. Keeping the Cliff Bars down at that point was a struggle as I began to battle nausea. The weight of my pack pulled heavily on my shoulders and hips. My feet ached as though they were weighed down by bags of sand tied to my ankles. Every incline felt like a steep mountain, regardless of the pitch.

We hiked the last few miles under cover of darkness, just has we had begun. My mind raced wildly as I stumbled along, ticking off the remaining miles- it took more mental effort than I had imagined it would. Cubby and Spoon had hiked ahead, keeping a faster pace than us; but Mango, Santana and I took our last twenty minute break together. We swapped coping advice, shared in the collective exhaustion we felt- but we also shared in quiet celebration of how far we had come, and how little we had left in front of us.

42.9 miles, in 16 hours and 37 minutes. After 90 days of walking, we were able to walk 42.9 miles in 16 1/2 hours. Only 90 days prior, it had taken us 12 hours to walk 10 miles. The accomplishment I felt was stunning. I was overwhelmed by my own strength, not just physically, but emotionally and mentally. I hadn’t even realized how far I had come, figuratively speaking, until that moment in Harper’s Ferry.

Just as I had 90 days earlier, I fell asleep that night without being able to muster the strength to cook dinner. I awoke with a smile, and a greater understanding of what I was actually able to accomplish, what I could do, if I just decided to do it. And even as I hobbled on sore legs, the rain pouring down on us as we made our way to breakfast, I had never felt so strong, or smiled so wide.

Last week I published my website- and in doing so I finally managed to bring together several of my life passions and establish, publicly, the intention of the work that I do. The journey that I’ve taken to get here was filled with plenty of ups and downs, there were calculated breaks and regenerative moments, plenty of moments of uncertainty where I questioned if I could actually do this, but as I hit publish, as I began to share it, I suddenly was overwhelmed again with the realization of how strong I am- of what I can do if I just decide to do it.

With that, I wish you a most beautiful day. Take some time and acknowledge a moment in your life when you surprised yourself with your own ability, with your power and your strength. Love that moment, hold it close, celebrate it, share it to inspire others. Who knows what unbelievable beauty will unfold as a result of you.

Oh- and if you are curious, you can check out what I do when I’m not posting here at my new website- www.gretamatos.com

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Constantly seeking new challenges that will take me places beyond my own imagination

Wishing Away the Present

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Freshly cut hay, always invokes many memories of my youth.

“Soon, this will all be over.” I was 11 years old, standing on the back of a bumpy hay wagon, reaching with a hay hook for the bales as they were being pushed off the bailer. It was 97 degrees, but it felt like 110 with the humidity. The air was heavy with heat, and my bare arms were aching, itching from the sweat pouring into the scrapes made by each bale. I was exhausted, this was the third and final wagon of the day and the sun bore down on us as the hot summer day wore on.  “Soon this will all be over.” I repeated the mantra in my mind as I reached for another bale and carried it to the back of the wagon to stack.  We pulled around the corner, the final row of freshly cut meadow grass racked into the bailer and deposited once more into neat, rectangular bales.  I took a long drink from my water bottle, the water was hot by now but I didn’t care, I swallowed quickly, dropping down on the nearest hay bale. I breathed deeply, enjoying the soft breeze that now kissed my face as the tractor changed gears, speeding toward the barn. Once at the barn I hoped off the wagon, unhitched the bailer and connected the tractor directly to the wagon.  Back up on the wagon, we slowly pulled the teetering tower of freshly cut hay into the bank barn, the floorboards creaking heavily as the weight of all that hay we had just lifted by hand settled in. Silence rested upon my ears as the tractor engine was cut.  I let out one last sigh, lifted the last hay bale I had just stacked neatly in the wagon and heaved it up into the balcony to be stored.  Time to unload…I begin my mantra again as I bend, lift, toss, bend, lift, toss, bend, lift toss.  “Soon this will all be over.”

Growing up on the farm was an incredible period of my life, we experienced moments of hardship, but also so many countless moments of joy and beauty.  I did so much discovering in that place, discovery of the world, discovery of myself.  One of the greatest things I learned was to cope with temporary discomfort when I knew that it was contributing toward a reality that was worth it.  When I was working for something that I loved, it was all worth it, no matter what momentary hardships might present themselves.

Although bailing hay was incredibly hard work, especially when I was so young, I accepted it as my responsibility, my “cost” for being privileged enough to grow up with horses. The privilege, to wake up before the sun, walk quietly out to the barn in a heavy sweater, and thick boots, pull back the barn door and be greeted by the warm smell of horses and the soft sound of their welcoming nickers.  To grab a bridle, pull open the stall door and lead my horse out into the pre-dawn night.  To pull myself onto her back, her thick fur immediately warming my legs, her ears forward looking into the night.  To lie close to her neck, trusting that her eyesight at night is better than mine, and to lean into a smooth gallop with her, darkness enveloping my vision, the crisp air catching my breath, the stars shining softly as they fade into dawn.  To lie flat on her back as she grazes, staring up at the sky, dreaming up ideas and futures, listening to the world wake up as the sun pulls itself slowly above the horizon.  To sit, and embrace the warm golden rays as the sunshine spills into the field.  This was all a gift, and every ounce of sweat was worth it.  Without question.

Later on in life I would reach back into the memories of those hot summer days spent bailing, and I would retrieve that Mantra “Soon this will all be over.”  The long drives on I-95 from Pennsylvania to North Carolina when I would be traveling between the home of my childhood and my new home of young adulthood.  The late nights working as a bartender, having that one incredibly inappropriate come on that made me cringe and just want to dissolve into the wall.  The commute across the Chinese/Hong Kong border with the roughly 300,000 other people every day after hours spent inside toxic factories.  The hours spent walking in the pouring rain, rain that had been pouring for six days straight, and had taken up residence in every article of clothing that I had.  The moments between homes, spent living out of suitcases on couches, with little privacy or feeling of independence. The end of the month that the numbers just don’t add up, and bills must be paid by credit card.  The breaths taken behind a mask as I walk the streets of countless polluted cities, my lungs forever tarnished from exposure in China those many years before.  “Soon this will all be over.”

Beyond all of those little moments of hardship, those brief memories of pain or discomfort, every single one of those moments was building toward something greater.  Each was contributing to my growth as a person, to my development of self and my fearlessness and courage.  Each of these moments that I once wished away, I continue to learn from with each reflection.  I have realized over time the weight that these six simple words carry, and that they are not to be used lightly, as they go beyond the immediate moment, they go to the core of our own existence.  Soon this really will all be over, and there will no longer be future moments in our life to cope with.  In the end, we actually live our lives very quickly, the good and the bad.

I catch myself now, when I am wishing away my present, and rather than uttering that Mantra, I try to look for small opportunities to acknowledge and appreciate beauty within the present.  Today I spent the day pruning vines on an organic vineyard.  The task itself is not overtly laborious, it is not overly taxing but it can be somewhat monotonous and the mind tends to wander.  After hours in the hot sun snipping and plucking, walking row after row, my mind was tempted to reach again for that Mantra.  But no, not this time.  This time I took a moment to acknowledge and appreciate. Looking at the horizon I am surrounded by mountains, all with dynamic shapes, sizes, colors and reliefs- snow caps straight ahead, to my right cacti blanket the mountainside, to my left steep thick green ridges.  I smile, standing in awe of the rawness of their beauty.  I look down at the vine I am trimming back, feeling love for the beautiful little buds that I am encouraging the vine to channel sap to.  I imagine the small role I play in the life of this plant, the grapes that will be born from it, their journey to grow, be bottled and eventually end up in a glass poured in celebration and cheers- suddenly I am a vessel of fate for these grapes.  My smile gets bigger. A soft breeze plays with my hair, I relish in the feeling of being outside all day, dirt on my hands, the sun on my back, surrounded by trees and birds, breathing in the clean, fresh air. I begin imagining how I will take the knowledge I am gaining from this project and build something from it.  Gratitude overwhelms me.  It is a lovely day, and I hope that this is not over too soon; I continue onto the next row.

Have you ever caught yourself wishing away your present moments, rather than digging in and pulling out every last drop of life you have in the present?  What have you done about it?  It takes practice, for me anyway, and a level of consciousness, but I have found there is so much beauty around us, it can always be found, should we only choose to seek it. Our perspective of challenges can be shifted dramatically when we find moments to appreciate within the midst of them, before it’s all over.

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Loving every single moment while I have it in this magical place