An oversized hiker finds her footing in the woods

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The Long Trail is easier than the Appalachian Trail. How do you tell the difference?Three fingers in the air, the man known as Trash said.

He stood tall and trim in front of me. He smirked, highlighting crow’s feet wrinkles on his perfectly sun-kissed face in a way that showed he thought the answer would be hilarious. “It’s BBB.”

“Shoes?” I asked.„As I surveyed my own pair, which was woefully inadequate, I answered. I wore cushy trail runners on a warm June day but my toes banged against rocks as I walked. My toenails would be shorter by the end of the summer than when I started.

As he shook his head, Trash replied, “Nope.”.

The folds of flesh in my bottom perplexed me as I sat there. My hiking partner and friend, Allie (trail name: June Bug), and I shared a Honey Stinger caramel waffle. In the middle of this trail, we tossed our overloaded backpacks to the side. Our journey had just been slowed by the sweaty arrival of Kick Flip, one of the few solo female hikers we encountered on the Long Trail. Nudists are notorious for wearing boots, kneepads, and backpacks — so why do they wear kneepads? We were surrounded by Trash at that moment.

The backpacks are big and heavy. . . He waited for one of us to solve the puzzle with the air of a school teacher. It’s called “body fat.”

After a while, there was silent.

So, I guess I do qualify,” Kick Flip said before continuing on.

After hearing about his adventures in the west, Trash went on and on about the sections he had “conquered” so far on his way across the AT.

Neither of us looked at each other. Allie’s trail name was all that he asked, instead of mine. He explained that’s why his alias is Trash after picking up a wrapper near our resting spot. Midway through our conversation, I offered him my trail name. Mama Kubwa is my name.

The meaning can be guessed even when you don’t know the language. It was the name I earned hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro—Africa’s highest peak at 19,343 feet—three times (in 2007, 2009, and 2011), while weighing as much as 300 pounds. Mama Kubwa is Swahili for “big woman,” a name that translated wherever I hiked—from trails around my suburban New Jersey home to the treacherous wet-chain descent to Mooney Falls in Havasu Canyon.

The guides and porters were amazed at how fat I was when I first climbed Kilimanjaro. The people looked at me as if they didn’t want me (which happened even when they weren’t calling me fat or big).

Only men’s jackets came in 3XL, so I bought that. It was boxy, the sleeves hung down several inches beyond my fingertips, and even though it zipped, it didn’t fit around my hips, so I had to pull it up, doubling it over from my waist down to mid belly. Even on my third trip to Kili, I had to stand up for myself when the porters and guides laughed at me. I told them to bet on Mama Kubwa.

It would be clear to them.

I continued hiking after climbing Kilimanjaro. By showing up more frequently and by demonstrating my worth and capabilities, the more I heard of other people doing the same thing.

Yet Trash talked without giving me a chance to share my stories, as if I didn’t have any worthy stories to share. And that’s the experience of the plus-size hiker: always having to prove myself, explain myself, justify myself.

“Attagirl” looked like I only went on adventures to lose weight, so I was sick of it. Though I hated the scowls, the shame over how much space I take up in the woods, and the unsolicited advice about fasts and keto, I still had to be here.

I am not here to lose weight, as Trash and other hikers do not know that. After a pandemic and a long absence from the trail, I’m here to reclaim my worthiness and rediscover the adventurer within. Unlike trash, I care who I am.

A similar journey to wellness and inner peace is reflected in the Long Trail as it follows Vermont’s Green Mountains. It’s a fragile sort of peace, easily shattered by a stranger’s joke, even now.

I must hike, despite the fact that I feel like my legs are encased in 50-pound bags of flour. I knock knees even though my knees swell with arthritis. My average speed on some trails is a mile per hour. No matter how I feel. Particularly then.

At age 9, I was going through a divorce with my parents when I discovered binge eating. I would chomp on walnuts in our pantry, or anything with a crunch loud enough to drown out the screaming.

I developed my relationship with food while living with a single mother in an impoverished household, latch-key kid at home, surrounded by snacks when I came home. With handfuls of cereal or clandestine candy bars stuffed into my purse, I learned to numb my emotions.

I wasn’t drawn back out of my shades-drawn room where I’d go to the television until I was 30. Adventure travel catalogs with glossy pictures of the Alps and Machu Picchu enticed me. It was an expedition for me the first time I set foot in the New Jersey woods. I had a bear bell, winter-grade wool socks, yoga pants, a hot pink T-shirt (for visibility, of course) and a rain jacket (in case I got lost from Watchung Reservation’s green trail, which has a book time of 20 minutes). In any case, I’d probably end up in a Target parking lot if I wandered off the trail.

Those first steps into the forest, however, brought me back to feeling. By eating, I stopped pushing everything away. On my skin, I felt the cool air of a spring day. In the mud, my boot would sink, and I would crack a twig under my foot. It was a song I had spent decades missing without knowing it, a song I heard the wind sing in the trees. After continuing to hike, New Jersey flats became the snow-capped peak of Africa.

I won’t tell you that I lost 150 pounds here. From climbing Kilimanjaro to having bariatric surgery, I have had a rocky relationship with food and woods. My return is constant.

As I trained for the hike, I hiked miles and miles to be ready, and I was very excited. Then here was this hiker and his joke.

I could pump my chest or suck my belly. I could be myself or I could try to be someone else. After shouldering my pack and fastening the hip belt, I stood up. Kubwa’s mother was on the move.

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