Vacation is exactly like regular life. This is a truth that, once recognized, makes reality easier to accept. If you hate waiting in line or getting stuck in traffic, you’ll probably find it just as annoying in a different city. If you hate being late, being on vacation probably won’t help you relax about this. If you’re a fussy eater, looking for acceptable dining options will probably continue to be a source of stress. If you think walking a mile is a long distance, you’ll always be exhausted and have sore feet after a day of what is supposed to be fun. If you are surrounded by clutter, you’ll probably be an anxious over-packer. If you’re sedentary, you probably won’t be able to lift your suitcase into the overhead bin, and maybe not even onto a luggage cart. Vacation travel is an underrated reason to get and stay physically fit.
Travel helped me learn to relax about a lot of problems of daily life. One of the biggest was clutter and over-packing. I used to bring the biggest suitcase I could find when I visited my family, because I was always bringing little gifts with me. Often I’d come home with things as well, like my baby album. On one trip, I struggled to drag my 60-pound purple suitcase onto the train. A man stepped down and lifted it for me. “That’s a big bag for such a little girl!” he said. I was in my 30s and I was mortified. When I got home, I donated the suitcase to Goodwill and made the decision to limit myself to a carry-on. Streamlining the luggage I brought on trips made me really sit down and think about what I absolutely needed to have on me when I left the house. My daily bag got smaller, too. That single question: “Do I really need this?” started to ripple further through my life.
My chiropractic problems started to go away.
There are several approaches to the problem of the heavy bag. One is to pack less. Another is to solve the problem with money, staying at higher-end hotels and tipping cab drivers to carry your stuff. (Or buying new things in every city and leaving them behind, I suppose). Another approach is to stay home. An unexplored approach is to build enough muscle to lift whatever you please. I’m nearly a decade older than I was in the days of the giant purple suitcase, but now I could carry it onto a train and nobody would realize how heavy it was. I can carry my husband’s backpack across camp while still wearing mine, a sum total of over half my body weight.
When we planned the first epic trip of our marriage, I wasn’t doing all that great. I had slept poorly during our honeymoon (not for fun reasons), and it had led to losing a day of our trip. I had a migraine and slept half a day. We knew we wanted to go to Iceland, but my husband was justifiably concerned that I would never make it three weeks in a tent. I was furious with my rebellious body and determined to beat it into submission. Chronic illness has a tendency to creep through life, making each day seem like the last, but planning a fantasy trip brought focus to the problem. I wasn’t going to tolerate on vacation what I would shrug off in daily life.
We bought backpacks. I tested the weight of mine with sandbags in it. Wearing the pack in the store made the trip seem real. We planned our first overnight hike with a young friend who made us feel a hundred years old. We were so utterly exhausted after three miles that we understood this would be no cakewalk.
I had started running, and I was doing 4-6 miles on hilly trails several days a week. On non-running days, I started walking long distances with my pack. I put in a bag of clothes, basically what I planned to wear on our trip. I would walk the 6-mile round trip to the public library with my half-empty pack and a book. I started doing pushups, starting with two and working up to 100 a day. I started training to do a pull-up, which felt pathetic but really helped. I would stop at the playground near the trailhead where I ran, jump up and grab the pull-up bar, and pull myself up as high as I could. Then I would drop down and try it again. The day I got my chin over the bar for the first time, I felt like calling the newspaper to make sure it made the front page. I trained four months in advance for a three-week trip.
We went to Iceland. Every time I set down my pack, it was a struggle to pick it up and put it on again. It made me say HORK! It got easier, though, and by the end of three weeks, it was no harder than carrying my college book bag. We did our planned four-day hike in the interior in 2.5 days. I managed the rope descent that none of the websites had mentioned, but my husband had to give me a boost to get up and over one huge boulder that came up to my chest. I understood that if I continued to train, there would be sufficiently interesting places in the world to make it worth the challenge. Every moment, I was seeing things I could only have seen in photographs if I had stayed trapped in my former body.
We came home. I stopped training a few months later and gained 17 pounds. My health went into a tailspin. I finally understood how bad it was, that state that used to be my ‘normal,’ because I had had a taste of something better. We moved, and I cracked the whip on myself. I was never going to be fat again. I lost 25 pounds and ran a marathon. Two years later, I’ve maintained this new body, the one with the faintly visible ab definition, and it continues to teach me new things. It’s easier to regulate my blood sugar. I never get migraines anymore. I can sleep properly. I’ve learned how not to get blisters. The weirdest thing is that I discovered, the last time we went to Vegas, that high heels don’t hurt your feet nearly as much when you weigh less. So that’s the secret.
Whenever I see other women on a plane trying and failing to lift a 15-pound carry-on bag into the overhead bin, I feel sad. I feel really, really sad. These women are my age or younger. They look utterly normal. Having trouble lifting your arms over your head, much less lifting a bag over your head, is a common American condition now. I feel sad, but also scared. If anything happens to the plane, and we have to disembark, the less agile people are going to have trouble getting out the emergency exit. If there is a serious problem, we have 90 seconds to evacuate the entire plane. Every second of delay means one more passenger who doesn't get out in time. This is where I start to see physical fitness as a civic duty. I can pick up someone’s kid and run toward safety, and I sure hope they’re behind me with the other ones.
Fortunately, the transportation part of travel is only a fraction of the total time. On our trips, we spend most of each day walking. We walk to bus stops, we walk around museums, we walk around stores, we hike around natural wonders. We do 5-10 miles a day as a general rule, and we’ve gone as far as 15. I have no idea what we would do on vacation if that much walking tired us out. Go to a movie we could see at home? Go to buffet restaurants? Get too tired, go back to the hotel early, and watch TV? It is a fine thing to be able to hold hands with your favorite person and walk all day without getting tired. That’s true for vacation and it’s true for daily life at home.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.