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Food and Weight Musings from Reading "Wild"

Do you want a guaranteed way to lose weight? If so, I think I’ve found one.

Start backpacking. A lot.

Yet the irony is that once you start this process, you may no longer worry about your weight. At least, that’s what happened with Cheryl Strayed in Wild. For those not familiar with it, the short version of the story is that her life fell apart when she lost her mom to cancer at age 22 (some of this sounded eerily similar to my experience), and she only began to recover herself a few years later when she decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, which is over 2,500 miles.

The idea of losing weight from extensive hiking isn’t new to me. A college friend started on the Appalachian Trail (AT) and slimmed down considerably before knee troubles forced him to quit. Bill Bryson, who chronicled his own attempts to hike the AT in A Walk In the Woods, also commented that he became more svelte as a result.

Nor is this a surprise. After all, these are folks who carry everything they need – clothes, tent, sleeping bag, food, camping stove, water, rain gear, etc. – on their backs. People comment on the size of my backpack, but I’ve got nothing on them. Strayed even called her pack “Monster” because it was so big and heavy.

Add to that the effort of lugging it – and your body – up and down mountains, day after day, and you can easily see how this is a good weight-loss formula. (Just don’t ask if it’s sustainable.) Even if shedding pounds isn’t a goal, it seems nearly inevitable, especially if you consider that at times you may be too exhausted to eat.

But I had never read a woman’s account of such hikes, and I found it interesting how little Strayed cared about her weight loss. At one time she might have been excited about it, as would so many women, but Strayed seemed more enthused about how she could feel her body growing stronger, more capable. I liked that idea, and it’s something I’ve felt myself when out on more moderate hikes: celebrating what I can achieve, and how my body feels rather than looks. It’s very freeing.

Admittedly, neither author prepared for their hike. It’s likely those who start off more fit wouldn’t change quite so drastically. But I would guess that just about everyone has a similar experience when eating non-trail food after being out for many days.

Namely, enjoying it more than they ever had before.

Again, this makes sense when you consider that they’re generally eating the same thing day and day out – whatever high-energy food that’s relatively portable and doesn’t involve elaborate preparation. It means fresh vegetables and fruit are out. They simply weigh too much and don’t offer enough calories to make it worthwhile. So are most beverages other than water, and anything you can’t easily make on a cooking stove.

Strayed wrote about the ecstasy of eating simple foods again, including one meal of a salad and french fries, which met her desire for fresh produce as well as something hot and greasy. She also developed a craving for Snapple lemonade, which she never drank before the hike. It makes me wonder if her body needed something specific from it – or perhaps just the sweetness of it was attractive.

Whether you want to take up backpacking or not, both Strayed and Bryson offer wonderful insight (and humor) into the experience, which makes the books well worth reading. And perhaps they may help you appreciate both your body and your food a little more.

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