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When My Knees Gave Out, I Realized I Wasn’t Myself Without Hiking.

For one hiker, nature is the best place to confront her past and consider her future.

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I stood in the mouth of Cueva Ventana, afraid.

Everyone else’s hard hats looked snug on their heads, ready for an Instagram moment at one of Puerto Rico’s most well-known caves. Situated high on a limestone cliff and offering framed views of the valley below, it’s known as a window to the past.

My own helmet wobbled dangerously, nearly falling off with each step. Still, I was determined to enjoy this place: the setting for a legend of love and hope for eternity, and where history is etched on the walls in the form of Taíno petroglyphs. But to see that, and understand all of that, I would have to go through the dark.

I was already in a dark place. It didn’t matter that this 2-mile round-trip is a tourist trek, trod by thousands of people most years. At this moment, it seemed as challenging as any hike I’d ever done. I was coming off a knee injury and, thanks to aqua therapy (walking on an underwater treadmill without the burden of my own weight), I was feeling good and ready to do some hiking. I’d been working to heal  from so many hardships, from my knees to the twin traumas of the pandemic and divisive politics this past year.

This vacation had consisted mostly of water adventures and relaxing with my family in the sun. But now, it was ending with a hike. Hiking was my thing. I climbed Kilimanjaro three times while weighing almost 300 pounds. I took on 100 miles of Vermont’s Long Trail. I’ve always sought out adventure.

But last year kept me mostly close to home. On the final day of my Long Trail hike in July of 2020, my knees began to break down. It was my last big trek. After, I stuck to the Peloton. I tried rounds of cortisone shots, gel injections, physical therapy. I spent a year mostly grounded—physically and emotionally.

But I was not myself without hiking. Now, with a vaccination and a renewed sense of hope and wanderlust, it was time to emerge, even if my self-worth had taken a beating.

Photo: Dave Costantini

As my family and I hiked toward the cave, I still felt unsettled. Even as we heard the sweet, quick chirp of a gray kingbird and passed under a green canopy that looked like the woven hammocks first created by the Taíno who walked these woods long ago, I wasn’t present. I already felt silly for being the only person wielding trekking poles. I was out of breath from the slightest incline, when normally I can climb for days. To add more pressure, we were part of a larger group—and that meant keeping up. Oh, and a hard hat was required to take on the trail, which seemed like a pretty big red flag.

That dang helmet. I had a firm grip on my poles so I couldn’t hold it in place; instead I burned with annoyance and fear that it was going to flop off and make me look like a fool.

I took a deep breath and reflected on the situation. One thing I learned in my recovery from a binge eating disorder is to know the difference between what I can control and what I can’t. This helmet was something I could change. I asked our guide how to adjust it.

“Ah, this one isn’t working,” he said. “Lucky for you, I have this one.” He headed to the supply box and pulled out a smaller helmet. I put it on, still not really knowing why I’d need cranial protection on what was supposed to be an easy-ish hike. We could now proceed into the cave.

We headed up a set of steps, and I gripped the railing while holding my poles in the other hand. My legs started to remember. They stepped into a rhythm, sparking a confidence that I might actually be able to finish this hike.

For months, I told myself I wasn’t good enough. That I was weak. That I was never going to heal. But with each step, I could feel a transformation taking place.

Cueva Ventana was etched out of limestone eons ago, creating our pathway deep into the earth. Our guide shone a light on the cave walls, talking about creatures like bats that thrive in the dark.

He told us stories of the island’s indigenous people—the Taíno—as he pointed out faces in the pre-Columbian petroglyphs and stone engravings.

Photo: Dave Costantini

There are many stories about this cave. This is where legend says Soleme, a Spanish farmer’s daughter, awaited her forbidden love, a Taíno man. He was killed, but still she waited, some say, for 150 years. Juan Ponce De Leon, who was a governor of the island at the start of the 1500s, heard the story and, according to local lore, sought out the cave’s water on his quest for immortality.

I thought about the faces and characters in my life who I would want to paint for people to see centuries later. As a memoirist, that’s what I’ve done with my books—used art to process the past. To make a memory beyond the reaches of my mind and turn it into art, no matter how dark and complicated it may be.

The people with me—my family—mattered the most. They were my support system as we strode together through the dark, watching out for each other as we ducked under low stalactites and pointed out hazards like dips and rock formations in our path. I’ve struggled for years with self-worth, with a binge eating disorder, and with injury. But it was my family that I would carry out of the cave and into my new life.

There were countless steps into the dark. Each one required a moment to recalibrate my balance, watching for stalagmites and anything else that might lurk underfoot.

Our guide shone a light on more cave drawings. The Taíno used the cave as a gathering place, or in his words, their “church.”

There, in the dark, were images of the sun and god-like creatures, lizards, turtles, and a child. I was later told that the Taíno believe we are all children of the sun.

Once the most populous  society in the Carribean, the Taíno were skilled in hunting and agriculture. Their settlements bustled on Puerto Rico and nearby islands. But by the middle of the 16th century, less than 100 years after first encountering them, Spanish colonizers wiped millions of  Taíno into near- extinction through enslavement, disease, and starvation. The people and their culture were erased almost entirely. But here, their petroglyphs and history live on.

Through their stories, the Taíno brought light into the darkness. And maybe I could do the same. I had carried this past year and its uncertainty and grief for so long. Perhaps I could leave the burden of it here in this cave.

For a year, I told myself the narrative that I couldn’t be who I want to be. That with an injury my adventurous life was over. I worried that I didn’t belong on the trails.

And yet here I was. My feet trod strongly on the path forward. Each step built on the next one. Each foot forward was in the direction of confidence. I realized that I could take the resilience I gained in this past year on the path forward. So that’s what I did.

Helmet snug, I kept going until we arrived at the cave’s iconic, window-like opening that looks out at the green mountains and the Río Grande de Arecibo. Finally, I could see new beginnings ahead.

As I stood at the cave’s mouth, I realized just how far I had come. I felt new, sensing the vast possibilities ahead as I stared at the verdant land before me. I was back in my hiking boots, and while I had lots of training to do to get to where I once was, I was on my feet again.

The next time I’m in a dark place, I know I’ll make it through.

Kara Richardson Whitely is the author of Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds andis currently writing The Long Trail. Follow her on Instagram at @kararichardsonwhitely.