Food, Hunger, and Hiking

Below is an essay I wrote in February for the Presidential Global Scholars Program. Hope you enjoy. Let me know what you think?
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Travel Essay: On Food and Hunger
By Chris Prohoda

As I begin this essay, my stomach grumbles. Yesterday I had most of an orange for dinner and a sandwich for lunch. Not much, but neither is it particularly interesting. The day before, however, was interesting on the food note. 7 hours of serious hiking was fueled by some cheese and a cup of yogurt. All together, I estimate that it was around 300-400 calories.

(At this point, mental red flags may be going up, but I hope I can assure you that I do not have a problem. I occasionally under eat for the experience and the experiment. I am, however quite healthy. Here I ask that you drop your worry so that we may ponder the curiosity of hunger.)

Anyway, as you may expect, the hike was atypical, though not at first. Through the first few hours, there were no abnormal problems of any sort. I started low in the town of Riomaggiore and strolled along the via dell’Amore to Manarola, scrambling up, down, and around the rocky paths to the sea. Beautiful, uneventful, and short was the first leg of our hike. Two sentences ago, I said “abnormal problems” because we did indeed have several of the normal variety. In Manarola, we hit our first normal and very fun problem; the main trail between Manarola and Corniglia was closed and we could not find the alternate trail. We did, however, know the general direction of the next town, Volastra, so we started to walk.

We quickly began to wander through what, upon later reflection, appear to have been private farms. The paths we followed, which were probably actually dried up drainage ditches, led us along an interesting course through grapeless vines and oliveless trees with a spectacular view of town and the Mediterranean. Suddenly, out we popped into Volastra.

From here, the trail was clearly marked, though patched with snow and ice, and our pace was moderate. At this point vigor still flowed through my veins, so the climb had been no problem. For several hours afterward, the hike was flat or downhill. I continued steadily for another two hours, managing the ice with relative grace, down through Corniglia and towards the recently flood-devastated town of Vernazza. However, before reaching it, a looming loss of sunlight compelled us to turn around on the washed out trail.

On the return journey, I noticed some unusual symptoms. I reached the main ascent back up towards Volastra after a grand total of roughly five hours of hiking behind me. At the foot of this climb, I was moderately tired but thought nothing of it. I started up the path briskly, managing the ice well enough.

Within a mere five minutes, however, I was so exhausted that I had to stop and rest. I was winded and my legs felt the burn of gym workout. The speed of onset was utterly unexpected. It was especially shocking because I had not felt much exhaustion up to this point. I have a fair amount of experience in short fasts and I am in great physical shape, so just a few minutes of climbing should not have so affected me when I had been unaffected until that point. A few seconds later, the surprise gave way to mild excitement. “Wow, I may be approaching my limit… Cool!”

After a minute of rest, I stood and continued. This pattern continued for about a half hour, though with increasingly longer intervals between rests due to nothing more than force of will. After that, I reached the point where the incline became much less steep, and it should have become an easier hike. It did not. A new phenomenon set in. I had serious trouble focusing. The feeling would be somewhat comparable to being simultaneously drunk and exhausted. Not my usual energized-drunk, where I run and/or dance all the way back to my room at the end of the night, but instead a different state where both my mental focus and muscle memory simultaneously perform unreliably. I stumbled on rocks and ice several times while walking on the relatively flat path. Thankfully, I never fell, as the chances of falling off the 5 foot-wide path would have been rather high. A fall would not have been deadly (the drop was only around 5-10 feet on one side), but painful and problematic it surely would have been.

After stumbling for the third or fourth time, I decided to rest for a little bit longer this time. Within a few seconds, I felt ready to continue, but I knew more rest was needed. I had been through this several times in the past hour. I rest, quickly feel better, and then get up to keep going, returning to exhaustion within a minute. It was startling how quickly my body forgot its previous stress. This quickness leads me to believe that it was mental exhaustion. I wonder how much the mental capacity to remain focused under such conditions can be trained (a good reason for another hike, no?).

Soon, I felt ready to continue. The small remaining section of the hike was completed with renewed vigor (at least significantly because most of the rest of the hike was downhill or flat). On the way down, I took a look at the still landscape of the hills gently falling into the wide golden sea, dotted with rustic houses and sparse winding streets. The wind whips my face, and the sun descends toward the open horizon. It occurred to me then; I did not recall actually looking at the scenery in the past hour and a half of hiking. I was so exhausted that I forgot to appreciate the beauty around me. In that way, I found my walk to be a snapshot of a tragically ironic feature of life. I get so preoccupied watching out for the rocks and ice on the path that I forget why I chose to walk that path in the first place. That long pause for rest helps remind me to look at the scenery in life, and it is the pause that I often love as much as the walk.

I suppose that this is what I mean when I say “… for the experience and the experiment.” I deprive myself of food (among other things like warmth) occasionally because of the insights I always seem to find.

On this occasion, however, I am reminded that occasionally a large meal might be necessary under safety concerns. But what about normally? I think of the advice that I have heard so many times; “Make sure you eat three balanced meals a day!” (It seems that our culture may have forgotten the “balanced” part.) The message was so often repeated that I did not consider any other regimen for the first twenty years of my life.

I soon began to examine my habits after gaining control over my own diet upon entering college. I decided to try to eat healthier. In search of healthier foods, I stumbled across alternate habits, particularly fasting. At first, it seemed radical and a little silly. Nonetheless, the idea intrigued me enough that after several months I decided to try it. This was actually a rather small step because, at the time, I was typically not particularly hungry on my restful Saturdays. In any case, the ease with which I completed that first 30 hour fast (dinner Friday until brunch Sunday) surprised me. I tried a two day fast the next weekend, and it too I completed without trouble.

The result was stunning in light of just how much I ate and still eat (which is a lot). It then seemed to me that our social food rules were rather arbitrary. I began experimenting with regularly skipping meals without any noticeable consequences. In fact, I became much healthier during that time than any before in my life, but I believe that is largely due to the regular exercise and better diet in general rather than this specifically.

This process culminated during this past summer, when I skipped lunch entirely every day. I ate a bowl of cereal and a sandwich (or something comparable) in the morning, biked twenty minutes to work, worked straight for the eight hour day, drank about a gallon and a half of water daily, biked back, strength trained at the gym for about an hour three times a week, and then returned home and ate a large dinner. I felt excellent all day. Vigor pulsed through my veins and I gained muscle at a prodigious pace. I have never in my life felt so consistently healthy.

Now, however, I once again have little control over my own diet, though only temporarily. I am back on the regular schedule of meals, and I cannot wait to once again control my own schedule. I hiked hungry to once again feel uncomfortable. To once again love the exhaustion.

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