What you can learn traveling outside your comfort zone

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What you can learn traveling outside your comfort zone

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I never expected to book a vacation that would require hiking boots, but I'm glad I did. After a few trips to Europe, I decided to explore my beautiful country and learn a few things about myself. For one, I think it's cool when my socks coordinate with the Grand Canyon. NANCY CLANTON / nancy.clanton@ajc.com

Everyone has a comfort zone. Mine is soft and dimly lighted. And air-conditioned. I can't stress enough how cold it is in my comfort zone.

Why, then, did I decide to spend a week hiking through some of our national parks? Because sometimes you have to leave your comfort zone in order to challenge yourself and grow.

Here's what I learned when I ventured out:

There should be a Ninja Turtle named Mother Nature

All of my longer vacations the past few years have been overseas: Croatia, Italy, Ireland, Greece. 

They take your breath away.

Using only wind and water, Mother Nature created masterpieces to rival the works of Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello and Raphael.

She sculpted the antelope for which the slot canyon is named, and turned a chunk of stone into a bear climbing out of that canyon.

I know you're thinking, "You can see all those places online without leaving your comfort zone."

That's true. But you can't experience them online.

You have to go out in the sunlight and heat so you can touch the walls as you walk through Antelope Canyon and smell the trees at Red Rock Canyon (some smell like butterscotch; others like vanilla).

I don't melt

I'm neither made of sugar, nor am I the Wicked Witch of the West -- a little water (i.e. sweat) won't destroy me. 

Of course, hiking through Zion, Bryce Canyon, Antelope Canyon and the Grand Canyon produced more than just "a little water." 

My adventure was the second week of October, and I naively thought that meant it would be cool. The temperature most days was in the 80s. Not cool.

So there was sweating. Lots of sweating. Some days it seemed as though my hair never dried.

But the sweat didn't dissolve me. I don't know that it made me stronger, but it definitely didn't hurt me.

Not all of the water I encountered was produced by me, however. That artist in residence, Mother Nature, provided part of it.

On our second day exploring Zion, our path was the Virgin River. The Neoprene socks and special shoes kept our feet dry as we explored the Narrows, but there was no avoiding the water that at times flirted with the hem of my shorts (yes, I wore shorts; more on that later).

The river's current was strong enough in some places to make you lose your balance.

And there were rocks to trip over if you weren't careful.

Did I mention the holes? We were given what we assumed was a walking stick, but quickly learned was a hole-finding stick. The water in the Virgin River hides holes deep enough to sink you up to your neck.

So I knew there was a very real chance none of me would be dry that day. I decided to embrace that possibility. I was careful, but not timid. 

I want to say that experience was amazing, but that word doesn't do it justice. 

If you challenge yourself, you'll be rewarded

When it comes to exercise, I'm what you might call lazy. There is very little physical exertion in my comfort zone. 

But there are no "people movers" in our national parks, so I had to walk. Uphill. In the heat. 

A 1-mile hike doesn't sound too terribly bad, until you realize the first half-mile is up the side of a canyon. That means, of course, that the second half is down the side of a canyon.

Although zionnationl-park.com calls the hike "easy," each direction is challenging in its own way for a 49-year-old who doesn't exercise much.

After our half-mile ascent of the Canyon Overlook Trail, we were rewarded with a beautiful view of "lower Zion Canyon, including Zion's famous Switchbacks, the Beehives, West TempleEast Temple, Towers of the Virgin and the Streaked Wall."

That being said, you have to know your limits. Did I challenge myself by attempting to reach Angel's Landing in Zion? No, because it's a strenuous hike even for fit people. Did I hike down into the hoodoos at Bryce Canyon? No, because it was a 600 foot climb back to the rim.

But amazing vistas weren't my only reward. There was the sense of fearlessness when I crossed the wooden walkway that takes you around a chunk of rock jutting from the canyon wall. There was the pride I felt when I got to the top (and the bottom). And there was the comraderie I experienced when a couple of people in my group stuck with me, even though they could have been to the top and back by the time I reached the top.

Sometimes, you just have to get over yourself

My trip started in Las Vegas. Even though it was October, it was incredibly hot. While the sun was out, the best way to stay cool was either in the casino or at the pool.

Since I work hard for my money, I'm not willing to gamble it away. That left the pool. 

You're going to look silly at the hotel pool wearing a t-shirt and jeans.

The pool means no makeup. The pool means putting on a swimsuit. Neither of these things appeals to me when I'm not on vacation, but I decided to get over myself and go for it.

What was I afraid of? Being judged? Well, yes. But I didn't know those people and their opinions mean nothing to me, so what did it matter?

Once we got to hiking, I really didn't see the point in doing my hair or applying makeup. OK, I might have used some concealer and tinted lip balm, but not much more. I was just going to sweat it off, so why waste it?

And my hairstyles that week consisted of braids and buns. I think I wore my hair down once or twice, but long hair is not your friend in heat. 

And I wore shorts — pretty much every day. I will admit that I've fallen into that mental trap of "pale, overweight people should not be seen in public in shorts."

Get over it.

I bared my pale, pudgy legs for all the world to see, and the world didn't care one little bit. So I was cooler and more comfortable while making my way along cany0ns and through rivers.

Our country is worth exploring, too

As I stated at the beginning, I've been traveling a lot to Europe. I love its history and architecture.

But, although a young country, the United States has history and architecture, too. And the natural beauty of our parks is breathtaking and inspiring.

I've only scratched the surface. I visited Washington, D.C., for the first time last July. There's still the Liberty Bell, and Yosemite, and Yellowstone, and Mount Rushmore, and Mount Rainier, and the glaciers in Alaska, and the volcanoes in Hawaii, and ...

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