Friday, November 7, 2008

Why I hike

I am, by most calculations, an "indoor girl."

Early mornings are for lying in bed reading Vanity Fair, not for running. Evenings are best spent with a movie. Nearly all of my hobbies involve a screen and a keyboard, including this one.

I am generally an Armchair Traveler, and when I do travel, I will opt for the art museum over the dolphin-swim. I go our nation's capital and go to the Library of Congress. That kind of sightseeing.

But I do love my ramble in the woods. People who do not hike always express some concern for my safety in the woods. People who do far more dangerous daily activities, like driving a car or raising children, don't want to think about the simplest conservation land trail tramped by a hundred people in an afternoon.

They say, "I could never do that." As we say in the Blindness community, "Of course you couldn't. You don't have training." That's actually an over-answer, because I don't have much training in the woods at all. What I have is experience. And mind you I am not a climber. I just hike. In fact, most of the time, I just walk. This photo is of a natural bridge in Yellowstone. Not a big famous one, just one of the kinds of phenomenon you encounter in the wild. I sat right there in that notch under the arch and ate an apple. But I didn't require any equipment to do it. I just walked.

People say "do you take a cell phone," and I answer that I do, but a cell phone is not what keeps you safe in the woods. What keeps you safe in the woods aer the same things that keep you safe in life: being prepared; having a plan and a map; being in physical shape; a sense of adventure that doesn't exceed the limits of your ability; a few safety nets like a flashlight, a blanket, and an extra pair of socks (the same things you are supposed to carry in the trunk of your car); an awareness of your surroundings, and some good horse-sense.

This time of year, as we enter the darktime, and the gloomy November drizzle begins to descend, I start to miss my hikes. I wonder if this Saturday might be one last outing before the books and magazines take over the empty furniture cushions. Filling the hole the ramble leaves is a central focus of winter.

Why I Hike.... as an exercise of life skills in an abstract context.

10) Every walk is different

In one way or another. One, because I do try to find a different spot each time. In Central Mass, you'll be tooling along your ordinary daily commute and pass signs like this on the side of the road. Anywhere. What is it? Trails. Just trails. Come on in. Some trails are better than others of course -- Pete and I enjoy one of our newest stories about trying to find a good walk. And really we just wanted a walk, not a real hike, with boots and backpacks, just a walk in the woods. We ended up here, which ordinarily should have been more than enough. But we couldn't find a trail that served our needs without hiking 10 miles to it. Standish is really quite awesome; we just went about it the wrong way. So you never know what you are going to get.

9) No one is there
...or it seems like it, which is really what I want. In my worklife, I have fewer than 4 feet of personal space between me and the next girl. The Lieutenant I laugh that we can reach out and hold hands. And that is not a joke. we just laugh anyway. I live in a condo next to a yap-dog and neighbors who don't know they can congregate indoors. So I need all the solitude I can swallow.

I used to wake up early in college and walk the campus like it was my estate. Before that I knew every corner of every alley between the yards in my neighborhood. Mass Audubon, the largest of New England's conservation organizations, maintains 45 parcels and estimates half a million visitors annually. The trails are maintained, the public houses open and clean. I am never out of earshot of the sound of passing cars. And you feel like you own the place.

8) You have to follow a trail
I have no sense of direction. I can't recognize a face in a crowd. Instead I have an impeccable sense of time, I pay attention to detail, and I can read a map. There is always a moment, more than once on the trail, when you think you might have wandered off. You can't follow the trail under your feet; you have to look up for blazes. Animals make their own trails, and so do fallen trees, and running water. Flat ground doesn't mean you're on the trail. And when you think you've wandered, you stop. You look around slowly, tree-to-tree-to-tree... there it is! And you press on, remembering at the next turn that you should glance back periodically and make sure the return trail is equally blazed. This is a good thing to remember in life as well.

7) The good kind of sweat
The sweat I get on the job -- the kind that trickles down my neck during heated negotiations, the pit-pools formed while racing to a deadline, the forehead heat from the occasional beer at lunch (oh, yes. better believe it) -- is not the good kind of sweat. Pausing on the middle of a rock-fall called Bicentennial Trail on Mt Wachusett, taking off my backpack to take a drink and feeling the cold chill down my soaking wet back. That is the good sweat. This is as athletic as I get. I have never been one for organized sports, I am no survivalist, I can't even much stand to be wet. But when I have earned this kind of exertion, I feel more alive.

6) How awesome is public land?

5) Unexpected surprises
Most trail maps and kiosks will alert you to the big attractions along the trail. Some are manmade, like bog boardwalks, and bird blinds. Some are salamander ponds, and randomly occurring quartz boulders. Some are unexpected, and unexplained: the piece of a rock cistern, lying nowhere near water. The split-trunk tree. The skeleton of a duck who crashed into a tree.
You will only appreciate them by...

4) Staying alert in the depth of reflection
This should probably be higher on the list. I just like the way it goes with #5. This is what it is really all about. Something about having to pay such sharp attention to literally seeing the forest for the trees helps me sort through the rest of the junk rattling around in my head.

3) Chipmunks
Even in Wyoming, I have seen very little of what I would reverently call wildlife. I have come across my share of deer at the Quabbin Reservoir, and once at Walden Pond I sat for an hour waiting to see what was so vigorously digging its way through a pile of leaves. I was rewarded with a black mole, and though it was hardly big game, I can tell you I had never seen one in life before. I haunt Wachusett just for the prospect of encountering a porcupine in the wild.

My delight with chipmunks is just the fact that the animal world has its own lookouts, who scream "5-0" all down the trail ahead of me, which explains why I never see any wildlife.

2) The pay-off
I don't mind how long or high the effort, how much the beating sun finds the one bare spot on my neck, if there is a pay-off at the end. Ideally a water fall, or the ruins of a mill. But a view, a lake, a bush of honeysuckle, will all do just as well.

1) the anticipation of the next hike

1 comment:

  1. I'm a sucker for nature when it has a good website: The Trustees of Reservations. The boy and I have been working through some of these properties, but not as often as we'd like. And then there's you, with whom I've neglected our next nature adventure for too long.
    Brilliant writing once again, and I will bring it with me sometime and read it again deep in the woods.


Comments Build Community! We thank you for yours. Spam comments are not welcome and will not be posted.