Monday, July 15, 2019

The Joys of Summer #5: Hiking


     Normally, when I go to write these things, I pause for a second, muse momentarily, then nod briskly once and dive into what I have to say. The path is clear.
    But here, oddly, I sat a moment, pursing my lips, gazing into the middle distance. How to explain hiking? The immediate response seemed to be to invoke the line I sometimes fire at readers who ask insincere rhetorical questions, Louis Armstrong's supposed quip to some weisenheimer who demanded he define jazz: "If you have to ask, you'll never know."
     What is there to say? You go to a place and walk. The place should be beautiful, yes, but it doesn't have to be. I can't recall every going on a hike that wasn't. Are there trees? Fields? Clouds? Vistas? Flowers? Then it's beautiful.  The hike makes it beautiful.
     Why? Because it is a rare moment in your life when you are not getting or spending, not doing routine tasks, neither idling nor exercising, or some combination of all these things. It doesn't matter where you go, or when. You can hike in fall, when the colors are turning, or spring, when life stirs anew, or even winter. But summer is best, the warm weather, the free time. The above is Shenandoah National Park, in Virginia, where we went last summer after setting our youngest up at Virginia Law.
     I supposed it helps to be prepared. I have an excellent pair of hiking boots—Keen's—that make me happy to lace on, happy to walk in, happy every time my eye caresses their perfect lines. They want to walk, and lucky is the person who happens to have their feet inside them.
    A water bottle. A bag of trail mix. A day pack with a jacket. You go into nature prepared, and maybe that is part of hiking's appeal. You don't need a coffee grinder, or a snow blower, or a gallon of Tide, or all the thousand possessions and supplies and accoutrements you clutter your life with. You've got a pocket knife and a lighter, so are prepared to face  whatever life might throw at you that day.
    Hiking makes everything precious. Think about it. At home you've got an infinity of water a tap turn away. And you value it .... not at all. On a hike, you heft your water bottle, feel there is a good eight ounces left, enough to get you down the mountain to the parking lot. You feel blessed, lucky, prudent for not guzzling it all on the way up. 


  1. "Hiking makes everything precious." Yes, I see that. A couple of weeks ago I went on my first hike in a very long time. I was in Scotland -- still am for a few more cherished weeks -- and it made me love Scotland even more intensely and also evoked some tender feelings toward the friend that I was hiking with.

  2. Reminds me of Robert Macfarlane's book The Old Ways, which took me months to read, as I had a heck of a time digesting even half of what he said. He's got a new book out, Underlands, which was reviewed in the latest Atlantic.

    To me, walking is a chore. It's motivated by vanity rather than pleasure and complicated by the need to pay attention in order to stay upright along with twinges here and there from poorly designed feet. Hiking boots? Naah. It's not that I can't afford them, but I'm afraid of spending a couple hundred bucks on shoes that don't work for me. I'll ask my podiatrist next time around.


  3. Hiking in the countryside is spirit reviving, but I really enjoy walking around cities. London is my favorite walking town. Or used to be until something called peripheral neuropathy has made extended perambulation too much of a chore.


  4. Wonderful, thanks. I'd add one other thing: the physical work of hiking. Whether it is a level stroll in the woods or a tough climb, it matters that it is my own two feet carrying me. A ride in an ATV through the woods would not do it for me, even if it was silent. I want to do the work myself.

  5. You can get badges...commonly known as "shields" because of their shape...for your walking stick or staff if you hike ten trails in the Cuyahoga County Metroparks (Cleveland) or the Summit County Metroparks (Akron). My wife and I began earning those badges in the summer and fall of 2000, and we've been hiking those trails ever since. Our staffs are now covered with shields. We're running out of room.

    And I'm running out of gas. My ankles, knees, and feet can't take the pounding anymore, and my stamina isn't what it was twenty years ago. I also find the pleasure of hiking to be diminishing. Mostly because, at my age, one really DOES need to pay attention to the trail, rather than the scenery, in order to stay on one's oversized feet and to avoid stumbling over roots, or tripping on rocks and landing on one's face.

    That new need has taken a good deal of the joy and fun out of earning the shields. Hiking has become something of a chore and an endurance contest. It can even be sheer torture in summer's heat, humidity, and bugginess. Waiting until fall is better, and prettier. If the trail happens to be a more rugged and difficult one, it often feels more like a Bataan Death March. But at my wife's insistence, I still soldier on (excuse the awful pun).

    I'm thinking of calling it quits this year, after earning my twentieth shield in a row, and hanging up my stick for good after this fall. Or next year at the latest. Hiking in the company of my active spouse, on a nice day, can still be satisfying. But getting so tired, achy, and sore? Not so much.


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