On Hiking

I came to hiking late in life.

When young, I clamored to climb West Mountain with my friends. In reality, we ran up the first foothill, declared ourselves exhausted, and spent the rest of the afternoon acting silly and enjoying the ten pound lunches we’d packed.

I began to hike for pleasure in my twenties when I backpacked in the Sierra Nevadas with my first husband, a man of quirks. He ate freeze-dried food with gusto, scooted rattlers safely off the trail, and refused to build campfires or sleep in tents because to do so would isolate us from the night.

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I admit his desire to embrace the night advanced my stargazing from the Big Dipper and North Star to more difficult prey like Cassiopeia and the blue glow of Vega. It’s easy to recognize constellations and stars when they hang within reach like sparkling fruit.

While backpacking, I carried a fair share of weight and made do with minimal grooming. I knew I was a dawdler, not a pacesetter, so I walked second in line—though I’d heard that rattlesnakes, startled by the first hiker, tend to strike the second.

At times I felt fear.

I once walked a narrow path along a sheer cliff and pictured myself rolling away like a potato bug. When my husband joked that perhaps we’d fall to our deaths more quickly in the thin mountain air, I didn’t laugh. I edged into rivers: facing upstream for better control, side-stepping over slick rocks, probing for footholds with a hiking stick, my heart thumping in my chest. We once out-waited an unexpected lightning storm, crouched together under a clump of brush as jagged spears ignited the world and my terror.

But such moments of fear paled in comparison to my appreciation of the breathtaking beauty I walked through while carrying a pack on my back. I’ll never forget standing among Ponderosas of vanilla scent with my boots planted against the slope of the trail, while I gazed at a sky hidden by swaths of twilight clouds. The retreating sun stretched the shadows of the pines thin and long: a multitude of blackened arrows crossing contoured boulders, curtained cliffs, and a sunset-splashed river.

Since moving to Colorado in the nineties, Joel and I have climbed a few of Colorado’s fourteen-thousand-plus peaks called fourteeners. Standing on the summit of a towering mountain, mesmerized by a view stretching into eternity in all directions from a vantage point on top of the world, I feel enriched, alive, powerful.

Joel about to summit

Joel about to summit

Of course, on the way down, I’m brought back to reality by two knees, aghast at what I’ve done to them, muttering and complaining with each step.

Unwilling to give up a hobby that enriches my life, I swallow ibuprofen and ignore their grumbling.

 

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