I showed up in sneakers and sweats, car keys in a jacket pocket.
My friend Linda Payne, who has hiked canyons and mountain trails out West, had on hiking boots and water-repellent pants. In her backpack were granola bars, Kleenex, bug spray, an empty plastic bag for her phone in case of rain, a whistle, soap in case of a scratch or snake bite, tweezers for ticks, water, Band-Aids, and an emergency thermal blanket.
This might not be as simple as I thought.
Gradually, without preaching, Linda taught me the ropes. How to look for blazes, and how there was no shame in doubling back if we were afraid we missed one. How we would use the location numbers if one of us had a medical emergency. How to watch for snakes sunbathing on warm rocks. How much help hiking poles could be when a steep trail was slick or covered in loose rock.
My contribution was less practical: an essay I had read about how “the body is utterly at home when it is in motion…. With every step, the foot kisses the earth.” I began walking more quietly, more deliberately. A looseness entered my body as my muscles warmed, and soon I was swinging along in an easy rhythm I somehow never attain in dress shoes on city sidewalks. I felt in sync with the ancient green world surrounding me, happy to have no agenda more elaborate than following a path.
“Path” is a time-honored metaphor for the direction of one’s life—and can be as hard to find. Not every route is well-marked, and a blanket of fall leaves can obscure the trail. Sometimes Linda and I rely on my dog, who we christened Trail Guide because he stops at every juncture, cocks his head, sniffs in both directions, and chooses. I suspect he just follows the extra smells, which is fine: we want the road more traveled. There is solidarity in knowing how many feet have trod this path ahead of you, but there is relief in knowing they are long gone, and you can enjoy the stillness.
Hiking feels as sacred as church, carrying me into a pristine wilderness. But it also requires me to do what I am terrible at: pay attention to the physical, sensory, concrete world around me. I listen to weather forecasts with a new urgency. Have we had enough rain to power a scenic waterfall? So much rain that the trail could be impassable? My nonexistent sense of direction adds some challenge, but thanks to Linda, we always find our way back. Hiking alone, I once had to swallow my pride and call the alliance that created a new, as yet unmapped nature preserve: “Um…could you talk me back to the trailhead?” Another time, I was sure I could navigate us around a huge fallen tree, and I waded in like a rabbit in a briar patch, thorns dragging my bare arms and legs back as I thrashed forward. Linda found an easier way and was already back on the trail; I was farther away with every step I took.
Hiking is not an impetuous sport. It rewards methodical care, observation, and a little research. How much shade will this trail give us in July? Which trails have wildflowers and should be saved for early spring; which have glorious views of fall color? I have learned to check for controlled burns that might close a trail; to register with the park rangers if a trail is extra remote; to carry a paper map as well as a phone. My new spring ritual is spraying several sets of clothes with permethrin. I now know that it is easier to pee outdoors if I lean against a tree.
All this newfound practicality has proved humbling. How cocky I was, in my sweats and sneakers. I was entering a world shared by ticks, spiders, deer, snakes, and bobcats, and I needed to behave accordingly. The ground beneath my feet would support me, but I would have to accommodate to its varying surfaces: sandy along a river bank, polished smooth and dry, soggy with leaves, softened by bark or pine needles, loose with jagged rock. Branches would scrape me. The weather could scorch, soak, or freeze me. My body might betray me. Dwelling on such possibilities seemed pessimistic and timid—until I realized that acknowledging the world outside me was what made adventure possible.
The most satisfying trails are the wildest, the most challenging. One of our first expeditions was Pickle Creek at Hahn State Park, and Linda had read about an “Easy” trail. We set out—and soon we were clambering over rocks, wading across a creek, sliding down crevices on our bottoms. I shot her a look. “This is what they call ‘Easy’?” Turned out that was the observation trail; the one we took was ranked “Rigorous.” And yet, we did not die.
I cherish such surprises. At Lone Elk, we tiptoed way off the trail to give massive, possibly rutting elk a generous berth, only to find them clustered around our cars when we got back to the parking lot. At Rockwood, we were charged by an armadillo with Napoleon syndrome, and I had to persuade the dog not to chase him back. Hiking—facing unknown conditions together—has improved our communication. Willie knows I descend a rocky slope more slowly than he does, so he looks over his shoulder every few feet to check on my progress. He also knows I cheat by letting him pull me uphill, so he cannot stop mid-lope to investigate a smell.
For humans, too, talking is easier with no walls around you. You can toss out a thought and move on; what you speak will not hang in the air between you. In this long block of uninterrupted, undistracted time, you can explore an idea fully—and neither of you can lose patience and stalk out of the room. You will leave together, harmony preserved.
I have my own practical tips now. In summer, after you cool off with a travel wipe, stuff it in your bra, if you wear one. When hiking with a black dog, soak one of those reflective cool coats; if it dries out, you can refresh it in a creek. For cooler weather, get him a harness so he can carry his own damned water. Most important: teach him restaurant manners for the after-hike beer and sandwich. Few meals are as satisfying. When you are peacefully tired, the kinks stretched out of every muscle and the worries banished from your soul, leaning back to enjoy a meal you have earned is an entirely different experience from shoveling in calories on the run or dressing up for a stiff night of fine dining. I spent most of my life sedentary and only now realize that the body is meant to be thoroughly used. To carry us farther than we think possible. And to connect our spirits with all that dwells in what little wilderness remains.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.