I’m new to hiking. The first time I went hiking in Colorado last year, my body painfully reminded me of this fact. I felt like an overweight forty-year old huffing and puffing up the rocky terrain as my more agile sister disappeared from view.
I tried it again when I was in Ecuador, hiking around the beautiful crater lake Laguna Quilotoa. Like a true novice, I arrived the night before from a much lower altitude, having partied the entire weekend, feeling exhausted and sick. I set my alarm for 6am anyway, determined to proceed with the hike despite warnings of the intensity. You can read more about how that went here.
Before these first experiences, I always thought hiking was fairly simple, unless you were one of those crazy people who wanted to climb Mt. Everest or something. In my head I ranked hiking as a physical activity somewhere between walking and running. And those ridiculous backpacks everyone wore when they went on these hiking trips? I compared them to lugging my heavy Nursing textbooks around my college campus…they couldn’t be that heavy, right?
It’s not that I haven’t wanted to do more hiking. In fact, I love nature. Not in that “I want to stay in an air conditioned cabin and call it camping” way some people do, but in a way that often finds me sleeping outside and staring up at the stars, grinning ear to ear while a million and one mosquitoes feed on my exposed flesh. Still, I haven’t been able to pursue my love affair with nature the way my soul longs for. For the last eight years I’ve been living and working in large metropolitan cities, squinting at the darkened sky, wishing on shooting stars I can’t see.
That’s all going to change. Since reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk In The Woods, I’ve been intrigued by the Appalachian Trail, one of the oldest and longest hiking routes in America. In a few weeks I’ll be hiking part of the AT in North Carolina with my Pops. In June I’ll be doing some hiking in Utah and Colorado. I’m excited for these opportunities for solitude and reflection, but somewhat terrified of the physical toll it will take on my body. To get a vague sense of what I might be in for, I decided to search for the nearest hiking trail in Memphis and load up my backpack. After asking around and consulting a map, I settled on hiking the Chickasaw Bluff trail which is about 8 miles point to point, perfect for a day hike. I packed a lunch, filled my water bottles, cinched my boots, and drove to Shelby Forest.
From the moment I stepped into the shady forest, I felt transported to another universe. The woods were alive with the rebirth of Spring, each shade of green resplendent. As I walked, wildflowers with purple, yellow, and red hues added brilliant pops of color among the dew covered leaves. No one was around, yet I was surrounded by a different kind of life, a system of existing I know very little about. Birds chirped and flitted away as I drew close, a possum took cover under a burrow, dead leaves rustled as a mother pheasant corralled her baby chicks into a line and scurried away.
I stood still and listened to the symphony of sounds, overwhelmed by the calming effect. Bumblebees hummed, trees whispered softly as they blew in the wind, small streams gurgled and murmured happily below. Even the threat of an afternoon thunderstorm sounded pleasant and comforting as rain drops kerplunked through the canopy of leaves, beginning their downward spiral and collecting in small pools of muddy water.
I walked for hours taking it all in, relishing the coolness of the woods and the sunlight filtering through the branches. After awhile though, I began to notice the heavy load I was carrying. No matter how many times I adjusted the myriad of straps on my pack, shifting the weight from my hips to my shoulders and back again, I still noticed its cumbersomeness. In spite of double socking, my hiking boots started to rub and my ankles popped with discomfort. Climbing over fallen trees and wading through mud I realized my balance was off and the quiet I had been enjoying was interrupted by a strange squeaking noise my backpack was emitting with each step.
I have no doubt that this is just a small glimpse of the pain and hardship I will experience while on the Appalachian Trail or hiking the Rocky Mountains. Yet, there’s a sense of joy and pleasure in the aching muscles and tired joints. There’s a sense of freedom in walking for the simple satisfaction of walking. There’s pride in asking my body to endure physical pain, of pushing it to go harder and faster and realizing that it can. Sedentary lifestyles separate us from what our bodies are actually capable of, we stop feeling connected to our own physicality, letting our thoughts and mind take priority. Hiking reverses the hierarchy of of modern life. It allows us to reinhabit the present, straining and struggling to remember what certain muscles can do, asking our bodies to forgive us for the neglect we’ve shown. It gives you the chance to get out of your head for a moment.
Hiking reminds us of another universe, an enchanted world saturated with life fully reliant on laws of survival, complicated yet simple. It reminds us that we are small, that we CAN survive without our iphones and laptops, that surviving in the elements can be challenging, but fun. In some ways, it puts us in our place. It accomplishes this the same way that looking at the vastness of the ocean, or standing in the middle of the desert reminds us of our own insignificance. And sometimes, with that reminder comes a welcome sense of relief.