How I Became a Hiker, and Why You Should, Too.

When I was 21 years old, my dad, stepmother, stepsister, sister, and I took a trip to Yellowstone.  Technically, the four of them had been there for seven days when  I arrived.  It was one of several trips we had taken out West, and though we had our issues, the crew generally got along well enough to repeat the scenario each year.  Fly somewhere West.  Drive a lot.  See pretty places.  “Hike”.  Fight with my sister.  Go home.   After one year in Chicago, I was ready for a break, and I showed up at the airport in Wyoming happy as a clam.

That first day, we drove up to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, hiked a thousand or so feet down into the canyon, and then started back up the stairs.  The rest of the crew seemed to have no problem scaling the steps.  I, however, was making friends with every Tom, Dick, and Harriett who was stationed in MY seats at the “resting” benches along the way.  As my dad tried politely to take in the vista, and not mention my green-ish tinted face, I knew the jig was up, and  that my Size XL super-soft men’s tee shirt from J Crew (which had been quite a splurge at $18.00) was going to be covered in vomit real soon.

Turns out there’s this problem – it’s called Altitude.  And living at sea-level Chicago, and having zero fitness, I was not quite ready for that summer’s trip.  That canyon was not the last time I whined my way through an activity, irritated at everyone but myself (but really, mostly at myself) for being unable to keep up.   To their credit, my dad and stepmom, (love you guys!) borderline fitness fanatics, were stuck with three whiny, irritable girls who spent most of every hike singing Jimmy Buffet songs to keep the bears away, and they never once cracked.  Today, I think they might have been medicated to put up with us for that long.  Back then, I just wanted to kill them. 

The highlight of the trip, though, came when we hit the hot springs (I believe this was still at Yellowstone.)  We all enjoyed a little dip in the springs, and then returned to the car for some water.  Dad, ever mindful of the LARGE WARNINGS posted by the Park Service about an evil bacteria, was concerned that we would infect one another by drinking from the same bottle of water.  So there we stood, mouths open, (did I mention I was 21?), waiting for dad to pour water in our mouths because we were not permitted to handle the bottle.

If you’d have told me then, while my water was being rationed, and I was not in control of any part of my vacation, that I’d one day plan almost every trip with an eye towards hiking, biking, or doing anything active, I’d tell you to go hit the crack pipe again.  Yet here I am, 13 years later, getting ready to plan another week in the mountains.

If you’re like me, maybe you grew up in the midwest, and you’re not so sure you’re into the whole “nature” thing.  You’ve been surrounded by asphalt your entire life.  You have a back yard, maybe, and you might have a body of water nearby.  But the idea of being on a trail where you have to physically propel yourself forward, where there isn’t a snack shop at the top, might be a bit foreign to you.  So let me share a little secret:

It’s the most relaxing, most delightful feeling in the world, to wander a trail, as an adult, to unplug, and relax, and to see what God, or man, or nature, has just left there. 

I’ve been lucky enough to travel a lot in the past few years.  To be fair, I made it a priority when I started traveling for work.  I would work in side trips to hike, or just chill, whenever I could.   The highlight of my life is the trip I took down the Colorado River in Arizona, through 181 miles of the Grand Canyon, on a rafting and hiking trip in 2006.   I followed it with a 7 day solo trip around Arizona, exploring the North and East parts of the state, and fell in love with it.

At Redwall Cavern, in the bottom of the Grand Canyon, 2006.

At Redwall Cavern, in the bottom of the Grand Canyon, 2006.

Then there’s my time in Colorado.  I love me a good trip to the Rocky Mountains.  I’ve had many a fun time the past few years with friends, taking in a fire and a good wine and cheese plate, followed by a gorgeous hike the next day.

This is at the top of a 3.5 mile ascent.  It's breathtaking.

Mills Lake - Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. This is at the top of a 3.5 mile ascent. It's breathtaking.

View of the Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff.

View of the Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff.

And when I’m stuck in Chicago, I’ll suck it up and go to Kettle Moraine State Park in Wisconsin.  It’s only a two hour drive from here, and I can take my bike, camp solo, and hike and putz around to my heart’s content.
So why do I keep going back?  What draws me back to the trail?  Aside from the beauty of it, it’s this:  it doesn’t matter what weight I’m at – as long as I take it at MY pace, and go slow, I can hike all day long.   Don’t get me wrong – I have pushed too hard before.  (And yes, I’ve paid the price.)  But for the most part, hiking is something that we can all do, as long as we’re willing to acknowledge our limits. 
If you haven’t ever hiked a day in your life, don’t sweat the small stuff.  Go find a local trail – a short loop that you can walk.  Get used to what it takes to wander over uneven terrain.  Make sure you have a pair of supportive sneakers on, and do the usual stuff – throw on a hat, take a bottle of water.  Go walk for 45 minutes. 
Maybe it won’t do anything for you.  Or, maybe you’ll start thinking about what it would be like to take that walk in the Smokies, or the Rockies, or at Joshua Tree, or in the Grand Canyon.  And let me tell you, if I can hike in all those places (and I have), then you can too.
These pictures are just a fraction of the story – of the incredible joy that comes from being somewhere without the world knocking down your door.  So go on, get out there!  Not sure where to start?  For trails near you, check out the Rails to Trails Trail Link
See you on the path!
Next time, we’ll get CRAZY and I’ll talk about the kayaking!

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