My teaching schedule — once a scattered mess that had me teaching in smattering amounts every single day — has consolidated, leaving me my Thursday mornings and weekends free. I’ve been dedicating that free time to solo hikes and group hikes, quick jaunts around local trails and longer expeditions further north.
I hiked avidly as a kid, I barely hiked at all when I lived in Boston, and I only hiked sporadically during my first few years in New Hampshire. With each passing year, I try to become a little more deliberate, a little more focused.
My parents are/were members of the 4,000 Footer Club — a designation for those who’ve climbed all the major mountains in New Hampshire. If I’m doing the math right, I’m now the age that my mother was when she finishing scaling the last of the 4,000-foot summits. I don’t think that’s influenced my uptick in hiking, but given the connection between hiking and that untainted purity from my past, I won’t strike it out.
I don’t know how to explain hiking to those who don’t find resonance with it. It’s a lot like running: either you get it, or you don’t. It looks absurd on paper: devote a morning, a day, multiple days to a hill, to scrambling up that hill — surrounded by bugs and oppressive humidity, with a handful of snacks and worst-case-scenario provisions in a sweat-collecting pack, until your legs quiver with fatigue and you can’t ever seem to catch your breath. And all for…pretty vistas? Calorie burning? Blatant masochism? What, then?
I can talk about being in nature and challenging the body, but it all falls short. I’ve already sung an ode to hiking essentially this time last year, and perhaps that should be enough. But, still, it feels like it’s only scratching the surface. It’s a pragmatic explanation to something a lot more visceral.
I remember studying what the mountains and the woods meant in one of my literature classes in college. Shakespeare’s characters would retreat to the woods for mischief and scheming and fantasy. The mountains were a source of mystery and peril and adventure for medieval characters. Modern characters used the woods to disclose secrets or have affairs or find salvation.
There has been and continues to be something encasing in the wild. Something larger than life. And we are able to step right into the middle of it. Even if we don’t believe in anything else, the forests have this feeling of enchantment, as if the Fae could actually be lurking behind each tree, watching you on the trail.
I continue to be knee-deep in the Enneagram personality types, if only to have that avenue where aspects of myself can be validated (while other aspects get the calling out they need). Type 4s tend to dwell on the negative. I tend to dwell on the negative. I’ll go back and replay bad experiences and then play out lengthy (typically dramatic) conversations in my head.
My solo hikes are never fully solo. The hypothetical conversations always seem to join me. My head fills with dialogue that hasn’t happened and probably never will. Every “how could you…” and “who the fuck are you to…” and “do you have any idea how…” swims around my head.
It’s not unlike any other time in life. The hypothetical conversations can sometimes be a constant companion, filling my head with the words I never said. Sometimes they can be redirected into dialogue for a manuscript. Usually they just drain me.
But it’s different on the trails. It’s almost as if the trees absorb everything my mind comes up with, to the point that, by the descent, all the hypothetical conversations have lost their potency. All the “if you only knew…“s eventually silence themselves, tagging behind at a distance before getting lost on the trail.
It’s part of why I love to hike alone as much as I do. Let everything bubble to the surface. Let the woods take it in. A cosmic reset button, in some ways.
Your pack naturally gets lighter on day hikes. You drink up the water you lugged along the trail. You eat the snacks you packed. You might even start wearing the layers you brought with you.
But something else gets lighter. The things that hang like weights around your neck start to fall by the wayside, if only temporarily.
I think of a 16-mile hike I took the summer of 2015. At the risk of showing that Type 4 side of me — revisiting and dwelling on old, negative experiences — the summer of 2015 had been one of the hardest times of my life. My father’s decline was in freefall, my family’s dynamics were in shatters, and practically everything else in my life had just blown up. I was a frenzied mess of anxiety and dread and heartache and pain.
I remember that hike vividly. I had gone with my husband and two of our friends. I remember burning brightly with that anxiety and dread and heartache and pain as we drove through the White Mountains, as we set off from the trailhead. I remember how candid and wonderful the conversations (real, actual, non-hypothetical conversations) were, how the trail just seemed to take in the burning I was radiating out, how the world felt surreal and hyperreal at the same time.
And I remember — somewhere, somewhere on the return — feeling this acceptance of it all. Acceptance of where my life was at in that moment. Acceptance that things had gotten bumpy and the trip was far from over. Acceptance that my heart had been breaking and probably would break a thousand more times before I could even think of picking up the pieces. Acceptance that things were changing and there was no going back. It was a feeling I held dearly and carried for as long as I could, holding it long after I shrugged my pack off my shoulders, praying it would stay with me like the dirt on my shins.
In some ways, that day was a miracle. Days of acceptance and peace were few and far between in the months leading up to my father’s death. And in some ways my hikes pay homage to the fact that the trails can perform magic, even if the spell is temporary.
The longer the hike, the more it feels like a spiritual journey. In a world filled with anticlimaxes and loose ends and unresolved cliffhangers, the hike has a set beginning, middle, and end. A crescendo and a decrescendo. Challenge and a payoff.
Especially on the solo hikes, I emerge from the forest feeling like something has been exercised and exorcised. I bask in that somewhat bewildering feeling, when you leave the trail and find your car and vaguely remember that the real world awaits.
I turned on my car after a recent hike, the preview songs of Kesha’s upcoming album beginning to play through my radio. Her song “Learn to Let Go” started to play as I set up my GPS and took one more swig from my water bottle.
“I was a prisoner of the past, had a bitterness when I’d look back.“
I had preordered her newest album on principle alone — making a statement with my all-mighty dollar that I support women who fight to get back what had been taken from them. But the album speaks to me outside of that context, outside of Kesha’s battles with the studio and her abuser and the court of public opinion.
Another thing the Enneagram validated for me was my almost obsessive need for music. Type 4s use music to amplify what they’re feeling. If they’re unhealthy, they’ll find sad songs and use them to stay in a depressive rut.
But, if they can stand on both feet and get back what’s been taken from them, they can spin it to their advantage. The music can amplify something more positive.
So I think it’s time to practice what I preach
Exorcise these demons inside me
Oh, gotta learn to let it go.
And that feeling — that surreal euphoria, that precious hold on what the trails brought me — lingered as my GPS started to navigate me home, snaking through the smalltown roads until I’m on the highway I know by heart.