“Hiking – I don’t like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains – not hike! Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’ It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre, To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.” – John Muir
Oh hiking….. we have a pretty volatile relationship don’t we?
Not too long ago, I set off on day where I thought I would get two great hikes in, in two different parts of the County I was visiting. I had gotten some recommendations ahead of time, and then received another recommendation from the bartender at a funky restaurant I had dinner at the night before. I reckoned she must know what she was talking about, so I took her up on her lead.
Let me start by saying I am a very nervous solo hiker; I get out there in the woods, and my mind starts to imagine the crazy hermit person who is going to abduct me and lock me up in their cabin and keep me their victim for months on end. And if the kidnapper doesn’t get me, certainly the cougars will. I mean really – we now have mountain lions in Wisconsin, where we don’t even have mountains. I really wish those mountain lions would head back West where they belong.
I like trails that have some visitors, but not too many. This seems to be my safety zone and comfort zone; have a few people around to beat off the attacker or jump on the cougars’s back before he disembowels me, but not so many people that I remember that I hate people.
I like trails that are well marked, so I know how much farther I have to schlep through the woods and which fork I need to follow. I like trails that take me to see something; a waterfall, an expansive view, a strange grove of trees…. I have determined I’m not a super fan of just meandering through a dense forest; it brings up too much unease for me and makes me feel claustrophobic, which makes no sense, but if I can’t see sky or a horizon or way out, I feel uneasy.
If I’m solo hiking, I’m good for about an hour and that’s about it; I can put my fears aside for about that long, and walk along quietly with my brain on pause before I start scanning the woods for crazy hermit men and cougars.
If I hike with friends, which I prefer, (depending on the friend), after about the four hour mark, I start to get antsy. I start repeating “dang there better be a bar at the top of this climb!”, and I’ve repeated it enough that my hiking buddy and college roomie has been wise enough to always bring along a can of wine or beer for when we reach our destination. Brilliant! I mean really, if they were smart enough to put a little tiki bar at the top of every trail, maybe more of us lazy people would get out there and hike. I know I would! An interesting feature that I am hiking to? I’m in.
Most of my hiking has in fact been done with my two college roomies; Zion, Sedona, Camelback, Armstrong Redwoods, and I’m sure a few I’m missing. This is where I find my perfect pitch – I let those two pound down the trail, talking non-stop and not really paying much attention to the beauty around them, and I lag behind, stopping to crouch and look at little flowers, pick up rocks, smell the pine trees, watch a weird bird do its tree branch dance, and listen to the sound of silence. They stop and wait for me from time to time. The gap between us, for me, is perfect; I have my silence and my way of hiking, and I also have two bodyguards for when the cougar jumps me.
I’d like to get better at hiking solo, I really would, but I can’t shake the unease of traipsing through the woods myself.
Yet here is the irony; dump three feet of snow in those same woods and blaze a ski trail, and I have no problem spending 3 to 4 hours gliding through the woods on my XC skis, with not another soul in sight. (well, not exactly true; I prefer a handful of people in the parking lot to let me know it’s safe).
Maybe if I start carrying a knife and cougar spray I’ll feel more confident.
Circling back to my recent failed hikes; the recommendation the woman gave me was a County Park in the middle of BFE. I pulled in and realized there were a bunch of good ole boys camping here; the first sign that I won’t feel safe. My phone had no cell signal; bad omen #2. The trail was not marked, and so many leaves were down on the trail that it was hard to even make out which way to go. I felt dread, but wandered lost through a crappy hike to nowhere for about an hour before giving up. From there I went to a dedicated reserve that supposedly had miles and miles of trails; I stopped in at the park office and told the woman I wanted to do about an hour hike (since now my day had been wasted on a crappy County park trail), and I could tell from her attitude when she showed me the map that she was also going to mislead me. She sent me to the first trailhead down the road that was closest to the ranger station; she explained I would hike in through a wooded trail and then out along a road, which for some reason I didn’t register that she was telling me to hike along a FRICKING ROAD. That’s not hiking. That is walking along a road.
But I went anyway. Feeling satisfied with the first 2 minutes of my hike, around minute marker 3, I stumble across a severed fresh deer leg on the trail. Yep. Just a random, fresh leg, hanging out there in the middle of the reserve. Waiting for the damn cougar to come back and pick it up.
I carried on, again scanning the woods for the mighty meat-eater. About 10 minutes later I make it to a paved path. Yes, a paved path. After looking at the map she gave me, I realize this paved path is an old railroad trail that goes through the entire reserve, and oh look! There go some bicyclists! They look like they are having fun, and would have better luck out-running the lions. Sigh. How did I miss this feature of the reserve? I press on. It’s hot. It’s April and it’s 80 some damn degrees in Wisconsin, because you know, climate crisis is happening. This area flooded the year before, and the river I was now walking along was still high. I started envisioning the movie Deliverance. This was not an enjoyable hike.
A few minutes later I find a landmark feature; it commemorates the families that used to live here 100+ years ago, and notates that this exact spot was their cemetery, and not far from here the schoolhouse. I imagined what it would have been like to live back then, having to walk this path daily; living alongside the natives; farming the land and hoping the floods don’t come this year. Avoiding mountain lions.
I take the left hand turn up the gravel road like the ranger told me to. I’m once again on a long road to nowhere. A few minutes later, my hike is over. All in, twenty minutes. I’m pissed at the ranger. I’m pissed that hiking doesn’t like me. I think about snow. And then I go back to my cabin and have a beer.
Postscript: This post was inspired by Michelle Pingree’s post on her love of hiking.
Postscript to the postscript: Even Michelle gets a little angsty at big animals with big claws and teeth and big hooves that roam the woods.