Editor’s note: Throughout October, our #hikeOctober guest writers share what hiking means in their lives. Today’s guest writer is Betsy Kane.
On a rainy, late summer day, I was returning to the trailhead after a three-hour hike, when I heard a woman shout over to me, “You decided to turn around, huh?”
I looked up to see a middle-aged couple that I had passed on my way up the mountain as they were descending, sitting in their RV. “No, I made it up there,” I said.
“Oh, you must be much faster than us!” she replied.
“Well, I live right down the road. I hike this every week.”
Her husband looked over at me from behind the wheel. “Every week? Why?” he asked.
I shrugged and gave him the best answer I could at the time. “Why not?”
The choice to physically challenge oneself can sometimes be seen by others as admirable, courageous, dangerous, or even stupid. Admittedly, most hikers would not have chosen that particular dark, cold day to take a hike, or perhaps they would have turned back when they saw that raindrops were becoming snow flurries near the summit. But on that day, I had felt like going on a hike, so I went. I was prepared for the conditions and found the snowflakes and high winds to be thrilling.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of making decisions based on how other people might perceive them. It took a long time for me to move past the cautious attitude that I was raised with and concerns over what my family might think, to find my own sense of joy and challenge in the mountains. As a kid, my parents held tightly to their physical comfort zone and while they enjoyed spending time outdoors, hitting a trail for longer than a few miles was out of the question. We visited the Adirondack Mountains for a week every summer, where we learned about the High Peaks and the Adirondack 46ers, who we thought were crazy for pushing themselves to dangerous extremes in the wilderness. Now decades later, as a 46er myself, I have learned the value of a self-imposed challenge. If you never step away from life’s daily comforts, it’s hard to see how much you actually have, and how little you really need.
Looking back, hiking has been there for me in different ways over time. In college, I found myself seeking out local trails to find peace and solitude away from campus. Hiking became an escape from reality in my mid-twenties, when I was facing divorce at a young age. When I was almost 30, a car slammed into mine on my way home from work one day, and I ended up needing spinal surgery. During that time of physical weakness, I decided that I should go for a hike on the Appalachian Trail. My mom angrily reacted to this decision by telling me to stick a note in my pocket saying where to send my dead body. I know it didn’t make much sense to my friends or family, and in the end I only made it a couple hundred miles, but that hike re-instilled a sense of personal strength in me that I needed at the time.
One of my favorite things about hiking is that in the middle of the wilderness, quitting is simply not possible. Every hiker reaches a point on a long trail when things get tough and they question why they are there. For better or worse, you are forced to keep moving. In the end, every steep uphill, mud pit, rockslide, driving rainstorm, or snow squall makes you stronger and more grateful for simple things, like a hot shower, dry clothes, and a roof over your head.
The places that my own two feet have taken me are more memorable and significant than anywhere I could travel to by car or plane. At times, hiking brings me to my knees and even flat on my face, but the same trail that humbles me, offers a great sense of accomplishment in the end. The thrill of reaching a mountaintop never gets old, and the sense of awe that I find in nature makes any challenge or hardship worth it, time and time again.
– Betsy Kane
Click here to learn more about #hikeOctober, an annual program to raise awareness of the challenges of mental illness, fund mental health research and conserve wilderness trails. #hikeOctober is free to join, open to hikers with all experience levels, and an easy way to have your walk in the woods, or around the block, make an impact!