I’ve written before about hiking in South Mountain Park. It’s been more than a year and a half since I’ve been there, and I miss it very much. Truth be told, I just started taking walks again the beginning of October—it’s just been much too hot around here. Also, between being wary about Covid and needing to help my husband, I just haven’t gotten out much. But I’ve started venturing out a little as of the middle of September.
Moving your body is a good thing at any age; staying active as you get older is especially important. Besides being wonderful exercise for the body and the brain, hiking also has benefits for emotional and mental health. Walking and hiking have a meditative element to them. As you stride, you notice what is around you. You are present in the moment. But you can also let your mind work on your problems—or forget your problems entirely.
Ideally, you should have a companion with you when you hike. But I’ve also hiked by myself. I wouldn’t recommend hiking an unfamiliar trail on your own, but I’ve done exactly that. There is something to be said for being alone in the wilderness.
When I first took up hiking, everything was new to me. I did a little online reading about the trails in the park. I bought some hiking boots and was delighted to find out I was more sure-footed in them than I had been in sneakers. I bought a trekking pole and found it to be very helpful for maintaining balance when forced to make large steps or walking on rocky surfaces (be sure to keep the pole in front of you).
When you’re on your own, you’re forced to be self-sufficient and make your own judgment calls. In most parks, you’re required to stay on the trails. But sometimes you can’t quite tell where the trail is. If the trail gets steep, you may have no clue where to put your feet. Hiking alone tests your mettle.
My very first hike in South Mountain Park, I went by myself. I was having a great time walking at my own pace. I hardly saw another person, and I was all right with that. After half an hour, I reached the top of a hill, and then I couldn’t tell where the trail went from there. So I turned around, feeling maybe it was time to head back. But from the top of the hill, I literally could not figure out how to get down. It looked way steeper going down than it had looked going up, and I could not identify what path I had taken to get where I was.
While I was standing there wondering what to do, an older couple crested the hill from the other direction and began making their way down without any of the hesitancy I was feeling. I watched where they stepped and followed them. They stopped as if they were waiting for me, but I said, “No, go on ahead—I don’t want to slow you down.” I actually caught up to them a while later where the ground was more level.
Maybe a year later I took a trail that was new to me, that a hiking website has designated as “easy” (warning—an “easy” label does not mean that a fairly new hiker will find it easy). It was the most challenging trail I’d ever been on. Lots of up and down, lots of very rocky sections. I approached a section that I knew intersected with a much easier trail that I was familiar with, but the easy trail was a good thirty feet below, and the three possible ways down the ridge were all very steep. I had seen other hikers pass me and drop of out sight, but I had no idea which way they had gone. When I looked down one path, I saw a woman hanging by her hands. I walked away because I didn’t want to make her nervous.
I walked from one path to another, and couldn’t figure out how to traverse them. While I was trying to decide, other hikers came up those paths, but I was too far from them to see how they did it. I considered turning back, but it had taken me one and a half hours to get to where I was; I know the easy path was only half an hour from the trailhead. I had to go forward. After a good twenty minutes of considering my options, I picked the least harrowing path of the three. I sat on the edge, dangled my legs, and carefully skootched myself off, about a six-foot drop. I didn’t kill myself! That was my scariest hiking experience, but it energized me to get past it all by myself.
What am I trying to say? That being by myself in the wilderness helps center me. I’m awed by my surroundings. I’m gratified that I can be resourceful when I have to be. I feel closer to God, closer to the earth, unhurried, undistracted.