Growing up and living most of my adult life in bucolic Iowa, hiking was never much on the radar for me. Camping was. Even backpacking was. When I was about twelve, I saved my babysitting money and bought myself one of those old metal frame backpacks and strapped it on to tramp around the woods and fields surrounding my house. As soon as my chores were done, I scurried to the end of my street, hopped the fence, and became Tom Sawyer, or Thoreau, free and unencumbered (except by that heavy backpack) as I traipsed along and explored the surrounding county.
As I got older, I realized that when other people talked about “hiking”. they were talking about high mountain trails more so than rolling Iowa hills. I languished over photos of hikers in Colorado and the American West. I watched videos of hikers and backpackers on the Appalachian and Pacific Coast Trails and thought there could be no finer endeavor than to take, as Bill Bryson put it, A Walk in the Woods. Even the Superior Hiking Trail in neighboring Minnesota looked exotic and exciting. I secretly wished for a trail name.
And then, at the tender age of 58, at fifty pounds overweight and past my days of running half-marathons and one full marathon – lightning struck. A family vacation to the Grand Canyon initiated me into the heady world of going “below the rim”. Of scrambling over rocks and following a trail around a bend to see breathtaking vistas open up before me as the canyon floor fell away. I got a glimpse into the fraternity of hikers, sitting together at a waypoint, munching in silent, easy companionship on protein bars, peanut butter cookies and cold pizza.
At its most basic, hiking is walking, strolling, meandering – an activity as old as our species and one of our first big milestones as humans. But rough and natural terrain also requires the skills of climbing, balancing, splashing, fording and map reading. As I told my husband, collapsing red-faced and delighted at the end of our ascent, “It’s like being a little kid again!”
And, as it turns out, hiking can indeed include the rolling Loess hills in Iowa, and the bluffs along the Mississippi River. While the finish line is the whole point in running, the journey itself is the reward in hiking – the slow and steady process of one foot following another.
It’s also a great activity for heart health, building bone density, strengthening the core and improving balance. Studies have shown that hiking is also beneficial in battling stress and anxiety, which is the case with all immersions into nature. We seem to be hard-wired to get outside and move.
So if I ever go missing, just follow my trail to the nearest trail head, pull up a stump and wait a spell. I won’t be long, and I won’t go far, but when I return, I will be muddied, breathless, clear-eyed and happy, for I am a hiker.