Stop and Look Around

13 03 2012

We live in an age of information overload. Multiple email sources, text messages, phone calls, Facebook, Twitter, hundreds of television channels, YouTube, satellite radio, podcasts, and books that you can get delivered to your ereader in seconds all demand our attention, and are available and running twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week. We have hyper-scheduled lives, moving from destination to destination with our heads buried in our smartphones, dodging things and people in our path as if in a never-ending game of real-life Frogger.

Living this way is not only exhausting, but fraught with danger, and not merely the danger of being run down by a zealous cyclist. In the immortal words of Ferris Bueller:

Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

I’m just as guilty of this as the next person. Even now, when I’ve left my full-time job to pursue my dream career, I have let myself be overscheduled, so that each day I sit down and make a list of things to accomplish, how long they should take, and then check them off as I go along. I’m so focused on the things I need to do that I’m not taking the time to “stop and look around.”

Rule Number 11, Pay Attention to the Time and Weather, which we discussed last week, has a Good Stuff benefit that is an unintentional bonus. When you’re paying attention to your surroundings, you’re looking around. You’re noticing things that you would miss if you were simply focused on your destination or allowing yourself to be distracted by a beeping phone or wondering about the latest box scores. The Good Stuff side to Rule 11 is:

Use Your Refined Observation Skills as a Source of Inspiration and Reflection

While you’re keeping an eye on the clouds in the sky, and noting how long it’s taking you to climb this mountain, see what else you can find around you. Part of the point of hiking, for me, is to get away from the chatter of everyday life and physically put yourself somewhere serene. Part of point of hiking solo is that I am forced to spend some time with my thoughts and my thoughts alone. I can’t watch a movie or read a book or play on Facebook while I’m walking, and there’s no one to talk to, so it’s just me, and the quiet.

Yesterday, I took advantage of the spring weather here in Boston and wandered around Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge for a while. I’ll talk about that in more detail another time, but while I was there, I thought about this post. I thought about it because for the first twenty minutes, I had my nose buried not in a phone, but in the map of the grounds. I was so focused on which way to go — despite the fact that I had no real destination — that I wasn’t taking in my surroundings. Once I realized that, I put the map away and just wandered. I took photos. I looked at interesting tombstones. I enjoyed the sunshine and the fresh air and the beauty of the place. It was a good reminder for what I was writing today.

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It Was a Dark and Stormy Night…

6 03 2012

Originally published July 12, 2010.

Imagine an amazing hiking day.  There’s a light breeze, but the temperature is nearly perfect.  You’re whistling a little tune as you’re hiking down the trail.  You have your backpack of supplies.  You’re reveling in the sights, sounds and smells of nature, dawdling here at a brook, spending time setting up the perfect shot there, laying out on the rock at the peak, closing your eyes to just be for a while.

Sounds like a great day, doesn’t it?

Suddenly, in the distance, you see some angry-looking dark gray clouds.  They seem to be moving toward you awfully quickly.  You start down the trail, hurrying now, but sure enough, it soon starts to rain.  Hard.  You find some semi-shelter and wait it out, but by the time it stops the sun is going down.  Suddenly, what started out as a great hike, one that was simple for you, turned harrowing, all because the weather and the time caught up with you before you realized it.

Something similar happened to my friends.  If you remember, they left for their hike on the late side, were not familiar with the trail, took a couple of wrong turns, were hiking slow, and then it started getting dark — and scary — fast.  Everything is different in bad weather and when the sun goes down, and all the slightly dangerous things about hiking get a lot more dangerous: animals moving under cover of the darkness, higher chance of injury because you can’t see where you’re going, the temperature drops, etc.

How to prevent against this situation?  Rule Number 11:

Pay attention to the time and the weather.

Please don’t leave for a 3 hour hike 3 hours before sunset.  Please check the weather forecast for where you are hiking (i.e. not your house) before you leave.  Please keep an eye on the time — yes, wear a watch or have something on you that keeps track of time — and an eye on the weather.  Watch for clouds, darkening skies, temperature dropping, the smell of moisture in the air.

This is not to say that, on some occasions, you can’t hike with an iffy weather forecast.  Just use your head.  If the forecast calls for light showers in the late afternoon and you plan to be back by noon, you just have to keep watch on the weather while you’re on the trail.  If, on the other hand, you’re planning to snowshoe and there’s rumors of a blizzard, today might be the day to catch up on that novel you’ve been wanting to read.





Humility and Community

2 03 2012

Originally published May 17, 2010.

What goes around comes around.  Karma.  The Golden Rule.  Give and take.  Pay it forward.  Quid pro quo.  Cause and effect.  Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

No matter which way you put it — based in science, religion and spirituality, psychology, human nature — the concept is the same.  Your actions (and inactions) have consequences.  As a child, we are taught to treat other people as we would like to be treated.  Share your toys, so that if you want to play with someone else’s toy, they will want to share with you.  Comfort someone who is upset, so that when you need comforting, they will be there for you.

As an adult, these simple concepts become weighted with complexities: politics, familial obligation, autonomy and independence.  Once upon a time, when people lived in small communities and knew all of their neighbors, the logic in considering the consequences of your actions was simple.  If you wronged Joe, Joe would remember, and tell everyone else.  If you helped Joe when he needed it, Joe would remember, and be around to return the favor.  Nowadays, our communities, where they exist, are disjointed.  We have sub-communities of family (whom we may rarely see), the office, perhaps the neighborhood (but that is increasingly rare in cities).  It becomes harder to connect your actions with direct consequences because of the diminished contact and commitment we have with those around us.  We find ourselves either having to work harder to convince ourselves to lend a hand, or work harder to establish and become part of a true community.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: hikers and outdoorsy people have a natural community.  It comes from having a similar interest, but I also think there’s a certain type of personality that revels in being outdoors.  I have never come across a hiker on a trail who was unfriendly.  We say hello, check in to make sure things are going all right, offer to snap a photo, give advice about the trail, and so forth.  I have never found a community so willing to share information and help each other out, even though we’re a bunch of utter strangers who know nothing about each other aside from the fact that we yearn for the trail.

A few weeks ago, I talked about Rule No. 10, asking for help when you need it.  The “Good Stuff” side of Rule No. 10 is that, when you ask for help while hiking and camping, you don’t need to be embarrassed that you couldn’t handle something on your own, because chances are, the person you’re asking has asked for help themselves.  For every time that you need assistance, you’ll find opportunities to give assistance to someone else.

The wonderful part about all of this is that, with each instance in which you lend a hand or ask for one, you’re reinforcing the community.  While you still may not see immediate or direct effects of your actions — i.e., that guy you helped may not be the one to help you out when you need it — because, as a community, we have all needed assistance at one time or another, we’re happy to repay the favor in whatever direction it’s needed.  Then, we can trust that when we do need a hand, there will be one available.

It’s the cycle of hiking life.  Embrace it.  And the next time you need help, just remember that you’ll be able to help someone else around the next corner.

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2010.





I Get By With a Little Help From…That Guy

2 03 2012

Originally published April 12, 2010.

One of the greatest things about solo camping and hiking is the feeling of accomplishment and independence that comes with realizing you can be self-sufficient.  Holy cow, I can build a fire!  I can pitch a tent — and get it all back into that little sleeve it came in!  I can climb a mountain and find my way back down!  (These are even greater triumphs if you grew up thinking you had no capacity to deal with the outdoors or anything remotely physical — and having that thinking reinforced.)

Self-sufficiency, and the independence and freedom that comes along with it, is truly valuable.  When embarking on your first solo camping and hiking endeavors, you should definitely push yourself towards that goal.  Even if you aren’t totally sure you can build a fire and cook that hot dog, give it a try.  A real try, not just a half-hearted one.  Plot your own course on a hike, figure out how to use your equipment, make your own decisions.  You’re way more capable than you give yourself credit for, I promise.

Sometimes, however, you need a little help.  Maybe you can’t change the tire on your car in the middle of a busy highway.  Maybe you can’t get a particularly tight knot undone.  Maybe you just. Can’t. Get. That. Fire. Going.  That’s when Rule Number 10 comes into play:

Ask For Help When You Need It

Sure, it’s great to be self-sufficient.  Sure, part of solo camping and hiking is to push yourself and test your limits, boost your confidence by realizing you’re better at a lot of things than you thought you were.  Sure, sometimes it’s embarrassing (and, as a woman, can rankle a little) to ask for help.

But here’s the thing: faced with the choice of spending a few hours frustrated and upset, or asking someone for help, avoiding the frustration, and perhaps learning a new way of accomplishing your intended task so that you don’t have to ask for help in the future, that second choice sounds pretty good.  It’s not giving up, it’s being realistic and making a choice about your own education and enjoyment.  You might also make someone else happy, because when you’re out on the trail, people generally like to be friendly and helpful.

This isn’t to say you should give something a feeble try, say “I can’t do this” and find someone to do it for you because it’s hard and/or annoying.  But when you’ve given something a good go and you just haven’t quite managed to figure out the best way to do it…or have learned your physical limitations, ask for a hand.  You might even make a friend in the process.

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2010.





Hi, My Name Is

1 03 2012
No it’s not Slim Shady, but that’s what you were thinking. Right?

Originally published March 15, 2010.

I’ve lived my entire life in New England.  New Englanders are a hearty bunch: they know how to prepare for hurricanes and nor’easters, trudge patiently through piles of snow and slush, and wait out an eighty-six year World Series drought.  New Englanders aren’t known for being particularly friendly, however.  They keep to themselves, don’t trust strangers and newcomers, and mind their own business.

This is why I was surprised, upon visiting other parts of the country, to have random strangers smile and say hello to me on the street.  I kept thinking, “do I know that guy?”  I just wasn’t used to the idea that a person would interact willingly with the strangers around them, even in passing.

This interaction with strangers is even more pronounced on the trail — the hiking trail, that is.  Outdoorsy people are a friendly bunch, and it’s considered appropriate to exchange greetings with hikers you pass along the way.  In addition to being friendly, it’s also safety-related; when a hiker nods and smiles and says hello, he’s really saying, “Everything going all right?”  And when you nod and smile and say hello back, you’re really saying, “Everything’s fine, thanks for asking.”

Last week, we talked about the importance of choosing the right trail — and that applies to campsites, as well — in order to find the right balance between your enjoyment of nature and your comfort with the level of solitude you’re facing.  I personally like trails where I can meet other people, and so here we are at the Good Stuff part of picking the right trails:

Meeting People On the Trail (and at Camp)

As always, there’s caution to be taken here, and using your head, and all that other stuff we’ve been talking about for the past six months.  It’s understandable to be a little shy about interacting with others you meet, and cautious about sharing too much information.  That’s just good sense.

However, there are lots of good people out there on the trail.  In particular, if you’re on a relatively populated trail, your chances of running into a serial killer are slim.  He wouldn’t pick that trail — too high a chance of getting caught.  Someone smiling at you might just be being friendly and checking in (in fact, that’s probably what they’re doing).  If you’re very nervous, pick out the people with kids to talk to; they’re too busy making sure their kids don’t fall off the mountain to be dangerous.

Here’s another benefit to making friends on the trail: sometimes, you need someone to give you a push.  One day, when I was hiking the Bright Angel Trail at the Grand Canyon in 110 degree heat, I was in bad shape.  I had another mile and a half to the top, and while I had plenty of water, I felt like I had to stop and rest at every switchback, because while hiking alone, all I could hear was my labored breathing and my heart pounding.  I sat on a rock in a brief piece of shade to take a break, and after a moment a man sat down on the rock next to me, asking if I minded.  I shook my head, still breathing heavily.  We started chatting.  He was alone too, and asked if I’d be his company for the rest of the hike.  That last mile and a half absolutely flew by.  We talked about nothing I can remember, but we didn’t stop again until we reached the top.  Having someone to push, and be pushed by, made that last portion of the hike much more enjoyable (and take much less miserable hot time!).

Meeting people can work in camp, too.  I found that I was more likely to strike up conversations in the morning than at night, in particular if I was moving on that day, because it felt less risky.  Retired couples in RVs in particular like to share their bacon with the daring, interesting girl who slept in that little tent.

Besides, meeting people is fun!  So just smile and say “Hi.”  You might end up with lifelong — or trail-long — friends.

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2010.





The Road Less Traveled is Overrated

1 03 2012

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

– Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

Originally published March 8, 2010.

Taking the “road less traveled” is the metaphor we use when we want to muster up the courage to do something out of our comfort zones, congratulate ourselves for choosing the more adventurous alternative, and justify not sticking to boring routines.  As a metaphor, it’s inspiring and comforting at the same time.

Taken literally, however, choosing the “road less traveled” might not always be the wisest decision.  For example, imagine that you’re driving into a blizzard in Vermont.  You could choose to take the interstate most of the way, along with all of the other cars persistently slushing through the precipitation, or you could go the shorter, windier route through the mountains that, during nice weather, is much more pleasant.  Here’s a hint: the road less traveled is a pain in the ass.  (Based on a recent, and very true, story.)

When solo hiking, you may think the road less traveled might be just what you’re looking for.  You want solitude and serenity out in nature, without hordes of other hikers spoiling your meditations, and what better way to achieve that than to find that trail no one else seems to want to hike?

As a casual solo hiker, however, someone who is just dunking a toe into the shallow end to see how it feels, the road less traveled can be scary.  Choosing the trail where you’ll be by yourself might seem ideal at first, but once you’re out there you may change your mind.  It might not be as well-maintained as the more-traveled routes, causing you to question whether you’re still on the trail.  If you’re truly out there on your own, and there is little likelihood anyone will come by, then there won’t be anyone to help you out if you need it.  Finally, you face higher chances of surprising wildlife — hint: surprising wildlife is usually a bad idea — lulled into complacency by the infrequent sightings of humans.

Does that mean that, as a beginning solo hiker, you should only choose the most populated hiking trails?  Not necessarily.  As always, kids, the key here is balance.  That brings us to Rule No. 9:

Choose the Right Trail.

As you get more comfortable solo hiking, and get a sense of your comfort level, this will get easier and easier.  That’s because your comfort level is precisely what should dictate what trail you choose — and not the dire warnings and scare tactics of naysayers.

While on my Road Trip, I started out picking only those trails that seemed to get a lot of visitors.  I was alone, in the sense that I didn’t have a travel companion, but I wasn’t yet comfortable being alone in the woods, or the desert, or wherever it was that I found myself on that day.  After a few hikes, I became more confident, and soon I wasn’t paying all that much attention to how popular the trail was.  Even so, and to this day, I am comforted when there are a couple of other cars at the trailhead, because I know that, somewhere out there, I’m likely to run into someone.  On the other hand, I dislike hiking on trails that are so populated I’m constantly staring at the heels of the person in front of me.  Happily, it’s easy to find balance once you know what to look for.  Here are a few indicators:

  • How many cars are at the trailhead?  If you’re having trouble finding a place to park — especially if the parking area is large — you’re going to be hiking amidst a sea of other hikers.  If there’s not another car in sight, you’re probably the only one there.  And if there’s a school bus, turn tail and run (or is that just me?).
  • Is the trail highlighted, discussed, or merely mentioned in guidebooks?  The most popular trails can be spotted from miles away because they are considered must-sees and mentioned everywhere you look, while others are less well-known and publicized.
  • Once you’re on the trail, can you see any other hikers?  Hear them?  If not, that doesn’t mean they aren’t around the next bend, and you can usually tell after hiking for a half hour or so the level of travel on the trail by how many people you meet.

So pick the trail that’s right for you.  If you’ve never solo hiked, you might want to try a couple of well-visited trails to build your confidence rather than seeking true solitude right away.  And it’s okay for even experienced solo hikers to generally prefer to run into at least a couple of people during an 8-hour hike.  Chances are, you’ll find plenty of spots on the trail where you’re on your own and can soul-search and reflect in solitude to your heart’s content.

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2010.