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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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.





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.





I’m As Free As a Bird Now…

29 02 2012

Originally published February 8, 2010.

“Look, I won’t go far, okay?  If the apocalypse comes, beep me.”

— Buffy, BtVS, “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date”

Last summer, I spent a week at a dude ranch in Montana, riding horses, shooting rifles, panning for gold, hiking, incredible wildlife viewing, and generally hanging out.  Montana is a great place to hang out.  That’s because, out on the ranches, even those that are “close to town” by their standards are far away by the standards of us city dwellers.  The ranch where I stayed had a driveway that was over a mile long between the main road and the first ranch buildings (the corral), and that’s considered short.

I mention all of this because, while I was on the ranch for a week, I had no access to email or my cell.  None.  There was simply no signal out there.  You could get a sort of sketchy signal on the main road, so if I was truly desperate, technically I could have walked out there.  Believe me, I considered it.

I’m hyper-connected.  I am checking email constantly, texting, making phone calls, on Facebook, etc.  I’m also one of those people who gets a LOT of incoming communication.  I go a day without checking messages, and I have hundreds to weed through (both work and personal), and that’s mighty overwhelming.

Last week, we talked a little bit about bringing your cell along when you solo hike.  I mentioned the big caveat, which is that it won’t always work out there in the wild (or on a Montana ranch), but I urged you to bring it along anyhow.  I’ve noticed, however, that there is a common reaction to this suggestion: But I’m going out into the wilderness!  Isn’t bringing a cell phone defeating the purpose?

No.  Not at all.  And here’s why:

Your phone has an off button.

Simple, I know, but oh-so-important.  The phone is a safety precaution.  (And, if you’re like me, a way to snap a photo and upload it for everyone’s viewing pleasure, whether at the moment or at a later time.)  I don’t check my email on hikes.  I don’t make calls.  I tend to silence my phone or turn it off entirely.  I have it just in case, but I take the opportunity to completely ignore it, and my hyper-connected life.

It’s good to disconnect every so often.  You can do it at home, too — try going 24 hours without answering the phone, checking your email, or turning on the television.  I call it “going hermit.”  It’s unbelievably serene (if you can find the 24 hours to do it).  All those voices and nagging wonders about what’s going on slowly quiet down, so that even when you get back to the bustle you feel more in control and less rushed.

Hiking and camping is the perfect opportunity to disconnect.  Bring the phone.  Make sure it’s charged.  And then turn it off until you need it.  You won’t be sorry.





Planning is Half the Fun

28 02 2012

Originally published January 20, 2010.

If you read last week’s post about Rule #7 (Tell someone where you’ll be), you may be grumbling a little.  I know, I know.  You’re spontaneous.  You can’t be held to a plan.  You need adventure, and that means heading out into the great wide open with little more than a desire to explore.

You, being spontaneous.

This is fine, as an attitude.  I actually encourage it, and embrace it myself.  But a desire to be spontaneous, to let the east wind carry you to the door of your next unknown adventure, doesn’t mean that you can’t engage in at least some planning and preparation.  Remember, when we set out on this journey together I said that solo hiking and camping can be safe — with a little preparation and precautions.  With the preparation, you can stop worrying about danger and get on with the enjoyment…which is kind of the point, right?

Besides, planning is fun.  When I was a kid, I would watch, fascinated, as my dad spent the better part of the year planning our annual vacation.  He would pore over travel guides from AAA, send away for brochures and amusement park maps (this was pre-Internet), make lists and add up prices and plot courses and analyze maps.  He had so much fun doing it, I sometimes wondered if he had more fun planning the vacation than actually being on it.

I inherited this planning fascination from him.  When I took my long road trip, I spent a couple of months planning — researching equipment I would need, places I wanted to go, people with whom I could stay, sites to see, etc.  I looked at driving times between parks, mapped out routes, looked at websites on American roadside kitsch.  (Of course, I didn’t have this blog to help me…)  It was scary — because I wasn’t certain I could do it — but it was also exciting.

Look how much fun they're having!

Here are some good things about planning and not leaving everything to spontaneity:

  • Anticipation: Planning lets you have fun with your trip before you go, because you can imagine yourself on the trip and get excited for it.
  • Eliminating Potential Problems: No, you can’t foresee everything.  (Unless you can, in which case you know what I’m going to say next.)  You can anticipate potential issues that might arise and make provisions for them ahead of time.  If you know you’re going to be in a place where the weather is cold, for example, you can pack warm clothing and avoid a) frostbite or b) maxing out a credit card buying new clothes.  If you eliminate these issues before they happen, you don’t have to worry about them while you’re supposed to be having fun.
  • Find stuff you never would have seen otherwise.  Okay, this goes both ways.  If you don’t plan at all, you might miss something unbelievable because you didn’t know to look for it.  On the other hand, if you stick too hard and fast to your plan, you run the risk of missing something unbelievable because you didn’t take the time to notice it.  Balance, my child, is the key.  But the point here is that by planning, you might run across something truly interesting that you wouldn’t have otherwise stumbled across on your own.
  • Know what you’re getting into.  This is probably the most important benefit of planning, at least from a safety perspective — and is also connected to eliminating potential problems noted above.  If you know that the hike you’re planning is 5 miles, and moderately strenuous, you can guage how much time you need.  If you have the right map, you can figure out if you’re on the right trail or get yourself un-lost if you make a wrong turn.  All of this makes for safer, and therefore more fun, solo hiking.

Finally, planning doesn’t have to mean you give up spontaneity entirely.  Planning can provide merely a framework…and then you can decide to stick to the plan or not, depending on your whim.  And if you do decide to switch it up at the last minute, you can text/facebook/call/leave a note like we talked about last time…

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2010.





You’ve Got Class: Self Defense, First Aid, and Meeting New People

27 02 2012

(Originally published December 9, 2009.)

Buffy: I’m Buffy.  I’m new.

Xander: Xander.  Is – is me.  Hi.

Buffy: Um, thanks.

Xander: Well, uh, maybe I’ll see you around… maybe at school… since we… both… go there.

Buffy: Great! It was nice to meet you. [walks away]

Xander: We both go to school. Very suave. Very not pathetic.

— Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Welcome to the Hellmouth”

Yes, it’s true, I was one of those kids who liked school.  For the most part.  I mean, I didn’t relish test-taking or being picked on or gym class but in general school was an okay thing.  Sure, there were days I didn’t feel like getting out of bed, but since I was all right with the whole learning premise, it was pretty much a place to hang around with my friends for eight (or more, during theater season) hours per day.  College was even better for these purposes — you get to live with your friends, and go to class when you feel like it.

Once you’re in the real world, with a job, you start to realize how good you had it when you were in school…why do you think so many people go through the torture of grad school?  They get slapped in the face by the real world and run back to class, where it’s safe and fun and your success or failure depends pretty much on your own efforts.

Even those of us who stick it out in the real world, work our jobs, and get focused on our careers end up craving the classroom again eventually.  Think about it.  I bet you (or people you know) have taken various classes post-college.  Did you take a writing seminar?  A class on sauces at the local culinary school?  A beginner’s photography class you found on craigslist?  Salsa lessons at that bar down the street?

What makes you decide to take a class?  For me — and I’m betting for most people — part of it is an actual desire to learn something, maybe part of it is a desire to learn something specific, but part of it is the social aspect.    It’s like the first day at a new school all over again: a little scary, incredibly exciting, and now you’ve grown into your skin and have confidence you didn’t have at the acne-dangerous age of fifteen.  Who else will be taking the class?  What will they be like?  Will you have a chance to be popular, again or finally?

This is the Good Stuff side to the rule we discussed last week, you know, the one about never ever ever leaving your first aid kit behind.  While thinking about the injuries you might sustain on a solo hike or camping trip, or the other dangers out there can be intimidating, don’t forget that the key is to be prepared.  And how can you get prepared, in a fun, exciting way that conveniently ties into this little musing about school?

You can take a class!

Last week I linked to the American Red Cross for first aid classes, but there are other organizations that offer them as well.  Female self-defense classes became a rage a handful of years ago, and they are still offered all over, in varying levels of commitment, intensity, and difficulty.  Classes don’t have to be limited to just safety, however; many local adult ed centers, the Appalachian Mountain Club, and other outdoors clubs offer hiking “classes” that usually involve a group hike.  Just because you want to be able to solo hike and camp, or prefer to solo hike and camp, doesn’t mean that you can’t also get involved with the community, learn something,  and get prepared.

You can even be like Xander and meet some new people at class, since you both…go there.

What classes have you voluntarily taken since leaving formal “school?”  Why?  What was good and bad about them?





I’ll Walk It Off Later

24 02 2012

Originally published November 23, 2009

I never worry about diets.  The only carrots that interest me are the number you get in a diamond. 

~Mae West

If only that were true.  What would it be like, I wonder, to move through life without ever having to worry about dieting?  I’ll never know, but I do know one thing: when I’m hiking is the one time that I truly don’t worry about diets.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about food and hiking, including some suggested basics for a shorter and a longer hike.  Then, last week, I wrote a post about how important it is — it’s one of the “Rules,” in fact — to pack enough food when you hike so that you don’t find yourself weakened from the exertion without proper replenishment.  And here we are again.  So this food thing must be important.  The good news is that there’s a Good Stuff side to the Rule about food:

There’s No Dieting on the Trail

Okay, so it doesn’t have the same zip as “There’s no crying in baseball,” but let’s celebrate this.  How often do you justify an indulgent meal/snack by promising yourself that you’ll spend an extra hour in the gym to make up for your transgression?  (Too often, I bet.  Don’t worry, I’m not judging.)  Well, one of the great benefits of hiking — besides getting fresh air, and taking the time to slow down and notice the world around you — is that it’s great exercise.

I did some very scientific* research by looking up “hiking calories burned” on the Interwebs, and got a range of calories burned per sixty minutes of hiking, from as low as 340 calories to as high as 530.  The broad range is likely because no two hikes are the same; some require constant climbing and are highly strenuous.  Others are only a little more challenging than a walk in the park (and we know that a walk in the park is like…well, a walk in the park).

But the exact numbers don’t really matter.  Even at 340 calories, that’s a lot of calories.  And remember, that’s just one hour of hiking.  If you go on a day hike and are out on the trail for six hours or more, you’re probably burning well over your normal calorie intake for the day just in those six hours.

Therefore, when I’m hiking, I really don’t worry too much about how many calories I’m eating.  I try to pack a balanced array of food, and some extra energy bars, and I eat when I’m hungry, which tends to be at fairly regular and frequent intervals.

So when you’re on the trail, make like Mae West and don’t worry about dieting…but carrot sticks are a pretty good hiking snack.

*Not at all scientific.

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2009.