Hiking for the trail, not the top
One of the homestead sites in Pisgah State Park, from the Old Chesterfield Road trail in Winchester. (Courtesy of Stephanie White Ferland)
Lately I’ve been counting my blessings to live here in New England.
The weather is perfect and the scenery magnificent. The pleasing, earthy smell of fallen leaves is accompanied by the scent of smoke rising from the first fires in rural wood stoves.
I love sitting on the deck with a cup of coffee while the chilly air and waning warmth of the autumn sun simultaneously wrap themselves around me. I like admiring the palette of vibrant reds and yellows, rust and umber, brushed through the trees along the driveway. But one of the best ways to take in the beauty of my favorite season is to hike New England’s trails.
For some reason, this fall found me thinking about how much hiking is like life itself. We head off in a particular direction, hopeful that we’ll see what we’re expecting to find at the end of the road. Yet ultimately we spend a lot more time on the way than at the end. The trail we take, and the manner in which we travel, have a lot more impact on how we feel than that brief view at the top.
One of the things I love most about hiking is that it can be equally enjoyed alone or with companions, and the fullness of the experience doesn’t really depend on the view from the summit.
Pisgah State Park in Cheshire County has trails that welcomed me as a child, a teenager, and an adult.
In junior high, I discovered that taking the trailhead from Broad Brook Road in Ashuelot might lead you to a scenic spot at the end, but if you don’t stop along the way to check out the old homestead sites and stone foundations to wonder about those who came before, you’d be missing out on a big part of the experience.
In high school, it was popular to hike up to the reservoir for a swim. While I do remember swimming out to jump off the rock in the middle of the water, that memory isn’t as clear as the conversations I had on the trail to and from the water’s edge.
As an adult, cross-country skiing through the Pisgah forest from the trailhead in Chesterfield turned out to be so much more than the relaxing half-hour loop we had anticipated. That journey came complete with unexpected difficulties; breaking miles of trails through freshly fallen snow, navigating through unknown terrain, and a hard lesson in preparedness during winter. I have a vague recollection of making it to the end point, but I have a very clear memory that the friend who suggested the network of trails also failed to give an honest account of what lay ahead.
Some hard lessons were learned that day. Prepare for the worst, even when hoping for the best. When venturing into unknown territory, it’s best to rely on those who have proven themselves worthy of your trust.
I’ve climbed Mount Monadnock a lot, and almost always from the same trailhead. It’s familiar and comfortable, and I have a pretty good idea of what to expect. That can be a good thing for an anxious, and often solo, hiker. But the last time I hiked up, some friends and I took the Dublin Trail – previously unfamiliar to me, though now probably my favorite. It went against my nature to take an unknown path, to take a chance on something different. But if you want to experience something different, you have to try something new. And sometimes that can lead you to new favorite places or greater potential.
I’ve hit the trail as a solo hiker to ease my mind, to be alone, to try to heal from hurt that can’t be put into words. And, I have also climbed with friends, solving the problems of the world as we labored our way up stone steps or stopped to catch our breath.
I have been alone next to the fire tower on Mount Cardigan, enveloped in a pale mist with absolutely no way to get my bearings, unable to see more than a few feet in front of me. I‘ve stood among countless people on top of Monadnock during a busy weekend, singing “Happy Birthday” to my friend, and hearing 25 other people join in, feeling for a moment that we are all connected. I have stumbled upon flowers growing so high above the tree line that it seemed miraculous. I have been frightened by a snake on the trail while making my descent, proof that even when we think we’re on the easy stretch, things can still catch us off guard.
What I’ve learned is this: When hiking, like traveling through life, it’s important to choose companions who move at a similar pace and are interested in the same destination.
If we are not worrying about holding someone back, it relieves a lot of unspoken tension.
Take turns leading the way or leaning on one another.
Serve as a lookout on the trail when someone finds the need to take care of business best left unseen by others.
Offer the occasional word of encouragement, or even little white lies to make the climb a little more tolerable. (“We’re almost there,” may be the most told fib in the history of hiking.)
Share your snacks, and nourish one another in more ways than one.
Offer a hand at a particularly difficult spot on the trail, and look back to make sure nobody’s giving up or getting lost.
And, of course, when you reach the top and there’s someone to share the joy of making it to the summit, the view seems all the sweeter.
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