Sunday, June 20, 2010

Every Hike is a Good Hike

After more than a year of battling uncooperative weather and Jim's even more uncooperative body, we're finally getting into a good hiking groove. We’ve been able get out on a trail more or less once a weekend since the last of the snow fell. Which makes me a happy girl.

Deciding where we’ll go is one of the high points of the weekend—we talk about it over morning coffee like other couples talk about dropping off the dry cleaning. There are plenty of favorite destinations to choose from—mostly in Ramapo, Harriman and out at the Gap—and we're also branching out to unexplored territory. (At this point we’ve accumulated so many possibilities that I’ve committed to replacing my bulging manilla folder with a well-organized binder, complete with notes to help us remember where we've been.)

The trail choice dictates the food choice: more than 6 miles requires a sandwich (preferably from Panera); less than that it’s apples, cheese, and nuts or energy bars. We throw on a few layers and fill our packs (Jim’s is the one with the necessities, although for some reason I’ve got the toilet paper), then we’re out the door—poles, boots and hats stay permanently in the trunk of the car.

I love hiking enough to consider it a bit of an addiction. For several years running I’d have withdrawal if more than a week passed without an outdoor jaunt. So it’s sort of funny that I haven’t asked myself why. Maybe it has something to do with the amaze-surprise-delight thing, since there is something about every hike that falls into at least one of these categories. Trails in New York and New Jersey traverse an incredibly diverse countryside with an awe-inspiring variety of trees and vegetation. Then there are the ponds and lakes, some hidden deep in the forests, sparkling like jewels. The streams and rivers that trickle, babble, and roar through the peaks and valleys. And the birds, deer, chipmunks, snakes, frogs, and yes—even a bear or two that keep us company.Most intriguing are the remains of things we come across in the middle of nowhere. Everything from rusted adding machines, motorcycles and bathtubs to deserted mansions, ancient cemeteries, ruined summer resorts, and—in the case of Doodletown—an entire ghost town.
Lately I’ve been taking my camera, snapping away with the intention of sharing some of these weird treasures here. Taking the time to record them forces me to slow me down, even to stop (unusual in that I hike as much for the exercise as the esoteric delights.) This has led to some connect-the-dots moments: connecting with my childhood, when the most blissful hours were spent playing in the woods, often with my sister Deborah; and connecting with familiar sites, sounds and smells. The inkberry plants that she and I actually squeezed into ink and used sticks to write with. Umbrella plants we used to shade houses in the little villages we built. Murky ponds sheltering fat bullfrogs. Tadpoles wriggling in gurgling streams. Stately pine groves. Rusted farm machinery. Violets and daisies and Queen Anne’s lace. Crumbling stone walls we used as barricades against imaginary enemies—or unofficial trail markers to guide us home.Back then, the woods was a place to escape from the anger that seeped through our house. It serves the same purpose today: only now I’m escaping the stress of my own life to a place that offers breathing room and accessible grandeur. Then again, maybe I’m making this more complicated than it has to be. Last weekend we drove out towards Chester and met two women setting out on a trail that the four of us were hiking for the first time. We headed in different directions, but literally crossed paths about halfway through. One of them asked what we thought of the hike, and Jim and I concurred that it was one we’d like to do again. “Yeah, it’s a good hike,” she agreed. “But then, every hike’s a good hike. You get to be outside and get some exercise. What could be bad?”

Yeah. Maybe it’s just that simple.