Understanding my addiction

It started last year, and I don't think I can shake it.

My addiction to hiking, that is.

Sorry!! I’m having way too much fun with these clickbait titles. I can’t help it — I’m just so inspired by the emails I get from various Democratic candidate / party / nonprofit organizations: Nancy Pelosi is FURIOUS. …You won’t believe what Mitch McConnell just said…..BAD NEWS: Polls predict Republican landslide!

But yes, my addiction is a pretty benign one. In the space of less than two years, I’ve become a bit of a White Mountains junkie. In 2021 alone I’ve done about 10 New Hampshire hiking excursions, bagging 14 four-thousand-footers along the way, bringing my total up to 26. I actually now plan to hit all 48 4Ks, and earn a nifty patch for my backpack. Meanwhile, I’ve become a total gearhead. Living less than 15 minutes from an REI has become a problem.

It’s not like my current hiking obsession is totally out of the blue. I’ve always liked hiking and camping, and it was a big part of my childhood. It’s even part of my origin story: My parents, before I was born, led outdoor trips for kids for a few summers. Legend goes that I was conceived in a tent in the Rockies right before or after one of those trips.

I don’t exactly love the fact that I know this. On the other hand, I guess if you have to know where you were conceived, it’s nice to know it was someplace picturesque. My parents even seriously considered naming me cairn. Which is a cool name (and now my trail name, among my hiking pals), but I’m kind of glad they ulimately didn’t, thus sparing me a lifetime of saying, “No, not Karen. Cairn. Like, a pile of rocks.”

Throughout my young adulthood, I also hiked periodically, and did a handful of backpacking trips, including one in Guatemala and one in Peru.

Me at 22, atop Mt. Tajumulco, the highest mountain in Central America at 13,789 feet. Note my “camera case.” (Remember cameras?) I look like such a dork.
Me at 25, on an overnight in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca in the Andes. That night at the campsite I inadvertently got habanero pepper juice on my lips while cooking. It was agony. And, in case you’re wondering, marijuana is not an effective remedy for this sort of pain.

But it wasn’t a big priority, and I don’t think anyone would have called me “outdoorsy.” (Also: my then-boyfriend now-husband wasn’t really into hiking; if he had been, things might have been different.) I did almost no hiking in my 30s on account of having two babies and whatnot. Plus, one of them got cancer at five years old, and that sort of thing really cuts into one’s hiking time.

But when my fortieth birthday rolled around, I announced to three close friends that I wanted to climb Mount Washington, and they had to come with me. (I’m bossy like that.) Every summer since, we’ve done an annual 2-3 day hike in the Whites, staying at the AMC huts. It’s now one of the highlights of the year for me.

Then came 2020: The pandemic. My father’s death. Social and political tumult. A state of limbo as I finished and revised my novel and then awaited the submission process. And suddenly, I became a hiking fool. I even got into winter hiking—something that always sounded unpleasant to me, but which I quickly discovered that I LOVED. It’s all about having the right clothing and gear. (Did I mention I love gear?)

This past summer, in addition to a bunch of day hikes, I did my first actual backpacking trip in ages, with my pal Marah. It was AMAZING.

Morning coffee at Guyot tentsite. In front of me is an amazing mountain view, but who wouldn’t rather look at a picture of an unwashed, 47-year-old woman first thing in the morning, making a really weird face?

So, I have several theories as to the cause of this hiking fever:

  • A.) COVID. Being outdoors was / is one of the safest activities one can do in the midst of a pandemic, and a way to escape the tedium and psychological stress of “normal” (ha-ha) life. No museums? No movie theaters? No parties? Take it to the woods! The other thing that I get out of hiking is a sense of control, which is soothing in the context of something as huge and unpredictible as a pandemic. The irony, of course, is that I actually have zero control over the elements, or whether or not I faceplant onto a boulder (something I almost did this summer). But I do have control over the planning and packing and making sure I have the necessary gear (gear!) and supplies to stay safe, comfortable and well-fed on the trail. And that feels really satisfying.

  • B.) Politics / division / strife. Driving in New Hampshire, you see the divided state of our nation writ large, in the form of bumper stickers and yard signs. But the mountains are non-partisan. Being on a summit, thousands of feet above the “civilized” world, looking out on an incredible vista, is a blessed reprieve from the rancor and division and anger that feels so omnipresent today. It also puts the current moment in perspective: Rocks and trees and mushrooms and mountains and squirrels have been here for millions of years, and will be here for millions more. Our current problems don't amount to a hill of beans in the grand sweep of history, and it’s restorative to remember that. (See also: Ancient chewing gum.)

  • C.) My dad’s death. I loved my dad. I really did. But our relationship, and his relationships with a lot of people, frankly, weren’t easy over the past couple of decades. My childhood, on the other hand, is a time I look back on with great fondness and zero bitterness. My parents are the ones who introduced me to the White Mountains, the AMC huts, the importance of wool (not cotton!) socks, and a love for the sound of a propane stove hissing under a pan of eggs on a cool morning in a campsite. So, I suspect that hiking so much at this particular juncture is part of how I’m working through my grief, and perhaps communing with the less-complicated version of my dad, as seen through my childhood eyes. I think it also has something to do with my heightened awareness of my own aging and mortality, and that of the people who have always been “the grown ups” in my life. It’s a bittersweet thing. On a solo hike I took earlier this fall, I broke down into full-on sobbing while I hiked through a glade of the most beautiful birches, their leaves just starting to turn. We are stardust. We are golden. I want to get myself back to the garden, but I can’t. Hiking’s the next best thing.

And, of course, the answer is probably D., all of the above. Plus one big underlying condition, which is the fact that my kids are teenagers now, and not as dependent on me for things other than rides (which they need constantly). It’s easier to escape for a day or a few—and so I do.

Oh! Wait! In my last post, I promised bears. Well, a bear. A few weeks ago, I was driving at dusk after a long hike over the Carter Moriah range, en route to get my traditional post-hike burger and beer, when a huge bear ran across the road in front of my car. I mean, it was big, and it was BOOKING it. It was amazing. And so were the burger and beer.

Sorry, that’s not a great bear story. At all. I’ll make it up to you with an amazing picture, taken atop Mt. Hight, several hours before the bear sighting.

This was an awfully rambly post. But ramblin’s what I do.

See you out there.

PS — for more hiking pics, follow me on Instagram.

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