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Hiking: Blaze the Trail

By Dar Dowling
Posted On Dec 15, 2016
Hiking: Blaze the Trail

Happy Trails

Looking to clear your head? Reach for the clouds by adopting a body-boosting, soul-affirming hiking habit.

BY Angela Arsenault

Christina Rosalie, 35, just needed to hike. the author and digital brand strategist had grown accustomed to her life in the country, but one day she and her husband decided to list their 12-acre homestead with a realtor, “just to see what happens.” They were under contract three days later.

With a goal too-soon accomplished, Rosalie felt an avalanche of pressure to figure out what to do next. “I felt like there had not been any time for processing,” she says. “All of a sudden I had to move my family. There was a lot of anxiety around, ‘What the hell do I do?’”

A self-described introvert, Rosalie sought out the solace of the Sunset Ridge Trail that leads to the summit of Mt. Mansfield, Vermont’s highest peak. “I didn’t really have a goal, other than I just wanted to be away,” she admits. It wasn’t until she actually started up the mountain that she understood why she was really there. “Even as I was driving up to the trailhead, I was thinking, Do I have enough water? What if I can’t find the right trail?” But as Rosalie proceeded up the mountain, she found that all of her concerns fell away. “My brain just settled. The irrational, busy stuff was being sifted out.”

I was intrigued by the idea of walking up a mountain to get out of my own head. I grew up in the woods of Vermont, so I was also embarrassed that I didn’t know this from personal experience. While we were rarely inside as kids, my family did not regularly participate in the gear-required category of “outdoor activities.” We didn’t ski, we didn’t fish, and we definitely did not hike.

It’s funny how perspectives can linger, far beyond the point at which intellect should have revised our beliefs. Here’s the thing: hiking doesn’t belong in that category. It’s not expensive, it doesn’t require a lot of equipment, and now that I’m 36 years old with a family of my own, hiking does not have to be one of those things that I “just don’t do.” I asked Rosalie to take me on a hike—high enough to experience that feeling of the body quieting the mind.1140x650_female-hiker-feet

JUST DO

Planning for this hike consisted of one text message: “Meet you at Philo at 2 pm on Thursday.” I packed a small backpack with water, pistachios, a granola bar, sunscreen, bug spray,a hat, a long-sleeve shirt, my cell phone, and a notebook. Rosalie showed up with a hoodie tied around her waist and an iPhone in her pocket.

A quick Google search told me that we’d be gaining roughly 500 feet of elevation on this climb, but I had no contextual idea as to what that actually meant. As it turned out, if you’d rather drive up this mountain on a steep yet paved road, you can, but I decided that the beginnerlevel nature of this hike would not take anything away from the fact that here I was—hiking!

As we walked from the parking lot to the trailhead, all of my old stories began running through my mind on a loop. “You’re not a hiker. You don’t have the right shoes/clothes/backpack.” I silently acknowledged these insecurities and kept walking.

One step

One foot in front of the other, again and again, slowly at first and then with more confidence and less judgment.

My sneakers were serving me just fine as I crossed over tiny streams of water and thick, knotty tree roots. The well-worn path was easy to discern for most of the hike. No drama. Very little debate. Just do. It took less than an hour to reach the top.

The trek had been simple and calming, even as my heart rate increased and my thighs started to burn. Rosalie and I sat on a rock and deconstructed the experience. We talked about the nature of human beings and our beginnings as nomads. “We’re actually hardwired to move,” she reminded me. “And not to sprint long distances or do intense exercise over a long period of time.

I think it affects our brain waves differently, and there’s a sifting or a sorting that takes place as you move. So when you reach the top, all that’s left in your mind is the good stuff.” Body Talk Arguably, we were in better shape in our nomadic days— hence the benefits of hiking should not be overlooked.

As a personal trainer, Max “The Body” Philisaire has a vested interest in this aspect of hiking, and brings his clients to work out at Runyon Canyon in Los Angeles. “Hiking is challenging, and you can increase resistance by either jogging uphill or doing lunges before, after, or between runs,” Philisaire says.

He also recommends adding ankle or wrist weights. Philisaire appreciates the “obstacle course effect” of hiking. “An obstacle course looks fun, it’s actually fun to do, and it feels more like playing than burning calories,” he notes.

This has helped him convert more than a few skeptical clients into hiking enthusiasts. “Clients have their reasons they prefer the treadmill, so I just give it time and eventually they start asking for it. ‘Hey, uh, looks like a good day for Runyon.’” Philisaire, himself, first came to Runyon Canyon looking for a great cardio workout, but now says he has to have it at least once a week. “Hiking has a way of increasing focus for me, and I’m more motivated after a Runyon workout.”

It’s a beneficial chain reaction of sorts, Philisaire explains, wherein the physical challenge of the hike causes your body’s reserves to kick in and perform better. “That same energy doesn’t just turn off when you’re done exercising.” All areas of your life feel the benefit. You Have to See This Kari Cobb, 28, knows well the physical rigors of hiking.

As a ranger in Yosemite National Park for the past six years, Cobb hikes every weekend—sometimes as much as 30 miles a day. But her passion for hiking is more strongly tied to her genuine love of nature, which was instilled at a young age once she realized how big cities negatively affected her psyche. “When I go to cities, I feel like I’m off-balance, that I can’t really pay attention to myself because there’s so much stimulus,” she says. “It’s something that people live with—they get used to it—but it’s not something that we were naturally bred or formed to experience on a daily basis.”

Cobb turned to hiking as a way to connect more deeply with her inner self, and nature. She recalls her first substantial off-trail hike in Yosemite as “an extremely empowering part of my life.” That 20-mile hike happened nine years ago, but Cobb can still tell you the exact route she and her then boyfriend (now husband) cut through the wilderness. Cobb points out that the magic is not in the telling, but in the doing. “We think that we can experience things through the Internet or somebody telling us about them, but when I’m out hiking and I see these gorgeous views, there’s no way that I could describe it to anybody,” she says. “You have to pull yourself into the wilderness and you have to hike up there.”

Join the Club

A similar sort of appreciation came to photographer Wendy Andrews VonDerLinn in her mid-40s, when she and her cousin made a pact to climb each of the 46 high peaks of the Adirondack Mountains, also known as “becoming a Forty-Sixer.” VonDerLinn spent her childhood summers away from her home in Wisconsin, attending a camp in the Adirondack region of New York.

She had climbed 15 of the high peaks rather incidentally by the time she turned 20, but with this pact each hike became extremely intentional. With each mountain, it became “more of a healing process for me,” says VonDerLinn. “There was a lot going on in my life and the mountains heal.” Some hikes were done alone, some with a “fabulous” group of women, and a lot with her cousin, Pam. “You’re out there with your body and your mind against the wilderness, and you have to pull on all your reserves to finish.

Because nobody’s going to get you out except you.”

On July 25, 2011, VonDerLinn hiked her 46th mountain. She was 51 years old, and admits that the experience was significantly more meaningful at that age. As for the ecstatic feeling you might expect her to describe at the top, VonDerLinn explains: “Sometimes the personal growth isn’t on the summit for me. It’s battling the voices in my head or letting go of some of the baggage that I’ve been carrying in order to get to the top.” She says that the real gift of the hike often appears rather randomly. “OK, we’re standing here in the middle of the wilderness with a raincoat on, soaking wet, our feet are muddy, and this is the best place in the world,” she enthuses. “There’s no place I’d rather be.”

The Trail Shows You the Way

After my little starter hike, I can relate to VonDerLinn’s sentiment. And though I’m miles away from being a Forty- Sixer, I’m much closer to understanding why anyone would work so hard to get there. For Rosalie, the discovery at the summit of Mt. Mansfield was specifically about where she should move her family. “We know the way for ourselves, but we don’t pay attention,” she says. “Obviously, it’s a metaphor that carries over into our lives beyond hiking, but when you’re hiking, you don’t have a choice. You have to pay attention. It’s so assuring.”

l Hiking is generally a safe and effective fitness choice with both physical and psychological benefits, but there are a few considerations that should be taken, particularly for older adults.

Dr. Stefan Montgomery, team physician for South Carolina State University and a family and sports medicine doctor in private practice, shares his top concerns with New You:

CONSIDER THIS 1 HYDRATION

“For people over 65 years old, hydration status and sweating is impaired. Therefore plenty of fluids should either be carried or be available along the trail.” Dr. Montgomery also notes that supplies can be heavy to carry, which “can make people prone to injury due to the posture associated with a heavy back pack and having to walk bent over.”

2 TRAIL SURFACE Balance worsens in those over the age of 65, so uneven surfaces can be especially tricky. “This can be dangerous and lead to falls as well as slippages due to the loose gravel or rocks and wet surfaces that are sometimes encountered.”

3 TOO MUCH, TOO FAST

Dr. Montgomery points out that hiking three miles is very different than going for a three-mile walk. Just because you are in overall good health does not mean that you’ll automatically have the stamina for a long hike. He suggests being aware of trail difficulty ratings and choosing one that seems a little too easy at first. “If that one works out for you, then you can go for a more difficult trail on the next hike.” If you decide that hiking is just the thing you need to de-stress or to build up your calves, thighs, and glutes, walking up hills or working out on a stair master are two great preparation methods.