The following appeared in the 2/19/11 edition of the Conway Daily Sun
I got out for a short hike on Thursday morning this week, and it was a gorgeous mild day which seemed to get better as it matured, like a good wine. My hike up Green Mountain (1,884 feet) in Effingham only took a couple hours that morning. Later, as the luminous day unfolded, I wished I had done something longer, but at least I got out.
I did the 1.4 mile Highwatch Trail again, up to the fire tower on top and back. Although a quick hike, it is long enough to feel that you are in the mountains. Also, it can be an introspective hike. Last time I wrote about it, I was reminiscing about my first hike ever. It was in the summer, with my parents, brother, and dog. We climbed the Highwatch Trail, which was then the fire warden’s trail.
On my hike this week, I was thinking about the choice of hiking alone or with friends. Hiking with others is wise, and in the winter, almost a given. Yet it is also a personal choice. Today, with the quality of equipment, familiarity with the trails, number of hikers on the trails, and, of course, modes of communication, more people are hiking alone. Personally, I recommend that hikers go with others. Yet I often hike alone. One reason is that I need to get out to write a column. But I also like it. And I also unswervingly leave my itinerary and time frame with a dependable friend, and usually two friends. I hope I never have to use the emergency bivy sac that is in my first aid bag.
What got me started on this train of thought a couple days previous to my hike up Green Mountain, was a book I had taken out at the North Conway Library. It was a copy of Mary Oliver’s newest book of poetry called “Swans.” Here is the poem in question, which stuck a chord.
How I Go to the Woods
Ordinarily I go to the woods alone, with not a single
friend, for they are all smilers and talkers and therefore
I don’t really want to be witnessed talking to the catbirds
Or hugging the old black oak tree. I have my way of
praying, as you no doubt have yours.
Besides, when I am alone I can become invisible. I can sit
on top of a dune as motionless as an uprise of weeds,
until the foxes run by unconcerned. I can hear the almost
unhearable sound of the roses singing
If you have ever gone to the woods with me, I must love you very much.
I liked that last line, I thought, as I started up the packed down Highwatch Trail on Green Mountain, early Thursday morning. My girlfriend, who I loved hiking with, would fit easily into that category.
There was an early morning coolness in the air, but the temperature was rising, and I wondered if the packed trail would be solid enough to support me on top of the deep snow the rest of the way. On my right behind a few trees, was the large campus of Lakeview NeuroRehabilitation Center. Then I climbed past it, and it felt more like a hike in the mountains. I broke through the crust a few inches here and there, enough to keep my attention on footing.
It was good to be there, alone in the quiet. I didn’t know if I lived up to the awareness so easily proclaimed in Oliver’s poem. But also it didn’t matter. Life was a process, not a destination, where one had already arrived. About half way up, deer tracks converged on the trail, and since they were solid from the cold, I walked on them. Then I realized that all sign of hiker prints had disappeared. A frigid wind had blown over the ridge recently, and obliterated all tracks. I followed the deer tracks, until they too dissipated, then had to post hole.
I thought: I enjoy friendships on the trail, as well as solitary hikes. I remembered a passage that a woman had recently written on a hiking Website about the joy of outdoor friendships. It went like this: “I have such compatible friends, and enough of them, that I rarely have the opportunity to hike alone. Yep, I’m bragging. This wasn’t the case before I started hiking 15 years or so ago. Not wanting to sound too sappy or sentimental, I am so grateful for the wise encouragement, good humor, steady support, intellectually stimulating, sympathetic loving friends I’ve made. I can’t imagine where I’d be in this world without them, or why I didn’t find anything similar to this in my earlier life.”
On this hike, I thought, I had been reflecting about two sides in each of us — the side that needs solitude, and the side that needs to share it. I reached the fire tower, none worse for wear from a little post-holing, and started up it, my MICROspikes helping on icy steps. Then I sat on the bench on the platform just below the cab. The 360 degree view was limited because of treetops, but still good. Mount Washington was bright white. To the south, I looked long at Province Lake, where my family had a camp for a few years, back when we climbed Green Mountain.
I thought about earlier that morning. My friend Bob Gordon, an artist in Conway, had called early, and said that he was going for a hike up Mount Hedgehog with his buddy Buck. Did I want to come? I had plans to be south of the valley in the morning, and decided to instead do a quick hike up Green Mountain. Later, I found out that they had a cosmic hike on the warm day. So didn’t I.
[Ed Parsons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org]