Hiking can be completely solitary, intensely social, or somewhere in between. There is no right way. I like hiking alone very much. Going at the perfect pace for me is part of it, but solitude also lets the hiker concentrate on the wonders around more than is possible in company. Company scares off wildlife too (depending on the wildlife in question, this can certainly be a good thing as well as a bad one – noisy friends are to be welcomed in grizzly country). Of course, you are still in company when you hike alone; and just how much you are enjoying your “internal dialogue” right now will be a factor in your choice of hitting the trail with others or not. An assessment of risks – suffering an accident, getting lost, meeting crazies, and so forth – will be another.
Until comparatively recently, I had only hiked alone or with members of my family. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the idea of heading out with strangers; it just hadn’t occurred to me. I got all the company I needed, thank you, in the office and at home. Hiking was a break from the hubbub of people. Then, a year or two ago, I started to think about what it would be like to head outdoors with others. I am sure it is no coincidence that this happened as my work became more solitary, and my home began the slow process of emptying out. So I joined the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), and soon found myself up on the Appalachian Trail in a tightknit group. The sun on our faces as we crossed a rocky, windy ridge? Not exactly; we built a privy at Pine Swamp brook lean-to in Sharon.
But I had liked being out with other trail nuts enough to be tempted by an AMC “Leadership Training Session” the next month. If I did not flunk it, and afterward co-led one hike with an approved AMC leader, I could start taking others out under the AMC flag on hikes of my choosing. The session was a blast. It covered serious topics like accidents, Leave No Trace, and difficult group members via hilarious role-plays. Like everyone else, I passed; and I soon fulfilled the co-lead requirement too. So I was ready to go, a newly-minted “Day Hike Leader Class 1”, authorized to lead AMC hikes as long as they did not cross the 4,000-foot contour. And what did I do with this opportunity? Nothing. For a full year it sat on my to do list as “organize / lead hikes”.
One Monday last month, that changed. I saw a week of good weather ahead, and an evening walk in Weston’s Devil’s Den sprang to mind. I must have been heartily sick of my internal dialogue, because the next thing to come to mind was to invite company. So I crafted a hike announcement – how long, fast, and rough it would be; what its highlights were; where and when to meet. Then I gave it a catchy title – “Sunset on Hiltebeitel” – and sent it to the AMC for distribution to members. When Wednesday came around, I borrowed a clipboard from my wife (to hold the “Acknowledgement and Assumption of Risks & Release Agreement” forms that AMC hikers must sign), went to the Den for 4:45, and waited to see if anyone would turn up. Thankfully, Jocelyn, Adam, Robin and Molly did.
Now, the idea of our hike was to be on the ridge traversed by the Hiltebeitel Trail just as the sun was sinking. I have written in this column before that this can be a magical time and place. Even though our chances of clear western skies had lessened since Monday’s forecast, I did my best to move the group quickly around Godfrey Pond and up the Godfrey and Sap Brook trails. We did well, but groups move slower than solos. We had to get to know one another, after all. And Adam remembered a “cave” from a visit to the Den long ago. It had, I thought, to be the overhanging rocks above Godfrey Pond that Native Americans used for shelter once upon a time, so we spent a few minutes nosing around them too. By the time we were on the ridge, the sun was sinking fast; and twilight had arrived by the time we were coming down from it. This time the ingredients did not combine for a vivid “Sunset on Hiltebeitel”. They came together instead on our drives home.
I enjoyed the hike so much that, the following week, I organized another, this time to the Den’s Ambler Gorge. Lynn and Susan came along, and they reinforced the reasons I will do this again and again. It was Susan’s first time in the Den for 20 years, and it felt good to be part of that return. It felt good too to share enjoyment of the details of the evening woods – the colorful carpet of leaves; the turning ferns; the dried-up brooks. Then there were the conversations. They left me with ideas for books to read, places to go, subjects to research. You don’t get that from walking alone. Social hiking will never completely take the place of the solitary outing for me, but it will certainly be part of the mix from now on.
|If you go …|
|“SUNSET ON HILTEBEITEL”||AMBLER GORGE|
|PARKING||Devil’s Den Pent Road, Weston, parking area.||Devil’s Den Pent Road, Weston, parking area.|
|DISTANCE||3.5-4.0 mi.||Approximately 3.0 mi.|
|DURATION||1.75 hrs.||1.5 hrs.|
|MAP AND ROUTE||Trail maps available at parking area, and on TNC website. TNC HIGHLY RECOMMENDS THAT HIKERS CARRY A MAP. This hike followed, broadly, the Laurel, Godfrey, Sap Brook and Hiltebeitel Trails.||Trail maps available at parking area, and on TNC website. TNC HIGHLY RECOMMENDS THAT HIKERS CARRY A MAP. This hike followed, broadly, the Pent, McDougal West, Saugatuck, Ambler, Den and Pent Trails.|