‘Open road here we come’. ‘
Are we there yet?’
If you’ve listened to a baseball game during the summer of quarantine, you will recognize this inane refrain as their ‘commercial break’ messaging. It’s grating, yet strangely catchy, and my kids sing it at odd times throughout the day in these whiny falsetto voices that cause me to long for nails on chalkboard.
Staycation is probably one of my least favorite words. It is glitter on a limp piece of faded construction paper; trying to add a cheerful connotation to something that tends to lean in the direction of underwhelming. I really don’t mind staying at home, not going on a trip.
I just don’t want to call it a staycation.
But here we are, like the majority of the world population, hunkering down in our tight living quarters for the better part of five months now with little change in the way of scenery. Hence my concerted effort to make the hour-plus drive to the surrounding mountains as often as possible. Which is, strangely, not that often when you’re juggling kids and jobs and dogs and house projects.
I wouldn’t describe myself as the kind of person who enjoys clawing her way up hills for hours on end, but when you live in a place with the kind of scenery that draws tourists from all over the world (not this year, obviously), you basically have a responsibility to become someone who hikes or bikes during the fleeting summer months. This ‘burden’, coupled with my appreciation of a good vista, is likely how I fell into hiking.
Usually, I tend to hike with other people who take care of pesky details like knowing where the starting point of the hike is, how long the hike might be and paying attention to the trail to make sure we end up where we’re supposed to be. So all I have to do is put one foot in front of the other.
But on this occasion I’d invited the professor to come with me, which is how I found myself driving and asking him to Google the name of the hike I’d selected ‘because I think it’s hard to find the start of the hike.’ This led to him downloading the AllTrails app which offered the only reasonable chance of us finding the trail, staying on it and possibly returning to our children
AllTrails is great – it gives descriptions of hikes, details like length and elevation gain and apparently, if you pay actual money, downloadable maps to keep you from getting lost in the semi-wilderness. Assuming you know how to read a map.
Which I don’t.
AllTrails also offers user reviews of hikes which is a useful feature except when it’s not. It’s useful, for example, to know that the hike I’ve selected is covered in snow, or closed due to bears. Or that there is a particular spot where it’s easy to get lost.
It is less useful to hear hikers’ humble-brag declarations of how ‘easy’ this ‘difficult’ hike was and how ‘quickly’ they were able to do it. I’m obviously a mean person because those reviews always make me want to write my own absurd fake reviews.
As in, ‘Start to finish, it took me about 15 minutes jogging at a leisurely pace. Little bit of a climb towards the end but otherwise super easy. I felt so energized I did it twice!’
Fortunately, now that the professor has paid for the app, I can abandon my twice a year blogging-hobby and become a fake reviewer.
Eventually we found the designated parking spot and, with our Covid rescue dog in tow and some halfhearted direction from the person parked behind us, set off on the trail.
A couple more observations about hiking: without the benefit of technology or maps – how are you supposed to make sense of unmarked trails that split in multiple directions or trails that barely look like trails? I’ve read a couple of books of people who’ve hiked the Appalachian Trail, and it blows my mind that they got anywhere at all.
And what about the rating system for hikes – what makes a hike moderate versus difficult? And how are these seemingly exclusive ‘difficult’ hikes so packed with people?
Are the Canadian Rockies the mountainous equivalent of Lake Wobegon, where all the hikers are above average?
We’d been hiking less than 10 minutes when we came upon our first hesitation. Left, right or straight? The professor stared at his phone, taking small steps, trying to see which way the little dot moved. Fortunately a group of six twentysomethings emerged from the left with the same phones and the same app. We mulled it over, collectively, and agreed to go straight. Even though it looked on the map like we should go left but the dot on the phone said that was the wrong thing to do.
We plodded along behind the exuberant youngsters – or, the ‘Future’ as we took to calling them. As in ‘there goes the Future,’ or ‘the Future is struggling’ or ‘what happened to the Future?’
My first observation of the hike: there appeared to be no flat parts. Even through the forest there were downhill parts so ridiculously steep I braced myself for the return when we’d have jello legs and blisters and have to suffer the injustice of more climbing. And yet, there were people everywhere. People you might not think would willingly subject themselves to torture for the sake of their Instagram feeds. We passed two grandparents with their young grandchildren. The grandmother looked like she’d possibly just finished cancer treatment. Were they just walking around for a few minutes to burn off grandkid energy or were they headed for the summit?
The sky was a brilliant blue, the wildflowers were incredible and the black flies were large and in charge. Instead of bear spray I should have taken bug spray. There were probably some notes about that on the AllTrails reviews. (There were!)
After almost two hours of sweating and swatting and cursing the madness, we met the first peak. ‘Picture this’, as Sophia from the Golden Girls would say: a giant, treeless, shrubless mountain covered in dusty, gravelly dirt and little in the way of discernible trail.
This was the moment I chose to remember someone had told me ‘you have to have poles for this hike.’ Funny, I’d convinced myself she’d said ‘you don’t need poles for this hike.’ Whoops.
Either way, I don’t have poles.
The hill was an equalizer for all the hikers with summit on their agendas. Every single person could be heard saying ‘what?’ ‘are you serious’, or ‘you’ve got to be kidding me’ while staring at the behemoth with a mixture of contempt and resignation. The ‘Future’ could be seen shuffling up at a snail’s pace, which didn’t inspire confidence in those of us twenty years their senior.
I’ve never been on a hike where I had to stop continuously, for fear of my lungs running away. ‘We have to summit,’ I gasped-yelled at the professor, as though we were on an Everest expedition, ‘my oxygen canister is almost empty!’
We passed a small group of hikers making their way down. One was howling as he shuffle-skied down the insanely steep slope, at the mercy of the untethered soil and the single pole he’d likely borrowed from someone.
‘That does not inspire confidence for the way down,’ I lamented. Indeed, as annoying as the climb up was, it was the descent that preoccupied my thoughts, given our lack of poles and our canine companion who lunges with the force of 3 pitbulls anytime he hears the taunt of a ground squirrel.
‘I’m good,’ the professor finally relented when we were close to the top. ‘I don’t need to keep going.’ I surveyed the remaining tip of the peak – I knew I’d regret not going all the way to the top. So I left husband and dog and backpack and climbed another five or six minutes into prime vista territory.
‘I think,’ the professor formulated a plan all the way back to the car, ‘from now on I will hike with a folding chair and a cooler of drinks. I will walk for a bit, forty minutes or less, then set up my chair and be done.’