Hiking with my better self

The boy on Cannon last summer.

I hike solo much of the time. While I enjoy meeting other folks on the trail, there’s something about being alone in the woods, grinding my way up a long ridge, that sets my mind to right.  I can think.

Sit behind a desk or on a couch and you spend a lot of time wondering who the best version of yourself might be (you know it’s not the version filling out TPS reports or watching a Golden Girls marathon). Spend some time alone in the woods, though, and you begin to see glimpses of that person when you’re scrambling up a steep slide, slopping your way through ankle-deep mud or traversing the col between peaks.

The major exception to this solo-hiking rule, of course, is the boy. I’ll hike with him anytime, anywhere.

Our hiking partnership began as a father-son thing, with car camping and short excursions to places like Thompson Falls, Carter Ledge and Mt. Avalon. Those first few hikes were great fun for both of us, but it wasn’t poetry. I let Luke lead the way so we’d be sure to move at his pace. He’d weave his way up the trail like a drunk navigating the bleacher stairs at Fenway Park, his stick legs seemingly picking the most complicated route. Often he would stop short when trying to figure out his next move, falling forward after I plowed into him. Every 50 yards we were stopping to tie a shoe. There was much debate over how much GORP one should actually eat in the first half mile of a hike.

Early last year, our hiking relationship began to evolve. We were no longer a father and son fighting the Harry Chapin Cat’s in the Cradle cliche. We were two hikers sharing the trail.

Luke began to move more fluidly up the mountain, his feet finding the right route every time. His legs seemed twice as strong, and he was carrying all his own gear (which I now trusted him to remember and pack on his own). I still let him lead the way up the mountain, but now it meant I would often lose sight of him. I’d repay the favor on the way down (Newton’s First Law of Hiking states that a fat dude heading downhill tends to stay in motion, if only because he can’t stop).

We were silent for long stretches of trail. Sure, we’d point out views or evidence of animal life, and we’d talk for a good while at rest breaks or on the summit. But much of the time we were in our own heads, slowing down or speeding up at the same time without speaking.

I was struck by how easily we fell back into this rhythm when we set out for a two-hour spin through Ravenswood Park last weekend. It was more of a walk than a hike (we wanted to check out the blowdowns after that week’s hurricane-level winds) but Luke took the lead without a word. Again, we were quiet much of the time, stopping only to take pictures or navigate a fallen tree. Two hikers in the woods.

I asked him why he didn’t talk like he used to. His answer: “I figure things out when I’m hiking. I just think better.”

The White Mountain snow is beginning to give way to spring (and mud, I know. But still…). Once or twice a day, the boy walks past me and says, “I really need to be hiking.” Soon I’ll be able to say “Let’s go.”

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