Walk it off


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  • photo by pamela cherGOTIS





When the going gets tough, the tough go hiking. And so do the weak, the sick, and the stricken.

After losing her mother, Wild author Cheryl Strayed hiked her way out of grief and the pernicious habit to which it led. After hundreds of miles on the grueling Pacific Crest Trail, limping in ill-fitting boots, bent nearly horizontal under a full pack, she finally broke free of the terrible gravitational force exerted by “Planet Heroin,” as she called her habit.

David Souter, who called his service on the Supreme Court “intellectual lobotomy,” retired at age 69 so that he could strap on hiking boots and roam his beloved White Mountains while he still could. The rest of America watched with bemusement as he moved into a decrepit, book-filled farmhouse and spent his days scrambling the granite cliffs of the Granite State. He sought detachment from the grid of modern life and, perhaps, from the America he helped shape.

The dark wood that to the Medieval mind was filled with demons, witches and other terrors is, in our current century, a place of peace. Every copy of Journeys, the magazine of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, contains some tale of healing. Veterans walk off the trauma of war. Middle-aged couch potatoes clamber back to life after triple bypasses. Teenagers with autism find a new passion. And everyone beset by the mundane travails of everyday life — “the lapses of conscience, the unpaid bills, the bungled opportunities, the dust under the couch, the inescapable prison of your genes,” as writer Jon Krakauer put it so well — is finding relief on the trail.

Two days after the election, in the woods near Chappaqua, a young mother out hiking with a pink-hatted baby strapped to her back was surprised to behold Hillary Clinton, who had stepped into a clearing at the same moment she did. Freed from her Calvin Klein pantsuits, her secret service detail, her entourage of reporters and advisers, she was surrounded by nothing but the autumnal woods, leading her dog on a leash. The little group — the baby, the dog, the senator, the young mother — posed for a photo taken by husband Bill that went viral on Facebook. Hillary, in brown wool leggings and no makeup, looked more relaxed than we’d seen her for awhile. Could a mere walk in the woods do so much? Looking at that photo, it was hard not to think also of the president-elect, captive in a glass-sheathed skyscraper, surrounded by armed guards, bomb-sniffing dogs, and dump trucks filled with sand.

When city friends come to visit, I often take them to Conservation Island in Pennsylvania. After its prominence as a battleground state — the Fat Lady whose song sent tears falling or champagne corks popping, depending on one’s point of view — Pennsylvania has now ducked out of the spotlight and back into the lovely shade. This puny but perfect trail is manageable even after lunch on a short winter’s day. The mile-long path skirts the island’s shore, reached from the trailhead by an arched stone bridge. The silvery water of Promised Land Lake is always in view, glimpsed through the massive trunks of hemlocks, oaks, and beech trees. The trail is flat and covered with pine needles and moss, which is what hiking in heaven must feel like. When my city friends used to hector me with “Why move to the country? Are you mad?” — all I needed to do was bring them here. You see, the countryside has as many stimulations as the city has. Can you hear the terrifying shriek of the red-tailed hawk? Catch the design of the single snowflake caught on your sleeve before it melts? Smell the earth as it thaws? They’d fall silent with awe. The hectoring stopped a long time ago.

Most of the hikes we do are grander than this. There are many miles more to hike, if we are so inclined, in Promised Land State Park’s 3,000 acres, and in the surrounding Delaware State Forest, which has 12,500 acres more. But this hike around Conservation Island, more than the time-gobbling, thigh-burning, boot-destroying hikes I love so well, has the power, even in the last shreds of a gray winter afternoon, to change minds.


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