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A few of my favorite things

With trails and books, crowding out the melancholy

| 27 Mar 2020 | 05:40

When I was young, I occupied my free time in ways I’ve since questioned. If I had it to do over again, would I spend so many hours immersed in books? Would I, for days on end, recline my strong, healthy body on a couch, alone in a room, book propped up on pillows, my breath slowing almost to a stop? Wouldn’t I want to, more often than I did, take my young self out for a spin?

My parents would tip-toe reverently around my brother and me whenever they found us reading, which was most of the time. But even my mom, who valued education above everything, walked into my room one beautiful spring day that I’d spent on a book and asked if was something was wrong with me. She wanted me to have the well-rounded life of the girls she saw on TV, who had friends, played softball and acted in school plays. Even in the present day, my husband marvels that I can spend my workday reading and then come home and read some more.

In his Anatomy of Melancholy, the 17th-century English scholar Robert Burton devotes a chapter to "Love of Learning, or overmuch study.” The afflicted, he writes, “becomes more silent than a statue, and generally excites people's laughter. Because they cannot ride a horse, which every clown can do; salute and court a gentlewoman, carve at table, cringe and make congés, which every common swasher can do.... Such is their misery, they deserve it: a mere scholar, a mere ass.”

So I endeavored to introduce other enthusiasms into my life. Carving at table didn’t do much for me. But hiking took root, creating, perhaps, another dependency. It makes a difference, though, that the world approves of my passions. Reading and walking are generally acknowledged to be healthy activities we should all do more of. One good thing inevitably crowds out another, though. I’ve had to make peace with opportunities I’ve lost while hitting the trail every weekend. But one good thing can also crowd out a bad thing. Deep in grief over the loss of her mother, Wild author Cheryl Strayed slipped into a heroin habit, then kicked it by hiking the super-arduous Pacific Crest Trail. She is frank in her appreciation of the drug that nearly claimed her. “When I think of heroin now,” In her essay “Heroin/e,” “it is like remembering a person I met and loved intensely.” On the trail, she traded dopamine for endorphins, and her life has been better for it.

The English philosopher Jeremy Bentham said we all have “two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.” It’s enough, sometimes, just to keep pain at bay. People with addiction say pleasure vanishes early, and their habits now bring them only pain. Their greatest wish is simple: to just feel “normal.”

Reading and walking are two of the few options left to us in the Covid-19 era. In the early days of the crisis, Gov. Cuomo encouraged us to hit the trail. He even waived parking fees. “During the current Covid-19 public health crisis, getting outdoors and connecting with nature is a way to help maintain our mental and physical health,” the Department of Environmental Conservation said. But a week later, the encouragement turned to warnings: Stay six feet apart from other hikers. Don’t share maps. Avoid busy trailheads. Stay home if you’re not feeling well. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy is more direct: get off the trail and stay off.

Sure, fine, anyway, I have books to read. My heart goes out to people with addictions not so easily set aside. I’ll never forget my father’s face when – too scared to see a doctor for the lethal pain wracking his chest – he went looking for the cigarettes I’d hid in desperation. Looking at him, I understood for the first time the nature of addiction. I gave his cigarettes back.

Someday, I’ll have my trails back, when today’s newfound hikers eventually return to “normal” life, however that is defined when this dark chapter is over. I hope they’ll remember the trails that gave them a few hours of relief. I hope they come back. Someday, we may even share a map.


Trailhead: Becker Hollow Trailhead on Route 214, Hunter, N.Y.

Blazes and distance: Blue (2 miles) to yellow (this short trail encircles the summit, which offers views from the fire tower and a nearby ledge)