I Want to Be Alone!
I usually have the trails to myself in winter when most outdoors folks have strapped on their skis for downhilling at our awesome Taos Ski Valley or cross-countrying at the Enchanted Forest.
So of course I was the only hiker on the trail today, along with my dog, Tessa. She just loves this particular trail.
Since she is so familiar with it she races off in front of me well out of sight, turns and whizzes on back past me, then back and forth until she tires and settles down to more casual sniffing.
It was a lot easier hiking on the half-inch of new-fallen snow than yesterday when there was a lot of slippery-slidiness to the hard-packed snow.
After a bit of tromping, we eventually did have company. We were passed by a young couple who obviously hadn’t been to the fashion racks at REI or EMS.
They were attired in warm woolies of the look I have been used to seeing on trails for the past few decades rather than the slick, colorful synthetics of the newbies.
I Am More Accustomed to Hiking Alone
I reflect way back to my childhood years of our family walks in the woods. These were pre-World War II, Depression years before most families had a telephone, electric lights or indoor plumbing.
Family entertainment was usually picnicking and a walk in the woods. We didn’t know about recreational trails. The only “trails” we knew were “up north in Michigan” where there were routes into fire towers way back in the woods, or getting down to the shore of a lake to go fishing.
Dad grew up on a homestead in the wilderness far north in Saskatchewan near the Northwest Territories. He loved the outdoors and we often camped out under the stars.
When I was about eight dad bought a cheap used umbrella tent that we used especially on our week-long summer vacations by a lake “up north.”
Our hikes were walks into town to buy an ice cream cone or to a fire tower on a hill near the lake where we got to know the fire ranger.
When WW II ended and I was discharged from the Navy I became acquainted with real hiking trails in the Catskill Mountains of New York.
I’d gotten a tuition-free GI Bill opportunity to attend Columbia University in New York City. So I was able to go the Catskills where I found my first three-sided, Adirondack-style log lean-tos that protected me from rain and snow.
So I didn’t need to own a tent. And I didn’t acquire one until more than a decade later when I had earned enough money.
My backpacking, other than with the Boy Scouts, began tentless with bulky Army Surplus backpack, canteen and cook kit. I loved it and took advantage of backpacking opportunities as often as I could get to the Catskills.
Those days I never saw another person on the trails.
Then one summer in the early 1950s, a group of us rented a huge old stone house in the Catskills for the summer. It had six bedrooms, a big stone fireplace and comfortable furnishings.
Despite our partying, we still had time for at least a day hike most week-ends, which included the summit of the highest Catskill peak, Slide Mountain, 4100 feet above sea level. It topped out above tree-line, which was a thrill for me. I’d hardly been out of Michigan other than my tour aboard in the navy.
It was such a thrill to climb these Catskill peaks, we did one or another of them, about once a week all summer. And we never saw another hiker.
It wasn’t until the late 1950s that I began running into hikers, mostly kids from Catskill summer camps and their instructors. That was usually on holiday week-ends. It was easy to avoid them and still enjoy my solo hikes.
Slowly over the next few years, it became more difficult to find solitude in the heat of summer holiday week-ends. And then, more often on other week-ends when there was good weather I’d run into an occasional hiker. So I began hiking in less popular areas, avoiding the higher peaks.
This “crowding” of the trails was true too, in the Adirondacks and the White Mountains of New Hampshire, both of which I’d begun to hike in the late 50s and early 60s.
A Swiss girlfriend and her room-mates suggested I might find a route in the White Mountains that was very much like the Swiss Alps. So of course, I had to see it, for the Alps were only a dream.
The Swiss girls told me that the Huntington Ravine route up Mt. Washington would give me such an Alpine experience, but not the more popular Tuckerman Ravine. So I tried Huntington, loved it and it changed my life.
This was in 1953 shortly after Hillary and Tenzing summited Mont Everest. That did it. I wanted to find out how to climb steeper, more challenging cliffs than Huntington’s.
I met a guy who had the same interest who told me about the Appalachian Mountain Club whose rock climbers taught rock climbing at the Shawangunk cliffs in the Catskills.
I was eager to learn. And in one season of rock climbing with the club I became a certified rock climbing leader! And was climbing the cliffs on the tiniest nubbins imaginable.
Wow, did I ever become cocky. I was with the big time boys!
We drank and climbed every hour of daylight every week-end. And I was getting quite a reputation for my skills.
I was actually pioneering routes up some more difficult cliff climbs the following year. So some of the guys I climbed with paid for my food and mountaineering equipment so that I would join them on some really impressive mountaineering routes in the Cascade Mountains of Washington and Oregon.
The high point of their mountaineering journey was climbing impressive Mount Rainier, doing our own guiding. I was impressed at my being impressed!
Following My Season as a Mountaineering Bum
Thereafter that summer I met other climbing friends from back home on their mountaineering vacations — Tetons of Wyoming, Sierras in California, and the best of all, was a few weeks up in the Bugaboo Mountains in British Columbia, Canada.
Still, while rock climbing and mountaineering had a strong appeal, backpacking into my Catskills, Adirondacks and White Mountains still had their enormous appeal. I got so familiar with the scents and spring waters of the Catskills I swore that you could put me down blindfolded in any forest in the world and I’d immediately know if it was the Catskills. I loved those peaks — hiked them in all seasons.
It wasn’t until the sixties that I began to see hikers on trails before Memorial Day and after Labor Day. But there were far fewer. And if I backpacked deep enough into the Catskllls it was pretty sure i’d have my solitude.
Thus, while I love hiking alone, I do not today mind meeting other hikers. In fact, out here the hikers are so experienced that it is rare to find a candy wrapper or cigarette butt on any trail. And that includes our busiest trails that have heavy use by out-of-towner hikers.
So much for reminiscing. It was fun for me. If not for you, you will not have read this far.
Cheers. Have a good hike, wherever you are. I notice I’ve had viewers from thirty-six countries the past few months. So much of what I’ve had to say must be, as they say, “foreign” to them. However, if you are from abroad, I ‘m glad you’re here. Enjoy!