I don’t consider myself a hiker. A long distance walker, yes, but hiking is something different. To me, hiking involves mountains, rugged terrain, shaded trails, sturdy boots (though I’ve never owned a pair).
I consider myself a beginner when it comes to hiking, and things like difficult trails and scrambling up or down rocks makes me nervous. And yet, I also love hiking. In the past few years, I’ve accepted every opportunity to go on a hike that I could, and I’ve pushed myself to do a few hikes that were out of my comfort zone.
When I first started thinking about this post, I wondered, “Do I have enough to say about the hikes I’ve been on?” As I scrolled through my photos from the last couple of years, I realized that I’ve done more hiking than I realized. I’m still going to call myself a beginner, but maybe I have a little more experience under my belt than I let on.
I started to become more confident about hiking two years ago, when I was dating a boyfriend who lived in Vermont. He was a hiker, but more than that: he lived in Vermont. I loved exploring the state and driving around to find trails to climb. I didn’t do any really big climbs, mostly just sticking to 3-6 mile trails with some descent scenic views. My favorite was probably Snake Mountain, a moderate hike through a heavy forest that opened up onto panoramic views of the Champlain Valley and distant Adirondack Mountains.
Then I went to the south of France, to a writer’s retreat in a small village called Labastide Esparbairenque. The village is nestled in the Montagne Noir (Black Mountains), and every day I would fill a backpack with water, cheese, chocolate and an apple, grab my camera and go on a hike. There were several trails that ran out of the village and onto mountain paths, and I spent the three weeks at the retreat exploring every day. (A fun side note: this is when I first decided that I would walk the Camino. It was just a vague idea at this point and something I didn’t think I would do for years, but when I realized how much I loved walking through the mountains and stumbling across tiny French villages, I had a suspicion that I would love the Camino).
After France I hiked a little more in Vermont, and then started checking out trails in Virginia, after my best friend moved down there. I still don’t know it well but I’ve fallen in love with Shenandoah National Park, and I’ve been able to hike small portions of the Appalachian Trail. My favorite hike in Virginia, so far, was the hike up to McAfee’s Knob- one of the most photographed sites on the Appalachian Trail. The hike was about 8-miles round trip from where I parked, and I picked a clear day, so the views were stunning.
And then I went on the Camino. While the Camino is more of a long walk than a hike, some sections were definitely a bit rougher than others- one day in particular. Along with 5 of my friends, I chose to do an alternate route called ‘Dragonte’, which had us going up and down three mountains. The day alternated between moments of strong sunshine and swirling dark clouds, and we got rained on, quite a bit. It was tough. And a lot of fun. If I hadn’t just spent the previous 3 weeks walking 300 hundred miles, I’m sure it would have been a lot more challenging. As it was, it gave me the confidence that, one day, I might actually be able to consider myself a hiker.
Finally, there were the calanques in France. These might eventually get a post of their own, but for now, here was the experience in a nutshell: my friend and I decided to explore these narrow inlets bordered by steep limestone cliffs while we were traveling around the Cote d’Azur and Provence. I was fresh off of the Camino and feeling pretty satisfied with myself- maybe even a bit cocky. We hiked to the first two calanques without a problem, but the third one was no picnic. After a strenuous climb that seemed to go on forever, we looked down a vertical rock wall to an incredibly steep descent. My friend turned back to find the beach we’d passed an hour before (which I think could be called the smartest decision of the trip), but I decided to brave the descent. The clincher was when a skinny French girl wearing a bikini and strappy sandals flounced by. I was wearing hiking shoes AND had just walked 500-miles across Spain. If she could do it, so could I.
Well, I don’t know how she did it. Because after sliding and swinging my way down the rocks, resting at the beach for 30-minutes, and then using every ounce of strength I had to pull me back up the rock wall, I was done. I was more physically exhausted than any single day on the Camino, and my sore legs had me hobbling around Provence for days afterwards.
I still have a lot to experience when it comes to hiking. But the hiking I have done- in Vermont and Virginia, in France and in Spain- it’s ignited something in me. Several people have asked if (and when) I’ll be hiking the entire Appalachian Trail, and I always laugh and say, “Probably never.” And while that’s true, for now, I wouldn’t be surprised if I begin to do some increasingly challenging hikes over the next few years. I know, almost for a fact, that I’ll never be climbing Everest… but wouldn’t Kilimanjaro be pretty amazing?