Nerds on Hikes (Or Were They?)

Last Wednesday was my birthday, and Lena and I did what we have started to do more often on special days and not-so-special days. Go for a hike. It was a great way to celebrate the day, to thank my body that it still works, that it can still hike 8.5 miles, that it can still move uphill and downhill. We hiked an “out and back” trail near Colfax, California called the Stevens Trail. This time of year things are almost perfect there—running water along the way with a waterfall or two, a cold river to dip our feet in at the turnaround point, great canyon views, and wildflowers—lots of wildflowers (cue up Tom Petty)! The temperature got close to 80 degrees, a bit more than we had bargained for and warm enough to make things uncomfortable in the sun. The hike out was a pleasant and mostly downward stroll into the American River Canyon. Of course, the hike was uphill almost all the way back to the trailhead. That climb—late in the day, partly in the sun, when the day was getting hotter and our water was getting lower—felt like a challenge.

.On the Stevens Trail.

Walking with my friend, lover, partner is a great privilege—and somehow conversation seems easier and love feels deeper as the minutes and hours on the trail pass by. Hiking can do that. Exploring a new place can do that. Time away from technology can do that. The pleasant surprises that nature provides can do that. Maybe we should head to the Stevens Trail every week.

I remember my first introduction to hiking with a lot less fondness. It was 1968 and I was not only hiking but backpacking and camping with my Boy Scout troop in Phoenix, Arizona. I have no idea where we went—I suspect it really wasn’t that far from the city. The hike itself felt excruciatingly difficult to me and I wondered—who thinks this kind of activity is fun? I was 12 or 13 years old and came from a family that did very little camping, backpacking, or hiking. I am sure I was carrying a borrowed (maybe even wooden-framed) overloaded backpack. This being Arizona, I’m sure it was really hot. 

I have no memory of how many miles we walked, though it couldn’t have been too many. I was grateful when we finally set up camp. Two particular memories stick with me from that trip. First, we were supposed to build our own kites and fly them. It may have been a kit, but all I remember was a mess of paper and string and glue. We had a bit of old fabric to use as a tail for the kite. Then we were sent into an open field to fly the darn things. To no one’s surprise, I couldn’t get my creation to lift off the ground for more than a few feet without crashing (and eventually breaking). Whether it was the lack of wind or faulty engineering on my part,  I never got that kite to do anything resembling flying. It was many years before I would consider the idea of flying a kite an entertaining thing to do.

My second memory of that trip was the nighttime. We were to sleep in small pup tents, and I shared one with another boy. Loneliness really set in for me that night. Mostly, I remember silent tears as I tried to go to sleep, my fearful and introverted nature even less excited about this trip now that it was dark. We must have been allowed transistor radios on the camp trip, because my lasting memory of this trip (don’t laugh) is listening to Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey I Miss You,” as all I wished for was to be back in my own bed and at home with Mom and Dad and Joe and Nick.

I did finally come around to enjoying hiking. A few years into high school, well after I’d left the Boy Scouts behind, I was invited to be part of the Camelback High School Hiking Club. Until this point, I thought hiking was for a certain type of person—skilled at sports, familiar with the outdoors, well schooled in the ways of the world—not for us awkward, introverted, sometimes brainy types. But this club was different.

You could call us “Nerds on Hikes.” The faculty sponsor for the Hiking Club was Phil Hart, English teacher and my teacher for Advanced Placement English. If memory serves me, most of those who were in the Hiking Club were in Mr. Hart’s AP Class at one time or another. One of the great advantages Hiking Club had over Boy Scouts was that it had both boys and girls as part of the group. It was in this club that I really began to appreciate the outdoors. There I really began to believe walking could be fun. As part of this group I bought my first serious backpack—and aluminum frame, orange version made by Camp Trails. I discovered you could actually walk down into the Grand Canyon and not just view it from the rim. I came to believe that nature was important even without merit badges. I’m sure it was then that I began to make a small commitment to caring for the environment. I found these times hiking and camping to be ideal times for developing deep and serious relationships with other people my age. This group of people was probably one of the most important groups of my high school life, and set the stage for how I related to others and the world well in to the future.

The Camp Trails classic pack.

When I finally completed writing the above reflection, I thought it would be wonderful to illustrate with a picture of the Camelback High Hiking Club, circa 1970. So I pulled out my old high school yearbooks and expected to find myself pictured along with Mr. Hart, Matt, Penny, Jean, Pat, Scott, Nancy and all the others in the group photo. I looked up the 1972 portrait—I’m not there! Oh well, I was probably sick on photo day. I searched in the 1971 yearbook, and I’m not pictured in that group photo either! Now desperate, I checked the 1970 yearbook, and—no surprise—I am not in that group photo either. Sadly, I don’t even have the 1969 yearbook. 

The Camelback High Hiking Club without me.

So here is the question, did I just dream all the things I wrote above and make up the impact that the Hiking Club had on my life? I really do remember every person in those photos, but there is no trace of my participation. (Most of these people signed my yearbook!) I can tell detailed stories of many of these folks, but now I wonder, how much were they really in my life? Perhaps I was just a tagalong with the group. Maybe I never did the assignments needed to be an official member. The fact that there is no pictorial evidence of my participation troubles and disappoints me. But, real or not, that group experience lives on in my mind. These people started my hiking life.

Spiritual Practice: Find a Way to Walk

When Lena and I travel—near or far—we spend a lot of time walking. It is common when we are in larger cities to find that we have walked ten miles or more on many days. It is not that we don’t like subways or cabs. It is not that we won’t take trains or busses. It is just that walking gets us close to all the things that are important to us. You can’t really stop and fully experience a flower if you are on a bus. You don’t grab a bite from the bakery when you are on the train. There are not many people with whom to strike up a conversation if you are constantly in an automobile. You can’t touch ancient stones from an enclosed vehicle seat. So—if we can—we walk. In fact, as we look ahead to travels in the future, we try to be conscious of how, where and how often we can walk. We seek it out.

So here is the practice. The next time you are traveling (or even just enjoying going somewhere in your hometown), ask yourself—“Can I walk to where I am going?” or “Can I spend time walking when I get there?” The next time you are planning some sightseeing, take time to wonder about whether you can build in a hike. The next time you take a trip, make sure walking is part of it. Simple. Easy. Fun.

10 thoughts on “Nerds on Hikes (Or Were They?)

  1. Jim, I love hearing that you need the photo validation of your experiences. As you have experienced with me, I to need to need the photos of these types of life’s events and experiences. I am a visual thinker and the images help enrich my memories of them. AND \I just love sharing them with friends!!!!!
    Perhaps a part of the practice for this should also to take a pic or 2.


  2. Jim, I love hearing that you need the photo validation of your experiences. As you have experienced with me, I to need to need the photos of these types of life’s events and experiences. I am a visual thinker and the images help enrich my memories of them. AND I just love sharing them with friends!!!!!
    Perhaps a part of the practice for this should also to take a pic or 2.


  3. On the other hand… Years ago, I took a friend to Yosemite. We drove through the tunnel and then stood at the overlook that gives onto the vista of El Capitan, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Falls. While we took in the view, a busload of international tourists unloaded, cameras at the ready. They snapped picture after picture, cameras rarely dropping from their eyes. We found ourselves watching them take pictures of the scenery. Later we wondered: did they have an honest experience, or were they so busy recording that they couldn’t actually process what they’d seen until they got home, developed the film, and then looked at the photos of what they’d seen through the frame of the viewfinder? Did we have an honest experience of Yosemite Valley, given our distracted attention? Memory may be factually inaccurate and mercurial, an amalgamation of fact and imagination and desire; then again, it, too, may be a kind of exploration that is itself a spiritual discipline.


    1. What is an “honest experience?” Hmmm. I love your comments about memory. Faulty memory is one of the barriers I have to writing. I’m not sure I can always access “truth.” But maybe you are right, the act of plumbing the memory itself, however tenuous, just might be a spiritual discipline.


  4. “Faulty memory is one of the barriers I have to writing.” That may be why I feel more comfortable writing fiction and trusting that imagination, coupled with the tenuousness of memory, will find a truth that supercedes fact. Then, again, I might just be fooling myself.

    As for an “honest” experience… I was having one; it just wasn’t the experience of nature I was looking for. Instead of Half Dome itself, I was experiencing tourists with cameras framing Half Dome. Not quite what I was looking for or what I was expecting, but maybe that’s what my wife calls my failure of flexibility.


  5. Happy belated Jim! After all these years in CA, I only recently hiked Stevens Trail. As you described, it was la tee da on the way down, an uncomfortably warm grunt on the way out. Beautiful though and we pretty much had it to ourselves.

    I appreciate your reflections on hiking and urban walking. What a wonderful way to explore. I don’t have any ink, but if I were to get a tattoo I think it would be solivtur ambulando (it is solved by walking).


  6. Thanks Jim for sharing your thoughts about walking/hiking. It’s certainly “down to earth” both literally and figuratively. It also impacts various aspects of our being: physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually . . . You’d think the endorphins alone would make it addictive, though aches and pains, competing interests and obligations can take precedence. I’m currently with vaccinated relatives, but when I return home I’ll check my ’69 yearbook and hopefully validate your Hiking Club membership.


  7. I love your description of walking with Lena. To me, that is so marvelous and lovely. While I don’t have a dedicated partner with whom to hike, I am abundantly blessed with women in my life who walk the walk with me. (both literally and metaphorically) My two college roomies and I committed to gathering every three months for some sort of outing. Walking is optional. Eating ice cream is not optional. It has been over a year since our last gathering. Next week, I can hardly wait, they are coming to my house for the weekend. I will suggest this hike to them…..though I much prefer to have the easy way out. Thank you for sharing all of your memories. My high school AP English teacher was super inspirational. I loved hearing how the Nerd on Hikes influenced your life long love for the care of nature. My sister and I did a StoryCorps with each other where we talked about memories…and how we have different memories. I often wonder if some of my most prominent memories were true or imagined.


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