The Harder Hikes

I am not going to sing the praises of nature, as if a walk in the woods can fix all your problems. The woods are not medicine. I am not going to tell you that being alone in the woods makes it easier to think, because it doesn’t. And I’m not going to tell you that hiking alone is fun, because I would be lying.

It is hard.

It is hard when you pull yourself over what you thought for sure was the top of the mountain, only to see you still have ages to go.

It is hard when you forget water, or bug spray, or first aid, and you feel stupid and a little scared.

It is hard when you make a wrong turn and suddenly the woods get darker and you feel very, very alone, and you wonder how the hell you ended up where you are.

It is hard when you fall, whether you hurt yourself or your pride, and it is hard when you feel alone.

It is hard, and lonely, and it can be terrifying.

But listen—

 We don’t always do things to be fun, or easy, or for them to make us happy. Sometimes it’s not about having a happy walk in the woods, seeing wildflowers or playing in rivers.

Sometimes it’s more important to fall, and get lost, and make mistakes.

It’s worth it in the moment you pull yourself up again, and brush off the dirt. It’s worth it when you clean out and bandage your own cut, and when you pull out a compass you’ve never had to use before and figure it out.

And it’s worth it when you get to the place you wanted to go, simply because you did it yourself, and it wasn’t easy. You earned your final destination, and every moment in between.

No, it’s not easy, and it’s not fun, and sometimes it fucking sucks. It makes you feel small, and insignificant, and utterly at the mercy of nature. But it can also make you feel strong.

I guess I don’t want easy. I guess I want good.

The Places Stress Will Follow You

We—hikers, writers, nature lovers, always champion the therapeutic power of nature. I have told people that I hike because it relives stress, and I have spent bad days looking out the window, convinced that if I could go outside and be alone in the woods for just a bit I would be so much happier.

Hiking, or being in nature helps, but it isn’t magic, and it isn’t always a solution.

For every hike that has helped with stress, there is another hike that tested me, made me nervous, and made me doubt myself. There have been hikes where I have scraped up and bruised my legs, hikes where I didn’t bring enough water, hikes where I was sure I was irreparably lost.

There have been hikes when I have hurried up mountains to get the right shot of the sunset, worried I came all this way just to mess it up, and times where after a perfect sunset, I have had to walk back in the dark, and worried about that too.

There have been hikes that I didn’t think I could finish, where my legs hurt and I was winded well before halfway, and left feeling weaker rather than stronger.

I am a worrier, I am anxious, and I get stressed, and tall trees and fresh air don’t always fix that. But sometimes it does, and even the hikes that make me happy to get back in the car and pull off my hiking boots have taught me something.

The time my sister and I did the Dune Climb with no gear taught me that you always need water; the time I wore brand new hiking boots up a mountain in Colorado taught me I am not immune to blisters.

The time I almost got frostbite taught me a lot about poor planning, and the time I hiked to Copperas Falls taught me that not all hikes are fun, and some are definitely not worth repeating or recommending.

So while a hike isn’t medicine, and nature isn’t always an antidote to stress, even the bad hikes can still be adventures.

And sometimes, if you’re very lucky and in the right place at the right time, your hike can be both an adventure, and magic.

Roan Mountain Magic

There are places where the line between what is real and what you’ve imagined is so thin that you are certain you’ve stepped out of a dream. These places have an otherness about them, they are ageless and supernatural, and it feels if you were to stay there long enough, that maybe you might fall through time.

cropped-img_5334-1.jpgThese places are rich, as if plucked from a storybook, but have palpable history. They mean something as much as they are something, and even if you don’t necessarily know the place’s stories and history, you can feel it. We speak about these places with reverence; they are the places that inspire us, that make writers, and artists, that spark movements, places we protect.

In my life time, I have only had the luxury of visiting two of these places.

The 5-mile ridge of Roan Mountain is one of them. I’ve been told that in June, natural rhododendron gardens blanket the mountain tops, but I went in May and it was still stunning.

IMG_5719-1Every step along that beautiful trail is magic, from the initial dive into the pines, through and over the Balds at elevation 6000 feet, all the way out to Grassy Bald, and it’s commanding views of North Carolina.

Just to stand on a trail that runs for over 2000 miles is one thing, but then to walk the line that divides Tennessee and North Carolina is another. More astounding still is to look out over the Appalachians, once taller as the Rockies, maybe taller, and as old as 480 million years, and think how they have been eroded for millions of years by wind and water and ice, scraped down to less than half their size but still are standing. These mountains are ancient, and you are strolling on this resilient beast’s back.


The Most Beautiful Place I Have Ever Been

The most beautiful place I have ever been I went without a camera. I had my phone, and I did take pictures, but not in the way I do now. I took pictures with the goal of remembering, telling myself “don’t forget this moment”. Of course, the pictures don’t so much matter, because it wasn’t the image I was telling myself not to forget; it was the feeling.

The whole thing was spontaneous in a way that I am usually not. “You know what we should do Friday?” a classmate asked over dinner the night before. So four of us booked spots on a cheap tour bus, because hey, why not, when in Rome, and we got up early to get on that bus for a three-hour drive.

I suppose the thought at some point crossed my mind that maybe the drive wasn’t worth the place, but this wasn’t any sort of pilgrimage for me. It was not premediated, and I had no expectations. And to some extent I was just as excited about the ride— driving places gives you a respect for the earth like flying never will. You can’t see the landscape in a plane, watch plains change to foothills, and foothills to mountains. There is nothing connecting you to the ground you are traveling over.

But a 6-hour round trip drive from Dublin felt negligible from the cliff tops. Standing a few feet—okay a few yards—from a 700-foot drop, with sheets of wind racing up the rock and blowing you back, everything else in the whole world fell away.

People say that happens when you fall in love, that the whole world falls away. Nothing else matters, in a crowded room you are alone.

I was alone with the Cliffs in that way. The paths were crowded, and the air was full of laughs of strangers, but still it was just me, and the grass, the way the ground vanished and plunged down, down to a rocky coast below. It was me and the call of the puffins nesting below, and looking down rather than up at the birds flying, the way waves looked like ripples but must have been massive. Me and the thin purple line of the Aran Islands in the distance, the faint slopes of Connemara. Me and the adrenaline, and the void that was that dizzying drop to the sea, and a feeling of utter insignificance. The Cliffs did not care who I was, or where I had come from; they simplify persisted, carved out by the wind in the waves.

I remember eventually looking to my friend next to me and saying “I think this is the most beautiful places I have ever seen.”

I used to think that beautiful places are formulaic—color, light, and a striking landscape, preferably with flowers.

That’s not why the Cliffs were the most beautiful place I have ever been. The Cliffs are beautiful because they made me feel something, because they sucked the air out of my lungs, both from thrill and fear. I felt small and insignificant, but at the same time felt it mattered that I was there.

I felt like I belonged on the side of that cliff on that day. Like I was meant to have that wind tear through my hair and tug at my scarf. The birds danced, and the waves crashed and the wind chipped away at the Cliffside as it has year after year, and I was a part of that for just a second.

Wilderness State Park and Winter Shoreline

We left Alden a little before noon on a relatively spontaneous drive north towards the Straits of Mackinaw early this April. Wilderness State Park sits on the tip of the mitten, and is one of the largest undeveloped tracts of land in the Lower Peninsula.

That is part of the draw for me—the undeveloped land. That, and there is very little online about the park, and miles of under-trafficked trails. I’ve got a thing for obscure places, and sights that haven’t graced my computer screen. There is no thrill in seeing a place in person that I have seen over and over on the internet. This isn’t to say that I don’t want to see those well-photographed places— but they don’t give me the rush that exploring does.

For me, this was the draw of Wilderness State Park. There is no iconic place to capture, no roaring waterfall or scenic overlook. There isn’t even an easily accessible lighthouse.

There’s only miles of untouched shoreline, and loop upon loop in the woods, and I wanted to know what that looked like.

We parked at the farthest west parking lot we could find and hiked along the beach from there. The Lake Michigan ice had begun to melt, and small icebergs floated in the clear water. The ice melt this year was much sooner than it had been in the past, and the look of the ice in the sandy waters came as odd to me.

Ice melt in Lake Michigan in early April

It’s only just this year that I have made a trip out to the Lake in the winter, and the last I saw it, it was frozen enough that we couldn’t see the sand. The sun was out when we went, so the water was clear and inviting; an odd juxtaposition to the chunks of ice.

The coastline in Wilderness State Park reminds me of Maine, or Canada, or some other east coast beach. It’s easy to forget that the lake isn’t the ocean, with its tide pools and bug horizon line, and the outlines of pine trees.

We had walked for maybe a mile when I saw blue ice— blue ice is created high density and compression, and is usually found in glaciers, but sometimes on the Great Lakes.  This particular patch of blue ice looked accessible, piled up on the shore past a small tidal stream. So naturally, I took off my hiking boots and socks and slung them over my shoulder while my friends watched somewhere between skeptically and judgmentally as waded barefoot across the rocky calf-deep melt water.

I should mention that this is normal for me. If ever there is clear, sandy water no matter the temperature I, or at least my feet, will be in it. About a month ago, I did it at Esch Road Beach. It was cold, but worth it.

I quickly jammed my feet back into my hiking boots on the other side of the stream, and hiked out to the blue ice.

Blue Ice on Lake Michigan

Whether because of the harsh lighting, overhyped expectations, or just lack luster photography, my photos of the blue ice didn’t turn out how I had hoped. I had a good time getting out there, though, and it was pretty in person.

We hiked further west from there, eventually flopping down at a small bay and chatting. It was cold out, but mostly only when the sun went behind the clouds and the wind picked up. While we sat it was sunny and sandy.

After, we only walked a little farther along the beach from there before headed back to the parking lot and driving pack down Wilderness Park Drive. Before we left, we did a loop in the woods on Big Stone Trail out and around Goose Pond.

We walked for a good four hours and didn’t even touch a quarter of the trails and land available to explore in Wilderness State Park, but that’s sort of exciting. There’s more to explore, and I’m sure I’ll head back soon!

The Other Tahquamenon Falls

The cool thing about beautiful places and geology, be it lakes, rivers, mountains, or waterfalls, is if there is one interesting feature, there are probably more nearby. There’s never really just one mountain view, or one beautiful beach, but it’s only the most impressive that makes our bucket list.

The Upper Tahquamenon Falls in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula get a lot of love. Don’t get me wrong, they are impressive— but even when Estee and I visited in early March they were crowded, and after seeing them plastered across every Instagram feed and Pure Michigan advertisement, they felt impersonal and overdone.

hjig-1This isn’t to say that the Upper Falls aren’t worth the visit; the falls feature an impressive 50 foot drop and coffee-colored water. You can stand right at the edge of the falls and let the spray hit your face, which is a cool feeling. In the winter large icicles form at the waterfalls sides.

But the Lower Falls are so much better.

For starters, they aren’t over-photographed. When you walk out to them you don’t really know what to expect. It feels like you are discovering the falls rather than visiting a geotagged location to add a popular photo to your own collection.

Better yet, the falls are a series of five smaller falls, with more area to explore. There is enough of the Tahquamenon River, the Lower Falls, and the surrounding area to get thousands of different angles in a photo, and to actually feel like you know the falls yourself.

The hike out to the Lower Falls is longer. In the summer, it is about a mile round trip to the Falls and back. In winter, the summer lot isn’t open, and it was closer to two miles round trip.

The hike is rewarding. There are small bridges over streams and the path is heavily wooded; by the time we reached the falls we felt like we worked a little for it—more of an adventure than the Upper Falls. There was no one else around for a good portion of our hike, and only one other person on the platform.

Other than the header photo, I didn’t include any photos of the Lower Falls. The first reason for this is it was really too bright when I went to get any good photos. The second is that the Lower Falls are worth discovering for yourself.

Fun Story about the first Upper Falls Photo: Immediately after I took this, a dog came over to visit me and Estee! The Upper Falls might be crowded, but I will brave any crowd to pet a puppy!