What 50+ Years of Hiking Taught Me

I started hiking in the 1960s at Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. Dad was a seasonal park service ranger. He and Mom loved to hike. So we kids – my two brothers and I – my kid sister came along in 1967 – learned to hike early, as toddlers. After three summers at the Tetons, Dad transferred to Washington State’s Mount Rainier National Park in 1963. We spent large chunks of the next three summers hiking there.

I never stopped.

Dad served as a seasonal park service ranger for six summers, first at Grand Teton National Park and then at Mount Rainier National Park. Here he is at the Tetons, 1962.

My family moved to coastal Washington from our native southern California in 2002. One of our first day trips after settling in was to Mount Rainier National Park, about 140 miles or roughly three hours southwest, depending on how many logging trucks you get stuck behind en route. It’s still my favorite hiking haunt. Even after half a century.

Me and my big bro. Paradise, Mount Rainier National Park. 1964.

I’ve hiked just about every day hike available within the park’s 365 square miles. I’ve also hiked in over 20 states and more national parks than you can shake a trekking pole at. Favorites are Yosemite, Sequoia and King’s Canyon, Olympic, the Tetons, Yellowstone, and of course, Mount Rainier.

Top: Old JVC (Jackson Visitor Center), Paradise, Mount Rainier National Park, 2005. Bottom: New JVC, 2018.

I’ve learned a few things during my fifty-plus years of hiking. Since I’m such a nice lady and all, I’m passing these along at no extra charge. Think of it as the ‘Ole Iron Knees Trail Compendium.

HERE ARE 21 THINGS I’VE LEARNED FROM 50+ YEARS OF HIKING:

  1. Hiking offers a unique sense of camaraderie. Total strangers gladly share maps, compass readings, helpful tips (“there’s a bear around the next bend”), and responses to the omnipresent question on everyone’s lips: “How much further?” People you’ve never laid eyes on before in your life become boon companions after a few miles or minutes of trail tales.
  2. Everything tastes better. Even that charred hockey puck disguised as a hot dog tastes delicious when you take off your boots and sit around the campfire after a full day of hiking.
  3. Nobody cares how you look. So leave the fake eye lashes and primping at home.
  4. Hiking is highly individual, so anyone can do it. At any age. You set your own route, goals and pace. You’re never too old to start. In fact, if you keep at it and stay fit, hiking can be a lifelong endeavor.
  5. Take lots of pictures.
  6. When the sign says “Stay on Trail,” do it.
  7. Always bring extra water and socks. Don’t make me explain this.
  8. Worship is reserved for the Creator, not creation.
  9. Time doesn’t have much meaning on the trail. You start when you want and finish when you want. Opening your heart and soul to nature’s beauty and purple mountained majesty is what matters. Not the clock.
    Descending Mazama Ridge into Paradise, Mount Rainier National Park.
  10. Hiking is a great stress reducer. Way better than Prozac. And a lot cheaper.
  11. There’s nothing quite like the surge of adrenalin that accompanies the words, “Let’s see what’s around this next bend.” Or “We’re almost there.” “Just a few more steps to the summit.” “Watch out for the rattlesnake.”
  12. Break in new bootsbefore hitting the trail. Don’t ask how I know this.
  13. Hiking gets my creative juices flowing. I don’t know what it is about forward locomotion but whenever I’m moving, my brain is moving, too. As a writer, some of my best story ideas have fluttered into the ‘ole cerebral hard drive when I’m out on the trail.
  14. Wood smoke smells better than Chanel No. 5.
  15. Nature is resilient. Give it time, space and respect and it’ll bounce back.
  16. Take only pictures, leave on footprints.
  17. It’s okay to go slow. Frankly, I’ve never quite understood the whole “trail running” thing. (I get the cardio workout in the Great Outdoors. But why rush?) Nature has her own rhythm. Think speed of a growing redwood. Alacrity of a three-toed sloth. Swiftness of an advancing glacier. With hiking, the process matters more than speed.
  18. Buy an annual pass for state and national parks. In the long run, it’s cheaper than doing the fee-for-single visit thing.
  19. Respect the land. You’re a guest. Behave accordingly.

20 . Respect park rangers. They are not glorified trail guides or grown-up boy scouts. They’re professionals who work hard to protect you as well as our national parks. When they tell you to do something, do it. The converse is also true.

21. Like most adventures, hiking is best when it’s shared. Bring a friend.

Naches Peak Loop Trail, Mount Rainier National Park, WA. August 2017.