Hiking has always inspired me on many levels. I think just being outside with the fresh smell of Earth frees my imagination. Or maybe it’s just all that time I get to spend in my own mind on a hike. This piece I wrote about hiking with my dad received a national gold medal from https://www.artandwriting.org.
A chilly autumn breeze blows overhead, stirring up the crumpled, rigid leaves above. Rust and gold colored dancers take to the air, twisting and pirouetting around bare, wiry tree trunks as they fall, creating a shower of mahogany. I look down to my frigid, shaking fingers, fumbling with the cold, slippery zipper of my fleece, and will the two shiny metal pieces to connect. At last, they do. My fingers quickly pull the tiny zipper up my black jacket, and I look up. My dad stands by the woods reading the trail sign, the bottom of his army-green windbreaker fluttering in the breeze.
“Five point two miles to the top, so ten point four, round trip,” he calls, his confident voice carrying through the wind.
“Okay,” I answer, feeling goosebumps on my arms as they rub against my sleeves. He returns to where I stand shivering and hands me my daypack that we purchased together at REI. It’s army-green, just like his windbreaker, and that’s why I like it. I pull my arm through the first strap and awkwardly reach my other arm back to get through the other one. I pull it through, feeling the familiar weight on my shoulders. “Let’s go.”
I follow him onto the hiking path. It’s about an arm span wide with light brush on the edges, then varying thicknesses of hardwood trees behind that. Birch is my favorite and so is his. We love the way the black dotted lines curl around the unique, white bark that stands out anywhere. My dad quickly picks up speed and settles into a brisk pace. Our goal is 30-minute miles, so I set into my pace behind him. All I can hear is the clanking of our hiking poles against gray spotted granite and the swoosh of the crisp wind above, like an ever crashing wave. We trek through mystical valleys and cross over flowing rivers, mesmerized by the water snaking down through rocks worn smooth over the ages. The warm, orange sun filters through the leaves, casting slivers of sunlight on my dad’s dirty blonde hair, and on the backs of his well-worn hiking boots.
I’ve been hiking with him for as long as I can remember, bonding over the joy of reaching the summit. He was the one who convinced me to use trekking poles, coaching me from behind to keep my poles in front of me, to take longer steps. I vividly remember him holding my little, sweaty six-year-old hand as we climbed up a switchback on a small mountain. I can almost feel his strong hands on my waist, swinging me over a river.
“Don’t worry. I won’t let you fall,” he’d say, then he’d purposely let me slip an inch or two in his arms, and catch me right before I’d fall.
“Again! Again!” I’d call, and he’d pick me up in his big strong arms, so I’d feel as tall as the mighty oaks that surrounded me. He introduced me to nature, made me love the feel of dirt in my hands and the confidence that only a summit can bestow.
I let my boots lead the way as my mind drifts into thought. Every leaf on each tree looks like a little dot to me, and the whole beautiful scene resembles an impressionist painting. Hours tick by and I barely notice, lost in the content feeling of wind in my hair. My breath quickens and my legs begin to burn as we heave ourselves up the arduous mountain, but Dad and I push through it together. Eventually, the trees thin and the wind picks up, howling through the evergreen pine needles.
“I smell the top, Katie,” Dad calls over his shoulder. It gives me a boost of adrenaline, so I push through the pain despite the heaviness I feel in my extremities and the burning tightness in my chest. Finally, the trees part and even without looking, I know it’s the top. Wind blows my hair back as I step onto the rocky, bald crest with Dad, and we both gaze out at the purple peaks in the distance.
“That one’s Washington,” Dad points out with his outstretched finger, “and there’s Owl’s Nest.” I sit down on the rock and stare out at the incredible field of mighty pinnacles as Dad reaches in his pack for a Ziplock bag of Cheez-its.
Looking out across the vast expanse of wilderness that surrounds me, I realize that there’s so many more mountains to climb, so many more adventures to be had that I’ll never get to experience in my lifetime. The universe is just so enormous, and here I am sitting on top of one big rock, an insignificant tiny speck in this world. But then I see Dad watching me, and I feel again like I did when I was a little girl, so big, reaching up for the tallest trees, living the present moments as if they are universes themselves. In his eyes, I am a giant.