“Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands.” – Reese Witherspoon, “Legally Blonde”
I celebrated my 45th birthday with a hike. Even as I enjoyed the views from the top and along the way, the sounds of trickling streams and the peace and quiet, I couldn’t help feeling a little guilty. While I was here, families were mourning deaths and business owners hurt by the pandemic who were looking forward to finally being able to open up instead were cleaning their destroyed stores. Here I was, not helping clean up, not protesting, not grieving, not educating myself. Was I being selfish? Is hiking inherently selfish?
Hiking might not require paying expensive club dues, the rental of a slip or a stable or a big investment in gear (nothing against the folks who swear by REI, but we all know that you can get started and even do some substantial hikes with little, if any, fancy equipment.) But yes, it is still a luxury. Not everyone has easy access even to local trails, much less national parks or the resources to take the time to train for and hike the Pacific Crest Trail or Camino de Santiago. So I ask again, is hiking inherently selfish?
No – if the experience somehow inspires you to give back to the greater good.
“There’s a reason why flight attendants tell you to put your OWN oxygen mask on first.” So say those who believe that you have to help yourself before you can help others. Remember how much trouble Stewart Smalley got into because he was always trying to save other people?
Hiking is one of the few sports that has documented psychological benefits as well as physical. According to this article, “Research shows that spending time outdoors increases attention spans and creative problem-solving skills by as much as 50 percent…the results may have as much to do with unplugging from technology as they do spending time outside.”
So what exactly can you do with that 50 percent increase in problem solving skills? Hiking might not solve all of society’s ills, but it could inspire you to encourage others to get out there and experience nature, to become supportive of local outdoor organizations or communities or at the very least, it might deter you from getting into a fight with random strangers on social media. Nature has inspired the writing of Henry David Thoreau, Edward Abbey and John Muir, the photographs of Ansel Adams and more recently, memoirs such as Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods” and Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild.” (There’s Reese again.)
Hiking can make you feel good – and it can also make you feel bad. But that’s good.
Hiking forces you to leave your comfort zone. Through-hikers learn to subsist for days at a time without electricity or running water, how to determine exactly what they need and don’t need to carry and how to improvise when things don’t go as planned. If you’re just out for the day, a hike still might force you to adapt to thinner air at high altitude, climb a steep grade, navigate wilderness or face psychological hurdles such as walking alongside a steep cliff or being willing to turn back when conditions get hazardous (easier said than done). Even if you’re just out for a nature walk, it can be a challenge to truly detach and surrender yourself to the moment. I speak from experience.
When you overcome a challenge, however, you feel better about yourself (self care). When you go without things that you are used to, you appreciate them more and might then have more empathy for people who don’t have the very things you take for granted. You also might find that if you can overcome the physical challenge of a backpacking trip or a major summit, you might also be able to overcome psychological challenges – such as listening to those with differing opinions and being willing to change your own thought processes when necessary.
Am I selfish?
It depends on whom you ask. But however selfish I am, I’d be even more selfish if not for hiking.
As someone who came to hiking as therapy after a parent’s death and a divorce, I have done what I can to spread the word about its benefits and in so doing, hopefully inspired others who might be going through similar battles. Hiking has enabled me to use this website and my social media accounts as platforms to share my experiences and information and to provide a forum for others to do the same and to share information about local, statewide and national agencies that oversee public land.
Much has been made of the disparity in access to the outdoors between white people and people of color. Not being a POC, I am not in a place to weigh in on the issue, but I do know that my NOCs (nephews of color, ages 8 1/2 and 2 1/2), who with their parents have been staying with my wife and I since March instead of having to quarantine in a small Brooklyn condo, have been hiking on a regular basis. (The older one has asked me questions about Mt. Whitney, although he seems more interested in hearing about waste disposal requirements on the mountain than altitude training.)
Is not hiking selfish?
Okay, you can’t just decide to do the Appalachian Trail on a whim and we all know that procuring a permit for Havasupai or the Wave takes an act of congress. Yes, many L.A. area trails are still closed due to Coronavirus concerns and many of the trails that opened had to be closed just as quickly due to overcrowding and ignoring of social distancing.
But if you are able to hike – and most people are, at least on some level – and if you agree that hiking benefits both mind and body, don’t you owe it to the world to become your best self and do it? Consider the scene in “Good Will Hunting” where Chuckie (Ben Affleck) calls out Will (Matt Damon) for not taking advantage of an opportunity to leave a dead-end job: “You don’t owe it to yourself, man, you owe it to me.”
I don’t claim to know what the future holds; if the past few months have taught us anything it’s that some things couldn’t be made up if you tried. I do hope that no matter what climatic, economical or political conditions may await us, we will always find peace and inspiration on the trails. If we do, the world might just become a little less selfish.