Hiking Lessons

February 29, 2020

Saturday after Ash Wednesday

As I telegraphed in my previous post, this week I share with you some reflections gathered from my recent day hike in Harriman State Park. I hope the title didn’t lead you to expect lessons on how to hike better—though some of those may slip in, my focus is truly on lessons that the hike called to mind for me.

No significant journey begins with a clear view of the final destination. If you think you can see the end, either you began a long time ago or what you’re looking at may just be a mirage. Alternatively, you may be capable of a greater voyage than you had expected.

Sometimes you can see the next destination but no clear way to get there. The trails in Harriman are generally very well-marked but sometimes there can be obstacles in the way, such as a fallen tree. You don’t get anywhere without moving though, and sometimes the path becomes clear only once you’ve already set out.

Sometimes you can see the path ahead of you but not the next destination. When there is only one way forward, move with trust while being attentive to signs that perhaps there may have been a different way after all. Sometimes the way only reveals itself one step at a time.

Not all paths are correct for a particular person. It is easy to end up on the wrong trail if you don’t pay attention to the markings or if they are ambiguous. This factor extended my hike a bit longer than I expected, leading me deeper into the woods, but thankfully I had a map so as not to get too badly lost. Anybody who spends any time in the forest also knows that deer trails aren’t necessarily the best trails for us humans… but how many times have I mistaken a deer trail for the path meant for me, only recognizing my mistake some time later?

Be reasonably prepared. There is no reason to overburden oneself with extras, but that map I downloaded to my phone came in handy, and I am glad I had snacks and water. Although I didn’t end up needing a flashlight, the fact that I barely made it out before dark makes me glad I packed it anyway.

You have more fellow travelers than you think. I set out alone and saw nobody for several miles, only to be overtaken by one hiker, then to overtake another myself, and later to walk past a group picnicking… and then nobody for the rest of my time in the park. Just because you don’t seem any companions right now doesn’t mean they’re not there.

I’m responsible for my own well-being (within reason). Given my irregular schedule, if I don’t take a day off until I have somebody to do something with me, I might never take the time I need. I would also then risk losing experiences of healthy solitude.

There’s always a hill you can’t see beyond the one you’re currently climbing. This is an act of mercy—my hike the other day was reasonable for my current level of fitness, but the sight from the bottom of the entire ascent before me would have been demoralizing nonetheless.

Sometimes the hill you’re climbing actually is the last one. Pain may last a long time but it can’t go on forever.

Distance grants remarkable perspective. From the summit of “the Timp” I was able to see the towers of Manhattan off in the distance. From this vantage point they looked appropriately less significant than they do up close.

One way or another, you end up where you started. In my case, I had to return to where I’d parked the car. As Ash Wednesday reminds us, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”


This week I offer two more products of travel far more ambitious than my day hike. In 2017, Bro. Todd Patenaude and young Lay Marists Tyler Pereira and Mike Pastore hiked the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, an ancient European pilgrimage route. One of their fellow pilgrims they met along the way posted a “crowd-sourced” cover of the song I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) in which you can see brief cameos by Todd and Tyler. Each year, the New York Times gets some poor sap to travel to 52 distinct global destinations over the course of a year and write about the different stages in the journey—this week’s “brain food” is the reflection of 2019’s ’52 Places’ traveler on the lessons he learned on the journey.

Ear Candy: “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by the Proclaimers and assorted Camino pilgrims

Brain Food: “In a Year of Perpetual Motion, Moments that Stopped Time” by Sebastian Modak

Come back next Saturday for a new post!