Why I Hike: Time Off in a Highland Cathedral

It is 47 degrees on a July morning and we are going to get an early start.  Looking up, the highest peaks still have some snow on them.  The sky is crystal clear. We’re going on another long hike today up to the Continental Divide in the Colorado Rockies. The temperature will go up into the 70s.

This is a family affair.  We are not skiers, but hikers.  The mountains are as beautiful in the
summertime as they are in the winter time.  But when you have lots of kids, hiking is a significantly cheaper family activity than skiing!

I hike for the physical exercise.  You have to be perpared for these kinds of hikes.  On the way up between 11-14000 ft, you’ll notice that the air gets thinner and breathing more difficult.  But as you go you will be breathing some of the cleanest air you will ever breathe.

In a sheer ascent your lungs are sometimes screaming for air, your heart is pounding fast.  My wife tells me she likes hiking because she can talk to her husband and all he can do is listen.  He is breathing so hard he cannot say a word!

On the way down, it is the other way around, your heart is fine, but your  legs  and knees are screaming and feet are pounding  as all your weight puts added pressure on them.

Then at the end of the day when you return, you are dog tired.  And there is nothing like putting your aching feet in a cold mountain river!

But I hike for more than the physical exercise, though it certainly is that.  There is something spiritual about hikes for me.  They are, in a sense, like spending time in a highland cathedral.   Let me try to capture it in words.

For me, there has always been something wholesome about hiking.   Living in suburbia, it is so easy to get caught in the typical focus of shopping, yard/house work, or going out to eat.  But hiking is both earthy and glorious in the same day.  Earthy—because it is trail, rocks and dust, and making sure you don’t put your foot down wrong and twist something.   Glorious because the beauty is astounding.

It is not just beauty either.  It’s an exposure to majesty.  The tall majestic peaks are so big, and you are so small.  Like the ocean, the mountains bring perspective to your life.  They put you in your place.  And, if you happen to making a camping trip out of it, the extraordinary star display only adds to this. It makes you think about the one who made them all and the Scriptural witness that God is “resplendent with light, more majestic than mountains” (Psalm 76.4). It prompts you to pause and praise the one who formed the mountains by his power (Pr. 8.25).

The beauty of the day is seen in the massive peaks and ridges patched by glistening white snow- fields, against the bright blue sky.  It is seen in the brilliant display of mountain wildflowers that dazzle the eye.  Their growing season is very short, but at their height, the carpet of Indian paint brush, Colorado bluebells and Columbine, are more beautiful than anything a human artist could capture on canvass.

There is the sheer exuberance of reaching your destination and being on top of the world.  When you finally get beyond all the false peaks, and reach your destination, you are on top of the world.  There is nothing quite like it.  You have new perspective.  It is quiet.  Except for the wind, it is real quiet.

The beauty is not only limited to views at the top.   All the way up you are passing through different ecosystems with their own attractiveness.  There may be a lush green forest following  a fast running stream of snow melt.   There is the occasional waterfall.   There is the open meadow with the unexpected appearance of a large bull moose a safe distance away.   There is the side of the mountain covered with aspen trees where the trail starts its steep ascent.  It makes the Stairmaster at the health club seem like a joke.  There’s the joy of reaching tree line where mosquitoes gasp and die, and the trees suddenly get shorter and then disappear.  The trail then winds through scrub oak, and when that disappears, then tundra.  There’s the zig-zagging trail that takes you to a mountain lake.  And then, at last, the final ascent across rock fields and boulders to the top.

Weather plays a part in a hike.  It is often not a crystal clear day like today.  You experience different micro weather systems within the span of your hike.  You might experience fog, a sunny day, and rain showers in the span of a few hours.  I have been near the top in July when it has started snowing hard!  Thunderstorms are quite typical in the afternoon.  You want to summit before they arrive and get off of the top, (below tree line), when you start to hear the thunder echo through the mountains.  Did you know that lightening can travel through rocks?

When hiking you have to learn to fear—to fear the mountain.  That is not a sign of weakness, but of respect.   For there are dangers and you must be mountainwise.  The serious hiker will have the right shoes and stay hydrated.  You have to fear the rock, the cliff, the weather, the storm, and the creatures you may encounter (mountain lion, bear, moose).  It is not paralyzing fear, but healthy fear, like the fear of God called for in the Bible.  It is a fear that is good.  Without it you could be in serious trouble, and with it you will thrive.

As you go you have to watch your gauges.  Have you been drinking enough water? If not you may get altitude sickness.   Did you have a good breakfast, and do you have enough protein, if not you may bonk out at the very moment when all your energy is required.  Are your feet okay and blister free?  How about them ankles and knees?

I love hiking for the journey itself.  It is a hard walk, covering many miles.  To succeed you must stay on the trail and avoid detours.   As you hike you will meet other people.  You can’t ignore them or drive around them. You must encounter them and talk to them.  It could be that you will depend upon them if you get in trouble.  There is a kinship on the trail.  They are on the same hard path.   In some ways hiking helps me get into the world of Pilgrim’s Progress, a book with the setting of a walker’s world.  I often read it when on a hiking trip.

Of course, there’s no assurance you will reach your destination.  If a storm moves in too early, you may not even get to the top.  So you have to be sure to enjoy the entire journey, not just the summit.

A serious hike is a journey that succeeds by plodding.  It is one step after another.  You can stop and take a rest, but then you must continue.  You will have others to encourage you.  But when you are tired and wonder if you will make it, the best thing to do is to just take the next step.  One step at a time, and bit by bit you make progress.  How much like life itself!

That’s why I hike.

Categories: Nature/Outdoors, Personal Tags: , , , ,