Slow Down or You’ll Miss the Forest Giraffes

The following reflection contemplates hiking holistically–seeking not only physical strength and mental preparedness, but also peace and wonder. 

If you want to notice neat phenomena, like beams of light illuminating the trail, you have to slow down.

Gummy Bears in Rivers and Giraffes in Trees

Recently I realized I’m not always being the most holistic hiker I can be. By that I mean I’ve been focusing mainly on what a hike can do for me physically without considering what it can do for me emotionally. Basically, I tend to think of hikes as workouts. I seek out long and strenuous trails, I check out elevation gain and grade, I load The Complete Works of William Shakespeare and Harry Potters 5, 6, and 7 in my pack for weight. While I certainly appreciate the natural landscape around me and the views I earn at the summit, those aspects of hiking sometimes take a backseat to the workout. I’ve found this especially true as I train for the AT.

“Holy moly, that’s so cool!”

A three-year-old caused me to reflect on this.

If you’ve never hiked with a three-year-old, I highly recommend it. Not because it’s easy, mind you, but because of what you can learn. Of course, you need to prepare yourself for the possibility of a mid-hike meltdown and the sudden need for food, water, or a potty break. That in mind, you may want to choose a short trail, and particularly one that is relatively flat. A toddler isn’t about to bound up the side of a mountain, and you can’t guarantee they’ll let you carry them up (if you would even want to to begin with).

To clarify, I do not have any children. Last weekend I went camping (OK, glamping) with some friends and their three-year-old daughter. Not only is she completely adorable, but she loves camping and hiking like no other toddler I’ve met. Seriously, this child’s love for all things outdoorsy is unprecedented. My baby fever was flaring.

Anyway, back to the lesson.

While you may not fit in the workout of your dreams shuffling behind a curious toddler, you will learn how much you miss when you do hustle up the side of a mountain. What might seem little and ordinary to you can seem like the most magical, amazing thing to a child. I can’t tell you how many times we stopped to look at a hole in a tree (“Where the baby fox lives!”), or how filled with joy she was whenever we crossed a bridge. She wanted to live by the river where we stopped to skip rocks. If you ask her, gummy bears probably lived in that water. Also, giraffes live among the redwoods there too, in case you wondered.

The point is, our smiling, chatty group spent a lot less time walking and a lot more time seeing the natural world through the eyes of a toddler. And I think we’re better for it.

It’s Not (Always) a Race

Since we both had the day off, my husband and I spent the Tuesday together hiking at my new favorite peninsula park, El Corte de Madera Creek. Prior to leaving, I had stuffed my day pack with the heaviest things I could find—the usual tomes and a jar of cashews—until it weighed about 20 pounds. When we arrived at the trailhead, I had Alex look at the map and pick out where he wanted to explore.

As we bopped along the trails I tried to reinforce the lesson I had learned just a few days prior. I pointed out magical finds, like the patterns of moss and the funky designs of tree roots. However, it didn’t take long until I instead commented on the lack of elevation change in the hike and focused on the quality of the workout. 

About an hour and a half later we arrived back at the car, which by my standards is a short hike. While we drove to Alice’s Restaurant nearby (“The real reason we came up here,” Alex reminded me) I added up the distance of our hike.

“Only 3.8 miles?!” 

At one point Alex looked up and noticed how cool the branches looked from below.

My initial reaction was to feel disappointed. I had expected a serious workout this morning, not a stroll in the woods. But then I remembered the lesson I learned from my friends’ daughter. I recalled her pure joy just to be in the wilderness. Glancing over at Alex, it occurred to me he probably didn’t actually want to spend his day off driving up winding roads and hiking. Nonetheless, he chose to anyway because he knew it would make me happy. I thought about how much fun I’d had as we admired the green of the moss, contemplated how the word “lichen” is supposed to be pronounced, and stopped to listen to the squirrels that sound like monkeys. Forget a workout; this was joyous life happening.

“Oh well!” I said, more to myself.

And then, in true hiker spirit, we walked our smelly selves into a diner and we feasted.

A fabulous end to any hike. Not pictured: the molten lava cake Alex insisted we needed (he was right).

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Comments 2

  • Turtle : Oct 30th

    Great post! I love kids they have such a fresh outlook. Hope to see you on the trail.

  • Redwing : Oct 30th

    I am so pleased to see this post. I have often thought it would take me a lifetime (or more) to hike the AT in all of its seasons and moods, to see it all if I could, and then, there would still be so much missed. I’m looking forward to your journey.


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