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life is short, make time for adventure
by danny bernstein

This is my motto and also my e-mail signature.

So when I hit my foot on a bedpost last year, my first reaction was to lace my boots a little tighter and ignore it. After several weeks of walking through the pain, I finally went to a doctor and decided to listen: no treadmill, no unnecessary walking and definitely no hiking until he approved the x-rays. I was grounded in the beautiful autumn weather and had plenty of time to feel sorry for myself and think of what I was missing. So why was being outdoors so important to me? Am I addicted to hiking? Why do I spend so much time and energy outdoors?

Over the past 30 years, I have become a dedicated hiker. I started hiking as something to do on weekends after the pressures of graduate school was over. When our son was born, we took him hiking, first carrying him in a backpack. He grew up hiking; he had no choice. For a long time, he thought that all families spent their weekends getting up early, driving long distances to walk, eat and piss in the woods and drive back. In the early days, a Sunday hike meant a nice day out to get away. But as I got older, it became a passion. I realize that my career has been affected by hiking more than by anything else. Now I organize and run hiking trips full time.

Outdoor pursuits call for attitude, skill, gear, and time. The most important part is attitude: the willingness to get sweaty and tired, to exert yourself, to focus on getting to the top, to a waterfall, to the destination while enjoying the walk. The exhilaration of getting to the top of a mountain may overshadow the views. Moreover, the views from the peak look better with that "high" of accomplishment. There is even pleasure in coping with adversity and weather and feeling that "I can do this".

While walking, I develop a pensive view of freedom and possibilities. Ideas pop up in my head that would never surface in front of a computer or at a meeting. Reaching the open summit of a mountain satisfies deeply. On the trail to the top, I look for small things: mushrooms, ferns, flowers, salamanders, even a snake.

Dealing with the outdoors develops self-confidence, a can-do attitude which carries over into other parts of life. My friend Carol had always wanted to go to New Zealand. She told me that it also had been her father's dream. Although her father was not particularly active himself, he instilled his dream of outdoor travel in Carol. He waited for the "right time"—until he retired and had enough money. He waited too long, became ill and died. Carol, an outdoor woman, inherited his dream. Unfortunately, she developed breast cancer in her late fifties. She decided to fight the disease and developed optimism the only way she knew. While she was still getting chemotherapy, she registered for a hiking trip to New Zealand that I was organizing. The day after she finished her treatments, she hired a personal trainer and started to exercise again.

Carol was determined to enjoy the trip and keep up with others. And she did. She was not the fastest; in fact, she brought up the rear most of the time, but it didn't matter. Hiking is not competitive. Unlike ball sports, there is no formal way to keep score. In a line of hikers, someone has to be last. "How are you doing?" I asked her on a particularly challenging climb uphill. She smiled and said, "I am alive, I am in New Zealand and I am going to get up that mountain".

Focus, persistence, perseverance are not attributes usually encouraged in women. Girls, as they grow up, are encouraged to be well-rounded and social. If we can afford it, we take girls to piano and ballet lessons but don't expect them to be professional artists. We may buy our daughter a camera but would be puzzled if she really understood film speed, F stops and lenses and became a photographer. As we grow up, we need to deal with so many distractions and interruptions that we lose the ability to focus and work single-mindedly on a goal. Hiking and other long-term outdoor activities may bring back some of that focus.

On a more practical level, think about the last time you went into downtown Asheville. Did you have to think where to park and how far you needed to walk to your destination? Do you move your car from one area of the city center to another to avoid walking? Hiking gives you a different perspective on everyday walking. How far do you think it is practical to walk? This is not a trick question; I really would like to know what a reasonable distance is, given comfortable shoes and nothing much to carry. Let me know and I will publish the results in a future issue of WNC Woman. Notice that I have not said anything about getting fit, losing weight or dieting.

Right here in WNC, we live among wonderful mountains, outstanding waterfalls, and good trails. We are so blessed with outdoor opportunities and the highest mountains in the East that I am often surprised that the woods are not more utilized.

So how do you start? In the next few issues, join me as we explore the pleasures and benefits of going outdoors, getting strong, sweaty and moving our bodies. We'll look at skills, gear and time while never forgetting that the right attitude is the most important piece of equipment.

Danny (Danielle) Bernstein is the director of Hiker to Hiker, a non-profit hiking organization. She retired from college teaching and organizes and leads day hikes and vacation trips in the Southern Appalachians. For more details, see the Hiker to Hiker website or email Danny at danny@hikertohiker.org.

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