Hiking in the Berkshires

A couple weeks ago, I went away for a long weekend: a solo writing retreat from Friday through Tuesday.  Late Sunday morning, my reward for four hours of early morning work was a snowy hike.  Around 11 a.m., I pulled on my boots and briefly looked at a trail map of Beartown Forest State Park.  I had seen road signs for the park near where I was staying in South Lee, Massachusetts.  On the map, I found a short loop trail around Benedict Pond near the entrance to the park.

The bubbling anxiety of walking by myself was making me grumpy as I drove three miles on a narrow backroad to get to the park entrance.  I regularly walk in a state park near our house, more often than not I go by myself and take the same route every time.  For most of that local walk, I stay on the main trail where, time and again, I see many of the same runners, dog walkers, women, and men.  I’m comfortable there on the 45-minute loop I make through the woods. However, I’ve found myself in many conversations with other women who would never walk alone in my park at any time of day, and they look at me as if I have three heads with not one complete brain between them.  

Here, I ponder my recent reading of The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country.  The English author, Helen Russell, and her husband moved to Jutland, Denmark, so he could take a year-long assignment at LEGO’s headquarters.  She made it her mission to research why Danes were so happy – despite paying high taxes and living through cold winters with only ten hours of sunlight a week.  

Russell found that high on the list of factors affecting their happiness is trust.  As much as our American culture relies on lawsuits, Danes rely on trust.  They trust the government to provide services with tax money.  They leave babies in their prams outside coffee shops while having lunch.  They have a high degree of trust in people, unfathomable to many Americans.  They even trust… strangers.  

I want to have trust in my immediate world around me.  I want to believe that people who cross my path are good.  I want to see the world from the perspective that everyone is making the best decision they are capable of at any given time.  Yet, what I had done with this whole walking-alone thing was slung every woman’s words of fear into a bag and flung it over my shoulder to take with me on this winter wonderland walk. Ugh.  My mood grayed to match the winter sky.

When I pulled into the snowy parking lot, I saw four other cars already parked.  Trying to shake the anxiousness, I thought, “This is good; there are other people here!”  And then my self-talk flicked the other direction. “But are they good people?”

Cussing to myself at this ridiculousness, I leaned against the van and pulled on my snow-gripping Yaktrax over the bottom of my boots.  At the trailhead, I saw that the sign for Benedict Pond Road was pointing in either direction, so I knew I was on the loop trail.  The path looked straight for about 200 yards before it bent slightly.   It was a narrow, snowy version of Highway 20, that straight, paved road that runs from border to border across Iowa.  Only the path ahead of me was on a 20-degree incline.  

I heard a stream rushing to my right before I even started on the upward hike. I went twenty feet off-trail to see the water up close.  Half the width of the 20-foot wide stream was still iced over, but the flowing water had hollowed out ice under the surface.  In some places, there was a foot of open air between the inch-thick surface ice and the water running underneath it, leaving spectacular frozen formations.  I soaked up the scene for a few minutes and then returned to the path. I already felt happier about being alone.

Hiking is as broad a term as beach.  When we have visitors and they want to go to the beach, I feel like handing them a questionnaire:  Big surfing waves or wide tidal beach?  Straight sandy beach or rocky bay? Lots of people or lots of space?  Surfing or wading?  Shell or sea glass seeking? 

With hiking, I don’t mind going up hills, as long as there is a little reprieve with a flat path or downhill after the uphill.  I like going on steep hikes if I’m climbing up rocks, scrambling over tree roots, and grabbing onto trees to make my way.  However, this endless walk on a 20-degree incline to the heavens was not my cup of tea. 

Huffing and puffing, I kept going, visualizing the map that indicated the pond would be just around the next bend, but only another upward slant was around each bend.  Finally, an hour into the walk, I came to a sign marking “Beebe Trail,” a trail that I saw marked near the trailhead where I started.  I decided to give up on the pond loop trail as I knew Beebe Trail would loop around and come back out on the main road I’d been climbing.  I noticed that the anxiety and shallow breathing I had experienced at the trailhead had now been replaced with deep, heavy breathing as I tackled the hill.  

On Beebe Trail, I was only a few yards in when I headed up a steeper incline and found my left foot wouldn’t hold on the snow and ice.  Wondering if this steeper trail was such a good idea, I looked down to see that the Yaktrax on my left foot was missing.  It had silently fallen off somewhere along the way.  I shrugged and thought, that’s the answer: I wasn’t going up Beebe Trail.  I was going to backtrack the way I came to find my brand new snow gripper.  A half mile back down the trail, I saw the curled up piece of rubber and metal springs in the distance.  I scooped it up and leaned against a tree to put it back on.  I pulled the rubber front high over the toes of my boots, hoping that would keep them from falling off again. 

With only fifteen minutes left in the hike back down, I heard people and dogs behind me.  At first glance, I saw the people had poles, so I thought they were cross-country skiing, but they weren’t moving at a gliding pace.  They were hikers decked out with spiky versions of my snow grippers on their feet, backpacks filled with water, and hiking poles.  We all exchanged “hellos” as we fell into step.  I asked one of the men if he was familiar with Benedict Pond as that’s where I thought I had been heading.  He thought a minute then told me that the pond was near the main entrance about eight miles from here.  Lost in thought over the idea of hiking alone, I had neglected to notice that the main entrance was not where I entered the park.  I was on “Benedict Pond Road” not “Benedict Pond Loop Trail.”

I could tell by their chatting back and forth that these hikers, four men and two women, knew one another pretty well.  I asked the same man if the group hiked together often.  In fact, he told me, they hiked every Monday and Thursday year-round.  Starting in 1993, a group of retired men decided to hike together on Mondays; they had originally dubbed themselves the “Monday Mountain Hiking Boys.”  Literally, an old boys’ club, which now included women in the mix.  The hiking group’s founder was one of the founders of Kay Bee Toys – a Kaufman Brother who lived in Pittsfield.  Every week they hiked a different mountain in the Berkshires and enjoyed it so much that they added Thursdays to their schedule.  

Again, I’m reminded of another thing Danes have in their lives that make them happy: belonging to groups that meet regularly, often weekly, throughout the year.  When you belong to a group of people with common interests, you don’t spend a whole lot of time planning to meet or searching for “your people.”  The plan is in place and your people are there.  I think about the groups that have popped up around me and how much I look forward to being with them.  From writing and reading to cooking and Pilates, being with people who share a common personal interest is refreshing.  Rather than looking for cookie cutter replicas of ourselves, we see one facet that we can delve into with energy, as do the Monday Mountain Hiking Boys.  No one mentioned their previous careers, their families, or their medical history.  They’re retired and they like to hike.  

And one more thing the Danes regularly do: get out in nature – no matter the weather.  They say there is no bad weather in Denmark, just bad clothing.  Bill says something similar about the weather in England, if you wait for a warm, sunny day to golf in England, you’d only go golfing a few times a year.  So layers and rain gear are key for golfing in England.  You just need the right gear for the climate. 

That morning, I walked alone on a snowy path.  I got my heart rate up.  I met a bunch of friendly strangers.  I breathed in fresh air.  I had sturdy boots and snow grippers.  I felt like a Dane.  Happy.