The Year of the Hike

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions. I set an intention, an area of focus for the coming year. 2020 was The Year of the Hike. No set parameters, I just wanted to hike more and learn to independently navigate trails. Quick tip: this is a great idea if a global pandemic is looming,

My endeavor is documented on Instagram under @isallyvardaman, and in case that gives a false impression, I remain a novice. Some interpreted my posts as those of a seasoned hiker. #100, a milestone I did not expect to see, was the three mile walk from Tires Plus to my home so I could leave my car there for service. The whole point for me was that “hike” is a broad and simple concept.

Photo by Charlotte Johnson

Two years ago, a chilly November had me quickly overwhelmed by “winter.” This Mississippi kid has been here almost two decades, long enough to know I had to either give in to months of depression, or get out in the cold. When I opted for the latter, a friend suggested a hiking group through meetup.com.

Before that I had hiked only while on vacations which involved following handsome men. It never occurred to me I could do this at home, by myself, or even with total strangers. From the very first snowy December hike, I absolutely loved it.

It was easy. Sign up for a spot, dress for the weather, show up on time. I could follow along without a care as long as I could keep up, and I could! The company was great and our local trails are beautiful in winter. Content to follow the crowd, it was not about learning something new.

Slots filled quickly and my schedule didn’t align as often as I wanted to go. I grew curious about trails I didn’t know. It became clear I would have more fun more often if I learned, literally, to chart my own path. Maybe I could get good enough at it to lead others. Then I could give what had been so kindly offered to me by this group. 2020 was the place to start.

It began with informal outings with friends, smaller trips to practice trail navigation, with as many willing guinea pigs as I could fit in my minivan. I only got a group lost once early on. “Hike” as a loose term was my theme. We mostly hiked but sometimes did other fun things, like fat tire winter biking in Owatonna in February, during which I had to pause for my anxiety attack to subside. Some leader I am!!

Then COVID shut everything down.

I hiked with a friend the Saturday before my employer mandated us all home. I hiked with a friend that Sunday after. We let the distance widen as the protocols indicated. According to my official instagram record, I had 101 hikes, not including my almost daily walks in my neighborhood.

Travel was not in the cards this year.  Our vacation to New York City for spring break had to be cancelled just two weeks before. The reality of a pandemic had only begun to enter our psyches.   Seven months later, a brief jaunt to South Dakota was a welcome first for all us.    By then we were crafty at avoiding human interaction, a skill I’m not sure will serve my children long term. 

For the last 10 months, every social engagement in real life I had was in motion and on foot. In a small group or one on one, paved or unpaved, my walking habit kept me sane and connected. I saw graffiti and nature coexist. I saw the destruction of my city and its community lovingly tend to its aftermath. I processed all this with my kids and friends, putting one foot in front of the other. I breathed fresh air and basked in sunlight when I was down. My daily neighborhood walk frequently connected me with neighbors I rarely see otherwise..

I found my way on an uncertain path when I felt insecure. I learned to huff and puff while wearing a mask. Sometimes I got lost, even while leading others. I learned I could shift gears and recover on the fly, and still accomplish the intended goal. I met and got to know new faces in a year where that seemed impossible. I learned people are happy to follow me on a journey. They don’t even seem to mind mishaps if I establish risks and expectations up front.

This year reminded me of things I’ve long known, but fail to capitalize on. I love the quiet solitude of a walk alone. And with others, conversation naturally turns more meaningful when we move together.

I learned that adventure for me is simply loving movement – going from point A to point B, flanked by scenery, scents, sounds, company, or the unexpected. Adventure is anything I create it to be, anything I want it to be.

The last few days of the year I listened to Three Marriages by David Whyte, a lovely exploration of our primary commitments in life and where our self lies within them.  In it he looks back on a time he felt himself very off course

 “By what steps had I forgotten the promise I made as a child, not to fall into a false form of maturity, which is actually a form of non-participation; of not seeing, of not hearing, and not imagining.” 

I had no such awareness of what I gave up as I chased the independence of adulthood decades ago. How Whyte knew to promise himself such a thing is beyond me, much less how to revisit that goal later. As I listened to his tender wisdom, it occurred to me what I actually learned this year was how to play – really, how to give myself permission to do so.

I can play when I’m sad. I can play when I’m lonely. I can play when I celebrate and when I grieve. To play isn’t to have a game. To play is to fully engage with my surroundings.

And I will play more as I enter 2021, The Year of the Book. 

Author:

Writer, comedian, producer, mother, thinker, preoccupationist, Minneassippian.

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