My hike had been tough that first day out in Oregon’s Cascade Mountain Range. In the 12 years of these journeys in the West I’d always hiked right up front, just behind the leader. But this time I found myself bringing up the rear, an involuntary “sweep,” barely able to keep up with John, a fellow hiker with a hip replacement, 15 years my senior. I could attribute my sluggishness to altitude, or just blame the city for taking it all out of me. Time will heal, I told myself. If not today, then tomorrow.
It was the last trip I took before the pandemic descended upon the world and closed mine.
I first took up hiking in 2007, learning the ropes from AMC leaders along the Appalachian Trail, up New York’s Bear Mountain and the Hudson Highlands, and across the Fire Island Seashore just off Long Island. Hiking was the logical extension of my New York City walks, which served for many years as my primary transportation in place of subway rides. Long before everyone started walking to work in sneakers after the 1980 transit strike, I commuted via the paths of Central Park. In retrospect, I could pride myself for putting my feet to work for the sake of the environment, but the truth is subways always gave me claustrophobia—too many memories of being stuck between stations, my heart pounding, certain that I’d never again emerge to see the light of day.
It was during my hikes outside the city that I learned who I really was and why I dreaded the trains and deeply desired the trails. Trails move and transform, carrying you along to surprise after surprise, ponds reflecting clouds, streams and waterfalls trickling and spraying, with scents you want to bottle. Darkness, when it does come, seems only temporary as trees obscure the sunlight, casting dappled shadows. Soon you come to a clearing, or ascend to a peak, where the expanse extends many miles out and 360 degrees around.
Out in the wilderness, the city-dweller’s daily fight for blades of grass and open skies feels more like a calling than a battle. The city, with its tall buildings slicing the sky into slivers, darkening the streets long before sunset, can overwhelm one with cynicism. With energy efficiency programs, walkable streets, and LEED Platinum skyscrapers, the goal is clear: to save our planet. But out in the hopeful hills and valleys, where billions of stars blanket the night sky, you can actually see what it is you are saving.
It’s been over a year of life under COVID. Lockdowns have ebbed and flowed, as surges of infections enveloped the nation. “Stay at home,” wrote essayist and naturalist John Burroughs around the turn of the twentieth century, as though dispensing the lifesaving advice of a present-day medical expert. “See the wonderful and the beautiful in the simple things all about you; make the most of the common and the near-at-hand.”
I listened, I acquiesced. I wore my mask and stayed close to home.
But I belonged outside, in the open—I was meant to move, not to sit. So, I walked in Central Park nearly every day once the world moved inward, regardless of weather. I meandered through hilly, wood chip trails in the park’s North Woods. I climbed the schist outcroppings, around which the park was constructed, a testimony to the natural world’s refusal to fully give way to the architects’ vision of this urban oasis inspired by the Adirondacks. If I pretended I didn’t know its waterfalls could all be shut off with the simple turn of a spigot, these panaceas could quell my longing.
I meandered among crocuses and cherry blossoms in the most magnificent spring New York could remember, with construction projects halted and commuters all but gone from the buses and taxis. Pollution disappeared like magic, and the cricket’s song replaced the whir of passing cars during the evening rush hour. Amazingly, the city became my respite. I followed the turning of seasons in the park, as spring green leaves grew larger and turned a darker emerald shade, then yellow and red, as the birds in this great flyway migrated back to their southern homes. Soon the wind picked up and fallen leaves swirled about, foretelling the cold winter to come. How lucky was I to have been in this never-before, never-again time and place?
“Why should I go gadding about to see the strange and the extraordinary?” Burroughs wrote more than a hundred years ago. If the pandemic taught me nothing else, it was that, like Dorothy of Oz and Van Gogh in the Saint-Rémy-de-Provence asylum, I could learn to find beauty and awe just outside my own window. I looked out on my New York City block at four-story rust-colored Victorians and, with a squint, saw the hoodoos of Utah’s national parks. Young trees seemed to aspire to redwood grandeur, and miniature flower beds, if they could all be patched together, might make a glorious quilt of expansive meadows.
Now our indefatigable city is reasserting itself: restaurants, performance venues, even Madison Square Garden, are gradually, if cautiously, reawakening with a different, more familiar energy. Subway turnstiles no longer sit idle. Construction projects have resumed with a determination to make up for lost time, filling the briefly idyllic streets with cacophony and the air with dust and grit. But the city we once knew has changed— we’ve all changed. Those of us who stuck around learned not just to persevere in a whole new way, but also to appreciate on a profound new level.
As for me, with the wondrous arrival of a vaccine, I finally got back out last month—way beyond the miniature mountains of Central Park—to the Sierra Navadas, where the lupin super bloom painted the hills blue, and to the Rockies, with all their humbling majesty. I’m home now, but even here my horizons have expanded well beyond the view from my window once again. Like me, AMC is back out, too, and after over a year online, we’re on the trails together in all their full, three-dimensional glory. Yes, I’m still lagging a bit behind the leader, but not for lack of stamina. I just keep stopping to marvel.
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