I began hiking regularly with a friend and her chubby dog eight years ago. The friend worked a 9-to-5 job, so neither she nor her dog got much exercise. But on Saturday afternoons we would hike.
I've continued to hike in western Massachusetts every Saturday afternoon since. And Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons.
One afternoon, at the top of Norwottuck, a local college student asked us why we hike. I was with my friend and her dog that day, and we looked at each other.
It could be how being among trees is both calming and energizing, how we get to exercise our legs, lungs, and mind, and see a porcupine unfurl like a rose in slow motion.
"It’s because she has a chubby dog," I said.
I’ve thought a lot about “why I hike” since. Sometimes I think I like it so much because at some point in every hike I really don’t like it. At some point, I get tired and hot or cold and achy. That’s when I know it’s a good hike, because I've earned the view, and gasp because I can see so far.
Sometimes I think I hike because of the people I meet: the guy halfway up Greylock who asked if I was there to see the rare blue butterfly. The guy running toward me at the top of Greylock asking if I’d take a video. Sure, I said, and watched as he dashed over to his girlfriend, bent down on one knee, opened a black velvet box, and how she pressed both palms to her cheeks — the international sign for yes.
Sometimes I think it’s for the people I don’t meet: the ones who cut the trail, who maintain it, who built the stone walls that still run like sentences through the woods. And all the people who decided to do something else that day, so I have the trail to myself.
The mountain to myself — trees holding on to ledges, ledges holding on to trees.
Mostly it’s for the scenes in my mind after. The ruffed grouse in the middle of trail at the beginning of the hike and amazingly still there when I return. And how the trail opened to a field of light like solid becoming liquid.
And at the summit, how it opened to views in all directions like liquid becoming air, so you can see not just across state lines, but with a different state of mind.
What started as a walk for a chubby dog has become a completely different sort of exercise.
Susan Johnson, a teacher at UMass Amherst Isenberg School of Management, hikes every day she can. She lives in South Hadley, Massachusetts.