Walk in the Park

Once, a long time ago, someone gave me a sensible piece of outdoors advice: If you’re out on a hike and aren’t sure whether your trail loops back on itself, turn around whenever your water is half gone.

pilar-gerasimo

This suggestion sprang to mind recently on a hike through Redwood Regional Park in Oakland, Calif. I was several miles into my hike at the time — and just about all the way through my water. Oops.

I had started out that Sunday morning thinking I’d only take a little out-and-back walk on a segment of the park’s Bay Area Ridge Trail, but then, on my return trip, I’d stumbled across the Golden Spike Trail, which sounded intriguing, and turned out to be gorgeous. I had the mostly uphill path all to myself, the wildflowers were in bloom, the birds were chirping, and I kept passing through these amazing little ecosystems full of different plants and temperatures and qualities of light.

I saw dozens of little animals. I smelled countless plants and herbs and the sweet aroma of rich dirt. I had the sun on my shoulders, the wind in my hair. I was smitten. I had the outdoor bug. I didn’t want to go back. Which was convenient because, as it turned out, the narrow, twisty-turny trail didn’t actually go back. It just kept going up, and out, and up and out, mostly through heavily wooded hills, until it reached what appeared to be the other side of the park. Which was where I started getting just a little bit panicky.

I had munched down my little flaxseed-and-date bar hours before; I had been toting the aforementioned empty water bottle like some kind of useless baton for miles now; and I had absolutely no idea where I was. The trail just sort of stopped and splintered off into some footpaths that led God-only-knows-where. If this sucker didn’t loop back, I realized, I was in trouble. Which of course, I was.

At about the time I was kicking myself for having committed every no-no in the hiker’s bible (know your route, have plenty of food and water, tell someone where you are going), I heard voices. Round the bend came two happy-looking women and their happier-looking dog. “Um, hello!” I said, trying to disguise the desperate tone in my voice. “Do you happen to know where this trail goes from here, or where it ends?” They looked at each other and one of them pointed back over her shoulder. “We’re just here walking the dog,” she said. “But there’s a parking lot with a map up there.” She was pointing, with a purple, long-handled pooper scooper, toward the top of the grassy hill behind her.

Deducing that no one carries a pooper scooper on a serious hike, I figured it couldn’t be very far. I suddenly felt a little sheepish, like: Of course, I’m in an urban park lined with residential neighborhoods — how lost could I be? Relieved, I thanked them, dashed up the hill and found the map. My heart sank a little when I’d investigated it, though. There was no shortcut back. Just the way I had come. Crud. Hours more hiking. I wasn’t going to die, but I was going to be hungry and thirsty and sunburned by the time I got back.

Then I heard the words every worn-out hiker longs to hear: “Hey, want a ride?” It was the dog-walking women, back already from their mini-outing. I accepted, piled gratefully into the backseat with Lola, their boxer, and about five minutes later, was delivered to my car.

I thought a lot about this experience over the next few days, wondering why I had taken the dumb risk I had, why I had ignored all the practical advice I’d learned over the years. What I realized was this: Some part of me wanted to get lost outdoors and spend several unplanned hours wandering around in the forest. It’s the part of me that resents being deskbound and scheduled to death, I guess — the part that needs the mystery and beauty of nature even more than it needs an adequate water supply.

Point taken:

I’ve got several weekend hikes and camping trips planned for the season, and I’ve made a pact with myself to get outside in nature a lot more often. Equipped with all of the great sun and hydration advice we packed into this issue, I think it’s going to be a good, safe summer.

Pilar Gerasimo is the founding editor of Experience Life.

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