Natalie Ogbourne

There is more to a hike than a pair of boots, a granola bar, and the trail. There’s technique. At least that’s what they taught in the hiking class I took to satisfy a  college P.E. requirement.

I was slow to come to a love of hiking and didn’t yet have it when my roommate and I drove to the Wisconsin Dells to learn everything we needed to know about hiking. Twenty-five years later, of that everything, two stuck.

First–and because we hike in the mountains, most useful–how to hike up a hill: Tackle it like you would a staircase, with small steps, lifting your body with the quads rather than the calves. The quads are stronger. They can take it.

Second, how to establish hiking order: The slowest hiker stays up front and sets the pace so everyone stays together and ensures that the slow one won’t get left behind if she has some sort of trouble. I suppose that makes sense in the case of a twisted ankle that occurs with a sudden onset of laryngitis.

It took almost twenty-five years of life on the trail before I actually wanted to be there. I was happy enough out hiking along with my parents and brother, and later my husband, and even later with our children, as long as I wasn’t tired or bored and the trail was reasonably flat. I didn’t understand the need to get off the road, away from the crowds, and into the backcountry.

I get it now. Finally. The hours and effort on the trail will take me somewhere worth going.

Seven years ago we packed our children, then three, seven, and ten, and drove east instead of west.  On our way to the coast, we drove through new mountains, the Great Smoky Mountains. Along the curved, yellow leaf-lined roads, we saw a sign we’d never seen before: Quiet Walkway.

What in the world is a quiet walkway? 

That was my question as we wound our way through the park, passing sign after puzzling sign. Always curious and unafraid of the unknown, my husband eventually pulled over at one. There was no trail information, just a path into the woods.

And down that path we started; no map, no guide, and no destination. It was mid-afternoon and I calculated how much this little stop would delay our arrival at our week’s home on the beach. Questions, the grumbling kind, whirled through my mind: Why are we doing this? How far will we go? How will we know when we get there?

A damp carpet of leaves muted our footfalls. Those which clung to their branches filtered the light that dappled the trail. The air hung with a rich tranquility which even playful young voices could not break. It was, indeed, quiet.

We walked and wandered until we discovered the mild rapids of a mountain stream. With boulders to climb, logs to cross, and rocks to throw, it was an unexpected paradise for our little tribe.

When we had set off it had seemed random, but we got to where we belonged along by a route that was deliberate.

Life in a family can be like that. Why else would we play Don’t Break the Ice or read Thomas the Tank Engine hundreds of times? Those aren’t destinations. They’re the stops along the way, boulders and logs and rocks in the woods; worthwhile stops where we belong for a time. We stop with our little people—and our big ones—because we’re on the journey with them, not because we know where we’ll all end up.

A day with my grandma usually included a looking walk. She had a book about such walks. We would read it together and then we would go live it. Evening’s arrival brought Only a Boy Named David and Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star in the rocking chair by the picture window in her living room. I still see the stars and hear her voice. Though hampered by rheumatoid arthritis and walking was hard for her, she took me on quiet walks long before the National Park Service did. She taught me the value of the quiet moment and the gifts which reside within.

Unlike a hike, there’s no technique for the quiet walk. There’s just a walk, a willingness to let go of the destination and embrace–for a little while–the road for the sake of the road. It seems like it should be easy, but it’s not.

Just like it’s hard to put the slowest hiker out front, it’s hard to pause while our little people wander the trails of childhood or our big ones–our grownup friends and family–struggle with the switchbacks of adult life. It takes self-control and sacrifice to slow down long enough to wander with someone without knowing where, or why, or how long; but, like the years it took to develop an appreciation for time on the trail, the effort is worth it.

And you? What are you more comfortable with–the hike with a specific destination or a quiet walkway?