On Hiking

Writing about the great outdoors is incredibly intimidating when you have Thoreau's Walden and Leopold’s Sand County Almanac at your bedside stand. But here it goes, and I’ll do my best not to murder their legacy with this page out of my sketchbook…

A few months before moving to Kentucky, I went on a hike with a dear friend in the Flint Hills of Kansas. At the time, I drove a worn out  F-150 and knew it couldn’t make the two and half hour trip. We rented a car with the plan to simply hike all day. In the peak of summer heat and humidity and not knowing what the hell I was doing, we embarked on our first hike at Tallgrass Nature Preserve and Prairie. Needless to say, it was pretty embarrassing, this first stretch of the hike we didn’t take any water with us and just started walking - no map, no plan, and no water. We met about 250 roaming cattle at one point which surrounded us and made us question whether we’d make it off the trail alive. Googling cattle attacks and deaths on the trail with limited service wasn’t the best idea. Like I said, it was pretty humiliating. After about 6 miles in, like a lighthouse to a ship lost at sea, we found an old one room schoolhouse with water. We had the entire trail to ourselves and spent the whole time talking, learning and having an exceptional amount of fun (and a good story to tell too - the cows were HUGE I tell you!). After stopping in at a nearby town where we devoured the daily special and as much food as we could handle. We headed out to Konza Prairie to finish the last portion of the planned hiking trip. After being beaten by the summer heat and with extreme exhaustion, I told her how much I enjoyed hiking even though I never did it. At the moment, I realized that this hike was the first in many years, in fact, in almost ten years. Even though I had embarrassed myself to a friend I was trying to impress, I loved every minute of it. I always wanted to make time to hike, but I never did. I made excuses like I don’t have time this weekend or being to tired from work. On our drive back, I proclaimed that once the move to Kentucky was complete, I would go hiking every chance I could. 

I’ve been in Kentucky for almost nine months now, and I’m happy to share that I’ve kept true to my proclamation to hiking (I know kudos to me, right?). Fortunately, I live in central Appalachia, which is home to many beautiful state parks, nature preserves, a national forest, and endless trails all at the whim of my backyard. I’ve gone hiking almost every weekend including winter and even snow hikes. It’s a funny moment in one’s life when you begin to keep a pair of wool socks and hiking boots in your truck at all times and always question when you can squeeze in even the littlest hike. I go with friends and go by myself often. Friends always mean insightful and fulfilling conversation, but when I hit the trails alone, there is something that happens that I can't seem to verbalize. This quote by bell hooks sums up it for me, “…many of us seek community solely to escape the fear of being alone. Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape.”  Hitting the trails alone and often have taught me how to embrace who I am and what I'm becoming. As a good friend told me, there is something to be said for placing your hand on a tree that dates back to 1690 or being in a landscape that made it through the last ice age without going under water.  Ultimately all of this has resulted in the simple pleasure and a frame of mind I call "Hiking," to borrow similar themes from Thoreau's "Walking."  

Photo via Sean Starowitz

Photo via Sean Starowitz

I’ve learned a thing or two since the summer hike and I’m still learning how to be a good steward & efficient at Hiking.  Right off the bat, I learned the hard lesson of what kind of snacks to bring, my first hike up to High Rock at Bad Branch Falls State Nature Preserve ended with me buying the entire dollar menu at McDonald’s because I didn’t bring a lunch. I've taught myself how to navigate trails properly and like a dork I wear visible clothing when I walk alone. I’m a big fan of learning by doing, and I'm constantly trying to embrace failure at every moment in my life, this to me is a fundamental philosophy of Hiking. 

Telling a story during a group hike at Blanton Forest State Nature Preserve in Harlan County. Photo via Matt Herp

Telling a story during a group hike at Blanton Forest State Nature Preserve in Harlan County. Photo via Matt Herp

Photo via Sean Starowitz

Photo via Sean Starowitz

I’ve recently started packing drawing materials and sketchbooks. In a day and age where everyone can be a cultural producer with the touch of the phone and a few filters on a social media app when do we take the time to look and honestly see? I know if that isn't the pot calling the kettle black then what is…Just look at my Instagram, I'm guilty and offer no plea. But I’ve started making a rule on these hikes for every picture I take - I have to draw it as well. The idea of taking the time to slow down and engage with the rocks, the trees, and the view is nothing short of remarkable. Each sketch takes approximately 5 minutes to complete; I try to focus on line weight and volume, and that to me seems to encapsulate the magnitude of the landscape. These aren’t masterpieces or even that great of sketches by any means, but most importantly, there for me. Taking a sketchbook has made me see things and notice nuances that one can’t even imagine on a hike. 

Hiking has created a junkie in me. A few weeks ago, I drove to Harlan County to visit Kingdom Come State Park. I arrived there just a little after 7:30 in the morning, Appalachian sunrises and early daylight illuminate the former coalfields like stain glass at a Catholic cathedral. So many rich colors, breathtaking tones, and a hint of mysticism falls over the landscape in those early dawn hours. I spent the entire morning hiking little trails and loops and eventually covering every trail in the park. I completed a few drawings and on my way home feeling like I hadn't hiked enough that day I detoured to Bad Branch Falls Nature Preserve for another Hiking experience. These brief vision quests on the weekends have allowed me to find myself over this past year. One question I ask myself when I go on a hike is - is this hike for myself or is this for likes, comments, and immediate sense of gratification by a community that isn’t my own? Hiking has allowed me to see each of my efforts instead of their immediate outcomes, to see myself and my life through a wider lens, and to experience each moment, conversation, and hike with as much consciousness possible. I wonder what Hiking can do for you?  

Bad Branch Falls. Photo via Sean Starowitz

Bad Branch Falls. Photo via Sean Starowitz

The Explore Kentucky Initiative is an organization dedicated to inspiring people to engage in an active lifestyle fueled by adventure in Kentucky's great outdoors. Stories from EKI's Field Journal like this are made possible by readers like you. Donate to help us continue to cover the stories of Kentucky's great outdoors.