My first “hike” was basically a 10-minute walk through the woods, not a trek up a mountain. But when you’re 8 years old, any walk in nature constitutes a hike.
I don’t recall the hike so much as the end point. When we reached our destination, we were perched atop a rock outcropping that provided an ocean view of dozens of islands, sailboats in full sail and the sun glistening off the waves, the Camden Hills rising majestically on the horizon.
We were high above the water, with a 40- or 50-foot drop-off at our feet that could spell serious injury (or worse) with a single misstep. From the base of the cliff, tall pine trees rose to our level, the treetops seemingly within grasp. I felt like I could snatch the low-drifting cotton-ball clouds out of the sky and use them as a pillow. “Forget the 72 virgins,” a friend said years later about the view. “This is paradise.”
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was hooked. Not so much on the hike that brought me to this place, but on the thrill of reaching the top and what it had to offer. “Wow,” I thought. “Wow.”
I don’t consider myself a hiker in the same sense as people I know who just can’t get enough. I haven’t hiked the Appalachian Trail (although I’ve hiked portions of it). I’m not like people I’ve met who keep track of how many of the 4,000-foot peaks in New Hampshire (there are 48 of them) they’ve hiked. I don’t carry camping gear and hike for days at a time.
I’m a day hiker who likes walking through the woods and up and down trails, over pine needles and rocks and roots while breathing in the forest air. But what brings me back time and again is the top, which gives me a sense of awe and accomplishment—the same feeling I had when I was 8.
My first hike longer than 10 or 15 minutes took me up Blue Hill Mountain, a 934-foot hill that has great views and back then had a cool fire tower, now long gone. I climbed Katahdin when I was 14, again when I was 21 and again in my 30s. I’m hoping to hike it at least one more time in the coming years.
When I was 21 and full of youth and recklessness, I carried a bottle of wine in a brown paper bag to the top of Katahdin, stupidly thinking it would be a good way to celebrate with my hiking companion before we traversed Katahdin’s treacherous Knife Edge trail. But a bottle of wine is no good if you don’t have a corkscrew, which of course I had forgotten to bring.
While at college in Colorado, I bought what would be my first real pair of hiking boots. They were $42 (I remember because that was a ton of money back in 1976), and they were heavy with thick hard-rubber soles; they almost seemed like platform shoes that were popular at the time. I had those boots for more than 15 years until one of the soles fell off—literally fell off—during a mountain climb.
Nowadays, my favorite time to hike is the fall. That’s when my brother and I make our annual October foliage hike, trying to mix up the mountains each year.
Our climbs have included Tumbledown, Bald Face Circle, Caribou, Blueberry, Old Speck, East Royce, the Eyebrow and Chocorua, among others. They’re all different, with varying degrees of difficulty, steepness and rockiness. They have different trees, streams and ponds.
I’ll admit that I sometimes mutter under my breath when my legs ache or my feet throb or I’m short of breath on a steep section of mountain. But no matter the hike, the feeling on reaching the summit is always the same.
I’ll never be 8 again. But I come close to feeling that way when, after some exertion and effort, I reach the peak, take in the view and think: “Wow.”
Clarke Canfield is a longtime journalist, writer and editor who likes to be active. He is the communications director at Southern Maine Community College.