Reflections on Hiking and Fear

Lake Melakwa is a beautiful alpine lake.

Lake Melakwa is a beautiful alpine lake.

I’m surprised I survived.

Thirty years ago, a friend invited me on a hike. The distance (nine miles) concerned me—that was three times the distance of my favorite, completely flat, three-mile walk around Green Lake. But my friend assured me it was a “moderate” hike. Moderate didn’t sound too bad. Maybe a hill or two.

I should have asked more questions. I should have asked to see the guide book in which she found the hike. But I didn’t.

The Hike—30 Years Ago

The trail was very pleasant at first—just what I expected moderate to be. We wandered through the woods, generally going uphill. And then it got steeper. And steeper. And rocky. And the switchbacks kept going and going and going.

At first, I was fairly good humored about it. Sweaty, but good humored. I figured it was a hike in the woods so a person had to expect some rocks. But as my feet slipped on the rocks, as my muscles screamed, as the grade increased, so did my misery.

The first time I hiked this trail, I was too miserable to notice the beautiful waterfall.

The first time I hiked this trail, I was too miserable to notice the beautiful waterfall.

You have to understand—I’d never hiked, am not graceful or a natural athlete, and was not in great shape. My family didn’t do active sports things on vacations and weekends. (My dad grew up on a farm. When hard work is part of your daily life, I guess your idea of vacation is not to work hard.)

I was completely unprepared for this hike—tennis shoes instead of hiking boots with ankle support; diet Coke, a sandwich, and chips instead of water and protein bars. A third of the way through the uphill ascent, I was cranky. Halfway through, I was miserable. Sometime after that, I never wanted to speak to my friend again. I arrived at the destination (a beautiful mountain lake) with no appreciation for the view, but only thankful for the opportunity to stop. I blocked out of my mind the fact that I needed to hike back down. I’m sure the only thing that kept me from crying was centuries of stubborn, proud German ancestors whispering in my ears, “There’s no crying just because something’s hard.”

To be fair to my friend, she hadn’t done much hiking either so I don’t know how carefully she read the trail description. And I certainly should have asked more questions. But there’s no way that could be considered a beginner hike. I don’t remember how long afterward I felt the effects, but I think I was hobbling for a week. I know that post hike, I almost fell out of the truck because every muscle in my body had frozen up in the half hour drive to the pizza place we went for dinner.

Clearly, hiking was not a fun activity that I ever wanted to do again. And the experience taught me about the need to balance friends with gung-ho-let’s-dive-in-and-give-it-a-try ideas and a more realistic view of my own capabilities.

More beautiful scenery along the way.

More beautiful scenery along the way.

Trying Again

Five years ago, I was lured into trying hiking again although I’d successfully avoided it for 25 years. A friend who grew up hiking in Montana wanted to get back into it and I’d been watching friends’ Facebook posts (and fabulous photos) talking about all their great hikes. It seemed worth a try. My friend and I tried a gentle hike, and I found I rather liked hiking through the woods, a small respite from city life and more energizing than a trip to the gym.

As I started to hike regularly, another friend suggested getting involved with a coached hiking fundraising event. I learned about the right equipment, made some great friends, and gradually worked my way up to harder and harder hikes until I reached my goal of hiking the Grand Canyon.

I made it! Great to be in better shape in my 50s than I was in my 20s.

I made it! Great to be in better shape in my 50s than I was in my 20s.

The Hike—30 Years Later

Even though I’d hiked many harder hikes preparing for the Grand Canyon, I’d never attempted Lake Melakwa, that first nemesis hike, until yesterday. It’s funny how much trepidation I had that morning—fear of the hike that conquered me and left me exhausted and demoralized 30 years before.

It’s also funny how clearly I remembered most of the trail even after all this time. “Ah yes, this was the part where I thought the hike would be a piece of cake … this is the part where I started feeling miserable and my friend started getting apologetic … this is the part where I thought we were done with switchbacks and yet there’s a harder set looming ahead … this is where I told my friend to ‘just shut up and leave me alone.’”

The hike to Lake Melakwa is strenuous.There’s a lot of elevation gain and much of the trail is rocky, making the footing difficult. I didn’t just skip blithely to the top yesterday. But it was hard in an energizing way, not an exhausting, miserable way. And this time, I noticed the beautiful scenery that surrounded me.

Thirty years later, I wondered how the 20-something me survived it. Yes, I was 30 years younger, but out of shape, unprepared, and ill equipped. It’s a wonder I didn’t break an ankle or shrivel up from dehydration.

I’ve hiked harder hikes, but yesterday I conquered a fear—the fear of the hike that conquered me.

Hike on.


  1. Mel Roy on September 5, 2014 at 10:16 am

    Nice article. I really appreciate it. I am a better hiker now in my late 40 s then when I was young and dumb…lucky I managed to survive as well. Thanks!

  2. Carolyn on September 7, 2014 at 8:57 am

    Mel – I’m glad I’m not the only one! 🙂