It is 53 degrees F on a July morning and we will be leaving early. Looking up, the highest peaks still have some snow. The sky is crystal clear. We were on another long hike up to the Continental Divide in the Colorado Rockies. The temperature will rise into the low 80s.
This is a family business. We are not skiers, but hikers. The mountains are as beautiful in summer as they are in winter. But when you have lots of kids, hiking is a much cheaper family activity than skiing!
I walk for exercise. You have to be prepared for this kind of excursions. As you climb between 11 and 14,000 feet, you’ll notice that the air becomes thinner and breathing becomes more difficult. But as you go up, you’ll breathe the cleanest air you’ve ever breathed.
On a steep climb sometimes your lungs suck in air and your heart is pounding. On the way down, it can be the other way around, your heart is fine, but your knees are screaming and your feet are pounding as all of your weight puts added pressure on them. By the end of the hike, you’re dead tired and there’s nothing like getting your aching feet in a cold mountain stream.
But I hike for more than exercise. There is something spiritual about hiking for me. They are, in a sense, like spending time in a highland cathedral.
Living in the suburbs, it’s so easy to get caught up in an upside-down focus on work, shopping, and yard and home maintenance. But the hiking is both earthy and glorious, all in the same day. Earthy because it’s trail and rocks and dust, and make sure you don’t put your foot wrong and twist something. Glorious because the beauty is surprisingly sublime. A hike is an exposure to majesty. The exalted peaks are so big and you are so small. Like the ocean, mountains give perspective to your life. They put you in your place. And, if you happen to be on a camping trip, the stunning nighttime display of stars underscores that point even more. It makes me think of the one who made them all and the scriptural testimony that God shines with light, more majestic than the mountains (Psalm 76:4).
The beauty of a hike unfolds sequentially throughout the journey. Early on, a hike is enveloped in the brilliant display of dazzling alpine wildflowers. Their growing season is very short, but at its peak, the carpet of Indian Paintbrush, Colorado Bluebells, and Columbine is more beautiful than anything a human artist can express on canvas. A little higher up, massive peaks and ridges become sharper, dappled with shimmering white snowfields juxtaposed against the brilliant blue sky. Very little compares to the literal mountaintop experience of reaching the summit, standing, it seems, on top of the world.
The beauty isn’t limited to just the views above the treeline. On the way up you go through different ecosystems with their own attractiveness. There may be a lush green forest divided by a fast flow of snowmelt. There is the occasional waterfall. There is the open meadow with the unexpected appearance of a large bull moose, hopefully at a safe distance. There is the poplar-covered mountainside where the trail begins its steep climb. He makes the Stairmaster of the health club look like a joke. There is the joy of reaching the tree line where the mosquitoes gasp and die, and the trees suddenly shorten and then disappear. The trail then winds through oak scrub, and when it disappears, then tundra. There is the zigzag path that takes you to a mountain lake. And then, finally, the final climb through rocky fields and boulders to the top.
Weather plays a role in a hike. You often experience different weather microsystems over the span of your hike. You may experience fog, a sunny day, and rain showers within a few hours. I was near the top in July when it started snowing heavily! Thunderstorms are also quite typical in the afternoon. You want to reach the top before they arrive and get off the top, (below the tree line), when you start to hear the thunder echo through the mountains. Did you know that lightning can pass through rocks?
When hiking you have to learn to fear fear the mountain. This is not a sign of weakness but of respect. Because there are dangers and you have to be mountain expert. The serious hiker will have the right shoes and stay hydrated. You have to fear the rock, the weather, the storm and some creatures you may encounter (bear, moose, mountain lion). It is not paralyzing fear, but healthy fear. Without it, you could be in serious trouble. With it, you will thrive.
I love hiking for the journey itself. It’s a tough walk, covering many miles. To be successful you must stay on the path and avoid detours. As you walk you will meet other people. You cannot ignore or bypass them. You have to meet them and talk to them. It could be that you will depend on them if you get into trouble. There is a kinship on the path. I’m on the same difficult path.
Of course, there’s no guarantee you’ll reach your destination. If a storm hits too soon, you might not even make it to the top. So, you need to make sure you enjoy the entire journey, not just the summit.
A serious hike is a journey that works out hard. It’s one step after another. You can stop and rest, but then you have to continue. You will have others to encourage you. But when you’re tired and wondering if you’ll make it, the best thing to do is take the next step. One step at a time and little by little progress is made. How similar it is to life itself!
That’s why I hike.
Dr. Donald Sweeting is President of Colorado Christian University.
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