The final hike of Hike366

The date was highlighted on my calendar: MAY 10. It was the day that I’d fly into the Boston airport for a short visit with my family. It was also the last calendar date I needed to complete the list of 366 hikes. In 13 years I had never hiked on May 10. This was my year.

My dad picked me up from the airport and we immediately drove 2 hours to the trailhead. We stopped for coffee and breakfast because I was running on just a couple hours of bad plane sleep. We had a twelve-mile day ahead.

A history

It felt fitting to complete this project with my dad. I remember trips to Connecticut when I was a kid. Connecticut. It felt like an exotic, distant land. I grew up in Rhode Island, so my sense of distance and time was pretty skewed (I would later learn). Driving just an hour away felt to me like flying across the country. When we landed in a campground in rural Connecticut, I rushed out into the green trees and tall grasses, my imagination on fire. These camping trips meant so much to me. We caught frogs, played games, went swimming, made campfires and took walks in the woods. Hikes.

These hikes were nothing epic. I remember stopping frequently to look for animals or admire the flowers. We flipped over rocks, wandered off trail to explore unique looking things and took time to learn about the world around us. Mileage, time and elevation gain were foreign concepts. We were just out walking as a family.

But I lost interest in these moments as a teenager. It wasn’t cool to hang out with the family anymore and we took vacations to theme parks instead of the forest. In college I was much too busy to hike and besides, all my city friends weren’t interested. It would take several more years for me to reconnect with hiking and spending time out in nature.

The final countdown

Flash forward to today. I was bubbling over with excitement at the idea that I had done it. I was just about to complete a project that I’d been working on for years. Just like my dad, I was very good at starting projects and much worse at actually finishing them. This one was happening.

At the start of the hike!

Our hike began at the Gunstock Ski Resort, which was just ramping up for its summer season activities. We had taken an Uber to get here, since our walk was a one-way traverse. An employee of the resort pointed us to the start of the trail and we were off.

Not long into the adventure we ran into an off-duty hiking guide, who accompanied us on the first three of nine highpoints we’d reach today. He was friendly, very chatty and knowldgeable about the area. When we reached the firetower he bid us adieu and we set off into the woods on our own.

We’d truly be on our own until the very last highpoint. Solitude. Yes. A recurring theme of this project.

On solitude

I’d come into solo hiking out of necessity. As it turned out, my adult friends weren’t interested in hiking, either, so if I was going to get out I’d need to get out on my own. This was terrifying at first, but it grew on me. I liked the feeling of being deep in the mountains by myself. I enjoyed learning how to be self-reliant, how to problem-solve in real time without having someone else to fall back on for advice. I loved the quiet that solo hiking brought. And with my dad here today, I felt all the benefits of solo hiking with a bonus: I got to share lots of special moments with him. The summit views, the snake across the trail, the pretty flowers, the sparkling lakeside lunch stop. Instead of taking a picture to show him later, we were able to have those experiences together.

The grand finale

It was a long, hard day. Nine highpoints meant lots of ups and downs. New Hampshire meant lots of steep ups and downs. But we pushed through, together, racing to stay ahead of storm clouds and finish the hike in a reasonable amount of time. There was no turning back, since we were hiking to the car at the other end.

Atop the last highpoint, a broad summit with panoramic views, I took a deep breath. We did it. There were a few other people there, sitting and taking it all in. It was a popular hike, and a heck of a climb to get up there. This was a place to rest and reflect. So we did.

The hike down involved some bouldery, steep descents. The adventure wasn’t over yet! We shared the trail with some people still going up, others coming down. Near the bottom we met a guy who was working on a very similar project to mine, except his goal was to hike that single trail on all 366 calendar dates. Wow!

Last hike complete!

Now that the hiking is done, what does that mean? I have focused so intently on this goal for so long that I’m going to need time to figure out my next steps: for this project and for my next hikes. I’ve got a long list of trip reports to catch up on, photos to edit and organize, big ideas to put together. My next step is to tell the whole story. My drive to complete Hike366, what it means to me and what lessons I can share with others. Hiking has been, and continues to be, a source of passion and meaning in my life. As an activity that can be done every day of the year, it is a great way to remain grounded (literally and figuratively) in the ever-more-complicated world.

So, stay tuned. I’m not done yet. I’m definitely not done hiking. But I’m also not done speaking. There’s lots more to be shared. Follow the Instagram feed for almost daily photos and keep an eye on this blog for more good stuff about hiking.

On being a responsible hiker

I’m freshly back from taking a much-anticipated two week road trip. My partner and I spent most of those two weeks driving, hiking, camping and exploring new places. We covered a lot of ground and had a number of diverse experiences. In all those miles of hiking, one theme kept coming up again and again.

That theme? The responsibility of hikers to know and practice Leave No Trace principles.

On nearly every hike we did, I observed violations of these principles pretty regularly. People carving their names into rocks and trees. Trash littering the sides of the trail. Toilet paper, and worse, a big pile of human poop not more than a foot off the trail. The remains of poorly placed campfires. Footprints in cryptobiotic soil. And there were things we could not observe: geological features and artifacts that had been taken out of the environment by past looters and trophy-collectors.

When I’m out enjoying a hike I try really hard not to let my thoughts focus on negative things that bum me out. But some of these experiences really bummed me out. Who poops on the trail!? How would you not KNOW that is not an okay thing to do? And I was shocked by how much graffiti there was: on rocks, trees, signs, literally anything something could paint, carve or ink up had someone’s name on it. So weird. It would seem that in the age of social media, leaving one’s mark on a place would be a thing of the past. You can easily take a picture and share it worldwide within seconds. And yet, graffiti doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

It is therefore going to be a recurring theme of this blog, for the next few weeks at least, to focus on each principle of Leave No Trace. My goal is to identify the principle, explain why it matters and then offer practical ways to put that principle into practice. I hope that in my heart no one means to do the environment or other people wrong, and with the right education and practice that we can all learn to share these special places with each other, leaving the land as we found it.

Or better. We picked up trash on almost every hike and we cleaned up every messy dispersed campsite we stayed at (they were all littered with trash). On hikes I only sometimes remembered to carry a little trash bag. Other times we shoved trash into outside mesh pockets of backpacks or into our pants pockets. At camp it was much easier to walk around with a bag and toss away all the garbage before we set up our things.

I am glad that so many people are excited to get out and experience the wonders of our natural world. The next step is to advance the notion of being a responsible hiker and a good steward of the land. I’ll start by writing blog posts and sharing more insights in the Instagram feed, but I have a feeling it’s going to get bigger than that. Stay tuned, and share your ideas about how you think we can all be a little better to preserving our land and being mindful of each other’s experiences outdoors.

Thanksgiving rituals

For the past eight years, I’ve been participating in my own Thanksgiving tradition. Not surprisingly, it’s centered around hiking.

In 2009, I embarked on my first backcountry Thanksgiving. I was thousands of miles from home, with no intention of flying on one of the busiest travel days in the country. I was recently single, overwhelmed with work, and ready for some “me-time.” So I loaded a heavy pack with overnight supplies, Thanksgiving dinner, and some adult beverages. Off I went. I had no idea that year after year I’d be eagerly looking forward to doing it again.

Traditions are often thought of as ancient rituals. But they all had to start somewhere. I wasn’t happy with the usual Thanksgiving traditions so I unconsciously created my own. Now I can’t imagine Thanksgiving without a long, quiet weekend away from civilization.

Join me in recounting these fantastic escapes:

2009: Willamette Pass Winter Getaway

2010: Second Annual Thanksgiving Snowshoe Adventure

2011: Thanksgiving at Willamette Pass

2012: A Very Backcountry Thanksgiving

2013: Thanksgiving at Maiden Peak

2014: Sixth Annual Woodsy Thanksgiving Retreat

2015: Hart Mountain Thanksgiving

2016: Thanksgiving Off the Beaten Path

2017: ???

This year I’ve got a plan. You’ll find out about it after I return. Another element to the Thanksgiving ritual is not having access to the Internet. I call it #optoffline. Even better than going outside is actually being there. Forget about sharing and hashtagging and seeing what other people are up to. Be there. Smell the air. Feel the wind. Listen to birds. See the views. And only after your experience is over, decide if and when you’d like to share about it.

Don’t worry, I’ll have plenty of turkey…

Managing hiking photos

To me, Hike366 is a visual project. Each hike is inextricably linked to the images captured in the field. The Instagram feed is populated with photographs that tell a story. Without a photo, there’s nothing to snag the attention of the potential reader.

This is why keeping my photos organized and easily accessible has been an important part of this project. As I dig deep into the journals, I also open up the folder associated with each hike. It’s interesting to go back and look at hikes from 2005 and have only 2 or 3 photos in the folder (versus 60 or more in some of the more recent trips!). Not all the photos are very good, either. And for a few hikes, I never saved files to my hard drive. They are sitting on the servers of a long-defunct online photo storage company. Ooops.

So then I face a decision point: do I “re-do” the hike dates that I have no photos (or no good photos)? Or do I proceed with a poor quality image? No image?

The answer, of course, is “it depends.” If I have no photo, I’m compelled to go on another hike on that date.  If I have bad photos, I think they still tell a story. I’m more likely to re-do a hike date for which I already have a lot of similar records for, like Smith Rock or Marys Peak.

Photo organization

My system for organizing photos is simple:

There’s a hiking folder under “Pictures,” because, of course. The “366 Days of Hiking” album contains one photo from each featured hike of the project, but we’ll get to that later. The bulk of my photos are arranged geographically, then by date. So, under the “Oregon 2017” folder you can see a few hikes: Ankeny, Badlands (twice), Bailey, Baker Beach, etc. The numbers after the hike location are the date. Therefore, at a glance I can see that I hiked Ankeny on June 3, 2017.

I also like naming my photos whenever possible. This makes it much easier for me to search for things. If I want a picture of dune grass, for example, I can just go to the Pictures folder and search for “dune grass” and see what comes up. That saves me the trouble of going back to my hike spreadsheet and finding a hike that might have involved some dunes. And, if I can’t come up with a name for a photo then it’s probably one that I can delete. It’s not compelling enough to keep. This is an easy way to purge old photos without thinking too hard.

Photographic interference

I wonder if, as taking photos becomes easier and easier, that the act of photography while out on a hike detracts from the hike experience. Now, when I visit popular places I can barely find a person who’s not staring at the view through their phone or iPad. These people are not professional photographers. They’re just snapping a ton of terrible pictures that will live forever on their devices, on their home computers, in the cloud.

I have been caught up in this too, but I try to remain cognizant of this behavior. I do try to take photos of things like signposts, trail junctions, notable features and viewpoints to help me reconstruct the hike for trip reports and journaling projects. If I see something really cool I’ll take a picture. But I’ve always tried to hike first and snap photos later. Leave the photography to the pros; live the experience instead.

Here’s some food for thought from the BBC: Are You Taking too Many Pictures?

Meanwhile, tons of physical space and energy are being used for keeping these photos “saved,” most of which will never be looked at again. That’s a topic for another day!

This project has caused me to re-evaluate the contents of all of my photo albums. I’m saving the photos that matter, and deleting the ones that don’t. It’s been a digital purging of sorts. As I discover the photos that are meaningful to me it has been easier to identify those that can safely go.

And you, lovely reader, will be spared most of the photos so you’re left with just one image per story. Try this with the last hike you went on. See how challenging it can be to only choose one. Which one will it be? Why? What does that photo communicate to your viewers? To you? Have fun and let me know what challenges you come across!

Keeping hiking records

When I first began keeping records of my hiking adventures in 2005, I bought a hardcover blank book. In this journal I recorded stories from the trail, usually written just after the hike was over. I immediately chose a format that went something like this:

  • Date
  • Name of hike
  • Trails included
  • Mileage/ elevation gain/ start and end time
  • List of wildlife seen and heard
  • Long description of the hike

That first book is filled with a year of adventures dating from June, 2005 to July 2006. It is mostly because I kept these notes that I can go back in time and recount the places I’ve been.

The other useful information I gathered on each of these hikes is my photos. I have folders on my computer that area organized by year, location and hike date. So, if I want to see what I was up to in 2011 I can choose the folder “Oregon 2011” or “Washington 2011” or if I got further afield I can choose “Other States.” Combining the written data and the visual information I can often paint a pretty good picture of what happened on that day.

The wayback machine: 2005, Mt. Carrigain NH.

For the Hike366 project, I’m compiling data from these sources to find connecting threads, themes and learning experiences from the past decade plus of hiking. The first step is going back and publishing a blog for each of the 366 hikes. It turns out I have already written and published these right after the hike was completed. But there are many stories that are trapped inside the hard cover of my journal.

If you dig around on jessb.org (my other site) you will find that the older entries are filling in. I’m going back to 2005 to start from there, working my way forward chronologically. It is a tedious task but something that will help me organize the 366 in a meaningful way.

In addition to this raw data, I have two spreadsheets: one for all hikes and one for this project. My hike spreadsheet is the master list of every hike I’ve ever done (mostly) and I try to be as accurate and succinct as possible. My columns are:

  • Date
  • Hike Name
  • State
  • Time
  • Elevation gain
  • Distance
  • Elevation gain/distance ratio
  • Speed (distance/time)
  • Notes*
  • GPS point

There are two more columns: “Trip” and “Overnight.” I put a “1” in the cell on the first hike on each trip. So, for example, if I take a 3-day roadtrip and do 5 hikes during that time, that counts as 1 trip. For the “overnight” column I put a “1” in the cell for the first hike on any trip where I’m backpacking in. (Car camping doesn’t count). By totaling the 1’s at the end of the year I can tally up how many general trips I took and how many backpacking trips I took.

*A note on the notes column. I keep this short on purpose. I do not allow myself to use multiple lines. Typical entries include whether I was solo or with a group, the weather, trail conditions, any unusual occurrences or the purpose of the trip. Longer write-ups can be done in a notebook or on my website.

Keeping these records has been useful for helping me set goals, learn more about my patterns, appreciate the variety of places I’ve traveled and get this project put together! I sometimes enjoy just sitting down and scrolling through years past to see what kinds of things I was up to. Once I start flipping through old photo albums on my computer…well, many an hour has passed doing that!

Since the advent of cellphone cameras and seemingly endless digital storage it has become easier to keep track of hiking adventures. But I really enjoy the journaling aspect of tracking hikes as well. Many of those journal entries will never make it to public view, but having those journals to dust off and read every couple years is priceless.

The inception of hike366

I wasn’t always a year-round hiker.

I remember very specifically the day that it occurred to me that hiking wasn’t just a summer activity. I was out on the trail with a fellow hiker that I’d met through a New England hiking forum. We were huffing and puffing up a mountain and I asked him, “so how do you learn to hike in the winter time?”

He gave me the best and simplest advice: “you just keep hiking through the fall and pay attention to the changes that happen around you.”

Duh.

From that day forward I felt empowered to learn new things by putting myself out there. In the months and years that followed, I sought out new friends and mentors who would accompany me through those tough fall and winter days in the White Mountains. I learned from my companions, and through trial and error, what equipment I needed, how to plan for seasonal challenges, and when to turn around and try again another day. Hiking became a thing that I did, not just on occasional bluebird days in the summer, but in every kind of weather imaginable. At any time of year.

As I accumulated more and more hikes I became proficient in dealing with rain, snow, wind, cold, heat and everything in between. I logged hikes in every month of the year in different parts of the country (and a few outside the country). So when I was posed with the question: have you hiked on every calendar date of the year, I figured that I had.

And when I learned that I had not, well, that was a challenge I just had to accept.