Escape to Which Mountain?

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I am a terrible hiker.  I get uncomfortable when I don’t have a sure sense of footing – which is why I’m also terrible in the water – and it manifests when I hike, especially on the descent. I hesitate and pause and teeter and totter, tentative to the point of detriment, a neurotic mess. Children and seniors alike blow past, as do middle-aged dudes with pot bellies. One time on a trail in Hawaii, one of my sister’s friends observed my downhill stumbling act with a great deal of interest. Finally, she exclaimed with glee: “Your brother’s worse than I am!” The thing is, she has vertigo. Like I said, I’m a terrible hiker.

It’s hard to know how my hiking stamina compares to most people. While I’m never quite dying at the end of any of my treks, the start and middle comprise another story altogether. I feel like I get tired sooner than most, and end up kind of trudging along, treading water the rest of the way. Maybe this is just reflective of a universal insecurity. After all, I match the pace of fellow hikers – powerwalkers and obvious psychopaths excepted – and end up generally meeting or beating the estimated times for most trails, unsmooth though the process may be.

My worst trait as a hiker though is my tendency to get lost. On my way to a relaxing nature path in Maui, I spent a good 30 minutes forging uphill into the wilderness, simply because I didn’t see or follow the curvature of the road (I kept wondering, “What asshole classified this as an ‘easy’ hike?”). I’ve gotten lost in Tokyo because I descended into a rural valley even though I knew I was supposed to be on a wide ridgetop trail. And the topper, I ended up horrifically sick in Seoul after spending seven hours on Dobongsan (estimated trail time: four hours), with a single bag of chips as sustenance.*

*I’ve related the story on an old blog, but it might bear revisiting if only for the number of stupid decisions I made that day.

Perhaps because of my myriad shortcomings, hiking never was a go-to activity. I did sporadically look for trails when traveling in years past: the Camelback in Phoenix, the Uetilberg trail outside Zurich, the godforsaken Dobongsan in Seoul. I adventured all over Maui in the three weeks I spent there in 2011, though that was more a matter of necessity – not being a big water person, there was really nothing else to do. Still, hiking wasn’t regularly on the agenda when I lived in Los Angeles, Irvine, or Boston, the occasional local excursion aside. But it’s been a different story since I moved to Tokyo.

To be fair, everybody hikes in Tokyo. There’s a reason why everybody lives to be a hundred. Every time I board a train or bus in the wee hours of the morning, I am surrounded by packs of young couples and groups of middle-aged dudes and hordes of senior citizens, all fully-equipped with backpacks and bear bells and rain jackets and portable gas stoves, holding walking sticks and physical maps, the seniors always chattering like children on a field trip. The numbers dwindle as we get farther from the city, each group off to their own adventure, on one of the countless trails and mountains scattered across the region.

I think I get it. Even last year when I lived in the suburbs, I felt the need to get away, because there really aren’t any suburbs in Tokyo. They’re still dense, block after block of residences and businesses, packed to the brim with people, inescapably so on the weekends. The river where I biked was nice, but also filled with joggers and baseball and barbecues and sheer humanity. It might be ironic that we leave the city en masse to get away from one another*, but it’s worth the time and effort for the chance, just the chance, to literally get away, to secure a little peace and quiet.

*Especially when you end up at an overcrowded trail and have to queue up near the summit.

Of course it’s easy to feel lost in Tokyo, to fade into the crowd of black-suited automatons heading to the office and back in a daze of duty and depression. But I get shortchanged in the opposite direction as well. This is an environment where daily communication remains a struggle for me, where awkward interactions still outnumber all others. Going on a hike is a way for me to get away from the crowd and simultaneously get away from standing out in the crowd. I exchange a simple “konnichi wa” and smile with fellow hikers and continue on. Nothing more is expected; nothing more is desired.

I am thus left to my own devices on the trail. I appreciate having the opportunity for introspection. Yet, there’s also plenty of distraction to prevent that from being a requisite. I’m in motion, panting or chugging water or throwing down food even when my legs aren’t moving, with scenery to take in and absorb and admire, and the constant threat of eating it, whether on the ascent or descent. Sure I could get lost in thought, but I could also walk full speed into a tree branch, face-first.* In that way, I am able to avoid overthinking, overanalysis, mental paralysis. It’s a perfect balance.

*Twice that I can recall. Again, terrible hiker.

I don’t really see hiking as a form of exercise, though my screaming calves would argue otherwise. But the workout is secondary to the adventuring. I find wonderment that I obviously can’t using the weight machines or treadmill in my windowless basement gym, nor even sitting on my bike along the familiar river route. It helps of course that I have not had to repeat a trail, but even that would be mitigated by the presence of four distinct seasons. Further, I get a sense of accomplishment from setting off on a trail and completing it. I guess I prefer life to be simple like that, maps, guides, benchmarks, and all.

I’ve only done day hikes, needing my hot water and modern amenities. None are what seasoned veterans would call strenuous. I don’t think that’ll change. Besides, the experiences have been memorable enough. I saw tiny icicles in the grass on Mount Ougiyama. I spilled Nabeyaki udon on myself at the summit of Nabewari; consequently, I had to tackle Tonodake in bike shorts. I trudged through snow at Nikko for five hours, alone in a breathtaking way. I sprinted to the last cable car on Mount Tsukuba to avoid a 90 minute walk down when I was cold and tired and unprepared. It’s all been great, sometimes if only in retrospect.

Next summer, I’m aiming for Fuji. It won’t be smooth. It won’t be easy. But I’ll enjoy it nevertheless.

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