Mel Graykin: Sometimes, hiking etiquette gets lost in the woods

For the Monitor
Sunday, October 23, 2016

So you have finally found a time in your busy schedule to set aside the weekend, pack up the family and head out to the White Mountains.

Perhaps you were once an avid hiker, but the responsibilities of work and children took over. You never lost your love of the trail and were determined to share it with your kids.

Now your oldest is ready. Still a youngster, but full of inquisitive energy, just like you were at their age. The baby can ride in a carrier. That’s the advantage of two parents: one totes the gear while the other totes the tot.

The weather is perfect. You’ve planned this out carefully, a hike that perhaps you have done in the past, a bit of a challenge with a lovely view at the summit, one you are sure the youngster can manage easily. You drive to the trailhead and set off in high spirits.

Perhaps the first few other hikers you encounter are friendly and encouraging, praising you for sharing this wonderful experience with your children. Then you are passed by an athletic couple with cutting edge gear who seem annoyed that you are blocking their trail. You step aside and apologize, and as the pros power by one of them mutters that families like yours belong at Storyland, not climbing peaks. The next ones you encounter look down their noses with disapproval. “Isn’t that child a bit young for a strenuous hike like this?”

They imply strongly that you are guilty of child abuse for dragging a wee youngster like that along.

At the summit you unpack your picnic lunch. The wee youngster, who has been bounding up the trail like a lab puppy, finally settles down to eat a sandwich.

Another hiker stops to eat their lunch and engages you in companionable conversation. They proceed to helpfully advise you on all sorts of “family friendly” trails, because obviously you are inexperienced hikers who didn’t realize what you were getting into, and must be exhausted from struggling up the mountain with a baby and a child this age, who probably got tired and had to be carried half the way. This assumption is much more likely to be made if the youngster involved happens to be a girl.

Or perhaps you were once that girl filled with inquisitive energy who grew to love the mountains. You made time for hiking all your life. It has kept you fit and nourished your mind. Now you’re in your 60s and a combination of genetics and unfortunate circumstances has left you with health issues. But you still get out there and hike in spite of it.

Your hiking companions are a younger woman who fights a constant battle with her weight and hikes as part of her program, and a friend who is perfectly healthy but prefers hiking slowly, stopping to look for signs of wild animals, to admire flowers and mushrooms, to stand and inhale the rich scent of fir, warm earth and pine needles. You hike together because you all enjoy going at the same leisurely pace.

As you are resting at an AMC hut, enjoying the view from the porch, a couple comes by to chat. They quiz you about what you’re doing, if you’re staying at the hut, where you are going next. You reply that you there for the day and are enjoying the foliage. They urge you to hike up to the next peak: “It’s beautiful, you’ve got to see it!”

You smile and thank them, and explain that health issues make climbing the extra three miles to the next peak and back somewhat difficult. Besides, all three of you have been to that peak and admired the view some years before.

The couple adopts a righteous air and the man replies, “Well, my wife and I hike regularly so we can keep ourselves healthy and avoid weight problems and health issues.”

Well, good for them.

I’ve done a fair amount of hiking in my years and most of the folks I run into on the trail are friendly and helpful, nearly always in great spirits. Hiking puts you in that frame of mind.

Unfortunately, there are all too many who consider hiking to be a competitive sport. They’ll interrogate others, all the while interrupting with examples of their own to illustrate how much farther and faster and how many more peaks they’ve hiked. They offer extraneous information about themselves and their hiking feats designed to impress, as if they were determined to suck every other hiker on the trail into rivalry whether they like it or not.

It may be that some adult hikers feel threatened by the presence of children on a trail, that it somehow diminishes their achievement of summiting a peak if a child could do it.

This, along with the unhealthy “healthier than thou” attitude, this contempt toward those they see as somehow unworthy of hiking “their” trails, this arrogant pride in powering past slower hikers, comes out of a deep insecurity. In proving how far superior they are to you, they prove it to themselves.

Sometimes it comes out of plain ignorance. The unwanted and inappropriate advice, as insulting as it might be, is well-intended. The would-be adviser makes dead-wrong assumptions. They’d do well to ask a few questions and listen to the answers before passing judgment. Or, better yet, mind their own business.

Hiking is an excellent form of recreation. There are as many reasons to do it as there are hikers. We are all on the trail for our own reasons, including physically challenging ourselves. We are not out there to live up to anyone else’s expectations. We are not out there to be judged or to bolster someone else’s ego. The only person you are competing with – unless it’s by mutual agreement – is yourself.

For some of us it’s not about the hike; it’s about being there.

(Justine “Mel” Graykin lives and writes in Deerfield, and practices freelance philosophy on her website at justinegraykin.com.)