“If you face the rest of your life with the spirit you show on the trail, it will have no choice but to yield the same kind of memories and dreams.” – Adrienne Hall
About the Author: Hi there! My name is Kieara, and I’m an artist, photographer, and adventurer. I love our wild places, and the creatures that call them home and I’m passionate about protecting and preserving them! If you would like to follow along on my adventures, you can find me on Instagram @hammock_momma! And if you’re interested in my outdoor inspired art you can browse my Etsy shop at www.etsy.com/shop/KiearaLonning! I love connecting with people in the outdoor community so be sure and say “Hi” if you do follow me!! See you on the trails!!!
Why do I hike? If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked that, I could go buy that new camera lens I’ve been wanting. Hmmm…maybe I should start charging people when they ask me! My reasons for hiking are numerous! But today I’m going with the theme of lessons from the trail. And just those could fill a book! Maybe someday I’ll corral them all into one place, but for now I’m just going to share a few of them with you.
My first experience with hiking (I had hiked before as a kid, but never knew it as such. We were just walking through the woods!) was a trip to the Buffalo National River in Arkansas. We spent 3 days and 2 nights primitive camping in the Compton area and hiked 3 different trails. I was totally unprepared for what these trails would throw at me. Especially on day two, when we hiked to Hemmed in Falls. Getting there wasn’t so much the problem. Getting back to the trailhead was. The whole way down I kept thinking “how am I going to make it back to the top?” I had no self confidence, no faith that I would make it back up out of there. I was embarrassed for being so out of shape (the other 3 girls were thin and fit), and I was sick from being dehydrated and overheated. I certainly did not feel like I belonged there. The trail was not meant for overweight, inexperienced people. If I could make it back to the car alive, I was never going to do anything like this ever again. But the other adult in our group kept saying “you CAN do this” anytime I would have to stop and rest (which was a LOT). I finally started saying it to myself, and I finally did do it. I made it back to the top. I’ve never been so happy to see a trailhead sign.
I fell in love with hiking on that trip. In spite of my self doubt and feeling like I was going to die, in spite of my decision to “never do anything like this again”, I actually could not wait to do it again. And so I started looking for trails near home. And while I found plenty of trails (the Ozark Trail was a short 20 minute drive from my house), getting people to hike with me was a little more difficult. Not because they didn’t necessarily want to, but because the schedule of a work-from-home-mom is considerably different than other women’s schedules. When my friends were off work, I was busy being a mom and wife. When I was free (during the day, on weekdays) they were working or in class. Yep, all of my friends at that time were either working moms, single with full-time jobs, or full-time students with part-time jobs. Being a WFHM has its rewards, but it can also be very lonely. Especially in small communities! I’m very jealous with my family time, so leaving them at home every weekend just was not an option for me. And for awhile I was stuck. But then I discovered hiking groups! Women-only hiking groups! Here was my answer! And I couldn’t wait to join. Unfortunately, even though there were groups in MO, the group hikes were out of my reach because they were on weekends, and located near the cities. At least a 2-3 hour drive, one way. If I was going to hike, I would have to hike alone. That was a little daunting for a newbie hiker, nevermind that I was a female. Which reminds me, if I had a dollar for every negative comment or question about being a solo female hiker I would have enough cash to buy my dream (ultralight) backpacking setup and go on that thru-hike that’s waiting very patiently on my bucket list for the day when my kid graduates high school and heads off to college. But I couldn’t stay away from the trail. I had gotten a glimpse of the magic, the healing it offers. And I desperately needed more of it. So I went.
If I’m being honest, I’m not certain when or where my first solo hike happened. I’ve hiked solo so often that those details from that hike have faded. But I remember the emotions. A lot of fear, and self doubt. But also determination and excitement. I almost turned around several times on the drive to the trailhead. Then it took me a solid 20 minutes just to convince myself to get out of my car and start down the trail. But when I returned safely to the trailhead and my waiting car, I remembered how it felt to see the trailhead after hiking up from Hemmed in Falls and I realized didn’t feel the same this time. I was sad my hike for the day was over, I was already missing the trail. I wanted more! I haven’t been afraid of it since. It’s a funny thing, to be afraid of the trail. But for whatever reason I was afraid of it. Maybe because subconsciously I knew it would change me, and change is scary. But change brings growth, and for me growth is addictive.
Even though I wanted to hike all the time, making myself prioritize time for it was still difficult. While scrolling through Instagram one day I spotted a post talking about the 52 Hike Challenge. Basically 52 hikes, in 52 weeks and it’s free! I signed up immediately, and started hitting the trails. I fell behind during the summer, because I’m a cold weather person and the midwest humidity is ridiculous. I caught up in the fall and finished in time. I’ve completed the 52 Hike Challenge twice now, and am attempting my 3rd. Although moving twice and some health complications put me way behind this year so I’m not sure I’ll hit #52 by January 4th 2020. But the 52 Hike Challenge did what I needed it to do. It kept me accountable to myself. It kept me motivated to make trail time a priority. I’ll probably sign up again next year, just so I have that weekly reminder to make time for the trail. To make time for healing, learning, and loving myself.
To say I’m no longer afraid of the trail, does not mean I no longer have moments of fear while on the trail. I still get stuck in my own head on occasion, and every sound or movement converts to a bear/cougar/serial killer and I have to reign my imagination back in. Although once, when I was hiking with my dog we had an interesting experience. Piper (a giant, fierce looking floofball of a GSD) was always in front of me on the trail. She was fearless and I admit that definitely boosted my confidence. One time though, she suddenly turned and darted behind me, where she stood staring into the woods off to my right. It was mid summer, with all the trees and underbrush in full bloom. I couldn’t see more than a few feet into the woods on that side, so whatever she sensed wasn’t visible to me. I heard some rustling (big rustling) and instantly thought it might be a bear. I then thought it could be a cougar, but I didn’t think one of those would make that much noise. Whatever it was, suddenly grunted and took off running the opposite way. I never got a look at it, but my brother suggested it could have been a wild hog. Either way, Piper wanted nothing to do with it and it wanted nothing to do with us so we continued on down the trail and arrived home safely.
Aside from that instance and a couple close encounters with venomous snakes I haven’t been worried by the wildlife that inhabits the wilderness surrounding the trails I hike. Glimpsing the various critters that call the forest home has become one of my favorite parts of hiking. Watching the bright white behind of a whitetail bounding through the woods, the scurry of squirrels and chipmunks, and the silent swoop of a hawk grabbing lunch as I walk by. It’s simply amazing to me, and I drink in every moment. As a photographer and artist, the views and wildlife I see while hiking provide a constant source of inspiration for me. One day coming off the trail I spotted a hawk, sitting on a rock in the middle of the river eating the biggest crawfish I had ever seen. Perfect timing, and thankfully I had my camera. Another time I spotted my first beaver, but didn’t have my camera. I can’t share that memory in photograph form, but it will be there until I’m ready to sketch it…and maybe even paint it.
As a general rule the people I meet on the trails are there for the same reason as me. At least to some degree. They’re usually pleasant, and at the very least just ignore you as they pass by. One guy though, was not only unpleasant but downright pushy and obnoxiously interested in what 2 adult women and 1 teenage girl were doing on trail without a man along. He started the conversation by saying he left his hiking partner behind because he couldn’t keep up…what a great friend right? Then wanted suggestions of other places to go in the area. We warily watched him clambering and jumping around on the wet rocks above the waterfall we were resting by while the my friend gave him some suggestions of nearby trails and attractions. After he hopped over to the opposite side of the stream and became preoccupied with taking pictures, we headed down the trail in a bit of a hurry hoping he wouldn’t follow. Once back to our car at the trailhead we stopped to have lunch and rest before going on to the next trail on our list. Sure enough though, here comes this guy. Who proceeds to sit at the other picnic table and watch us. I was uncomfortable, I think we all were. My friend said to just watch him in return. “Most people who seem like they’re up to no good will back off once they realize you’re aware of them and they see you’re keeping tabs on them.” So we all watched him watching us, and eventually he seemed to lose interest. We packed up our lunch stuff and drove to the next trailhead to finish that days adventure. I wanted to visit Hawksbill Crag, the quintessential stop for most visitors to the BNR. This was my second visit to that area and I wanted to check this spot off my list. But once on the trail it was deja vu…because here was our creeper. We met him on our way back to the trailhead, and there hadn’t been anyone else back on Hawksbill so we knew it was possible we were the only ones on the trail besides him. At that point I was no longer uncomfortable, I was mad. The teen girl in our group was extremely nervous however, so we put her in between us and booked it back towards the trailhead. Just before we started up the final hill we met another guy who turned out to be the creeper’s companion. This guy was super friendly, but just a bit perturbed at being left behind by his “friend”. We instantly felt a little less wary, but remained watchful as we made our way back to the car. This encounter started out uncomfortable and a little scary. But in the end it made me angry because there was absolutely no need for that guy to act like that. Thankfully in the 5 years since I started hiking that sort of thing has only happened once.
All of these experiences (and many more I didn’t mention) have taught me I’m strong, I’m capable, that my worth is so much more than my looks. That my pace as I go down the trail doesn’t have to match the pace of other, more fit people for me to be a “real” hiker. My body’s performance is limited only by my mindset, because I can make it up the mountain and back to the trailhead if I just tell myself I can. That I can control my imagination and not freak out over weird noises (came in handy when I solo camped for the first time this past summer!). It has taught me to look for the wild things, and enjoy their beauty rather than fear them. That while I can’t control other people’s actions and attitudes I can control how I respond to the situation. Most importantly it has taught me that I do belong on the trail….everyone does.