About the Author, Melanie Alvarado: I have been a lifelong avid hiker. After growing up in southern Germany, I moved to the US at the age of 19. I work as a Nurse Practitioner and currently live in Central California with my boyfriend and 3 dogs. My favorite activity is hiking. Recently, my most frequent hiking destination is the High Sierra.
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This may sound overly dramatic, but I hike, because I know no other way to live. Within all the unexpected freak turns and surprises my life journey so far has taken, hiking has been a grounding constant and a source of stability and sanity. When I studied philosophy and literature in Germany, I never anticipated that a few years later the United States would become my home and that I would earn a Master’s degree in nursing. As a strong introvert, I never could have believed that my job would involve dealing with a large number of people every day, nor that I even would be quite passionate about it. When I got married in a complicated relationship, I did not picture myself eagerly getting divorced years later. When I bought a house in Texas and slowly turned it into a little homesteading ranch, I was sure this was where I would spend the rest of my days, and I did not foresee that soon I would sell this house again, pack my things and move to North Carolina, before settling down somewhat in California. I learnt to embrace change, the surprise things I learnt about myself and my life, and simultaneously I more and more learnt to embrace the constant of hiking that weaved a rugged path through my life story.
My German hometown
I think of my life in chapters: windows of time with similar patterns, themes, troubles and joys, sometimes changing gradually, almost unnoticed for years, other times changing dramatically and profoundly. My hikes, too, changed and evolved in intent, rigor, distance, planning, intensity, and deliberateness. As a child, growing up in a small village in the Bavarian Alps, I spent a lot of time outside, roaming a mountainous countryside, strolling seemingly aimlessly through the fields and forests behind our house, observing the birds, making a mesmerized stop at a beehive, cuddling with the sheep in a nearby pasture. I have a strong memory of walking through a forest, possibly around the age of ten, not at all unhappy, but thinking to myself with a very clear inner voice “I’m a loner,” with a sense of pride and significance that I could not understand yet. It took me a very long time to figure out that I wasn’t a loner at all. Indeed I’m a very social person as well as a strong and independent introvert who craves social connections, yet at least equally craves and cherishes alone time, solitary reflection and contemplation.
As a youth, my radius gradually expanded and I frequently walked up the mountain that towered over my little village. I never thought of it as hiking and never took as much as a water bottle with me. Due to my love for walking in itself, I also frequently chose to walk one hour to school instead of taking the bus or my bike.
My sleeping quarters during my first overnight hiking trip in the Uwharries in North Carolina
After I graduated from school, I moved several hours to study philosophy and literature. I now lived in a town that was surrounded by vineyards and forests and bordered on the huge Lake Constance. Like in earlier years, I could simply leave from my doorstep and walk on quiet paths for hours, and I did so frequently. I remember my first four hour walk when I happened across a little valley I had never been to. The fact that I had walked for four hours seemed like an accomplishment to me, and the act of exploring a new place in this seemingly aimless manner made me ecstatic with joy. I saw and experienced so much more on foot than when I rushed through an area with any other means of transportation. Walking made me feel much more intimately acquainted with my surroundings.
When I was twenty-one, I moved to Houston, Texas, which obviously involved a number of major life changes. Walking a lot simply had become second nature and I stubbornly spent a large amount of time on foot in Houston before I finally gave up, discouraged and annoyed by the constantly stopping cars with mostly male drivers eager to give me a ride. The remainder of my stay in Houston was basically the only episode in my life when I hesitatingly eventually gave up walking and instead largely relied on public transportation.
My dog JoJo who has recently become my hiking buddy
Fast forward a few years: I had moved to Waco in Central Texas and adopted a dog. As I started walking my dog in some local parks, I ruefully remembered how much I had missed walking. Thankfully, Waco had a nice park system where I could easily go on four hour walks through the woods with my dog on a routine basis. I moved quite a few more times within Texas, most for the purpose of education and work. I was simultaneously always on the lookout for nearby walking options. This often involved a longish drive only to walk through a relatively unimpressive landscape. Yet, what mattered the most was the simple act of walking as well as the solitude and peace I found in the woods and on the trails… through financial hardships, a difficult social life, and daily frustrations arising from my immigration status.
From the 313 km long Eifelsteig in Germany
Another very new chapter started when I took a trip to Canada to visit distant relatives and family friends after I got divorced. Admittedly, I was not doing too well. I was struggling to find the new start I knew I desperately needed. I was not ready to move on, although that’s what I needed to do the most. In Canada, I was not only met by an amazing hospitality, but also by an overwhelmingly beautiful landscape. I spent two weeks hiking on the Canadian West Coast as well as in the Rockies. Just like I had re-discovered my love for walking after I left Houston, so I re-discovered my deep love for hiking in the mountains during my Canada trip. In fact, it was not until around that time that I started referring to my long walks as hikes. Soon after I returned from Canada, I took a trip to Utah that also involved a lot of hiking. By then I had gained the momentum I needed to make a new start. I sold my house, got rid of most of what I owned, left Texas behind, and moved to North Carolina as a traveling Nurse Practitioner with a temporary contract. There, I spent most weekends hiking the Smokey Mountains, each time marveling at the beauty of my surroundings. Similar to how the radius of my expeditions kept expanding back in Germany, so now the distance of my day hikes continued to increase up to my record hike of about thirty miles in ten hours. My North Carolina chapter ended with my first overnight solo hiking trip in the Uwharries.
Backpacking in the Grand Canyon
North Carolina was followed by Peru with hikes in the Andes. Then I moved to California for another temporary contract, where I met my boyfriend and ended up settling down somewhat again. My more recent hikes include the 313 km long Eifelsteig in Germany, several multi-day backpacking trips, including in the backcountry of the Grand Canyon. My vacations now basically almost always revolve around hiking. It is difficult to describe the joy I feel when, after several hours of hiking up a mountain, I come across a pristine Alpine lake or a mountain meadow intersected by a little creek. I recall quite a few times when I truly had to tear myself away from a place that was so beautiful that it overwhelmed me. If this sense of awe is not akin to prayer, then I have no clue what prayer might be. It is these moments I seek out the most and that are burned the most in my memory. Frequently, my hikes are not so glamorous. At times I simply follow a fairly unimpressive trail through a bland landscape, thinking of food, of swimming in a cool lake, of doing something else, just something other than putting one foot in front of the other out here alone for no particular reason. Yet, then there come the surprises: the bobcat that crosses my path; the birdsong that has been there all along, but suddenly I hear it; the unexpected view that opens up and transforms everything. Often I hike for several hours at a fast pace, with my thoughts racing in circles, before I finally, prompted by who knows what, take a deep breath, tune in with my surroundings, and realize that I’m happy and at peace and that I am right where I’m supposed to be.
From my trip to the Canadian Rockies
During my recent hike of the Eifelsteig, I walked past a little plaque that was tacked onto a tree, saying: “I don’t want to be rich or win fame. I don’t want to shy away from work, effort, and struggle. Only one thing I ask you, oh Lord, let me be able to hike until my last day.” This, too, may sound too dramatic, and yet it resonates with me very much. May we, fellow hikers and friends, all have many hikes ahead of us, may we cherish the strength and exhaustion inside us, may we notice the beauty around us, and may we tread our path lightly and responsibly, assuring that the coming generations will be able to do the same.