Trail Talk: More than "because it's there"

"I don’t go to the woods to escape — I go there to live. I go there to feel alive — to feel whole. To feel a sense of belonging — and to feel that there are things much bigger and important than me." This is the story of how I discovered hiking.
Craig Romano Craig Romano
Mountaineers Books guidebook author
May 03, 2016
Trail Talk: More than "because it's there"
by Craig Romano, Guidebook Author

The hair on my arms and back of my neck stood up straight. The summit rocks surrounding me buzzed like an electrical transformer. The fillings in my teeth hummed. A thick fog enveloped me. The sky lit up as thunder cracked. I stood in snow under a gray shroud at 14,000 feet preparing to die. I had gotten caught in an electrical storm on the summit of California’s Mount Shasta.

“I’m about to die,” I thought. The sky let out another boom. Dislodged rocks tumbled. I couldn’t see them, but their crashing was amplified in the cloud cover. I could feel the electricity surge in the air. My body was preparing for a strike. Crampons and an ice ax weren’t helping me. Caught on this lofty volcano — I realized nothing I could do at the moment would prevent me from being struck. I was sure I was going to die here. 

The rocks buzzed louder. I panicked — I froze — then a warm consoling feeling embraced me. What was happening was exactly what I read had happened to so many people during a near death experience. As I stood waiting for my impending death an amazing thing happened. My life did indeed flash before my eyes. But absent were the misgivings and the thoughts of the things I should of/ought to have/wish I had done. Instead I was content. I realized I had lived my life exactly how I wanted to live it — with adventure, a free spirit,living every day like it was my last. And on what appeared to me to be my last day, my life was affirmed—validated — I had no regrets. This is exactly how I want to go. Not by some horrible disease — or snuffed out by a drunk driver,but in nature doing what I love to do—being in the wild. It’s just that I wanted this to happen at age 102 not simply 32.

I don’t know how I survived the storm or how I got down off of the mountain that August day. All I know is it wasn’t my time to go and that event became a major turning point in my life — affirming my belief in my creator and confirming that I was living life the way I was meant to live it. 

Mountaineers often resort to the famous reply “because it’s there,” when asked why they climb. But for me, and I imagine many others, it’s much, much more than that. It can’t always be for comfort and solace from the human world, as nature can be cruel and unforgiving too. No, I don’t go to the woods to escape — I go there to live. I go there to feel alive — to feel whole. To feel a sense of belonging — and to feel that there are things much bigger and important than me. I am a part of a beautiful world where Man doesn’t make the rules. 

I go to the woods not because they are there — but to do so as Thoreau describes in Walden. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Restless Soul Syndrome

All my life I have struggled with restless soul syndrome. At a young age, I wasn’t as interested in pursuing a career and acquiring material wealth as I was in seeing the world—particularly the natural world; I sought to experience life, and find the true meaning in life. I knew I wouldn’t find my answers in the urban world or by following a path that I was expected to follow. I would have to blaze my own trail and appease my soul by exploring the world—both the human and natural—by challenging my physical and psychological limits. 

At the age of 18 I rode a bicycle 13,000 miles around the perimeter of the United States meeting folks from every walk of life. I traveled to 41 states from my home in rural New Hampshire to the Florida Keys to San Diego to Seattle and back to New Hampshire. I came back a year older, and many years wiser. But my soul was not at ease — it was more restless than ever.

I followed with another trans-continental bike ride. This time riding 7,500 miles to Alaska via Arkansas, cycling though the states I missed the first time. I started back home through Canada ending my trip short in the prairies of Manitoba due to an illness. I took a train to Ottawa and left my bike with friends. A few weeks later I returned for my bike to pedal back home. 

The following year I headed east after exhausting my westward callings and I biked to Newfoundland. When the trip was over I had a pretty good understanding of the United States and Canada, having cycled through 49 states, 10 provinces, one territory and one district. I knew this time after spending so much time on the road and traveling through so many of our grand cities and parks that I preferred the parks. I began to grow weary of the road and soon discovered a whole new world—a network of trails that traversed the backcountry of this great continent.

The Essential Value of Hiking

Then I discovered hiking. My home state of New Hampshire was flush with trails. Short hikes grew longer and backpacking grabbed my attention. I loved the trails of the White Mountains, but soon sought others—especially the ones in all of those national parks and forests that I had biked through.

I backpacked Vermont’s Long Trail and Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior. I traveled down the Appalachians to scores of natural places from Maine’s Katahdin to the Great Smoky Mountains. I loved these places, but there were even more natural places — bigger and wilder ones out west.

I spent a summer hiking in North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park, California’s Lassen National Park, Oregon’s Crater Lake and Washington’s Olympic and North Cascades. By this time it was quite clear the natural world was my calling. In the woods I felt at ease, felt purpose, saw beauty and meaning. And while I was raised with religion and sought truth and purpose in my faith, I never fully felt it in a pew. I felt it in the natural cathedrals of the world. “In God's wildness lies the hope of the world—the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harness of civilization drops off, and wounds heal ere we are aware,” wrote John Muir. I concur.

I continued to explore, and hiked and backpacked in the Andes, Alps, and Apennines. I explored natural places in Japan, Eastern Europe, Patagonia and the Amazon. But in recent years I have spent more time closer to home. And while I still enjoy spending time in grand, exotic, and far off wild places, I am equally content with a walk in a natural environment minutes from my home in the Skagit Valley.

This article originally appeared in our May/June 2014 issue of Mountaineer magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.
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