Trail Talk | Revelations After More than 30,000 Miles on the Trail

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, Mountaineers Books author Craig Romano considers a lifetime in the wilderness.
Craig Romano Craig Romano
Mountaineers Guidebook Author
October 20, 2020

As an outdoors writer and guidebook author, former backcountry ranger in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest, former mountain guide in the Spanish and French Pyrenees, and dedicated adventurer, I’ve spent a fair amount of time on the trail. It totals more than 30,000 miles hiking and backpacking, and who knows how many miles running. I’ve hiked on trails from Nova Scotia to Florida, Alaska to Argentina, and in Europe and Asia. I’ve seen a lot of spectacular natural places. And I’ve learned quite a bit along the way — some trivial, some life changing — about nature, humanity, and myself. In a stream of consciousness (just as my mind works while I’m hiking), here are a few of the things I’ve learned while putting thousands of miles on the trail:

The trail less taken often offers the greatest rewards. I cherish solitude, but often welcome company when deep in the backcountry. I don’t mind sharing the trail with hundreds who walk softly and respect the land, but abhor sharing it with just one clod.

I hike not to be seen nor to be popular. I hike to get away from the ills of society and the noise and distractions of the human world.

But sadly I am encountering more and more unenlightened behavior in the backcountry — and in places I least expect it.

I want to commune with nature, not consume it. I want to be part of nature, not control it. I want to return from the woods refreshed, from a place where life works exactly the way it was meant to.

I’ve hiked in the Yukon, Patagonia, the Andes and Pyrenees, yet some of the most stunning scenery is right in my backyard in Northwestern Washington. However, there is beauty everywhere in the natural world. I’ve seen it in Mississippi swamps and along the Appalachian Trail in New Jersey. Mount Rainier is stunning, but it shouldn’t be used as a barometer to measure the beauty of other places. There is no comparison between a snow-capped volcano, a rolling prairie, and a pine barren. I don’t compare country music to classical or alternative rock. I enjoy listening to them all.

When I want to see biomass, I hike in the Olympics. When I want to see biodiversity, I hike in the Appalachians. I love the sheer rugged and raw in-your-face wildness of the North Cascades. And I love the rolling rounded ridges of New England. One instills a sense of awe in me, the other has me wax poetic. They both instill a sense of excitement and discovery in me every time I step foot into them.

I love the vastness of the desert and Great Plains, too. And there is so much more out there I need to explore; but I’ve accepted a long time ago that time is limited (and precious), and you just can’t do it all.

In cities I see chaos; in nature I see order. One I try to avoid as much as possible. The other I jump at every opportunity to roam free.

The most ecologically diverse places aren’t usually the most visually stunning. Mountain tops are full of rocks and ice. Swamps teem with life. Ecosystems are fragile, yet nature can be resilient. Thoughtless hikers can trample an alpine meadow. Mount St. Helens can alter an entire landscape, then recolonize it so that it once again flourishes with life.

Nature heals, but can also be cruel. I have felt spiritual redemption in the Olympic Mountains.  And I have faced my mortality in a wildfire in the Cascades and during an electrical storm atop Mount Shasta.

I’ve encountered grizzlies and aggressive off-leash dogs on the trail — the latter concern me more and have given me reason to fear for my safety. I have encountered hundreds of black bears in the backcountry that have given me little concern. Bears for the most part are predictable and flee within moments of our encounter. I have happened upon a handful of questionable people in the backcountry that have given me concern. Man is the least predictable creature on the planet.

I can always pack lighter, but choose comfort and preparedness over streamlining.

Not all backcountry water sources need to be filtered, but all it takes is just one miscalculation to contract giardia.

Supporters of parks and wild places come from all political backgrounds and walks of life — opponents too. I have encountered motorcyclists who cherish the land, and hikers who couldn’t care less. Not all opponents of parks and wilderness are motorized recreationists and extractive industry folks; they have allies in the hiking and mountain biking community as well.

Entitlement and rule breaking seem to be on the uptick. Funding for our parks and trails continuously dwindles, while recreational demands escalates. Balancing preservation and access in our public lands is no easy act.

The most polarizing topics in the hiking community are not politics and religion, but dogs and guns. It’s a paradox leaving a light carbon footprint on our hikes when we drive, boat, and fly to our parks and trails.

While I can easily cover 20 miles on the trail in a day, unfortunately and sadly, many folks can’t cover even one due to a sedentary lifestyle. Even more dismaying is the growing number of young people who are inactive and will never feel the exhilaration and sense of accomplishment of being able to push their body deep into the wilderness or high upon a mountain top.

I have on average a half dozen pairs of different hiking and running shoes that I use throughout the year. When I hiked in the Andes I met folks who didn’t own any shoes. When I retire a pair of hiking shoes I donate it to charity. I need to do more.

I actively belong to and support (both financially and through in-kind donations) nearly a dozen land trusts, conservation organizations, and hiking and trail advocacy groups. I feel though I should support more — and my fellow hikers need to step up their conservation game as well.

Ticks repulse and fascinate me at the same time. There are lots of little yellow birds and pretty flowers that I need to become more familiar with. My soul birds are the oystercatcher (Pacific and Atlantic, depending on which coast I am hiking) and the common loon. The latter is to me the symbol of the north woods. It’s a place I feel most at home.

Trail users before me — First Peoples, explorers, and homesteaders — continue to fascinate and intrigue me. Their stories can be messy, but need to be told. We have much to learn from them — the good, the bad, and the indifferent. Thoreau wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Muir wrote, “The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness; In God's wildness is the hope of the world.” They are philosophies I subscribe to.

The backcountry is the place I want to be when I am depressed, anxious, and coping with a loss. During the current Pandemic, it’s my lifeline to sanity, salvation, and overcoming one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced.


Craig Romano is an award winning author who has written more than 25 books. His latest release, Day Hiking North Cascades 2nd edition (Mountaineers Books) highlights 136 hikes in Skagit, Whatcom and Okanogan counties, as well as along the Mountain Loop Highway. Some of his other titles includes; Urban Trails Seattle, 100 Classic Hikes Washington, and Day Hiking Olympic Peninsula 2nd edition.

This article originally appeared in our Fall 2020 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our magazine archive.

lead image: Cathedral Lakes in the Pasayten Wilderness. Photo by Ted Evans.

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