By Erin Roll, Trail Walker Contributor
“If you can get a cell signal, it ain’t hiking.”
That was a meme that someone had posted on the wall of a hiking-related Facebook group that I belong to.
It was definitely intended to be humorous. I certainly got a grin out of it–and come on, you don’t go hiking if you’re going to be talking on your cell all the time, right?
But the more I thought about that meme, the more I found myself wondering about its other, hidden meaning. I was sensing this attitude–which I have seen among certain other hikers and outdoors people–that you’re not really hiking unless you’re out in the deepest, remotest backcountry, miles from “civilization.”
Where this attitude comes from is subject to debate. Maybe it’s the influence of Thoreau, Emerson and the other Transcendentalists writing about a return to nature and the simple life in the 19th century. Perhaps it’s because of the (idealized) image of the free, independent individual that keeps showing up in the American mythos. Or maybe it’s a not-so-hidden desire to say, “Hey, look at me, I’m out here roughing it–top that, slackers!”
There is obviously nothing wrong with a long trek in the deeper woods; as with so many other hikers, my bucket list includes at least one overnight on the Appalachian Trail. But I think the assumption that a hike has to be both long and remote in order to be considered a hike is an erroneous one.
Here in New Jersey and New York, we are very fortunate to have–both because of geography and conservation efforts–a wide range of excellent parks and trails, including many within a few miles of (or actually in) New York City.
I remember leading my family on a hike one morning on the Long Path in the Palisades. It was summer, and the woods were at their greenest and leafiest. At one point my mother said something to the effect that it was hard to believe we were right across the river from the city.
So, then, what really makes a hike?
That’s a question, I think, that each of us can only answer for ourselves. We all have different reasons for going hiking: exercise, scenery and vistas, checking out the local flora and fauna, adventure, mental or spiritual health, or getting that perfect selfie to post on Instagram.
I think we can agree, though, that a hike depends as much on someone’s mindset as much it does on geography–perhaps even more so. A hike is more than just walking from one point to another; it should also be about using your senses–listening to bird songs or waterfalls, smelling pine trees and flowers–and actually being aware that you’re putting one foot in front of the other. To put a slightly Zen spin on it, it’s about being in the moment, whether you’re hiking two miles from the city or 200.
If you’re a hiker who’s satisfied by nothing short of a week atop a Colorado 14er, that’s fine. If you prefer a short walk in the woods near your house or in your nearest state or county park, that’s fine, too. What matters is that it is fulfilling to you.
But back to that meme about the cell signal. It still has a point: unless there’s an emergency, or your phone doubles as your GPS unit, keep the phone stashed away and enjoy the hike.
A Trail Conference member since 2009, Erin Roll is a reporter and editor with North Jersey Media Group, as well as a part-time graduate student at Montclair State University. She also maintains a hiking/outdoors blog on WordPress called Trail Heads and Wandering Minds.