A Walk in the Park


We bagged Humphreys Peak today.

Driving south to Flagstaff from the Grand Canyon, we passed the San Francisco Peaks. Humphreys, the highest peak of them all, rose above, but it seemed squat somehow. Like its girth was more overpowering than its height—not an observation usually made when referring to a state’s tallest peak.

Scott, from the backseat, called Humphreys “cute.” I was doubtful; I was still reeling from the slap in my face Wheeler Peak delivered for my insolent arrogance the week before. But Scott went further. He spat in the face of Humphreys, peaking at 12,637 feet, and called it a “walk in the park.”

*    *   *

We spent the night at Flagstaff. Flagstaff, you could say, is an oasis—even though it’s smack dab in the middle of the Arizona desert, its elevation and the surrounding San Francisco Peaks award the town with four seasons a year.

All over town, we saw stores selling outdoor gear. A couple bars boasted a ski/snowboard theme. We wandered over to the Plaza, and everywhere we looked, we saw bikes, bikes, and bikes. People stood on their bikes on the sidewalk, cars waited patiently for bikes on the street, and by every store was a multitude of bikes, locked to bike racks.

If you could say one thing and one thing only about the people at Flagstaff, it is that they’re skinny. Not thin in an awesomely attractive, supermodel-hot way—they’re just fit. Really fit.

*    *   *

The next morning, when we pulled up to the parking lot by the Humphrey Peak trailhead, it was full of cars. Granted, it was Saturday morning, but at most of the other parking lots by trailheads, there weren’t nearly as many cars.

The trail, while not exactly a ‘walk in the park,’ was easy enough. When the trail becomes easy to hike, a neat thing happens: the mind wanders. The continuous rolling motion of the trail passing beneath my feet hypnotizes me, sending my mind into a trance where my thoughts fly far and away. It’s the same kind of trance, I suppose, that long distance runners enter in the middle of a ten-mile run. They’re able to detach their minds from the physical function of putting one foot in front of the other again and again. Or if you’re like my mom, you can enter the same trance while putting together mammoth 2,500 piece jigsaw puzzles.

My mind wanders all the time on long road trips, when I’ve got the car on cruise control, and we’re just coasting along. So I call the trance ‘cruise control mode,’ when all you’ve got to do is nudge the steering wheel this way or that once in a while, and daydream all day long.

When my mind’s on cruise control mode, I think of a lot of different things. The grandeur of sunset at the Grand Canyon. Why the hell I still haven’t finished The Stand after more than two weeks. What I want to do after this road trip ends and I return to reality. Whether or not climbing Humphreys Peak is worth it (still up for debate).

Lately, a certain thought keeps worming its way into my cruise control mode. This thought first appeared some time ago at Mt. LeConte, and has reappeared to entertain my mind each hike since. The thought reasserted itself with a vengeance on Humphreys Peak, mainly because of the type of people (and dogs) we shared the trail with: elderly couples, college boys and girls, middle-aged couples with their hyperactive ten-year olds, and an array of canines, from pit bulls to dachshunds  (yes, a wiener dog!). Humphrey, indeed, was a family-friendly destination, one for people of all ages. This fact only encouraged my recurrent thought.

The thought was that these trails we’ve been hiking on, from Old Rag to the Grand Canyon to Humphreys Peak are Nature’s version of the StairMaster… only better.

Yes, on these trails you can’t manipulate the ‘steepness’ of the climb with the press of a button. You cannot avoid the rocks and tree roots that so often obstruct the path. There’s rarely a shower immediately afterward. There’s no cupholder for your water bottle. And perhaps worst of all, there’s no flat-screen TV showing CNN, ESPN, or some sappy soap opera.

But… these trails have an allure that’s uniquely their own. You’ll be able to take in the aroma of pine trees of blooming flowers, and witness indigenous species like the mule deer at the very bottom of the Grand Canyon or brown bears at Smoky Mountains. Along the way you’ll meet others on the same path, and there’s a sense of quiet camaraderie as you go forth to the destination. Hike long enough, and you’ll fall into a trance of your own, catch cruise control mode, and perhaps you’ll find that the inner depths of your own imagination are more entertaining than SportsCenter or Days of our Lives.

Last and best of all are the destinations. When you get there, whether it’s the majestic Colorado River, the windy top of Wheeler Peak, or even a tiny serene pond, Nature’ll lend you an awe-inspiring view. There, you can exalt in your accomplishment. You did this yourself. Your legs got you here. Before you trek back to your car and rejoin the mass of humanity, you can take pride in your accomplishment.

On the way down the Humphreys Peak trail today, we passed by a rather perplexing sight. An elderly lady was perched on a rock abreast of the trail, an e-reader balanced on her lap. We’ve no idea what this lady was doing—maybe she came out just to read in the solemn peace of the forest, or she got a little weary, decided to take a break and take in a little literature. Either way, she was reading from her e-reader in the middle of the forest, instead of on a StairMaster at a LA Fitness gym.

*    *   *

Flagstaff, as stated before, is an outdoorsy town. Its residents are fit. Obviously there’s a correlation. It works.

All over America there are countless gyms, fitness centers, community centers, YMCAs. Yet we read every day how obesity is the fastest-growing cause of disease and death here in the United States. The gyms and their StairMasters can only do so much.

If a little wiener dog could actually get all the way up to the very peak, perhaps Humphreys was a walk in the park after all. But hey, everybody in America should be taking more walks in parks… at Humphreys, any National Park, or even your local park.

So return the cobweb-covered StairMaster in your basement to the store. Revoke your fitness center memberships. Use the money instead for some hiking boots, or even trekking poles if you’re ambitious enough.

A million-plus miles of trail all across the grand ol’ United States of America awaits you.

Bagging Humphreys Peak (a.k.a a “Walk in the Park”)

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