erik lundegaard

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Why I Hike

When I was in fourth grade I signed up for a hiking class at Lynnhurst Area Recreational Center in Minneapolis. I think I was told by my parents to sign up for an activity and that’s what I chose. Family legend has it that when I returned from the first hike and my mother asked me how it had gone, I shrugged. “All we did was go for a walk,” I said dismissively. Apparently I thought we were going to learn how to hike a football. Seriously.

As a boy I did not much see the point of non-football hiking, particularly in Minneapolis. The hike we went on that day was along Minnehaha creek, which was flat, with paved roads running alongside it. Friends and I had actually done hikes before, generally in the wooded areas of Minnehaha creek, playing games all the while. We didn’t think of them as “hikes”; we thought of them as “fun.”

Seattle and Minneapolis are similar in many ways — both were built by great heaps of passive-aggressive Scandinavians — but Minneapolis has nothing visible that draws you outside the city whereas Seattle has all these mountains. This fact dawned on me slowly after I moved there in 1991. I’d be biking east on 45th Street and suddenly, to the southeast, Mt. Rainier loomed, big and beautiful. “Whoa,” I’d think. It did more than take my breath away; it took my vocabulary away. I was reduced to a Keanu Reeves character.

On clear winter days, the Cascades and Olympics began to have the same effect, and more and more I’d think, with a yearning that was almost visceral, “I want to be there. I want to be in that beauty.”

But how to get there? How does one do this hiking thing? My friend Jim was the first to show me the ropes, telling me what to wear, what to bring. I asked city-kid questions. “How do you know this is the trail? Why isn’t that the trail?” Jim was an enthusiastic birder and amateur botanist who liked the classic day hike: 6-8 miles roundtrip, 2000-4000 feet elevation gain. Jim did not much approve of hikes that ended in a lake. He did not much approve of saying hello to strangers on the trail. His role model was the Robert De Niro character in “The Deer Hunter,” who wouldn’t loan his boots to an ill-prepared John Cazale.

I was the perfect hiking partner for Jim because I brought my own boots. Plus I knew baseball and movies — which we talked about on the way up — and I kept pace. Our first hike was Spray Park on a drizzly July day and I immediately fell in love with the smell of the woods. Our next hike was Railroad Grade, and when we made it above the treeline I observed, “This is like Heidi.” Jim nodded. “Well, the Cascades are often called the American Alps,” he said. It wasn’t until we scaled to Railroad Grade, though, up the stone steps along the grade, with the sound of the runoff from Mt. Baker suddenly roaring in our ears, that my life changed. Baker was still shrouded in clouds but the Cascades were crystal clear and stretched forever. I was stunned. “This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” I said.

From then on I was off and hiking. I began going out with Patricia, whose brother lived on the peninsula, and we added the Olympic mountains to our repertoire. One warm November we got to hike Mt. Townsend two days after Thanksgiving, on a sky blue day, the temperature approaching 60 degrees. At the top, fatigued and drying off in the sun, Alex and I waited for Patricia and Jayne, with all the mountains out, the Sound and the Strait below us, and no one around. Once a year I’d like to feel as good as I felt that day.

I’m an uphill guy. I like the challenge of it. I like passing people. I like passing people and then taking out my inhaler and grabbing an asthmatic puff for good measure. I’m not as good on the way down. That’s when people pass me back again. At the same time I’m not exactly Edmund Hilary. Once on the final legs of Mt. Dickerson Jim kept extolling the virtues of the Yankees’ Derek Jeter — my most despised player on my most despised team — and I was too tired to answer back. Galling. Another time Alex and his friend, Lynn, kept going faster and, inexplicably, I couldn’t keep up. I was 40 at the time. Then again, Alex was 52, and Lynn, I found out later, was 63. Initially galling, eventually inspiring. They are what I want to be when I grow up.

Last February I had to move back to Minneapolis for a job, and in June I was comparing notes, via e-mail, with a Minneapolitan who was now living in Seattle. From my downtown office overlooking the Metrodome, I began to type “I miss mountains” when my chest suddenly felt hollow and tears welled up in my eyes. Apparently I did — more than I knew.

I still go back to visit. This summer I did half a dozen hikes in the mountains, which isn’t bad considering what happened on the first of them. On the 10-mile Duckabush trail, going too fast on the downhill, I landed wrong and badly sprained my right ankle. The first two miles back to the trailhead weren’t awful but by the final mile I was limping like Walter Brennan, and my ankle swelled up fat and purple. It was as if the mountains were telling me something. You don’t live here and you think you can still hike here? But months later the mountains also gave me my once-a-year feeling. On a Sunday afternoon at the top of Mt. Si, I sat on a boulder, tired and content, taking in all that beauty.

Not like hiking a football, mind you, but it’ll do in a pinch.

—originally published in Washington Trails magazine.