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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Hiking: Good for the Heart, and the Soul

Great Falls Park, Virginia

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey

Almost three years ago I woke up one humid June morning and decided to start exercising.  Since then what was a 1-mile walk has become a 4.5 mile run four to five days per week.  As odd as it sounds, it's been fun, once the muscles get warm and loose.  Along with the burst of endorphins, there is that special feeling of accomplishment.

I do most of this outdoors, even running on cold days, mainly because of my detestation for treadmills.  I love being outdoors.  The sun, the sky, the fresh air all combine to lift exercise into exhaltation.

My cardiologist has been ecstatic with the results.  He says my heart is far healthier than the average for my age, which is really good news for someone with five stents contained therein.  But over the winter, I read about the long-term results of that steady pounding on the joints.  I'll turn 59 this year and I'd like to keep my legs underneath me for as long as possible.  My GP Doc suggested that I take up hiking.  I rolled that around in my mind for a week or so, then went to the Internet in search of possible places to take this new activity.

First off, I needed a different pair of shoes.  My Nike Air Monarchs, so perfect for everything else, woudn't last long on the rocks.  So after a suitable amount of research, I decided on a pair of Hi Tec Altitude IV boots.  These were simply the highest rated of all the (reasonably priced) boots I reviewed.  The user comments were almost universally approving, and they were the right price.  I found a pair in my odd size (12 double-wide) for less than $60, a bargain.  Surprisingly, they haven't required a breaking-in time.  They were comfortable from the start (with the addition of a Dr. Scholl's pad).  In the hikes we have taken thus far, they have been excellent.  They are high enough to provide support to my somewhat-iffy ankles, and lugged enough to be able to dig in and climb with confidence.  And waterproof, to boot (pun unintended).

I had assumed that, living in the DC area, that while there were a lot of walking trails, actual hiking paths might be hard to find.  Not so.  The difference between hiking and mere walking generally defers to the kind of terrain one transverses.  There are a plethora of walking trails, such as the 44-mile-long W&OD trail that slices through Northern Virginia from Alexandria to Purcellville.  Rock Creek Park in DC has many miles of such paths, although there is a certain amount of risk involved with regards to assaults that occur there.  In addition, almost every new residential development includes in their master plan a few miles of asphalt-covered paths which wind around and through those neighborhoods. 

Hiking involves far more challenging terrain.  Steep hills, rock-strewn paths, and even the requirement to clamber and crawl through some parts.  In searching the 'Net, I located around 15 different locations within a 30-minute drive where I could find those challenging paths.

The closest one turned out to be the Manassas Battlefield National Park, less than 10 minutes from home.  There are two trails, a 5.5-miler and a 6.5-miler.  While parts of both trails are fairly level, there are plenty others that require the hiker to trek up some rather steep inclines.  The Park is a beautiful place, alive with wildflowers and wild life, and is a soul-satisfying experience.

Manassas Battlefield 

Manassas Battlefield, late afternoon

This week, my wife and I drove up to Great Falls Park, which is on the Potomac River north of DC.  At that point, the Potomac, a pretty gentle stream everywhere else, is forced into a narrow gorge.  The energy of the river becomes magnified resulting in a awe-inspiring display of raw power and white water.  Within the park are the remains of a canal system that took longboats around the falls during the years that water-borne commerce was common.  Also within the park are a number of trails, about 15 miles worth, that range from a gentle, wide, crushed gravel byway that was primarily for buggy traffic way back when, to the extraordinarily difficult Billy Goat Trail, that actually requires the participant to jump from rock to rock.  We chose the River Trail, which was challenging enough.  It took us around and through fields of boulders and along sections that consisted of nothing more than jagged rocks sticking out of the ground, so dense that there wasn't room to put a foot down between them.  The most difficult section combined that kind of path with a sheer 70-foot drop to the roiling waters below just feet to one's left.  It was hard work for a couple of old codgers, and obviously we didn't make great time doing it.  But we were entranced by the coarse, raw beauty of this magnificent place.  Another great thing is that there is another set of trails on the Maryland side of the river to be explored as well.  And the Great Falls Trails on the Virginia side connect to a larger trail system the stretches from Mount Vernon in the south to Maryland in the north.

Great Falls.  Not the smoothest walk. 

One of the old locks from the canal bypassing the falls. 

                                             Yes, it's spring and the Bluebells are in bloom.

There are other possibilities I'm looking to explore, like the Bull Run Mountain Conservancy's trails running from the ruins of an old stone mill just off Route 55 into the steep hills beyond.  The Mount Vernon Trail, Scott's Run, Wildcat Mountain, Meadowood all await my eager explorations.  For a longer drive, there is the section of the Appalachian Trail that treks through the area around Harper's Ferry, and of course the lifetime's worth of hiking to be found in Shenandoah National Park.

There's something both exciting and soothing in traversing the wilderness, being out in nature away from the noise of civilization.  That I'm also getting exercise is a valuable side benny.

I'll report back from time to time as I explore these other trail systems, and posting pictures as well.  I would encourage any of you to try this activity as well.  You don't have to look for billy goat trails, most of what you'll find can be traveled with comfortable shoes.  It will expend your energy, and heal your soul as well.

And it's so much better than a treadmill.

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