Why I hike: Three reasons that are off the beaten path

Whether it’s a dramatic scene like this or something more ordinary close to home, the real reasons I hike run deep. As seen on Mount Sneffels, Colo. (Noel Finta photo)

There have likely been tens of thousands of articles, blog posts and other testimonials describing why people hike. I wrote one a few years back. All of them have similar reasons, from gaining peace and quiet, to exercise, to getting close to nature, and so on.

Less frequently reasons include achievement (some hikes are hard, and even risky) and promotion – you know, doin’ it for the ‘Gram.

Being transparent, I’ve gone on hikes to take photos. Any 14er or 13er hike I do comes with the goal of achieving a summit, so sure, accomplishing something difficult is sometimes implied. You could say these, and any number of reasons mentioned above apply to me as well.

But I got to thinking about it recently and I realized that some of the best outcomes for any hike – even those aimed at photography, summits or training for something bigger – come with benefits far more valuable. Often those are what keep me coming back.

One big reason I go: to think. It’s been said that time, slowed down to the pace of nature, gives people a chance to step away from our distractions and let our minds wander. I do some of my best thinking on a hike, particularly when I’m alone. It doesn’t matter if that day calls for double-digit miles or is something far shorter. Unloading my mental bucket on the trail allows me to ponder what needs to be pondered. Rumination does the body good, I believe.

Another reason: to intentionally notice the details. My life, just like many of yours, is a rushed and regimented thing pinned down by routines and schedules forged by family, employment and a sizable miscellany that requires my attention. When I’m on a hike and I’m not crashing down the trail for training purposes, I try my best to look around and see the terrain. Maybe it’s an emerald shade from the birth of spring. Or a splash of floral color bursting from a sea of green. Going over a creek crossing a couple weeks ago, I peered into the shallows and saw movement: tadpoles, darting between rocks, feeding, swimming and hopefully growing into the full-grown frogs they’re designed to become. Looking around has helped me spot lizards in the brush, armadillos rooting around in fallen leaves and a massive owl swooping through the trees toward some target unseen by me.

And it’s not just the sights, but the smells. And the sounds. The woods have a sweetness to them in the spring, and a different but no less pleasant aroma deep into the fall. On the auditory side, the chirps of marmots echoing across a huge, stony Rocky Mountain amphitheater on a crisp fall day remains one of the most indelible memories of what was already a remarkable day in the alpine for me. Had I been enveloped in some digital playlist or the din of conversation, I might have missed that haunting  cry.

One last reason I’ll mention: to heal. And I mean that in a comprehensive way. During the week, I exercise hard. A casual hike helps work out the soreness and hasten recovery. But also, healing comes from the non-physical wounds of life. We’ve all suffered loss – the death of a loved one, the ending of a friendship, a past trauma – that leaves us emotionally battered. A single hike is no cure-all, but as a habit, it can be medicinal. I speak from my own experience, and I know many, many others can do the same.

Looking over this list I notice one more thing. These three reasons, absent of the more popular motivations, are sufficient. If all I gained or experienced were an opportunity to think, to notice the details, and to heal, that would be enough to keep me going back. I’ve learned I don’t need a summit or some super-rad mileage count, or even an epic view. I don’t need a pic to blow up with likes on Instagram, and I don’t need some electronic doodad to congratulate me on the number of steps I took, calories I burned or vert I gained. There’s nothing wrong with any of that. But without the deeper experiences of a hike, it would feel more like long walk absent a soul.

Bob Doucette

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All hail the emergence of spring

Green emerging everywhere.

Spring feels a little different for me. Living in the Southern Plains, it’s a reminder that it won’t be long before the death heat of summer arrives. We get big storms down here. High winds. For allergy sufferers, spring looks pretty but feels awful. And it means I have to start cutting the grass again.

Notice that all of these things have nothing to do with what I see when I get out of my neighborhood and hit the trail. When I do that, my whole mindset changes. The forest tells me that spring might be all those things I mentioned above. But it also means new life.

I hike often in the fall and winter. Even this far south, winter has a quieting effect on the woods. Aside from the breezes in the trees, you don’t hear much of anything.

In the spring, that all changes. Scurrying underfoot. Bird songs in the air. Even the wind in the forest canopy sounds different as it blows by leaves and not barren limbs.

Singletrack ahead, new life all around. Welcome to the green tunnel.

Ample rain has fallen this year, so normally dry seasonal creekbeds are flowing. On a recent hike, I looked down into one of these deeper channels, and in its depths I could see it: dozens of tadpoles, creatures soon to join their elder kin in adding to the song of the woods.

Biology textbooks could probably explain where all these creatures go in the colder months, but my wonder at the process of seasonal life wouldn’t abate. Not one bit.

So green.

So yeah, summer will be here before we know it. Triple-digit temps are probably on the way. I’m sure there will be tornado warnings, pollen warnings and days when the winds are blowing out of the south faster than I can ride my bike. But some time in the woods can alter perspectives.

Spring is a wondrous time. If nothing else, it reminds us of the miracle that our planet is. We move to and fro with our busy lives, our incessant blathering, our overall nonsense that amounts to little. But the Earth’s beat goes on — renewing, enduring, waning, and then coming back to life once again, just like it has for eons, long before we were here to take note of it. Call it respect, or awe, or whatever, but the time I spent in the woods was a pleasant reset, pollen count be damned.

Spring is a miracle.

Bob Doucette

Ales for Trails: Have a brew, eat some ‘cue, listen to tunes and support our trails

Here’s one for the local gang, and especially for those who care about taking care of our trails. We’ve got a shindig coming up in a week, and this will be something you’ll want to attend.

I’m talking about Ales for Trails, a fundraiser for the Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition. We’re doing this from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, April 18 at Dead Armadillo Brewery, 1004 E. Fourth Street in Tulsa.

Here’s what’s on tap:

Mmmmm. Tasty.

First up, your ticket gets you a couple of fine brews from the brewery. I’ve sampled more than a few of their offerings, and I can tell you that they do good work here, whatever your favored flavor of beer might be. Dead Armadillo is a great example of Tulsa’s growing craft beer scene.

You’re also going to be fed. Eagleton BBQ has fed TUWC volunteers at some of our trail work days, and once again, you’re talking about the good stuff here. Great food and drink? Count me in.

Live music and a silent auction will also be on hand, and the list of auction items is solid. A lot of friends from the area wanted to pitch in for this one, so there is a good chance you can walk away from some great swag while supporting a good cause.

So why are we doing this? As it turns out, a lot of the work we do comes with a cost. The TUWC carries insurance for our trail work days and cleanup days, and it’s not free. Other costs incurred to keep this organization going are also an ongoing need. Out membership dues are super cheap (just $5 for an individual membership), so it’s not like we’re floating in a sea of money.

The TUWC serves an important function in northeast Oklahoma. We’re the main go-between for the public and the government entities that maintain trail systems where people hike, bike, run and ride. We’re the group that organizes volunteers to repair damaged trail sections and clean up litter that creeps up in places like Turkey Mountain. We help with conservation education efforts. And through the TUWC website and social media sites, we keep trail enthusiasts up to date on issues that are important to them. We got our start by fighting a proposed outlet mall on Turkey Mountain’s west side, and even though that threat has passed, we’re still active in advocating for trail users across the area.

A view from the outside of Dead Armadillo Brewery. (Dead Armadillo Brewery photo)

That said, Ales for Trails is going to be a good time, and a chance to meet up with old friends and meet new ones. It’s a chance for the trail user community to come together for a fun night. Tickets ($40 each ) are still available, and if you haven’t bought yours yet, there’s still time. Click this link to get yours, and I hope to see you there!

Bob Doucette

The good, the bad and the ugly of social media and the outdoors

Mount Eolus, as seen from the summit of North Eolus. That’d look good on the ‘Gram.

I’m going to sound part geezer, part hipster when I say that I was in to the outdoors before I got on social media. The love was there long before “like and share” became a thing.

But to be frank, I’ve embraced social media. I’m a storyteller, and social media offers great ways to share those stories, or in the case of Instagram, a medium in itself for its own form of spelling out outdoorsy narratives. I’m not on everything, but you can see my stuff on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and much of the time it’s going to have an outdoors theme.

Well, that’s me and tens of millions of others. There are legions upon legions of hikers, climbers, runners, cyclists and everyone else that does stuff outdoors showing their lives on these platforms and blogs like this one. Taken together, it is an ocean of landscapes, action shots, yoga poses, selfies, stories, panoramas and more. Standing out is tough, so people learn what they can to stand out, or claim a niche as their own.

Given the flood of outdoorsy information being pumped out every day, you gotta wonder: is this really good for the outdoors? The short answer: yes and no.

THE GOOD

Doin’ work at Turkey Mountain in Tulsa. Hard to say if without social media we would have gotten so many people to volunteer at trail work days like this one.

I’ve long believed that learning more about the outdoors will naturally make people care about wild spaces. I’m a conservationist at heart, so this is important to me. To that end, I believe social media has been a relative success.

Think about this: How many of you would have known about the Land and Water Conservation Fund had you not heard about it on social media? The public pressure to permanently reauthorize the bill that funds LWCF made it go from an unseen issue to a front-and-center bipartisan no-brainer that easily passed Congress and even got the stamp of approval from President Trump. Face time in the halls of Congress, letters and calls were huge for sure, but the speed in which the issue became well-known was due much in part to social media campaigns. Getting a conservation win in this political climate in Washington is no small deal.

Here’s something else: Think about all the information we have at our fingertips that might otherwise be difficult to find. Want to know what avalanche conditions are like? It’s probably been shared on Facebook and Twitter, maybe thousands of times. Looking for conditions of a potential hike and climb? There’s probably a Facebook group where beta queries will be answered. I could go on, but you get the point.

Social media has allowed for instant, widespread sharing of information that goes anywhere from useful to life-saving. It can ramp up pressure for causes we feel are important. Even if it’s something as simple as learning something new about a place you didn’t know about, it can be a positive.

THE BAD

I’m sure this looked great on someone’s IG account.

The flip side of the coin is that social media — particularly in the case of Instagram — can make it too easy to love things to death.

People want to see and experience cool things other people do. Shared enough online, their numbers are legion. That’s why you see lines of people waiting to photograph Horseshoe Bend, people manipulating scenery at Hanging Lake and some fool flying a helicopter right on top of the California super bloom. Too many people doin’ it for the ‘Gram are running roughshod over places too delicate to handle the traffic and other pressures people can bring.

It’s bad enough that public land managers are looking at increasing the use of permit-only access to some places. Human traffic — and the trash and abuse that comes with it — threatens to ruin some of the most beautiful places in the world. Leave No Trace ethicists are pushing an add-on to their code, asking people not to geotag places they go so as to slow the onslaught of folks looking for the perfect shot and the bucketloads of likes they hope to earn.

In that respect, all the photos, text posts, videos and whatnot have come at a cost. It’s definitely a bad trend.

THE UGLY

The nature of social media is the ability to instantly share, sometimes to huge audiences. Alongside this is the ability to instantly comment on what’s shared. That can be great, but sometimes it’s terrible.

You’ve seen this at work in politics. It gets nasty. And yeah, that transfers to the outdoors.

If a hiker or climber gets hurt and needs rescue, it doesn’t take long for speculation comments to roll in, sometimes with a derogatory edge. If that person dies, some people back off. Others double down. People will say anything online, and often without the tact and basic morality they would use face-to-face.

This works its way into activism, too. Someone says something, or shares information about a certain cause. They get kudos. But others have a stricter ideological purity test that must be passed, and if their standards aren’t met, out come the claws. The next thing you know an honest effort to do good turns into a puritanical food fight in which the original message gets lost. I’d caution these people not to get so woke that they eat their own, but I’d get angrily shouted down. Such is the nature of social media, which magnifies divisions, emotions and hyperbole like a magnifying glass to sunlight, and often we’re the bug frying on the ground as a result.

SO NOW WHAT?

I’ll cut to the chase and say that I’ll stick with my social media use. So will tens of millions of others. With this in mind, what’s the best we can do? Maybe we don’t share images or locations of every place we go. We turn the heat down on areas of debate. We vet articles for veracity, and share more of the good stuff. Social media has always been curated, which means we have a lot of control over the tenor and intent of what we share.

This sounds a lot like all areas of life shared online. The key difference: The way we operate online will have real-life consequences (and hopefully benefits) to the places we care about, the wildlife that lives there, and the future of the outdoors. For my part, I’ll try to do better.

Bob Doucette

There is no such thing as an ‘easy’ 14er

About 13,000 feet on Quandary Peak’s east ridge. While this is considered one of the easier Colorado 14ers, it still presents plenty of challenges that are not easy.

Something I see posted in outdoor forums and social media sites is a question about the Colorado 14ers, or more specifically, about which peaks are the “easy” 14ers.

A lot of times, the people asking this question are just like I was many years ago when I wanted to follow in my big brother’s footsteps by seeking summits on Colorado’s highest peaks. There was no sense trying to bag the tough ones too early, at least not for someone with no experience in the high country. That was my thinking, anyway.

I’ve got a few under my belt now. Not a ton, but past the noob stage. Here’s the conclusion that I’ve come to: For most people, there is no such thing as an easy 14er.

I’ll explain why in a minute. First, a disclaimer. As of this writing, I have 32 summits of 13,000 feet or more under my belt. Twenty-two of them are 14ers, and throw in a couple of repeats, that’s 24 successful ascents of peaks of 14,000 feet or more. I’ve done some more advanced routes, but plenty of harder ones still await. The hardest peak I’ve done was Mount Eolus, ranked by 14ers.com as the 12th hardest of the 58 Colorado 14ers. So my range of experience is somewhat limited.

That said, I’ve seen a range of difficulty that backs up my claim. My reasoning…

Mount Bierstadt (right) and the Sawtooth Ridge.

Even if you’re in shape, elevation is the great equalizer. You say you’re a runner? A cyclist? A crossfitter? Well, I’ve got news for you. A well-marked and maintained trail on the gentler slopes of “beginner” peaks will still take you past 12,000 feet above sea level, and that’s when it gets tough. I’ve found myself counting steps and taking a breather on walk-up peaks, confirming that even on the shorter, less-steep and easier routes, it’s still damn hard work, even for the fit. Blame that thin air.

Huron Peak.

Elevation has other fun surprises, too. You’re going to burn a lot of energy going up that hill, but don’t be surprised if your appetite is nil. You’ll need to force down calories, but your digestive system may want none of it. Thin air will make you breathe harder, and with each exhale, you’ll lose small bits of moisture. You’ll sweat. When added to the dryness of the climate, dehydration settles in fast. The effects of these maladies, plus the general susceptibility some people have to high elevations, can bring on altitude sickness. Elevation doesn’t know you’re on a beginner hike. It’ll throw these obstacles at you regardless.

Me, with the Hilltop Mine and Mount Sherman’s summit in the background. (Jordan Doucette photo)

Beginner peaks have been known to kill. Weather and terrain can be brutally fickle on the 14ers, regardless of season. A gentle summer slope can be a killer in winter or spring if the snowpack is unsettled and avalanche-prone. Lightning strikes are deadly. And being exposed to the elements when the cold comes through and catches you unaware is an easy way to get hypothermia. Seemingly healthy people have keeled over from heart attacks on straightforward walk-up mountains like Quandary Peak.

Slogging up Mount Yale, about 12,500 feet.

Remoteness of most of the 14ers provides added challenges. Even the most accessible mountains are, in some ways, remote depending on where you are on the peak. If something goes wrong (injury, illness, getting lost) near the summit, it could be hours or even days before rescuers can reach you. That makes planning an added challenge, and places pressure on you that don’t exist on lower elevation hikes.

Me on Mount Shavano’s summit, my second ever 14er.

One last thing: Don’t let these admonitions lead you to believe that ordinary folks can’t find their way to high summit views. Plenty of Average Janes and Joes not only top out on the easier 14ers, but actually climb them all. And that’s the great allure, that hiking and climbing mountains can transform otherwise ordinary lives into ones that are more adventurous. But it’s wise to respect the peaks – regardless of their perceived difficulty – and remember that a 14er ascent is no walk in the park.

Some helpful links…

14er fitness

14er gear

Picking your first 14er

Doing your first 14er ascent

Bob Doucette

Some thoughts about a master plan for Turkey Mountain

Turkey Mountain, as seen from the east bank of the Arkansas River.

Turning back to my home front, there is some news. Tulsa’s River Parks Authority held the first of several public input meetings to discuss what people would like to see in a master plan for the Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness Area, a go-to place for hiking, biking and trail running right in the middle of the city.

The effort also includes an online survey for people to give their views. Between that and the discussions at these meeting, RPA will have an idea of what the public wants to see.

This is a long way from where we were just a few years ago. We had one rich fella tell us that God told him to build an amusement park on the banks of the Arkansas River, and to cut into acreage on Turkey Mountain’s southeastern flanks. That went nowhere, but in 2014, Simon Properties wanted to build an outlet mall on the far west side of Turkey Mountain’s woodlands. That was a closer call, but intense public pressure against the move eventually sent Simon looking for space elsewhere. What followed by a rapid, concerted effort from public and private entities to secure the land and fold it into a unified parcel that now represents a much larger wild green space than what RPA originally managed.

That leads us to the present. It seems from the first meeting, the consensus is to keep Turkey Mountain as wild as possible. At least, that’s what I gathered from reading this story from the Tulsa World.

I figure I have this electronic space for a reason, if nothing else than to spout off on whatever outdoorsy subject suits me at the time. So you can take my opinions how you see fit. But also keep in mind that I’ve been a regular visitor of its trails for the past eight years, have hiked or ran almost all of its trails and invested no small amount of time cleaning up trails, repairing damaged trail sections and generally advocating for Turkey Mountain’s wellbeing. So while these are just my thoughts, they are informed by some depth of experience as a user and stakeholder. So here ya go, my thoughts on what should guide the creation of a Turkey Mountain master plan…

Hi Chi Trail, Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness, Tulsa.

Generally speaking, Turkey Mountain should be left alone. What makes the park special are not all the bells, whistles and amenities that other  parks have. It is the lack of these man-made add-ons that attract people to its earthen paths. Where else in the middle of the city can you experience woodlands in their natural state? Nowhere, really. Aside from the trails, some trail blazes and four signs tacked up for safety reasons, Turkey Mountain is devoid of artificial enhancement. You are forced to slow down and take it in at its own pace, or at least at a pace powered by you alone. It’s not climate-controlled, there are no handrails, and if you want to see a specific place, you have to walk/run/bike/ride there yourself. That has an appeal to a lot of people, to the tune of 20,000 to 25,000 visitors a month. If you’re looking for a park with swing sets and ball fields, they exist elsewhere, all over the city. Want a cup of coffee in a lodge setting? Go to Gathering Place. Zip lines? I hear Post Oak Lodge is great. None of that stuff, as great as it is, is needed at Turkey Mountain. It’s a unique place that offers something the rest of the parks cannot – mostly unsullied nature.

Most trails at Turkey Mountain, like this one, are in decent shape. Others plagued by erosion need to be rerouted or closed altogether.

Some trails need to be rerouted, and maybe even closed for good. The trail system was created by mountain bikers decades ago, mostly with the idea of what would be fun to ride. Little thought was given to how well these rough-hewn paths would hold up under human usage and weather-induced erosion. All these trails will need to be looked at with an eye toward sustainability, and that will mean altering their path so they don’t wash out. If that’s not possible, some might have to be closed off for good. I know that might chap some folks, but we want these trails to hold up without washing out a chunk of a hillside. That almost happened on the steep portion going up the Yellow Trail. It’s been mitigated for now, but that and other problem areas remain. Expert trail management will need to be consulted here.

Wintry sunset scene on the west-side trails at Turkey Mountain.

Speaking of expertise, it would be a good idea if Turkey Mountain had its own superintendent. RPA has a decent sized inventory of park land outside of Turkey Mountain, and much of its attention is focused on paved trails and festivals at River Parks Festival West. The needs at Turkey Mountain are much more about land management (forestry, wildlife conservation, trail user safety, etc.) than any other park in town. Having someone in charge of the place – a face that stakeholders could interact with – could help with a number of things, such as coordinating races, conservation efforts, public safety and volunteer work. Yeah, it’s an extra expense for RPA. But I think it would be worth it.

A glorious view on lands recently reclaimed from commercial development for natural preservation purposes. Setting aside this acreage for wild green space was a case of Tulsa doing things right.

Thoughts should be given toward potential expansion of the park, or finding similar places in the city and county where wild spaces can be preserved. Turkey Mountain is being hemmed in by development. Thinking of wildlife, those critters need room to move. Their habitats have a range that is a little bigger than most folks realize. When it gets surrounded by development, those creatures can be living in something akin to a slow-burning siege. Likewise, lots of people love Turkey Mountain, and in some ways, it’s being loved to death. Multiple wild green spaces would alleviate some of that crowding, and given the proven community value Turkey Mountain has shown, more would indeed be better. Green spaces are an increasingly important quality of life factor for people and employers looking for a place to put down roots. Economic diversity is sorely needed here; giving people reasons to give us a look needs to include quality of life amenities that are crucial for community development.

Pedal power? Sure. Motorized? Never.

Lastly, no credibility should be given to making any part of Turkey Mountain open to motorcycle or ATV usage. It’s not safe, it’s bad for the trails, harmful to wildlife and would detract from the user experience. Motor sports aren’t allowed there now, and that’s a prohibition that needs to be maintained permanently.

I’m sure I could think of other ideas, and in time, I might jot those down. But I think these make for a good start. I care about this place. In many ways, I wouldn’t be the same person today if not for Turkey Mountain, and there is a large number of people who can say the same thing. Let’s go about this master plan wisely, remembering what makes Turkey Mountain the great place that it is.

Bob Doucette

Four things I learned outside of my comfort zone

I consider myself a lucky man. Over the years, I’ve been to some amazing places and experienced indelible moments, small points of light in a life that is otherwise routine. There’s nothing wrong with routine; you have to live your life and do what’s necessary to pay your bills, take care of folks and live. But the sweet spots leave impressions.

I’ve got a strain of wanderlust in my blood. A healthy fear of being too ill or weak to get out anymore. I crave my time outdoors, hitting the road and collecting new stories. I love a physical challenge.

All of this has taught me plenty. Much of it has been through trial and error while the best of it has been dutifully learned through patient instruction by people who know better than me.

Through all of this, I’ve come to a few conclusions.

It’s important to go to new places. It doesn’t matter of it’s a new park, a different part of town, a state you’ve never visited, or a country on the other side of the world. Broader perspectives are gained when you leave the comfortable environs of home. You learn you can be home anywhere, and you might make good friends you otherwise would never have met.

There is no disadvantage to being strong. Making yourself physically stronger will only add years to your life and will make you a more capable person. The stronger you are, the harder you are to kill, be it from illness, accidents or from others who would do you harm. Strength is useful. Build it.

Find a difficult challenge and commit to it. I’m not talking about discovering the secret to world peace or curing cancer, although those are great (if you can do it, please do!). Consider this more of a personal thing. When my oldest brother talked about climbing mountains, I wondered if I could do that. And then I did. It was hard, but worth it. Same deal with running a marathon. It was a huge commitment well out of my comfort zone, but I have no regrets. In both cases, I felt I grew from the experience. What’s your challenge? Find one that sounds awesome but spooks you a little. And then try. You might end up changed for the better.

There is great value in spending time outside. Yes, there is fun to be had at the pub, at the movies, binging Netflix or playing video games. But all of those things – and the growing amount of time we spend hunched over smartphones, laptops and tablets – cannot do for us what an hour or so outside can. We need time outside to unplug from all this tech, to listen to the stirrings of the woods and the wind whipping in the lonely places, if only to remind us that there is a world outside of our big wooden, steel and glass boxes lining endless networks of asphalt. A night in the wild, rising with the sun and moving to the rhythms of nature, is a great balm for all that social media angst we always bitch about but willingly indulge. Make a habit of hiking a trail. It’s medicinal.

I hope to learn more in the years to come, during those times when I leave the house, my hometown, my state, and even my country. I can count the number of runs I’ve regretted on one hand and still have digits left over. I want to eat strange and exotic foods in a nation I’ve never visited, and hopefully enjoy some conversation with the people who made it. I look forward to the challenge of that next big mountain.

Here’s to the next journey outside my comfort zone, and the things learned therein.

Bob Doucette