Janet Sheridan: A fondness for hiking

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Janet Sheridan

I came to hiking late in life.

When young, I clamored to climb West Mountain with my friends. In reality, we ran up the first foothill, declared ourselves exhausted, and spent the rest of the afternoon eating enormous lunches and acting silly.

I began to hike for pleasure in my 20s when I backpacked in the Sierra Nevada’s with my first husband, a man of quirks. He ate freeze-dried food with gusto, scooted rattlers safely off the trail, and refused to build campfires or sleep in tents because to do so would isolate us from the night.

I admit his desire to embrace nighttime advanced my stargazing from the Big Dipper and North Star to Cassiopeia and Vega’s blue glow. It’s easy to recognize constellations and stars when they hang within reach, like sparkling fruit.

While backpacking, I carried a fair share of weight and made do with minimal grooming. I knew I was a dawdler, not a pacesetter, so I walked second in line — though I’d heard that rattlesnakes, startled by the first hiker, tend to strike the second.

At times I felt fear.

I once walked a narrow path along a sheer cliff and pictured myself rolling away like a potato bug. When my husband joked that perhaps we’d fall to our deaths more quickly in the thin air of the mountains, I didn’t laugh.

I edged into rivers: facing upstream for better control, side-stepping over slick rocks, probing for footholds with a hiking stick, my heart thumping in my chest.

Another time, we sat out an unexpected lightning storm crouched under a clump of brush as jagged spears ignited the world and my terror.

But these moments of fear didn’t compare to my enjoyment of the breathtaking beauty I walked through while carrying a pack on my back.

I’ll never forget standing among Ponderosas of vanilla scent with my boots planted against the slope of the trail, gazing at a sky hidden by swaths of twilight clouds. The retreating sun stretched the shadows of the pines thin and long: a multitude of blackened arrows that flew across contoured boulders, curtained cliffs, and a sunset-splashed river.

In recent years, Joel and I have hiked with our friends, Tom and Sue Beachman. On our first hike together in the Zirkel Wilderness, I provided merriment for all.

The light rain we walked in as we started downhill gradually turned heavy with intermittent hail, so we stopped to pull on rain gear. I took a new plastic poncho from my pack and worked my head through its narrow hood before searching for its sleeves, which didn’t seem to exist.

I had purchased a poncho with no arms that bunched strangely across my back and fell short in front.

No wonder it cost less than gum.

Fashion is unimportant when hiking during a storm, and my odd gear kept me dry; so I ignored its poor fit and resumed my place in line.

I struggled. I lurched. The rhythm needed for efficient walking deserted me, and I didn’t know why. Was it the fast pace, the path slick with hail, or the damn poncho?

Its narrow neck choked off my wind; its unusual design pinned my arms uselessly to my sides, allowing only my hands to flap; its hood clutched my skull like Man Mountain Dean applying a headlock.

“Good grief,” I thought, “I’m wheezing and waddling like an asthmatic penguin.”

Fortunately, we soon stopped for a break under sheltering trees. Sue watched me fussing with my poncho and began to laugh, and rather loudly.

“Janet, stop,” she gasped, “You put your poncho on wrong. You’ve got your head through a sleeve.”

Sixty-six years old and unable to dress myself.

Despite my wardrobe malfunction, I retained my love of hiking.

Joel and I recently tested my climbing enthusiasm and pluck when we tackled one of Colorado’s 14ers, Huron Peak.

But, that’s another column.

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