I hiked the Thousand Steps Trail near Mount Union often over the years. I hiked it as a teenager with friends. A few years later, I hiked the trail with some friends from college and when we got to the top of mountain we shared a couple of warm beers. I even hiked the trail one time with my oldest brother and a bunch of his friends.
While fun, the trail is no cake walk: it’s a mile or so hike 800-plus feet up Jack’s Mountain in Central Pennsylvania. When I say hiking up the mountain, I mean jumping on your gym’s StairMaster, with the resistance pushed to the max and setting the time to 45 minutes or so, and race walking with few if any rests until the buzzer beeps.
The hike is not for the feint-hearted. The steps, all 1,040 of them, at least that’s how many I counted, were built in 1936 by the Ganister quarry workers to help them get to work each morning. (The quarry worker’s morning hike up the mountain, rain or shine, certainly puts my 45 minute drive in perspective.)
My own personal stress test
In any event, I find that I come back to the hike every few years. I started out walking it as something to do with my friends, a fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon. In recent years, my view of the trail has changed. It’s become a solitary hill workout to test myself and see where I’ve fallen back or moved ahead from the previous year. Like a 30-minute track interval workout, it’s become my workout to get to the top.
It’s also become a spiritual activity of sorts, a way for me to take in Mother Nature’s wonder and work through the myriad of issues floating inside my head, everything from how I can help my kids with paying for college and helping prepare them for their future careers to my own work obligations and stresses.
Setting aside me-time
With that as background, I attempted my most recent attempt a couple of days before my birthday, in a sense a birthday present to myself. I parked my car off of Route 22, walked to the trailhead and looked up in wonder. The trees were covered in green and actually gave off some nice shade from the beating sun. The trail, though, looked steeper than I remembered. For a brief second, I thought about skipping the hike. The excuses came easy: I didn’t have the time. I had to get home. I didn’t need to prove anything to myself. However, I also knew that I wouldn’t forgive myself for getting up early to get to the trail and then turning around to go back home.
I took a quick look at my watch and took my first step. I thought of a good friend of mine who’s getting ready to run another triathlon. I thought too of another friend who runs ultramarathons in her spare time. For them, if they were to hike the Thousand Steps Trail, it would amount to a short 100-yard sprint, something for them to break a sweat, but certainly nothing to be taken seriously. For me on this day, with temps I should add, hovering near 95 degrees, I needed to challenge myself.
So, I took a step and another, and another, and another. The steps came quickly. Well at first, anyway. I was making some progress. I tried to focus less on my speed up the mountain and instead just being in the moment. When I got to the 600thstep, I checked my heart rate. It felt like it was a pounding piston, thumping in my chest. I took a long drink of water and started up again, but this time my progress came slower, five steps at a time instead of crossing off 75, 50 or 25. Instead of quick bouncy steps, my steps were now slow methodical ones.
I was struggling now, but I was still moving forward. Fortunately, a few minutes later, I finally I reached the top of the mountain. The trip took longer than I had expected. My t-shirt was drenched in sweat and my legs were ready for a rest, but I had passed my make-believe test.
Lessons from the trail
I found a quiet spot and took in the view. The mountain never looked so good. I wiped away the sweat from my brow and several things raced through my mind:
–Firstly, I need to start focusing on myself a bit more. I need to lose a few extra pounds that I’ve been carrying and eat better. I try my best to exercise every day, but inevitably my best of intentions lately have been pushed aside because of work or errands. I need to refocus my effort and make exercise a priority again.
–People are strange, but wonderful too. On this particular day, I came across several hikers along the side of the trail with their noses stuck in their phones. Some of the most beautiful country in the world and they’re skimming through their latest Snapchat message.
I also came across lots of hellos too. In fact, one nice older lady wearing a Mennonite bonnet, hiking her way down the trail, while I was going up, must have thought I was on my last legs. When she saw me taking a break near the midpoint of the trail, she looked at me concerned and asked if I wanted her bottle. I had a mesh pack with three bottles, while she had one. I was fine, but thank you anyway.
–Stop and smell the roses. From my high perch, I took a quick look around the top of the mountain. I took in the bright green from the tree branches and the majestic view of the Juniata River and the small village of Mapleton down below. I get back to the area rarely anymore, but the images will stay with me for months to come.
–Hiking is a lot like life. Life is what you make it. There are ups and downs, there are straight stretches and sections that go straight-up. I didn’t have to be out on the trail. I could’ve stayed home. I could have been home with the AC jacked up high and chilled out under the bed covers. Most people choose the easy road. If I had chosen that road, however, I would’ve missed out on a beautiful day and a fun hike.
One parting thought
I would have loved to have hiked a couple of the off-shoot trails, part of the 80-mile long Standing Stone Trail, or hung out at the old railroad hut that’s still standing. On another day, I would have liked to have looked around and taken a few more photos of the mountains or even had a quick afternoon snack. Unfortunately, life was calling, I needed to get back on the road and return to my family.
I took a minute, okay, maybe five minutes, to catch my breath and then I started once more down the trail. The trip down went much faster. I still had to be careful to watch my step on the rocks, but I was back at my car and on the road once again in no time.
As I raced home to spend the rest of the day with my kids, I turned up U2’s “Beautiful Day” loudly in my car stereo and made an imaginary check mark. The trail hadn’t gotten me yet.