Ten years ago, my friend died of cancer, leaving behind a 4-year-old daughter. My friend’s mother-in-law, Jeannette, and I decided to get together to take my daughter and her granddaughter out hiking.
My husband and I had lived in Alaska 10 years at this point, but I hadn’t spent much time outdoors because of long hours spent at work. Sometimes I’d hike with my husband, but not consistently. Then I had a baby. We’d go for walks, but not really hiking because Alaska intimidated me—I didn’t know where to go, didn’t have friends who hiked, didn’t know what to bring with me. I feared bears lurked everywhere.
Jeannette educated me about hiking, without even realizing it. She was 73 years old, a retired nurse and longtime hiker who had moved from Anchorage to the Valley. I got a pack, put in water bottles, snacks and extra layers for my daughter and me, and we regularly started meeting for trail time at the Butte, and other trails in Mat-Su. Nervous, I paid attention to what she wore and what she tucked in her pack.
One day, approaching a hill on a trail in Hatcher Pass, I began worrying. It appeared to be too much for me, far too steep for a novice to attempt. We’d have to turn back.
Then, I watched Jeannette matter-of-factly approach that scary incline and start ascending. She didn’t appear afraid or overwhelmed, just slowly and steadily climbed. She inspired me. I thought, “If someone who’s 73 can handle this so easily, what am I afraid of?” I remember taking a deep breath and started trudging up that hill.
Jeannette became the first of many women (and a few men) who have inspired and motivated me in the years since then.
• Connie guided me up Lazy Mountain for the first time.
• Lisa shared my love of day-hiking mountains—together we explored the Butte, Lazy, Gold Cord Lake, April Bowl, Baldy, McRoberts Creek, Bird Ridge and Bear Mountain—sometimes joined by Marnice, who lost more than 100 pounds by hiking the Butte every day.
• Some of my dynamic friends from book club—Sue, Susie, Eowyn, Julie, Rindi and Rachel—have joined me on Butte, Girdwood and Nancy Lake hikes.
• Audra, Rourka and I shared the toil of ascending Matanuska Peak scree, and Audra joined me on what became a foggy but beautiful ascent of Pioneer Peak.
• Running buddies Robbie and Kim (and Kim’s husband, John) have climbed the Butte and Lazy with me several times in addition to running countless races together.
• Desiré, Vera, Erin, Cindi, two Rachels, Kelly, Sandy, Karen, Carol, Theresa, Traci and Rosetta have all joined me for regular 5:15 a.m. pre-work hikes up the Butte—many of them run, ski, bike and snowshoe as well.
• I haven’t hiked with Dr. Jill—yet—but have seen her at running club often: she’s an amazing, committed runner and cyclist who once nimbly repaired my broken chain on a women’s ride.
• Have biked with Natalie, who skate-skis up at Hatcher Pass and climbs Lazy Mountain and Pioneer as routinely as I climb the Butte. Someday I’ll be fit enough to keep up with her on a hike!
• Clare runs just about every race I know of, rides fat-tire bikes and climbs Lazy with her two kids.
• New friends: Therese climbs the Butte, skis and ice skates on rivers; Juliann skis and snowshoes; and I see Kim on the Butte, over and over, her happy kids beside her.
So many beautiful friendships exist in my life now, because of hiking.
Looking back, I’m so grateful for all the rich experiences Jeannette’s motivating example made possible in my life, the new communities and connections growing out of a shared love of hiking’s physical and spiritual rewards.