Guest Post by Rachael Plunkett. Learn More About Rachael
I was less than 1,000 ft. from summiting 12,633 ft. Humphrey’s Peak in Northern Arizona, my first mountain, and yet I felt as though I shouldn’t have made it five steps from the parking lot. Every hiker has been there, somewhere between the high of summiting a mountain and the throbbing ache of burning thighs.
I leaned against a thick trunked conifer and swiped my hand across my forehead, wiping my grit filled sweat on my pants. How had I gotten here? The question tugged at my mind more than the temptation to scurry back down the trail and abandon my hiking partner, so I turned my thoughts to my past as I peeled myself from the tree and continued upward.
The simple answer to my question was that I had agreed to conquer my fear of high elevation hikes on a Saturday morning. The complicated answer tugged at the intertwined thread of the past. My hiking career began on much flatter ground when I moved from Florida to Arizona and I found myself questioning my definition of home yet again. It was not the first move of my life, and “home” had become much less a house and more a collection of trinkets and pictures that I could hang on new walls.
The truth of home is that sometimes it is not a place with a roof and picture hung walls, sometimes home becomes something more meaningful than that. We try to place every piece of ourselves within the confines of a house. I had been searching for the right walls my entire life only to realize that I was meant to find home within the boundaries of a foot-worn path.
The current one I was on began around 9,000 ft. and gained 3,343 ft. in elevation in about 5 miles, ending at the highest point in Arizona, one I had stared longingly at since moving to a city two hours south. Disregarding the fact that I had never summited a mountain over 7,000 ft., I jumped at the opportunity when my now husband asked if I would like to hike to the summit with him. As we took our first few steps of the hike at the Humphrey’s Summit trailhead, I could feel my worry that I wouldn’t be able to complete the climb slipping away. My thoughts turned to listening to the wind in the swaying trees, swaying grasses still lush from monsoonal rains. Every step took us further, passing the last of the ponderosas and hiking into douglas and white firs with a spotting of aspens. Chickadees and Juncos flitted through the trees.
My hiking partner, an undergraduate student at the time like myself, was also summiting the mountain for the first time. But, for the Oregon native, it was not his first climb. After discovering we both had a love of hiking and an affiliation for naming various birds and trees as we went, we began exploring trails together whenever we had a weekend free from schoolwork.
The Kachina Peaks Wilderness is one of the most popular hiking spots in Northern Arizona. The region boasts miles of trails for both inexperienced and veteran hikers with famous spots such as Lockett Meadow and the Inner Basin. The region, like all others, has home trails. For a hiker, the true definition of home is expanded to include those places in which we feel the most content. Be it amongst the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, the Saguaro dotted landscape of the Sonoran, or the thick green deciduous forests of the Northeast, every hiker has a trail to come home to. In that, I believe, is a special sort of development within the hiker’s own soul. There is a freedom in calling nature home, a solitude and peacefulness that has been described by our environmental heroes along the likes of John Miur, Rachel Carson, and Edward Abbey.
It was this freedom that I had found by taking to the trails. In the wilderness, there was no boundary. There, I could rediscover who I wanted to be and who the past had made me to be and sore knees, lost toenails, and many failed attempts at finding the perfect hiking boot were all part of the process.
Nature has the incredible ability to shape itself; the wind bends trees as water carves rock, the rain can give life if it is plentiful, or wash away a mountain side. Every aspect of nature has an effect, be it direct or indirect, on ecosystems. As a hiker, I have come to find that nature can have an effect on those that respect its wild lands. Just as water carves rock, the trails can carve a hiker.
With the desire to turn around left behind me and a new driving force pushing me up the mountain, I crested the final incline to the summit and was surrounded by a view that more than met my expectations. Above the world that was moving at a human’s pace, my time was slowed as I took in the sprawling grasslands to my north and rolling hills of Ponderosa to my south. In that moment, I knew that I had found home.
The perspective given to the weary hiker who has finally reached their summit is never one to be taken for granted. As I stood at 12,633 ft., I began to realize that life is easily accepted from a wider viewpoint. We cannot answer the questions of our future. We cannot do anything but hope that someday we are standing at the pinnacle of our greatest climb and that wherever we are now is the next switchback in the path that will lead us there.
Almost five years after summiting my first mountain, I’m still climbing and have now summited peaks in Colorado, South Dakota, Oregon. I grew a little older, a little wiser, and bettered my ability to pick out the perfect pair of boots. My collection of outdoor gear grew to take up multiple closets and whenever my daily routine seemed to grow old, I would take up my pack and go to my trail home. No matter where I was in the world, a trail and my pack were all the security I needed.
My hiking partner became my husband and I have now made it my life’s goal to educate others about responsible hiking. We’re climbing new mountains and currently call the Southwest home once more. There may be trails in my life that will be unfamiliar, but the feeling of freedom they will bring will not be. Regardless of where life takes me, I know without a doubt that I can always find home. My first mountain will always remain, steady and secure, for me to climb again.