If not to look a certain way or weigh a certain amount, what is the point of fitness? Why be in shape? Why exercise? I’m sorry these questions need to be asked, but when you tell people you’re not trying to change the way you look, many times they think this means you aren’t going to bother exercising or eating well. Which is a very silly assumption indeed considering the many benefits of eating well and exercising that have nothing to do with your outer package.
There are many different possible answers to those questions, and this is mine: Freedom.
Certainly there are other reasons, longer-term reasons. There are the expected health benefits and hopes of mobility in old age. There’s stress relief and better sleep. But the most direct benefit of being in shape, to me, is being able to go anywhere I want without fear of pain or trepidation that I cannot make it.
It’s the joy of being able to say, “Yes, I want to go there and do that.” instead of “No, I don’t think so,” out of concern and worry that I will be too slow or out of breath or risk my heart exploding in my chest.
Freedom to just go and know I will make it. Not only will I make it 3 miles, 5 miles, 10 miles, 15… I will feel good. I will run up the hills when I want to. It will not hurt. I will see all the beauty. I am free from the pain of being out of shape. I know that feeling all too well when you are invited to go somewhere that will require physical exertion and you would really like to go, but you can’t because you are afraid or embarrassed.
Freedom. It is what keeps me going day to day. When I think about how far I have come from getting out of breath going up a flight of stairs to being able to go anywhere I choose and feel good doing it, how could I not continue? Why would I ever let that go?
Since this spring, I have really taken advantage of my fitness by going out into the world and seeing it. I feel so much more connected to the place I live now that I have seen more of it first hand and walked hundreds of miles through mountains and valleys, along streams and creeks, beside waterfalls and redwoods. I have hiked through dramatic destinations people travel from the world over to see. And I have walked through my neighborhood and become familiar with the changes that happen as the seasons advance.
The following is a tour of some of the beautiful things I have seen these past seasons, things I would not have seen if I had never changed my habits and increased my cardiovascular ability. I had to look beyond the gym and my own reflection in the mirror to go out and see it.
I want to hike all the trails.
The following map shows all the parks I have visited this summer. I went to most of them multiple times. There’s something wonderful about going somewhere new and seeing things you have never seen before. Yet there is also so much to be learned by re-visiting a place as the seasons change.
Near my office in Menlo Park, CA there is a small park that is actually a re-purposed landfill. Bedwell Bayfront Park is a slightly hilly little patch of land overlooking the San Francisco Bay. It is a beautiful little spot and it is where I started walking last year when I had had enough of the gym and my back pain forced me to slow down. It changes dramatically throughout the year, from green and lush in winter and spring to dry and brown in summer and fall. I love that this little park used to be a trash heap. You would never know it.
Edgewood Park is very close to where I live. It’s an easy little hiking spot with several loop trail options. In March, I first started going to this spot and was immediately enamored of it. I love seeing the views looking down into my neighborhood and beyond.
I was content with my little parks until one day when I met up with some people I met through my Facebook page for a hike near Oakland in Redwood Regional park. This is when it started to dawn on me how amazing the place I now live really is. I have never lived somewhere like this, where there are so many amazing natural places to explore. It was then that I decided it was my goal to visit all the parks in the Bay Area. A lofty goal to be sure, but I have many years ahead to complete it. This was also where I met my friend, Marcelle, who has been hiking in this area pretty much all her life. She introduced me to some of the most beautiful places I have seen this summer. We make good hiking partners, similar paces, similar desire for longer more strenuous hiking trips, and a shared love of delicious fruit and sandwiches on the trail.
Most of the time, I hike alone. People sometimes have strong negative reactions to the idea of a woman hiking alone, to which I say: “Do you drive a car? That’s dangerous, you know.” Please don’t try to ruin this precious experience for me with fear. I am an intelligent adult and can take care of myself. As anyone should, male or female, always be aware of your surroundings, bring plenty of water, a map if you don’t know the trails, and make sure to leave plenty of daylight. But I dare say, I’m more likely to get hit by an unaware driver while walking around my neighborhood than have any tragedy befall me in a park.
Hiking alone is amazing. There is so little time when we are free with our own thoughts and to have that experience in a beautiful setting is revitalizing in a way nothing else can touch. It is my own time, which is so rare.
The first longer, more challenging hike I did by myself was Purisima Creek Open Space Preserve, now a personal favorite. This place is so beautiful. It looks prehistoric to me. As if a dinosaur may come crashing through the ferns and redwoods at any moment. It also overlooks Half Moon Bay and on clear days you can see the Pacific Ocean. But it is equally stunning in the fog, which gives a mystical magical quality to the atmosphere.
Big Basin State Park is California’s oldest park and the last leg of the Skyline to the Sea trail is through it. We hiked the Berry Creek Falls loop trail and it was incredible. There is so much to see here, I really need to go back again to take it all in. It is an almost overwhelming amount of amazing natural beauty from redwoods to vistas to waterfalls. This is a real destination hike. People come from all over the world to see it and it is in my backyard (about an hour away)!
I saw quite a few harmless critters around the trails from bunnies to deer to birds and butterflies. Here’s a little snake that was slithering across the trail at Big Basin. I’m not a huge fan of snakes, but managed not to squeal like a scared little girl at the sight of him. I even managed to take a picture before he slithered away.
Huddart Park is relatively close to home and work and I would probably visit it regularly if it weren’t for the parking fee. It’s hard to justify paying when there are so many nearby similar parks with no fee. But I hiked here twice and it has some stunning trails. Now that I wrote this, I want to go there again. Come to think of it, I wish I were at any one of these places right now!
Wunderlich Park has what I have come to think of as the easiest 10 mile hike. It’s straight up from Woodside Rd to Skyline Blvd and back down again, but for some reason it feels like a gentle stroll and ends before you start to feel worn out. This is one of my favorites when I want a nice long hike but am not feeling particularly ambitious. Not every hike needs to be really difficult. On the other hand, a 10 mile hike with 1000 ft of elevation change is not a walk around the block either. I enjoy the mix of feeling accomplished with not feeling intimidated by the task ahead, which makes this a popular hike for me on weekends.
Marcelle and I hiked what I would consider the most strenuous hike I did this season at Cataract Falls in Marin. There was a lot of elevation change and stairs along the trails, but the real difficulty came from having neglected to bring enough sandwich. Next time, more sandwich. But we did stop and get sandwiches afterward and I can still taste the most delicious pesto grilled cheese on buttery sourdough bread…
I saved Pulgas Ridge Open Space Preserve for last because it is near and dear to me. Located across the street from the more popular and visible Edgewood Park is this hidden gem which is always sparsely used. When the parking lots at Edgewood have overflowed into the street, there are still spaces at Pulgas Ridge. It is more private and more difficult. It is also more beautiful. Maybe I should not be giving away this secret… Don’t go there, it’s horrible and ugly and smells bad.
This is my “usual” hike. It’s about 4 miles from my apartment and I can make a 3, 4, or 6 mile loop out of it. It goes up and back down with enough elevation changes to raise my heart rate. I don’t need any maps here. I know it inside and out. I have been on every trail many times and could draw you a map without reference. I’ve seen how the terrain and the foliage and the wildlife changed from spring until fall. I know that in spring it is green and lush.
In the summer, there are many little lizards. They rest on the sunny dusty trails and scamper off ahead of you clearing a path as you walk by.
The top of the trail, overlooks the Santa Cruz Mountains and clouds rolling in from the Pacific Ocean often gather on top. Interstate-280 winds through the hillside and the reservoir reflects the sunlight from below.
But alas, the season of evening light is ending and darkness is setting in. The time for hiking after work is over and I will have to say goodbye to Pulgas Ridge on the weekdays until next spring. But there will still be weekends and holidays, because this is the Bay Area and even in the winter, it is not so cold one cannot go hiking. There will be no snow and ice to hamper my paths.
For all of this I am so grateful. I will not say I am lucky because it has been a dream to move here since I was a teenager and I finally made it happen. It is not luck, it is design. But I am very grateful, nonetheless.
If I was not in good shape physically, I would have missed out on all of this.
And I would have missed out on simpler pleasures as well, like the beauty of the flowers my neighbors plant in their gardens. All the beauty of the world has always been out there, just waiting for me to see it. Now I can.
This is freedom.