by Linda Magoon
Seeking Midlife Liberation & Courage? Discover the Healing Nature of Hiking with Linda Magoon: Rebuilding My Life at 50Plus
I can’t believe I’m lost. How could I have wandered off the trail? My mother was right. I am going to die in the White Mountains!
Rebuilding my life
I rediscovered my love for hiking in my mid-50s after ending a 20+ year toxic marriage. On my own for the first time in decades, I no longer walked on eggshells. The idea that I could express a want or desire without the familiar pit-in-the-stomach dread of telling my husband was fresh and new and exciting. Within a few months of our divorce, I set a goal to hike all 48 of New Hampshire’s White Mountains 4,000 feet and higher.
The healing power of nature
The first few peaks were tough. I was in poor shape and wore improper clothing. The outdated, heavy canvas pack I carried belonged in a museum, not on my shoulders. With each summit, though, I grew stronger, physically and emotionally. I felt like a failure for ending my marriage; I grew up in a “till death do you part” culture. But walking among the beech and maple lessened my anxiety about rebuilding my life.
There is something magical about being above the treeline. Everywhere I gazed, I could see for miles – mountains, winding roads, lakes, rivers. I hiked at an elevation where vegetation is sparse to non-existent. Even the firs, stunted and dwarfed by the constant pounding of the wind, were unable to survive. Hiking across Franconia Ridge, I felt like I was on top of the world.
A goal mindset
Like a shiny new toy that’s soon forgotten, the idea of hiking 48 mountains began to lose its luster in the cold and darkness of the New Hampshire winter. Determined not to lose my momentum, I hung a large, full-color topographic map on my bedroom wall and placed push-pins on every summit I hiked. (When you’re single, you can hang whatever you want on your bedroom wall.) Every morning when I awoke, I had no choice but to look at that map and the colorful pushpins. I didn’t know it at the time, but I used visual management to keep my goal literally in sight. Working towards a goal helped me focus on the future. It kept the “what could I have done differently?” monkey-chatter from swirling too long in my head. Having something to strive for and look forward to provided hope and optimism.
The Presidential Range, particularly Mount Washington, has a reputation for the worst weather in the world. Wind gusts at the summit can easily exceed 100 miles per hour. June snowstorms are not out of the question. Although my mother supported my decision to file for divorce, she worried I would become lost, freeze to death, and become the latest hiking fatality. To acquiesce her fear, I enrolled in an outdoor survival class for women, where I learned what to do in the event I did become lost. I learned the acronym S.T.O.P.:
S: Stay Put. No need to wander or run amuck to become more lost.
T: Take stock. What do I have for food? Water? Shelter? How much daylight is left?
O: Observe. What do I see? What can I hear (besides my pounding heart?) Voices? Cars? Water?
P: Panic! (Just kidding) Plan. Make a plan to become unlost.
Fear vs. instinct
Armed with this new information, including how to properly dress for winter hiking (layers) and how to keep water from freezing (bring hot chocolate) I set out to hike in winter. With the unpredictable weather, colder temperatures, and shorter daylight, the margin for error was much slimmer than in summer, but with each winter peak, I gradually learned to overcome the ever-present, “it’s too cold, you’re too old, and you’ll never make it” itty-bitty-shitty-committee small talk that is fear. After years of suppressing my needs and being unable to express how I felt, I had a difficult time discerning the difference between fear and instinct. With the help of a therapist and life coach, I learned to become more self-aware. If my head, heart, and gut were in alignment, that still, small voice was instinct. Gradually, I learned to distinguish between the two.
S.T.O.P and go
I’m above the treeline on the trail to Mount Eisenhower in swirling clouds and fog. Below-freezing temperatures and liquid moisture combined to form rime ice on my hat, exposed hair, and eyeglasses. I look like a walking snow cone. To make matters worse, with almost zero visibility, I missed the trail sign to the summit and now I’m “turned around”, a highly-technical term meaning “lost.” Before full-fledged panic sets in, I recall my S.T.O.P. training. I find a place to stay put, take stock, observe, and make a plan. My plan is simple: retrace my footprints in the snow to a lower elevation in the shelter of some firs and re-group. It works, and soon I’m unlost. But now what? Should I head down and save the summit for another day or make another attempt? What is my instinct telling me? That still, small voice is telling me it’s early in the day, I have plenty of dry clothing, and despite my mother’s fears, I’m not going to die in the White Mountains. It also helps that other hikers have now reached me and I can follow them. The plan works, and I reach the summit, though views are limited.
Rebuilding my life: One step at a time
Shortly after my divorce, I enrolled in a six-week workshop on defining your dreams and creating the life you imagined. It was so far out of my comfort zone, that when it came time to introduce myself to the class, I told them that I was there because I thought it was a wine and cheese tasting. On the first night, we wrote out our dreams on festive note paper. For the first time, I expressed my dream to the universe: “To hike the 48 White Mountain 4,000-footers and write a book to inspire others.” It took almost three years to hike the list and another three years to write the book.
Many of the mountains I climbed to overcome my ex-husband’s abhorrent behavior were far more difficult than any 4,000-footer I hiked. But with the love and support from friends, family, and hiking 48 peaks, I rebuilt my life, one step at a time. If I can do it, you can, too.
About the Author:
Linda Magoon is an environmentalist, outdoor enthusiast, and the author of Live Free and Hike: Finding Grace on 48 Summits. Learn more about it on www.lindamagoon.com. Her writing has been published in New Hampshire newspapers and literary magazines.
cover photo: Looking north on the Franconia Ridge Trail.