I recently keyed into how often people use the caveat “only” when describing their hiking experience. Things like “I’ve only hiked six miles” or “I backpacked, but only for X days”. It’s a real bummer hearing people casually devalue their time outdoors. I fell into this problematic line of thought on a recent hike in Denali National Park.
My friend Patrick visited me in Fairbanks last week. It was his first trip to Alaska and we had a blast traveling around the state’s interior. In five quick days, we explored my winter home city, drove to Chena Hot Springs for a nighttime soak, attended a wild cabin party with live music from Alaskan bands, and cooked a campfire feast at a lakeside cabin. So much fun!
We drove down to Denali on Saturday. I’ve been on that stretch of the Parks Highway a dozen times with my summer tour directing job, but this was my first time behind the wheel. The two hour drive is full of postcard-worthy wilderness views. I loved seeing Patrick take in the utter hugeness of Alaska. His DJ’ing skills are top notch, too.
The Denali Park Road runs 89 miles straight into the heart of the park. Visitors can drive in 15 miles to the Savage River trailheads, but travel beyond that point is restricted to park buses and registered vehicles. Patrick and I wanted to fit a good hike into our trip and the Savage River Alpine Trail seemed like an ideal opportunity.
I hiked the four mile trail last fall when my friend Hesham visited Alaska for our one-year anniversary of finishing the Appalachian Trail together. I recalled the trail living up to its advertised “strenuous” difficulty. Patrick doesn’t have much in the way of hiking experience, but he’s eager to try new things (the best quality in a travel partner) and we wanted to gain some elevation to better view the tundra landscape.
The trail starts with a steep ascent into the mountains, climbing a series of rocky, windy switchbacks 1500 ft over the first two miles. Snow and ice made for a considerably more technically challenging hike than in the fall. We made steady progress, stopping regularly to catch our breath and soak in the panoramic view of snow-capped mountains and glacial valleys. Patrick declared the payoff worth it well before we even reached our summit.
As we wound down the mountain on considerably gentler switchbacks, I caught myself thinking, “I shouldn’t be so exhausted after only a couple miles.” By deeming myself lacking, I inherently devalued the accomplishment. There was nothing “only” about that ass-whooping climb. I was so proud of Patrick for leaning into the challenge but I didn’t extend myself the same courtesy.
The strenuousness of a hike shouldn’t determine its value. Patrick and I also took a short, relaxing walk near Creamer’s Field, a migratory waterfowl refuge in Fairbanks. The ease of terrain and duration didn’t detract from the beautiful frozen wetlands or the quality of our time together.
Competition and self-reflexive comparison feel baked into conversations about outdoor adventure. People minimize their experience if it doesn’t measure up to what they’ve seen someone else do, or some mental image of what they “should” (a cousin of “only”) be capable of. It’s like placing a glass ceiling on your worth.
Even worse, “only” diminishes the experiences of others. Everyone has a unique body and set of interests. Enjoying an infrequent, one mile hike might be exactly what someone needs in their life. That one mile is no less valuable than another hiker’s long distance journey.
Let’s stop using the word “only” when it comes to hiking. If four miles is the farthest you’ve ever gone, that’s a huge accomplishment. A 15 minute sunset walk around your neighborhood is better than no minutes at all. And if your access to nature is limited, that’s even more reason to cherish every second you spend among trees and dirt.
Celebrate every mile you hike!