(This post will be published in the Jefferson Journal in November 2016.)
Somewhere along the 100 miles of the Alta Via 2 trail that I hiked, with my friend Mike Kohn, in Italy’s Dolomite Mountains last September, someone asked us to describe the most beautiful place we had seen on the trail. I was at a loss to answer, but Mike thought immediately of a summit along the trail just before a descent to the Lago di Fedaia at the foot of Marmolada, the highest mountain in the Dolomites. It was at least an appropriate answer, being one of a number of most beautiful places.
Someone else asked if we could name the most challenging part of the trail. Certainly just about any of the vie ferrate – the “iron routes,” with their cables and ladders and iron bars to aid climbs up (or down) vertical chimneys or along the narrow, crumbling ledge of a trail – would answer, though the most exhausting hike was a two-mile, 4000-foot descent.
If someone had asked me what I found most surprising, I would not have said how beautiful or challenging the hike was, or how long it was or how welcome the food at the rifugios, but how many trails crisscross the Dolomites and the numbers of people walking on them. Trails run around every mountain bend, zigzagging up hills so steep you would think no one would be crazy enough to take them, yet hikers were everywhere – strong young people, families with children, robust senior citizens, people who came out to climb an impossibly steep pass to a small hut for lunch or to take a trail that included some dangerous via ferrata or that took hours of sweat and muscle. In many cases the trail was at least one day’s journey from any rifugio that was at least another day’s journey from a road where the hiker might have started. The rifugios, especially in the first week, were crowded, for lunch if not always for the night.
On the second day of our hike, at the bottom of our first significant pass, Mike and I gaped in disbelief at the long line of people going up it. The people towards the top were visible only as a winding whiplash of tiny variously colored dots. On another day, I had to wait at a bit of via ferrata to let some descending hikers go first. Behind them came others, then others, then others, until at last I broke into the line and started up, making the descending hikers wait. On another day, Mike and I met streams of people going up the side of the mountain we were now going down. One hiker stopped for a moment to say, in his German accent, “It’s lighter going down.” He meant “easier,” but I think he was right with “lighter,” too.
So many people doing such strenuous hiking! I was enormously impressed. I thought about all the hiking Mike and I had done in the Siskiyous and Cascades to prepare for the Dolomites – Sky Lakes, Siskiyou, and Marble Mountain wildernesses, numerous Applegate trails, Grizzly Peak, Soda Mountain, Table Rock, Mt. Elijah to Oregon Caves. Most of the time we didn’t see another person. In a way, I prefer that, wanting my hiking experience to be a wilderness experience, but there was something so heartening about seeing so many people in the gorgeous country of the Dolomites, exerting themselves so boisterously and enjoying both the exercise and the incomparable landscape, that I envied the country its hiking culture.
We could have that here. We have the natural beauty and the trails. We already have a large number of hikers. All it takes, I think, is a determination to make non-motorized recreation a priority. Although the trails here are not as crowded as in the Dolomites, I feel the emergence of a hiking culture here, too. Think about the popularity of the Pacific Crest Trail, which we are lucky enough to have in our back yard. Five thousand people started at the Mexican border this summer with the intent of hiking the PCT to Canada. Think about the crowds of hikers on Table Rock in May for wildflower viewing. Think about the proposed Jack-Ash and Applegate Ridge trails between Ashland and Grants Pass.
When I told someone, with great enthusiasm, that when the Jack-Ash and ART trails are built, we will be able to walk from Ashland to Grants Pass, she said, “But why would we want to?”
Why did all those people want to climb those impossible passes in the Dolomites? Why did I walk the entire Alta Via 2? Why do we have such smiles on our faces as the sweat flies and the legs ache? Places that have a hiking culture don’t need to ask. We know why.