By Alex Distefano
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I am a city girl. While I was growing up in Harlem, my experience with the outdoorsas in mountains, fields, rivers, lakes, and streamswas nil. I didn't know enough to realize I was missing something magical, even mystical, that occurs when I spend time in nature. When I converted from city slicker to outdoor devotee, family and friends were downright mystified. They couldn't imagine, for instance, what pleasure I get from walking through a hilly cemetery in Queens on a hot summer day, or from scrambling up a dusty, pebble-strewn incline to enjoy lunch on a sunny summit overlooking the majestic Hudson River.
The fact is, nothing thrills me more than donning hiking boots and packing a homemade lunch and water (no less than two liters, advises Carson Tang, former chair of the Appalachian Mountain Club, who presents Hiking Essentials workshops) in a backpack (ideally a small, water-repellent one with a hip strap) for forays into terrain often just a subway or Metro North ride away.
I'm a member of the Urban Trail Club, which sponsors day and overnight hikes in and around metropolitan New York, along the Long Path (a stretch of the 2160-mile Appalachian Trail that runs from Georgia to Maine), in Westchester, and in upstate New York.
On typical hikes I've taken, a group (generally consisting of fewer than 10 people) chats amiably about sightsthe remains of an old mansion or a sudden view of wildlifeexplores an interesting plant or tree or visits an historical site. We may stop for lunch at a local restaurant. Day hikes, scheduled year-round, can range from eight to 15 miles and vary in pace (from "easy" to "moderate") depending on distance, terrain, and location.
"Hiking is cardiovascular in nature," says Carole Coppens, an exercise physiologist who directs the Lourdes Wellness Center in Vestal, New York. "You're moving all the major muscle groups simultaneously. Cardiovascular work benefits the heart and the lungs, and also burns calories."
There's some risk of injury when hiking, even in relatively tame surroundings like a park in Westchester, as I learned. Eager to get a closer look at a cannon, or a replica of one, perched inexplicably atop a slick, moss-covered rock a few feet into a small body of water, I clambered to the top. On the way down, I twisted my ankle after getting my right foot stuck in a crevice. For the rest of the six-hour hike, I hobbled painfully along with a tree branch for a cane.
Coppens cautions against other outdoor hazards: hypothermia (freezing your small body parts), hyperthermia ("when you're overheated, and you don't drink enough water, and your body gets dehydrated"), sunburn, and Lyme disease.
Tang offers the following advice for hikers:
* Buy boots that support your ankles, preferably water repellent and with Gore-Tex lining.
* Wear wool or synthetic socks that cover your ankles; avoid cotton, which absorbs and holds water.
* Wear a hat with a brim all around to guard against sunburn, low-hanging branches, and insects.
* Use insect repellent with a DEET count of 24 percent.
Despite the potential hazards of hiking, I think it's worth it. After a daylong excursion, I'm damned proud of myself. I've done something I love; seen sights ever so commonplace, but wondrous; and ventured out to meet new people. Day hiking satisfies important needs for me: feeling the grass or dirt under my feet (reconnecting me to an African ancestral past, perhaps), enjoying the beauty of the sky, breathing more deeply (energizing my cells), and finally, slowing me down (physically and mentally). But most of all, day hiking is affordable, accessible, and fun.
take a hike!
Most of New York City's hiking and walking clubs are members of the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, a federation of more than 85 hiking and environmental organizations, "dedicated to building and maintaining marked hiking trails and protecting related open spaces in the bistate region." They offer opportunities for combining environmental awareness and wildlife appreciation with recreation.
Appalachian Mountain Club/NY-NJ chapter
Largest hiking and outdoors club in the Northeast, offering up to 30 hikes each weekend. Fee: $15 for four month trial period, $40 per year/$65 per family. First hike is free. Contact: 212-986-1430; www.amc-ny.org
Chinese Mountain Club of New York
Hikes are within two hours of the city. Caters to the Asian community, but everyone is welcome. Contact: George Li 732-985-2685 or Winnie Hing 718-450-7134; www.cmcny.org
German-American Hiking Club
Hikes for persons of German heritage every second Sunday in the tristate area. German spoken on hikes, but not exclusively. Fee: $25 per year. First two hikes free. Contact: Evelyn Hoyer 718-457-8319; e-mail: email@example.com
Mosaic Jewish Outdoor Mountain Club
Offers recreational hikes (for singles in their twenties, thirties, and forties) through mountain trails, parks, and urban areas. Fee: $25 per year. Nonmembers $10 per trail walk and $5 for urban walks. Contact: 212-696-8666; www.mosaic-gny.org
New York Ramblers
Challenging Sunday hikes through unusual terrainrailyards, cemeteries, urban landscapesall within 50 miles of NYC. Fee: $4 per year plus $1 initiation fee. Contact: Chris Zeller 212-260-4879; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org