Thursday, October 15, 2009


Most places have the usual four seasons, but the Phoenix area, in which I live, has only two. One, from April through September, is The Big Heat, when daily triple-digit temperatures keep sensible people hunkered down in ACed confines. The other, October-through-March, is Hiking Season, or regular summer in other climes.

Hiking Season now is here, and I couldn’t be happier. Mornings there’s a chill in the air, and even if the daytime highs reach into the 90s it’s not so bad because it’s “dry heat,” as we ‘Zonans like to say. At least twice a week I lace up my hiking shoes and head into the desert, immersing myself in its soothing stillness. Hiking is good for both body and soul, an excellent exacta.

One might think it strange that a city boy like me—Chicago born and bred—would have such a yen for the wilderness, and one would be correct. You can roll a bowling ball from one end of Chicago to the other, and few there wish to walk much in such monotonous environs.

I never took to the trail until 1985, at age 47, when Ray Sokolov, the estimable editor of the Leisure & Arts page of the Wall Street Journal, where my sports columns appeared amid the book, theater, movie and dance reviews, proposed an outing in the Rocky Mountains near Aspen, Colorado. Ray, an experienced hiker and climber, painted an alluring word picture of the adventure, and sealed the deal when he said our destination would be the summit of Mount Massive, at 14,421 feet the third-highest peak in the contiguous U.S.

“Mt. Massive!” I thought. “What a name! What a brag!” Considering myself in decent shape from my regimen of tennis and racquetball, I signed on.

Alas, as often was the case, Ray was as short on practical advice as he was long on rhetoric. Knowing no better, I neglected to do any serious training, and undertook the hike wearing Hush Puppies and cotton socks on my unwary feet. Furthermore, I’d never been higher than mile-high Denver, and the air in the 12,000-to-14,000-foot range of the upper Rockies is much thinner than it is there.

We did the hike, all right, getting to within a couple hundred feet of our goal before finding ourselves in a cul-de-sac of boulders with threatening clouds approaching, but I felt anything but wonderful. My feet were brutally blistered, my legs ached and my breath came in short pants. But you know what? Once healed I concluded that I’d loved the experience, and couldn’t wait to do it again.

In the years since I’ve hiked all over the U.S., especially in Arizona; in fact, the lure of the desert was a big reason wife Susie and I decided to set up permanent shop in Scottsdale. We live virtually across the street from a mountain preserve that has many beautiful and interesting trails, and dozens more are within an hour’s drive in any direction. Phoenix is a hikers’ paradise in season; I daresay no U.S. metro area is better.

I’ve taken courses in the local flora and fauna, achieving near-mavenhood on the subjects. I’ve led hikes under various auspices, and this fall, after the local community college cancelled (among many others) a hiking program I led, I ’m continuing it on my own. Tomorrow’s the first outing, and I’m psyched.

Hiking has much to recommend it. Athletically, it requires nothing more than the ability to put one foot in front of the other. It’s cheap, with the basic equipment being only hiking shoes (I buy a $50 pair online from Sierra Trading Post every couple of years) and a $20 fanny or back pack in which to carry water. It’s low-impact, meaning that it’s easy on the frame, and noncompetitive. It enables you to see things you can’t see from your car; indeed, the farther off the road you get the prettier the scenery becomes.

If you get down this way give me a call and I’ll take you out. If you live in or around Chicago you can get started in the Cook County forest preserves, and for a treat drive to Starved Rock State Park, where there are many good trails.

Try it. You’ll like it.

REMINDER: I’ll be speaking at 9:30 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 1, at the book fair at the Jewish Community Center on Scottsdale Rd. just north of Cactus.