The health benefits of hiking

Maynard and Steven hiking in Cheesequake Park
Maynard and Steven hiking in Cheesequake Park

Out Health

Trail Head entrance
Trail Head photo by Steven Russell

I love being outside. As a kid growing up in semi-rural suburban Ohio, I remember getting up on a summer Saturday morning, going outside as soon as I had breakfast, finding out who else was up, playing all day in the woods behind the house, maybe coming home for lunch, definitely coming in for dinner, but then heading back outside to play in the yard until well after dark.

I remember camping with my parents and sister in a trailer smaller than a closet, crisscrossing the country, and staying the night in heavily wooded campgrounds, often with no electricity. I am thankful that my upbringing brought me those opportunities. I have a connection to the outdoors that isn’t easy to obtain. Being outside gives me an optimistic outlook on life. Standing on the ground with bare feet, connecting skin to earth, and exchanging electrons with the grass and the soil must have immeasurable health benefits. These are things we should strive for.

It’s somewhat ironic that my most recent bucolic adventure was born inside, in my gym. I had been working out with Bruce, one of the gym’s trainers, for a couple of years. He had recently gotten a new fitness supervisor, Maynard, whom I had not yet met.

One day while Bruce was encouraging me to do my tenth assisted pullup, and reminding me that, unassisted, I would only be able to do four, he said, “Maynard knows you!” “Huh?” I grunted. “Maynard, my new supervisor,” he continued. “He reads your articles. He saw your face on some display at the Pride Center.” “Oh, is he…?” I inquired. “Well, I assume,” Bruce assured me.

Now I had to meet Maynard. As it happens, he came up to me while I was hanging from the bar on the Queenax. “Hey, Steven,” he blithely called up to me, “I’m Maynard. I’ve seen you around.” “Nice to finally meet you,” I said. “There aren’t many Maynards that I could confuse you with.” “My mom named me after some jazz musician you’ve never heard of,” he informed me.

I jumped down from my precarious pendant position, remembering to bend my knees the way Bruce had advised. “Maynard Ferguson?!” “Don’t tell me you know him,” he exclaimed.  “Know him? I have all his records. Yeah, the vinyl ones. From the seventies. I saw him live at Fargo High School.” No words came from his mouth which hung agape with surprise.

Maynard and I met for an interview a few days later at Panera in the Brunswick Square Mall. He had told me that he liked to run hiking groups for the LGBTQ community and was looking to hook up with places like the Pride Center to start a group in Central New Jersey.

“Young men in this community feel pressure to be accepted and validated,” he told me. “You must be the peacock all the time. I want to help people get back to simpler times. Help them take distractions away. Create new distractions. The outdoors does that better than anything else. Young gay men get such an instant reward from things like Grindr. This slows you down from that. It can help relieve so much anxiety and give you clarity of mind. Instantly. Not only can you socialize with different people, but you can also feel less alone. You can talk to someone who understands what you’re going through, and you can walk at the same time. It makes the whole thing easier and more pleasant. You are your authentic self, not some online persona.”

Trail in Cheesequake Park
Trail in Cheesequake Park photo by Steven Russell

I asked him what one should do to prepare for a hike. “You mean like the one you and I are going on?” he asked mischievously. “Bring at least one sweat towel, an extra shirt, comfortable shoes or hiking boots, a backpack, a waterproof light rain jacket, and at least 24 ounces of water, maybe even one of those backpack things with a hose to drink from. And a phone, but only for an emergency. Leave it in your pocket.”

That next day he and I met at Cheesequake Park for an early morning hike. I had been on those trails before, but as I talked to Maynard, the time flew. It hardly seemed like a chore at all, even as we went up and down some pretty steep hills. Suddenly, he veered off the trail, scampered down a steep slope, and was soon hidden among the tall swamp grass. “Hey, there’s a lot of mud down there,” I yelled. “Come on. Get your shoes a little dirty,” he beckoned. And so, I followed him straight through the mucky marsh and up another hill to the next leg of the trail. Sometimes you just have to cross the Rubicon.