hike!

Some boots weren’t made for walking.

All that beautiful country is sitting out there, waiting for anyone who’ll take the time to walk through it. If you ignore it because you’re “out of shape,” or “there’s not enough time,” or maybe “it’s just been too long,” then you’re missing out on one of the most exciting parts of your world.

Hiking is not “escaping into another world.” Colin Fletcher, this country’s most famous hiker, made this point in The Complete Walker. “I was gently accused of escapism during a TV interview about a book I had written on a length-of-California walk. Frankly, I fail to see how going for a six-month, thousand-mile walk through deserts and mountains can be judged less real than spending six months working eight hours a day. five days a week, in order to earn enough money to be able to come back to a comfortable home in the evening and sit in front of a TV screen and watch the two-dimensional image of some guy talking about a book he has written on a six-month, thousand-mile walk through deserts and mountains.”

You don”t have to start with a thousand-mile hike, of course, to appreciate the art. Whether your first hike lasts a day or two weeks, you’ll learn two things fast. The first is that you will make mistakes. The second is that, despite those mistakes, the trip is always worth making.

You could begin with some short walks – maybe two or three miles – near town. Dallas has a wealth of isolated nature areas surrounding it. The L. B. Hous-ton Nature Area in Irving and Samuell East Park (off I-20 at Belt Line Rd.) both offer relaxing nature trails for an afternoon when you have some free time.

A short drive out Highway 114 to Grapevine Lake brings you to some more good trails, winding around the lake. Most lakes in the area have good hiking trails. Try Cedar Creek Reservoir, southwest of Dallas on U.S. 175, or Lake Palestine, just east of Athens.

Tennis shoes are fine for those occasional short strolls, but if you want to move on to longer trails and tougher terrain, you’ll want to invest in a pair of hiking boots.

Boots are expensive. There’s no way around it. A good pair of hiking boots can run anywhere from $40 to $100. But the first time you get blistered from walking twenty miles in sneakers, you’ll know the value of boots.

Like any worthwhile investment, the value of a pair of boots is measured by their output over the years. Top-quality boots will last several years under heavy use, although you’ll have to replace the soles occasionally. Veteran backpackers show no mercy to their boots. They’re built for abuse.

So what kind of boots do you need? They have to support not only your weight, but the weight of your pack as well. Thus, the thickness of the sole will depend on the load you expect to carry. For average hiking, try a half-inch thick rubber or synthetic sole, like Vibram or Galibier. For rugged walking with heavy loads, such as backpacking or rock climbing, a thicker sole is necessary.

Complaints about boots usually arise because they don’t fit right. Make sure you’ve got a good snug fit. Lots of space inside the boot means rubbing and blisters. Not fun. If they seem just a bit tight at first, don’t worry. They’ll loosen up as you break them in. Wear them around the house. Go for short walks around the city. Do not take off on a long hike in brand new boots! You’ll break your feet before you break in your boots.

When you’re ready to buy boots, but unsure of what you need, the best thing you can do is head for a backpacking store. A good backpacking store will carry only high-quality boots. It will also be staffed by people who are hikers and campers first and salespeople second. They probably know better than you what you need for where you’re going. This doesn’t mean you should blindly trust anything they tell you, but you’ll probably be back many times if they treat you right, so they do.

The finest backpacking store I’ve found is The Mountain Chalet in Old Town shopping center. The prices aren’t cheap, but the quality is the best. The staff is made up of experienced hikers, backpackers, mountain climbers, and other naturalists, and they all know what they’re talking about.

Other good ones are the Backpacker’s World at Keystone Park, Spring Valley and Central Expressway, the Mountain Hideout at Coit and Spring Valley, and Southwest Canoe ’N’ Kayak Outfitters on Pioneer Parkway West in Arlington.

Army-Navy stores are great for small items like cook kits and utensils. But be wary of a $25 tent that has all the features of the $125 model you saw at a backpacking shop. Set up that $25 tent in the rain and you’ll know by morning what the difference is.

If you advance enough to start backpacking, you may once again be alarmed by the apparent expense of the sport – and $100 for a pack and $75 for a sleeping bag is admittedly a lot of money for recreation. But you’ll spend that much only once. Unless you throw your pack off the rim of the Grand Cantyon, you’ll never need another. A good down or Fiberfill II sleeping bag should last for years. The same goes for a tent.

Some fine brand names to think about for packs are Kelty and Northface. If you’ve got extra money, get a Sierra Designs tent and sleeping bag, undoubtedly the best made. (Sierra Designs recently bought out Kelty.) Gerry and Eureka make good tents, as does Northface.

I may be getting ahead of you here. You probably want to know where you can go with all this fancy equipment. Well, Dallas isn’t Colorado, but it does have access to a lot of good hiking.

Looking north, head for Lake Texoma. There are lots of good walking areas all around the lake, and a few well-marked trails. One is the 14-mile Cross Timbers Hiking Trail, beginning at the Juniper Point Recreation Area. Another, on the Oklahoma side of the lake, is the Kia-michi Trail, 50 miles long. Platte National Park, farther north in Oklahoma off of 1-35, also has some good nature trails – if you can avoid the weekend crowds.

Wide open grassland spaces are also good for meditative walking. The Caddo grasslands area near Coffee Mill Lake, northeast of Sherman, and the grasslands area north of Decatur are excellent examples.

Moving east, the land starts getting hilly and the trees get thicker. Thick pine forests mark the beginning of East Texas. A good start is Daingerfield State Park, near Lake o’ the Pines. From 1-30 take 49 south and follow the signs.

A little farther down the road is Caddo Lake State Park. Caddo, the only natural lake in Texas, straddles the Louisiana border. Unlike the reservoirs all over Texas, Caddo is a swamp lake, full of channels. Trees clothed completely in Spanish moss make for fascinating hiking, if you’re careful where you walk. (If you want to combine canoeing with your trip, the intricate channels make Caddo ideal.)

Arkansas sits up there northeast of us, too often neglected. But only six hours away from Dallas are the best hiking and rock jumping, and the closest thing to mountains around. The Ouachita National Forest sprawls over a huge area of western Arkansas, and it’s criss-crossed by trails that can take you far, far from the highway. The Ouachita Mountains aren’t very tall, but the view from the top is still breathtaking – long green valleys of thick pines. The park is big enough to accommodate day hikers as well as multi-week backpackers. You can get away from the crowds easily, even in the busy summer season, and set up camp deep in the woods. Even better in this area is cave-camping above the tiny mountain springs that run into the river.

The dense piney woods region of lower East Texas is a real treasure chest for hikers. Trails cut through the Angelina, Davy Crockett, Sam Houston, and Big Thicket National Forests are storehouses of information on Texas plants and wildlife. The longest is the 100-mile Lone Star Trail. It starts outside of Hunts-ville, running through the Sam Houston National Forest. Divided into several sections, or “loops,” the Lone Star gives an overview of East Texas. The 4-C Trail in Crockett National Forest is a good one for moderate hikers. The best way to find the good trails through the piney woods is to check in at the Ranger Station and pick up topographic maps. (Topos are available in Dallas at many backpacking stores and at the Geologic Survey office in the Federal Building downtown.)

Some of the best woodland trails are maintained by logging and paper companies. They’re great for studying the vast number of tree species found in Texas. Try the short Longleaf Pine Trail, off Farm Road 62 between Camden and Cor-rigan in southest Texas.

Coming back northward, the creeks and rivers of the Hill Country open up more possibilities. Pedernales Park, east of Austin near Johnson City, gets a little crowded with UT students sometimes, and it’s easy to see why. Unusual creek formations abound there, creating little waterfalls that make it one of the most beautiful parks in the state.

All of the places mentioned here are within a six-hour drive of Dallas and good for newcomers to hiking. A great way to get started is through the Sierra Club, a national outdoors organization. The Dallas chapter (369-5543) sponsors outings, not only in Texas, but Colorado, New Mexico and the Grand Canyon. The club meets the second Wednesday of every month at 7:30 in the sophomore lecture hall at the University of Texas Medical School. It’s a good way to get acquainted with other hikers and trade ideas. You might also consult Fifty Hikes in Texas, by Dick and Sharon Nelson, which lists trails from 1 to 100 miles long.

You may find it worth your time and effort to explore the possibilities of hiking. You may even get addicted, like so many of us, to the relaxing feeling you get from even one hour spent walking alongside a creek. There’s only one way to find out.

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