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The Stories We Tell Ourselves by Susan Alcorn

Susan Alcorn at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro
Susan Alcorn at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro

When I was served with divorce papers in the ‘80s at the end of a 22-year marriage, I did what anyone would do—I signed up for a “highlight” camping and hiking trip with the Sierra Club that would take us to Alaska and Hawaii. The good news is that the trip lasted two weeks; the bad news is that it was only two weeks.

I loved both destinations, but Alaska being as vast and wild as it is, claimed a special place in my heart. How could I—at that point a reentry college student with a minimal income—ever hope to return there for a longer stay? A few weeks after I returned from my vacation to my home in the S.F. Bay Area, I met someone who had spent the previous summer working as a seasonal employee in Denali National Park. The hiring office of the park’s concessionaire was only an hour’s drive from my home.

I applied, was immediately hired, took my finals early, and flew to Alaska for the summer. The sales position in the park’s gift shop was fun; the time off was fantastic. Anytime that I wanted, I could take the free (at that time) shuttle bus into the heart of the park and start a hike from any point along the bus’s lengthy route. Armed with a telephoto lens, I would look for Dall sheep, foxes, caribou, moose, and grizzlies.

Once I asked to get off the bus so that I could spend more time taking photos of a grizzly that we had spotted; it was only after I climbed aboard the same bus on its return trip that a woman’s comment, “I was so worried about you!” made me realize that I had been a little too close to the bear for safety.

One day as I was walking back to the employee dorm from another of my hikes, an epiphany came—I could go anywhere in the world as long as I was willing to do much of the traveling on my own two feet and willing to stay in a tent or other low cost accommodation. Since that time I have backpacked extensively in the U.S. and abroad. I’ve climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, completed the John Muir Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, hiked thousands of miles of pilgrimage routes in France, Spain, and Portugal, and trekked the Circuit trail of Torres del Paine, Patagonia.

The rewards and challenges of the hikes and backpack trips that my husband, Ralph, and I have taken over the last twenty years have been the inspiration for my travel writing, and my life has been greatly enriched by the trail community to which we belong. My life of hiking, community, writing and publishing, now largely defines my core being.

I have seen that we can either reduce or expand our horizons depending on which stories we tell ourselves. Little did I know twenty-odd years ago that I would be completing hundred-plus-mile hikes around the planet. We learned the secret of hiking when we were one year old—it’s one step at a time—and what an incredible way to see the world!

About Susan Alcorn

Susan Alcorn, aka Backpack45, is the author of several books including We’re in the Mountains Not over the Hill: Tales and Tips of Seasoned Women Backpackers, Camino Chronicle: Walking to Santiago; and upcoming Patagonia Chronicle: On Foot in Torres del Paine.

Alcorn writes about regional hiking for Examiner.com at www.examiner.com/hiking-in-san-francisco/susanalcorn.

Website: backpack45.com

Blog: backpack45.blogspot.com

Her free monthly hiking newsletter is available by request by sending an email to her at [email protected]

10 comments

  1. Camper Trailer Canvas

    Congratulations! Looks like a tough climb but full of memories I bet. Awesome click!

  2. Susan, Interesting article. I am a newbie to long-distance hiking and I love to hear how others became interested in doing so. As I read your article, I can see myself on future hikes…this dreaming or telling myself stories, is expanding my horizons…I see more hiking in my future.

    • Thanks, Jane, it has certainly opened up a whole new world for me. Once, when I was just starting out, I expressed to an experienced hiker how envious I was of his trips. He responded to me, “I am envious of you because you have so many wonderful places and trails to discover.” Have fun with your new adventures!

  3. Thanks for the post, Susan. I need to find one of your books now. :^)

  4. Good story.

    I’ve never been divorced, how do I start? (kidding)

    Yeah, learning to just put one foot in front of the other is a bad thing. Look at all the people that do dumb things, like getting a little too close to a bear. I well understand that you knew he wasn’t going to attack you. How did you know? This is a trick that I do not think can be taught, you just knew. A wealth of experience wrapped up in just the one action that says more to me than simply another bear encounter. And the off hand way in the telling of the story, says you didn’t think it was all that important…others did. It is a simple thing, putting words together…I wish I had that knack. Describing a dangerous encounter in a mild way is a briliant display of writing skills, animal behavior and wood craft.

    Do you write poetry? Nevermind….sometimes prose is poetry.

    Good story.

    • Hi Marco,
      I am definitely not fearless and seldom fool-hearty. During the couple of months that I worked in Denali, I took many hikes and generally avoided going through the areas of vegetation where the (grizzly) bears feasted. When I did go through brush, I made lots of noise.
      In more recent years, while backpacking in the Sierra and elsewhere on the Pacific Crest Trail, we’ve had a few other experiences with bears, but none have been threatening. On our earliest trips, I would frequently lie awake scared to death that (black) bears would come into camp; in more recent years, I have become calmer because I know, and feel, that the bears are not particularly interested in me–they just want my food. We store our food properly!

  5. Susan,

    What a wonderful post. Am off to buy your book, Camino Chronicle…

  6. Susan, you are without a doubt, one of my hiking heroes. My wife, Jane, and I both read your Camino Chronicles before our Camino de Santiago and were so glad we did. It was a wealth of information and an enjoyable story.

    I loved your opening statement here about, “I did what anyone would do—I signed up for a “highlight” camping and hiking trip” Yeah, sure. I don’t know too many that would take that approach, especially going off to Alaska. That was gutsy. They have BIG bears up there.

    Keep up the great work with the books and the website.

    • Dennis, you made my day with your sweet comments. Seeing your name again made me grab my copy of “Three Hundred Zeroes: Lessons of the Heart on the Appalachian Trail” and I somehow flipped right to the page where you said (when you were recovering from heart surgery and wanted to get more exercise), “I once suggested increased sex could work wonders, but I just got that ‘stare’ from [wife] Jane.” Click, got it, love it!

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