Poles Apart

When I was 18, one of my favorite summertime activities was to hike to the tops of ski mountains and divebomb down the black diamond trails. I can’t recall if the purpose of this was to avoid the time-consuming yet sensible hiking trails or a way to test the strength of my knees and limbs, but ultimately the mountains won. In addition to stirring up megalopolises of mosquitoes and black flies nesting in unmowed ski trail grasses, the effect of repeatedly running downhill over steep mountain terrain was not unlike getting shot in the kneecaps. Today, 11 years later, my joints crunch in protest when I squat. Every time I hike downhill without trekking poles, I know I have a daylong knee-coddling session on the couch to look forward to.

Incidentally, my other passion at age 18 was ranting about the folly of hiking with poles. According to my teenager self, poles were the evilest in all the land of hiking gear because of their capacity to scratch and scour the trails I loved to hike. I watched disapprovingly as pole users dug their tips into fragile vegetation and clattered their way across rock surfaces bearing hundred-year-old lichen populations. The worst, I decided, were the hikers who didn’t even seem to need their poles and dragged them point-backward in their wake, at once creating a danger zone for others and tearing up the trail behind them.

At some point during my much wiser and more mature 19th year, I realized that my overly confident downhill racing habits weren’t sustainable. I needed to change the way I hiked or risk losing the ability to do it at all. One day I took a pair of ski poles with me on a backpacking trip and I immediately felt how the weight of my heavy pack became distributed between my legs, back, knees, shoulders, and arms. The poles helped keep me upright and balanced on the teeny ledges and rock slabs where I was used to toppling over. And just as important, they made my shoulders and triceps as toned as if they’d been chiseled from granite. I was a changed lady. From then on, I praised the benefits of hiking poles as energetically as I’d previously seethed about their defects.

Recently I was reminded of my 18-year-old self when I overheard a pair of shoppers bemoan a trekking pole display at an outdoor gear shop.

“Those are only for people can’t hike,” scoffed one of them, a man who looked to be in his 50s. Silently, I named this man Wonder Knees.

The man’s companion, perhaps his son, looked sort of like Justin Bieber with a beard. “Yeah. I think poles make people feel like they have free rein to flail around and rip up everything around them.”

Although I don’t disagree with Bieber and Wonder Knees, the fact is that I need hiking poles and there’s simply nothing they can do to make me stop. And honestly, I don’t think it’s fair to say that all pole users flail around and rip everything up like clumsy giants with pointy limbs. When I hike, I’m careful to keep my elbows close to my body so that the tips of my poles dig into the trail rather than the vegetation beside it. I’m aware of my surroundings and I step aside when I notice other hikers are about to overtake me. I avoid too much clickity-clacking on rock slabs when it might offend the serenity of others. And I always pose like a bodybuilder so passers-by can take in the full effect of my chiseled bi’s and tri’s.

Mari Zagarins

When Mari isn't running, biking, hiking, or jumping-jacking in and around her home in Montpelier, she is practicing her facial expressions in the mirror and contemplating whether she should learn to swim.