Earlier this month, I hiked 8+ miles by myself through the Cleveland MetroParks. I had only planned on taking one trail, but was enjoying myself so much that I took another connecting route and made a longer loop back to where I had parked my car at the trailhead. It was just before peak color for the season, and between the colorful leaves, fresh autumn air, and smell of the outdoors, I felt far more refreshed than I had felt in a long time.
Hiking became one of my favorite things about a year ago, during my semester abroad in Madrid. It’s odd to reflect on it now, thinking that between both Summit and Cleveland MetroParks and Cuyahoga Valley National Park right in my backyard, hiking was never a passion or even a hobby of mine before. I have my friends Margrit and Jacky to thank for introducing me to it. Early last November, we packed snacks, layers, and plenty of water into our backpacks and took a bus about an hour north from our second home in the city of Madrid to a mountain town called Cercedilla. We stopped in the charming tourist office for maps and advice on which routes to take for how long we planned on being out, and after asking a few locals for directions to the trail, were on our way. Slowly our path became less town and more mountain, taking us through a hill full of cows and into the forest with tall trees that occasionally parted to reveal misty views of the mountain on the other side of a valley. There was nothing like it.
I never expected to bring home a love for hiking when I planned a semester abroad in the third largest city in Europe, and I think that that anecdote describes travel well– you don’t know what is going to happen or what you will take with you, but it’s always at least a little bit unexpected. I anticipated getting to know myself as a more independent adult, navigating the public transportation system, budgeting more than I ever had to before, and improving my Spanish, but never downloading Uber because the metro line failed too far from my apartment late at night, seeing immersive theatre where the audience was herded like cows from room to room, hearing the best, jazziest music on the metro, or joining a church choir and singing in Spanish. So when I think about it, that’s why it’s so hard to answer the question, “How was Spain?!” I used to get stuck. “It was good!” How was Spain? It was everything I lived for almost 4 months. That’s a complicated thing! Especially in the throws of so much new and unknown. It was amazing and it was terrible. I had days I felt so free and in charge of my own life and days when I felt as small and incompetent as could be. Thinking about how to answer that question now, instead of with a simple “I was good!” I think I’ll just say everything I did here.
Travel is not something separate from the rest of your life. Wherever you go, you carry your beliefs, insecurities, and strengths with you. You carry the culture or cultures that helped form you. You bring back knowledge of a new place, a different way of doing things, a broader understanding of something you thought you already knew about, including home. Within a different context, you see how home is different, flawed, or special. I realized how friendly Midwesterners are and learned to turn off my smile and not say hello to strangers on the street in Spain, and how strict American culture surrounding alcohol is when having a drink with lunch was normal in Spain. Everything new you learn about your host culture highlights something true about yours.
One of the little things I noticed in Spain was how much I missed fall back home. And not until this year, living through the season in my childhood home, did I realize exactly how special fall in Ohio is, of all places. In Spain, I missed the flavors of pumpkin, apple, and caramel. Leaves changed there too, but it was different, somehow. The weather was warmer (which I did NOT complain about), but even being back home, I can’t put my finger on why fall in Ohio is its own beautiful thing. It was my favorite season already, but I appreciate it that much more having missed it last year.
When I started hiking in Spain, I didn’t even own a pair of hiking boots. I went in tennis shoes or snow boots, whichever the weather called for. Now, I am spending my weekends exploring new trails in Northeast Ohio, soaking in the fall colors and crisp air, and now I even have a few trails I can call favorites. Hiking is something I never expected to fall in love with. It is something I loved about travel–complete with mountains, trains, and tourist offices–and now something I love about home, beautiful and refreshing just as it was abroad. It’s something that’s been transferable between points of my life–from study abroad, to college, to pandemic life at home, the outdoors has never been too far out of reach this past year. And what a year. Hiking is a perfect example of how travel is just life–it happens wherever you are, and forms you and your understanding of what is around you. And to Margrit and Jacky, thanks for sharing with me this part of travel, and this part of life.