Hiking has been good to Reji James.
Countless friendships, tip-top physical stamina, and a successful marriage are all in some way linked to an activity that the 44-year-old Acton resident engages in year-round.
It’s not uncommon for James to take a morning stroll through a local conservation area before leaving for work, lead an Appalachian Mountain Club weekend trip into the White Mountains, or plan a family hiking getaway. He always finds time to incorporate one of his biggest passions into even the busiest of weeks.
“To me, hiking is walking in an area where I can be in touch with nature,” he said when asked to define an activity that can sometimes seem ambiguous. “Let’s say I don’t have time and I’m not fit. Well, I could drive up to the Minute Man National Park in Lincoln, Concord. It’s flat and I can walk for 45 minutes. That’s a hike because I’m connecting with nature, it’s quiet, and I’m enjoying it.”
Like running and biking, hiking offers physical and mental benefits: losing weight, decreasing hypertension, improving emotional health.
However, these benefits are not what drive James and his friends to embark on their frequent treks. Rather, it’s a love that develops suddenly, sometimes during one’s first adventure.
James, who works as a client service director for a software company, has led AMC trips to far-off locales, including Glacier National Park in Montana, the Denali and Kenai Fjords parks in Alaska, and the Torres del Paine preserve in Chile’s Patagonia region.
It all started in 2000, when the native of India climbed Mount Washington as his first hike in the United States.
“We got hit by a thunderstorm and I was wearing cotton because I didn’t know any better,” James recalled. “I was very out of shape — about 17 pounds overweight. I could not walk for the next four days.’’
Still, he became hooked, James said. “We stayed at Lake of the Clouds Hut, which is about 1.8 miles from the summit. At around 8 o’clock the clouds cleared and the sun came out. It was probably June or July — the summer months — and it was phenomenally beautiful. It was quite the experience.”
Since then, he has completed AMC leadership training; met his wife, Hillary; and become an avid winter hiker. He has also formed lasting friendships with other like-minded junkies, including Michele Grzenda and Faith Pulis.
Grzenda, a Lincoln resident who works for Weston as its conservation administrator, began her affair with hiking as a University of New Hampshire undergraduate when she started going on trips with friends, and took a two-credit backpacking course. She was hooked.
“My love of science and my interest in nature allow me, while hiking, to hear and see different wildlife than I would normally see,” Grzenda said.
“There is also the social aspect. In college, I would go hiking with friends and I loved the fluidity of a group of people enjoying something we all loved. Later on, becoming an AMC leader, one of my passions is getting new people outdoors to experience nature.”
When Grzenda recently celebrated her 40th birthday, there was only one option: a weekend hiking trip to Franconia Notch in New Hampshire with her friends, many of whom she met through AMC.
At 51, Pulis, who lives in Concord and is the president and CEO of Camp Thoreau and the Thoreau Club, traces her passion for hiking to her grandparents.
“For me, hiking is about the journey, not the destination,” Pulis said. “It’s an opportunity to embrace the moment: breathe in the fresh air, listen to the wind rustle through the trees, and, of course, take photos.
“I always have a camera in my pocket and have been bestowed with the trail name ‘Paparazzi.’ We even have a signature photo I take on all my hikes. Most people take a group photo of everyone’s feet. I take a group photo with the camera on the ground looking up while everyone is leaning in. It’s more fun to see everyone’s smiles, and be reminded of the wonderful friendships that were made that day.”
Pulis has also completed her AMC leadership training, and hopes to impart her love of hiking to novices.
This spring, as it does every year, the AMC’s Boston chapter offered a spring hiking program for beginners. The interactive course, which began in April, consists of five instructional sessions that cover the basics of spring, summer, and fall day hikes, and backpacking tips. There were 117 participants.
“I went a few times when I was younger,” said Medway resident John Baker, a health care professional who just turned 49. “I always liked it and I finally got the OK from my wife to take off and do something on my own. I just love being outdoors.”
Baker recently climbed Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire, an experience he described as “amazing, despite not knowing there were going to be so many rocks.”
For Joe Silvestri, a Norfolk resident in his late 40s, hiking is an opportunity to spend more quality time with his kids.
“I was looking for activities to do with my two teenagers that didn’t involve video games or electronics,” he said. “When you’re hiking you’re separated from everything else. There are no distractions. You’re trying to figure out where you’re going, and you’re bonding with others trying to figure out how to hike and enjoy nature.”
Formal training is by no means a prerequisite for taking a day hike.
A quick online search for the 10 safe hiking essentials and a trail map of a local conservation area will suffice.
“You can literally pick up a map and see what’s green and go there,” said James, who is scheduled to lead one AMC trip this summer. It is a number that pales in comparison with periods in his life when he hiked the 48 New Hampshire summits over 4,000 feet, something he’s accomplished twice.
“Two kids take up a lot of time,” he noted. “Both Hillary and I are very sensitive about not wanting to be helicopter parents, not forcing something on our kids.’’ At the same time, he said, they want to “give them a balance of whatever we think is worthwhile and share what we love.
“For me, it’s a stress reliever. If nothing’s right . . . hiking is about the only thing that makes sense to me.”