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Ideas

How to take a great hike when you can’t stray far

Urban rambles are restorative if you embrace the exotic and find creative ways to challenge yourself.

Kevin Fitzgerald Park overlooks Boston's Mission Hill.
Kevin Fitzgerald Park overlooks Boston's Mission Hill.John Tlumacki

You probably want to get outside today. And a long and scenic walk through the great outdoors just might be the perfect tonic for your mind and body.

There’s just one hurdle. Unless you already live near the great outdoors — the true back country — you shouldn’t go there right now. Sheltering in place means we need to keep our forays into the outside world localized. Looking out for each other requires us to recognize that many rural communities have bare-bones hospitals and grocery stores. The last thing they need right now is an invasion of flatlanders. So what do you do if you just want to go hiking?

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This is a question I’ve had to grapple with lately. Hiking has always been meditative for me. It’s also part of my profession. In 2018, I hiked 78 trails in six months while writing a guidebook on hiking in northern New England. Hemlock forests, craggy ridgelines, and horsetail waterfalls are the closest things I’ve had to a house of worship. As COVID-19 spread and we were urged to stay put, I found myself at a loss.

One morning, I decided to go for a long walk from my house in Jamaica Plain to the middle of Hyde Park, a neighborhood that I seldom visit, despite its proximity to my neck of the woods. What started as a head-clearing stroll became an adventure. I wandered through industrial lots, leafy residential streets with battered triple-deckers, old corridors of woods, and forgotten parklets waiting for the spring bloom. I heard music and huffed savory aromas wafting from nearby homes. I happened upon a plump rabbit doing the “If I stay still, they won’t see me” routine. By the time I reached Hyde Park, I was sweating lightly, my blood was pumping, and I felt improbably serene.

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Then, I realized, I had just gone for a hike. It was an urbanized foray into new territory, just beyond my backyard, on foot. And I thought: this is what hiking can be in the time of COVID-19.

Since that long walk, I’ve “hiked” nearly every day while remaining planted in the Boston area. And you can too, if you’re willing to re-imagine the act of hiking. I break it down into these three tenets: keep your hikes local, embrace the exotic, and find creative ways to challenge yourself.

Live deep in the city? Throw some snacks in your backpack and try walking from your place to a neighborhood or a landmark that you’ve never properly visited. Take the weirdest, most twisted route through back streets and green spaces that you can. Live in or close to the suburbs? Check out that parcel of woods or reedy swamp. Make these hikes regularly and try boosting your mileage each week. Take the hillier routes if you’re feeling the effects of staying at home too much. And leave the earbuds at home so that you can savor the songs of birds, animals, and the sounds of life happening in backyards. Given that less of us are driving, you will hear it clearly.

Making this a daily ritual has sharpened my senses in some startling ways. On a recent hike to Mission Hill, I was mesmerized by the shapes of the old trees on the Emerald Necklace, and the way this river of greenery neatly slices past hospitals, condos, and rail infrastructure. Even the array of people I wandered past, at a distance of six feet, left me mesmerized. The beauty and oddities of your own urban or suburban ecosystem are gems. And they’re hidden in plain view.

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Localized hiking may sound boring compared to schlepping your way up Mount Chocorua. But if you commit to it, you can find peace, wonder, and much more.

Isn’t that what many of us go searching for in the back country?

Miles Howard is a journalist based in Boston.