I love to hike. Some of the things I look for in a good trail are a physical challenge, wild nature, impressive terrain, and solitude. I’ve hiked in some spectacular places with all of these features – Mount Rainer, the Smoky Mountains, Jackson Hole, Glacier National Park, and Old Pali Road in Hawaii. These places all fill me with a sense of awe. Sometimes, I also feel a sense of unity or connectedness to a larger world -- an experience I seldom have while indoors.
I’m fortunate to live in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which has far more parkland per person than any other urban area in the United States. But I don’t always seek out spectacular or undeveloped places when I hike. At times, I choose city sidewalks or other public places such as a university campus. These places might not offer much awe-inspiring terrain, breath-taking scenery or solitude, but there are still qualities that I treasure. It’s “the commons” – something belonging to everyone. As I hike through commons no matter where I am, I rejoice in the fact that where I’m walking isn’t mine or yours – it’s all of ours. I relish the idea that there are places where anyone can stand or sit and just be there -- breathing the air, viewing the sky, talking to others or just contemplating one’s own thoughts.
I lived for many years in rural Ohio where country roads and a rails-to-trails corridor were my usual hiking trails. Someone once described the countryside where I lived as “flat as a table top”. For a hiker that’s not much challenge, or variety either, since the trail I usually hiked is surrounded almost entirely by farmland. Yet, I enjoyed hiking this trail for what the commons had to offer – sunshine, birds, rabbits, insects, and the freedom to “roam and ramble” through the countryside. No one could privatize or enclose the wildlife, breezes, and sunshine that surrounded me as I walked.
Since moving to New Mexico several years ago, I discovered the Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks and the bosque (forest) along the Rio Grande as great places to hike. I take delight in the camaraderie I experience while hiking at Tent Rocks. Hikers on the trail often smile and say hello. They share comments about the uniqueness of the rocks and sometimes offer a helping hand at a particularly challenging spot along the way. People seem to enjoy making the climb together, not minding the need to step aside for hikers going the opposite direction.
The Paseo del Bosque Trail extends 16 miles through the city of Albuquerque. As I hike, I meet many other people along the way -- walkers, runners, bicyclists, people with wheelchairs, equestrians, families with strollers, in-line skaters, and bird watchers. People from all across the region seem drawn to the bosque for the beauty and shade it offers in the middle of a desert. Wildlife love it too. I’ve seen porcupines in the trees, beavers along the water, and sandhill cranes in the marshes. I’ve heard that there are over 500 different species of animals living in New Mexico’s bosque including the red-tailed hawk, American kestrel, roadrunner, and a variety of hummingbirds, owls, and woodpeckers.
Urban neighborhoods might not be considered by everyone as great places to hike, yet I will stroll through the city for adventure, discovery, and the joy of being outdoors. As I venture out on the sidewalks, I focus for a moment on the need to have an open mind and a new way of seeing the world around me. I’m tempted, at times, to think of the “real world” as the world of nature. But the urban environment is rich in stories for those who take the time to look carefully. I find enjoyment by hiking through the city markets, parks, and side streets and by visiting its libraries and museums.
It’s great to experience challenge, variety, solitude, and natural wonders in remote wild areas. But I found that hiking through public space anywhere offers surprises, freedom, and a sense of connection to a larger world. I have come to realize that I depend on the commons as a place to stretch my legs, my mind, and my soul.