A West Virginia State Parks challenge started me hiking in earnest in 2016. Sam England, the Parks Chief at the time, had issued what he called the Chief’s Challenge. I read about it when the press release came in to our local newspaper. The task, for anyone willing to take it on, was to hike 100 miles in West Virginia State Parks throughout the year. You’d sign up to be part of it, then keep a written log of hikes – on what date, which park, which trail. There was even a specific challenge to hike with a park Naturalist for a certain portion of the 100 miles.
In my head, this sounded like a good goal. I decided to sign us up as a family and use it as leverage to get my boys outdoors more, moving around and having fun. That’s how that looked in my mind, anyway.
We are excessively lucky to live within 10 miles of two state parks – Cacapon State Park & Berkeley Springs State Park. Cacapon, which spans more than 6,000 acres, has plenty of trail. Berkeley Springs – possibly the smallest of the state parks – has paved paths, but is two blocks from my office. Plus, I relished the excuse to go visit more parks. Because, you know, the Chief threw down a challenge.
We had a decent start on trail miles, then dropped off as summer kicked in. Bugs, heat and snakes. Do I need to say more? And we spend a lot of time swimming in the summer, from our rivers to lakes and whatever pool we can find. By October, I realized I was way behind on my 100 mile mark and had to get serious or fail. I don’t like to fail.
Soon, I was taking two and three-mile hikes in the mornings after dropping the kids off at school but before going to the office. I squeezed in longer hikes on the weekends. Days were getting shorter, so I fought to get to Cacapon in the evenings when I could.
Without knowing it, between October and December, I cemented the habit of hiking into my regular life. For a time, it was to “get my miles.” But it turned into my stress-relieving, contemplating, mood-lifting respite from the daily grind. I started to wake up, plotting when I could hit a trail and where. I incorporated state park visits into any work travel, and made them part of our family vacation planning, hitting North Bend State Park, Hawk’s Nest, Canaan Valley, Blackwater Falls, Stonewall Jackson and Lost River State Park.
On December 10, 2016, I took a seven-mile hike in Cacapon State Park that put me over the 100-mile mark. My oldest son had drawn “100 miles” in markers on a sheet of paper that I folded and put in my pocket as I set out on that last hike.
I forgot to take my picture with it at the exact spot where I hit the mileage mark, and by the time I finished my hike, my phone battery had died! So I warmed up in the car while the phone charged, then took my picture as the light started to fade over Cacapon Mountain. By the last day of December, I had logged 138 miles in West Virginia State Parks. Proudly, I mailed my hiking log into the state along with a letter thanking them for setting me on a new path outdoors. They sent me a spiffy backpack patch, and Sam England sent me a personal letter back. Heading into 2017, I didn’t bother to sign up for the Chief’s Challenge…hiking had become part of my life, not just a temporary goal. Plus, I already had the patch.