Triple-Crown hiker Karen Berger has hiked more than 18,000 miles all over the world. She is the author of 12 books about hiking and backpacking, including the newly released “America’s Great Hiking Trails” which focuses on the national scenic trails system, with photographs by Bart Smith. In addition to hiking, she skis (downhill and cross country), rides horses, and scuba dives. She lives in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts.
What makes the outdoors a compelling place for you to be?
It’s hard to say, as I seem to have been born this way. As long as I can remember, my passions have been the same: books, all things foreign, music, and the outdoors. When I was a kid, I went to a summer camp where we lived for a month in these huge canvas tents. We were outside almost 24-7. And then in August I’d return home to an air-conditioned apartment and I would walk around feeling trapped; feeling that the very air I was breathing was so… wrong.
Being outdoors makes me feel healthy and whole. It’s especially true in the winter: We can have long periods of ghastly gray wintery mix in southern New England, and getting OUT in the muck is the best way to not only come to terms with it, but to enjoy it and find the beauty in it.
And of course, the other thing — which is also something I have always responded to — is the immense and mind-stretching diversity and wonder of the natural world. From the smallest bluet flower to northern lights that stretch from one horizon to the other, the outdoors is a place of constant beauty, and it is always changing.
A place or interaction on the trail that made a major impression on you
When I was about 9, we went to the White Mountains of New Hampshire for a family vacation. We took the cog railway to the top of Mt. Washington, and I read the placard at the top that lists the names of people who died up there. And then I went outside, and my dad explained what the huge cairns were for, and that there was a trail — the Appalachian Trail, of course — that went from Georgia to Maine. I was feeling a bit cheated, because we hadn’t climbed the mountain, and because I couldn’t just stride away and follow the trail somewhere over the mountains. And just then, on cue, some young guys carrying backpacks emerged from the clouds below us. I remember thinking that they looked like creatures from another universe — that they were untethered to their cars or their school schedules or their families; that they were creatures of the mountain. And I wanted to be one too.
A memorable challenge you dealt with on a hike
I don’t see the outdoors particularly in terms of challenge… for me, the outdoors is part of my natural habitat. I think the outdoors is often perceived in terms of challenge by people who aren’t at home in it — people like Bill Bryson or a Cheryl Strayed, whose books detailed the struggles of people who were really unprepared for what they had undertaken. And of course, those experiences can make the best stories. But once the outdoors becomes your second home, it’s not such a scary place, and hiking up a mountain isn’t some momentous achievement; it’s just what you do. You learn how to use the gear. You learn to navigate. You learn to protect yourself from the elements. And then, you just walk a lot.
That said, of course, there can be challenges. In my early days of long-distance hiking, I had to learn what my body could do, so I had to overcome the anxiety of looking at a 3,000 foot wall of rock and trying to wrap my mind around the inevitability that I was going to have to hike up the whole unbelievable thing. And even now, packs can be too heavy, miles can be too long, mountains can be too high, weather can be too vile… I can still find myself looking up or down at some seemingly impossible stretch of trail and wondering how I’m going to get myself down or up it.
The difference is that now, I know that if there’s a trail, I can hike it. I know I can grip the snow with crampons, or use an ice axe if I fall, or pull myself up a rock ledge with my arms, or keep going for another five miles. So you just put one foot forward, and then the other. I’d say probably the biggest challenge for me in a thru-hike is dealing with unremittingly bad weather, either humidity/heat, or days and days of rain. I’m not out there to suffer: if it’s a million degrees out and there’s an air-conditioned hotel, well, I have a credit card and I know how to use it.
How the outdoors has changed your life?
I can’t say it has changed my life, because it’s always been such a big part of my life. I can’t imagine my life without this part of it. The outdoors, and my life in the outdoors has given me a component of how I make my living: Because the other thing I love to do is write, I’ve been able to patch together a career that combines writing and the things I love — the outdoors, travel, music.