I love a good walk. Always have. You know – get the legs working, the heart pumping, a little sweat above the upper lip and the whole body feels in rhythm. Take that trek through the woods, alone, and the feeling becomes downright spiritual.During my years as a journalist, walks and hikes were mind-clearing essentials, but my schedule left little time for them. Now that I’m retired, I have no excuse. Not long after I left work, a friend invited me to join his men’s hiking group. The other guys are retired, too. The so-called Hiking & Chowder Society meets every Wednesday morning, does a six- to eight-mile hike, has lunch at a diner or bar, then picks a meeting spot for the next week. Some weeks there are six of us, other times there might be 12.
When I’m out with the Wednesday group I take quick photos of the scenery along the trail. We could be trekking through an industrial backyard and by training my cellphone camera on a shimmering creek or a shaft of sunlight, the pictures I post to Facebook look more like Yellowstone.
Soon enough my Facebook friends at St. Brendan’s began to marvel at the photos and peppered me with questions week after week. Where is that trail? How do you find these places? How’s the terrain? It became clear that St. Brendan’s needed its own hiking group, so Brendan’s Boots was born.
Everyone knows that hiking, walking and running are good for your health, but they offer other benefits, too. I’ve hiked solo, as part of a pair, in a group and with a troop of two dozen Boy Scouts and leaders on the Appalachian Trail (we’ll leave that story for another day). Each experience is different and each comes its own pleasures.
On a solo hike in the woods, when the shade closes in, a breeze drifts by and it’s time to stop for water, one can be overcome by a powerful sense of solitude – feeling grand and insignificant all at the same time. When hiking with a partner or a group, it’s a social event, with less attention paid to nature and more to conversation.
Brendan’s Boots, like any hiking group, had to find its comfort zone after it was founded in the spring of 2017, and it did so soon enough. The 10 or 11 regulars, men and women, like to walk about four miles (several will push it to five). They prefer a level path. They hit the trail about every three weeks. And they like to have lunch afterwards. To keep the group open to working people, Brendan’s Boots alternates hiking days between Saturday and a day during the workweek.
Regardless of the day or destination, the group meets in the church parking lot at 9 a.m. and carpools to the trail. We begin the walk together, but eventually the group stretches out, based on each member’s pace. Some prefer to use a hiking pole; others don’t. Sometimes one or more bring their bikes and ride instead of walk. Regardless, we wait for everyone to finish the trail before heading to lunch. After we eat, it’s back to St. Brendan’s, where the time is usually somewhere between 1:30 and 2 p.m.
In the last two hiking seasons, Brendan’s Boots has explored the trails at Raccoon State Park, Mt. Washington, North Park Lake, Panther Hollow, Frick Park and the North Shore, to name a few. We took a walking tour of Sewickley, eyed some homes of the rich and famous, and shopped at the Saturday farmer’s market. Last June after one of our hikes, we ate at a country restaurant, then crossed the road to buy local, fresh-picked strawberries.
After burning calories, you’ve got to replace them, and the hikers have eaten at some nice restaurants, a few dives and also outdoors – at the edge of a lake, along the Allegheny River, and from the windows of food trucks. Big Jim’s is a classic Pittsburgh joint tucked away in a sleepy neighborhood called The Run, and prior to hiking in Schenley Park no one in Brendan’s Boots had heard of it. Now everyone wants to go back.
Despite platters as memorable as Big Jim’s and a view as breathtaking as Mt. Washington’s, conversation is king with Brendan’s Boots. Because the hikers are in motion, the group walk is like a moving party, where casual discussions involve two people here, three people there and new combinations of walkers as the trek unfolds. As a result, there’s more chat time than at the 10 o’clock service’s coffee hour and an opportunity to engage each other as people rather than parishioners.
Brendan’s Boots was launched around a simple idea – to get people out, onto their feet and into nature. But it does more than that. It merges the joy of a healthy walk with the pleasure of good meal, improves fitness while deepening friendships. It’s not a spiritual outing, but one to lift the spirit and, with it, everyone’s heart rate. Amen, I say, to all that.
Tom Waseleski is senior warden at St. Brendan’s. He and his wife Saundy have been members of the parish since 1990.