I pull my mud-splattered Subaru into the garage, my panting, wet dog sitting shotgun beside me.
I can feel the satisfaction beaming from her. For the last two hours, Cholula has been bounding after squirrels and splashing through mountain creeks, wagging her white-tipped tail like it’s her job. I followed blissfully behind, lost in my own thoughts. As she slurps up half her bowl of water (with the other half landing on the floor), I pause with my hand on the wall, shoving my hiking shoes off from the heel. There’s mud caked to the bottom of them, and I notice an impressive “tan line” made of dirt at my ankles. I smile, my mind wandering to just a few minutes ago, when everything else in my life faded away. I’m hooked on that feeling. I’m a woman in love.
Love has many forms. There’s the ache of a young crush, unrequited and excruciating. There’s the passion you feel when you discover your soul mate. There’s nothing like the loyalty you experience from your dog. The familiar stability of a lifelong friend. The unequivocal support from your family. But sometimes love can extend beyond living things. You can love a hobby, a song, a recipe your mother made for you as a child. You can absolutely love (and feel love from) a place. For me, it’s the trail.
I wasn’t always a hiker. It wasn’t until I found myself without a full-time job and with a year-old puppy with endless energy. My intention was simply to tucker out Cholula, who gleefully zigzagged the trail with puppy energy and probably traveled three times the distance I did. But time on the trail — any trail, really, but mostly here in Park City — has become something my soul requires. I’ve spent countless hours trekking around the hills, exploring the trails in every season. And there are a hundred reasons why I keep coming back.
The trail doesn’t judge you for your crazy bed head or last night’s smeared mascara or the cartoon voice you use to call your dog things like “Snifferdoodle.” The trail isn’t keeping track of how long it’s been since you’ve had a piece of writing published or when your last paycheck came in. A new trail is always happy to make a new friend, and an old one just gets better, the longer you spend time with it. The trail will happily host a group of friends and a pack of wagging dogs — the more the merrier. But it doesn’t mind when it’s just the two of you, either.
The trail isn’t a fair-weather lover. On the hottest days, it shades you with its trees. If a wicked snowstorm blows in, it will guide you back to safety. Here, fellow hikers stop to introduce their canine companions and share a friendly greeting as they pass. The trail brings out the best in us. It’s always there for you, even if you abandon it. When you’re away for a while, it welcomes you back with the song of birds and fluttering leaves. It doesn’t hold grudges if you don’t visit. It won’t tell your secrets. It listens when you mumble a thought aloud and soaks up your tears when they fall. The trail offers silent support and encouragement, allowing you the freedom to find in peace and clarity within yourself.
The trail system in these mountains is endless, inter-connected, varying in terrain with 1,000 views. My feelings about the trail may have started out as a crush, but it’s become a true love. I guess you could say we’re still in the honeymoon phase. I think of it when I’m away from it. I continue to discover new and exciting things about it and feel more comfortable with every mile we share together. We’ve become very close, the trail and I.
It was on these trails that I cried rivers about the end of my first marriage, and giggled to myself when I miraculously fell in love again. I walked away my pre-wedding anxiety here, step by step. I spent hours here as a newlywed, dreaming with my husband about the future. We introduced a new family member to the trails, a crooked-eared fur-ball we named after a hot sauce. As she grew, these trails afforded me a special friendship with my dog that we wouldn’t have without them. Wandering through the pines, I anxiously imagined what our new home would be like when it was done being built. I’ve celebrated the dawn of a new year, birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays on the trail. During an ever-worrying struggle with infertility, I spent a lot of time soul-searching here. These trails celebrated silently with me as I walked carefully, holding my belly, gleeful that there was finally a baby growing in there. It was here that I privately mourned the loss of our child two months later, stopping often on the trail to weep. Time on these trails opened my grieving heart and helped me decide to continue with our journey to start a family. Friendships have deepened here, the trail as the backdrop to intimate conversations. My creativity soars on the trail, where my best brainstorming sessions happen. Most of my published pieces have originated here. The trail has heard me laugh, felt my worry, calmed my nerves, dried my tears, and taught me meaningful lessons about life.
I turn on the stove to heat a pot of water for tea, watching Cholula curl up under the coffee table for a post-hike snooze. Her contented sigh mimics my own. While I wait for the water to boil, I think about the past couple of years, full of joy, heartache, struggle, accomplishment, and change. Time on the trail has been a constant calm in the unpredictable seas. It’s become a part of me — necessary. I’m inspired there. I feel calm and at peace. I can leave my troubles behind and just enjoy the moment. I feel comforted and safe, invigorated and alive. Time on the trail is like taking a deep breath. I can be myself, completely. And isn’t that what true love is all about?
Amber Howe lives and writes in Park City, Utah with a mountain man husband and a crooked-eared dog named Cholula. She chronicles their adventures in Utah and beyond on her blog where her mantra is, “TODAY is the happiest day.”