The Sixty60 Journey: Sixty Hikes to 60 Years
By KEEN Fan Lori Brookes
I wasn’t a hiker. What was I thinking?
The only thing I had going for me was a solid pair of KEEN hiking shoes, pure will, and determination.
A month before my 59th birthday in April 2016, I was on a photographic assignment in Death Valley National Park to photograph the desert’s super bloom. During my three days there, I decided to take a solo hike, and get out into the vastness of this national park’s wild.
The hike started in Golden Canyon and was gloriously inviting as I made my way through the winding trail and towering sandstone walls. At one point I saw what looked like a trail leading up and I decided to go that way. What I know now is that the steep ravine was a natural waterway, filled with loose rocks and eventually giant boulders.
There were no rules, no itinerary, simply to hike with the goal of setting myself up for the next 10-20-30 years.
I felt my heart pounding out of my chest, my breathing labored and those boulders were literally hike-stoppers! It was in that moment, when I plopped my defeated butt down, leaned against the wedged-in-place rocks and thought, “My God I am out of shape. I could have a heart attack and die out here!” There was no cell phone coverage and I thought about how my kids would be devastated if something happened to me, and at the same time, I felt completely right with the world and my life. The side effects of being ‘held’ out in nature.
A few weeks following the Death Valley adventure I woke up with a revelation: to hike my way to 60! I was going to take 60 hikes to my 60th birthday. By my simple math calculations, that was going to be five hikes a month — gulp!
There were no rules, no itinerary, simply to hike with the goal of setting myself up for the next 10-20-30 years. It was my journey. My parents, both in their 80s, were in part the reverse inspiration for this undertaking. My dad with his heart issues and my momma with severe osteoporosis, spinal stenosis and a medically prescribed opiate addiction. And let’s not forget my own personal death-defying experience at Death Valley.
The first step is the hardest
The inaugural hike, on my 59th birthday, was at Torrey Pines State Reserve in Del Mar, California. I picked up the park’s leaflet and decided to hike all of the trails on the map, for a total of nine miles that day. Came home completely trashed, no shower and plopped down on my sofa. Shoes off, feet up, with the San Diego hiking bible in hand, Afoot & Afield, San Diego County, flipping through the volumes of pages researching my next hike. I was hooked!
Lori put 1,300 miles on her Targhee II hiking shoes on her year-long journey.
Backtracking just a bit, two months before I embarked on the journey, my long-time friend Diane sent me a link to a place I’d never heard of before, the Rainbow Mountains in Cusco, Peru. She sent it as a place I might like to travel to and photograph. Quite serendipitously, I loftily set that mountain as a ‘maybe somewhere’ destination to celebrate my 60th birthday and 60th hike. Why not?
By mid-August, four months into my journey, I was rapidly closing in on hike number 60. This hiking thing had unwittingly taken a spiritual hold of my soul and soles. A few unintended consequences, all positive, were starting to crop up. The first was that I was unintentionally down two pant sizes, leaving 15+ pounds of unwanted menopause weight on the trail. And secondly on August 13, I had an epiphany that I finally passed through a long period of grief over the death of a young man who was like a son to me. This was his birthdate, and as I was reaching around for the usual pangs of heartbreak, I didn’t feel anything but pure joy and immense gratitude for knowing him and having him in our lives, as long as we did. This was the final stage of grief I’d heard about — acceptance. Hallelujah!
(That academic and scientific research about the foot-to-earth connection and the beneficial links to healing for the mind, body, and spirit is true. And I’m my own living proof!)
The end of the trail…or?
It’s here, goal day, and I was riding the upside-down roller coaster of emotions! Silly I guess, it's just another hike — right? Wrong…
It’s August 28, a sunshiny Sunday morning. A few brave friends and my eldest son made the two-hour trip up to Idyllwild, where we gathered for the 60th hike. My targeted mountain was the famed Tahquitz Peak, via the South Ridge Trail (my personal favorite), at 8,846’ in elevation, eight miles out and back, with an elevation gain of 3,000’.
(What of those Rainbow Mountains in Peru? Well, they would have to wait.)
I remembered that lump-in-my-throat gulp when I announced this journey to my world back in March 2016. Oh and those voices in my head, “Sixty hikes in one year? My God that’s five a month! Are you nuts?” In hindsight that number doesn’t seem like much now, but for someone who wasn't a hiker and didn’t have any kind of fitness regime — it felt larger than life.
So here I was, on day 144 of my 365-day long journey, celebrating at the top of Tahquitz Peak with a few of my people. There is something deliciously special about completing a goal that we set for ourselves. Emotions ranging from the pure joy of the accomplishment to that after-the-party empty feeling, when everyone has gone home. The strange thing with this particular goal was, I was still a long way from my landmark 60th birthday in April 2017. So now what?
The mountaintop celebration concluded, hydrated and bellies full of snacks, it was time for us to come down from the mountain high, both figuratively and literally.
I’m not a big talker on the trail, more of a contemplative walker and the trail is a place where I draw energy and inspiration from. So what else would you do after completing a major goal — all too early? Reset the goal of course!
A 180º life turnaround
I didn’t reveal any of what I was thinking on the way down. Working it out in my mind. It went something like this over the four-mile descent, “I could easily double this goal, there’s plenty of time left. So that would be 120 hikes to my 60th birthday. Right. That’s cool, but what does that mean? Sixty hikes to 60 made sense, seemed like a unique goal, catchy. What if I tripled the goal? Overachiever. Mathematically I would have to be hiking a lot to get there. Yikes! 180 hikes. Hmmm. Now that number does have something I can sink my teeth into. It’s a metaphor. 180, like a complete turnaround. Ooooh, yes! Create a 180º turnaround for my life.”
I journeyed solo through six of our United States; California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Texas. I hiked and backpacked through, camped on, and climbed in, ten National Parks and five National Monuments. Logged over 1,300 miles in my KEEN hiking shoes, including some serious mileage in two foreign countries, both islands of New Zealand and Peru.
I could feel my heart pounding with excitement, thinking about tripling the original goal and connecting it to a beautiful metaphor, chalked full of unplanned turnarounds that could happen in my life. My weight was already that, a 180º turnaround, and that was unplanned. “Let’s see what else can happen along this journey!” 180 hikes it is!
I don’t remember how or when I made that announcement out loud, but it didn’t happen until I felt, as sure as I could, that I could hold up that end of my own bargain. Over the remaining months and the four plus months that came before, I journeyed solo through six of our United States; California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Texas. I hiked and backpacked through, camped on, and climbed in, ten National Parks and five National Monuments. Logged over 1,300 miles in my KEEN hiking shoes, including some serious mileage in two foreign countries, both islands of New Zealand and Peru.
The last few hikes: 32 miles in Peru
I saved the last four hikes for Peru, the Cusco Region and the Rainbow Mountains. I found a wonderful trekking company whose owner was from Cusco, and was currently living in San Diego. He lived a mile from my neighborhood. Kismet!
I met up with Jose Montes, owner of Killa Expeditions, who designed a custom trek for me through the Andes of Peru, chasing the Rainbow Mountains—with the summit date to coincide with my 60th birthday. My eldest son, Randy and my son-in-law, Paul, came along on this birthday adventure with me. I am forever grateful for their participation as this trek was not for the faint of heart.
The Rainbow Mountain trek: An estimated 32 miles over private Peruvian land, hiking in the company of the highest mountain in the Cusco Region: Ausangate at 21,000’. The most beautiful glacial mountain I have ever witnessed (thus far). We camped with llamas and alpacas, at high elevation camps all above the tree-line, with forever views of alpine lakes, waterfalls and colored mountains. The trek included crossing three high-elevation passes, the highest of which was 17,057’.
I thought this moment somehow would have been easier with 179 hikes under my treads. Nope!
The promise was that we would be the first to arrive at the Rainbow Mountain summit, and that came with a 4:30 a.m. camp departure. The day before, we were relegated to our tents most of the afternoon and night due to snowfall. I had all night to get right with the possibility that I may not see the colored mountains in their full glory, the dreamt-of images I had put on my radar a year ago. Let it go; it will be what it will be.
After a swift breakfast on birthday morning, I was presented with a birthday cake that our cook Antonio had made the night before, decorated with icing and fresh strawberries (mind you we are in the middle of nowhere). We sat under canopy in the dark, headlamps on and listening to five Spanish-speaking men sing happy birthday to me, in English. I wept. This moment is etched in my heart forever.
We reached the summit as promised, with no-one else in sight. My legs were literally crumbling beneath the weight of my body, the lack of oxygen, the push up the highest pass and the realization that I was almost there. I could hear my guide Effrain who was already up at the top cheering me on, “Lori, you can do this. This is easy for you.” I thought this moment somehow would have been easier with 179 hikes under my treads. Nope!
At the top: Effrain, arms outstretched, pulled me in for a hug and held me up. He proudly ex-tended his left arm out and across the Rainbow Mountains, like an offering of sorts. However, the mountain was as feared, shrouded in cloud cover. But within seconds, not minutes, of my summit, the clouds literally parted and Effrain proclaimed to us all, “Look, familia, this is our karma!”
I dropped my poles, covered my mouth with two gloved hands and cried a muffled cry out loud. Effrain, who’d been carrying my 10 pounds of camera equipment, handed it to me and there I was taking THOSE photographs of THAT breathtaking mountain my friend had shared with me only 14 months prior. I continue to be stunned and overwhelmed by it all. The beauty, the achievement, where I’ve been and where I was at that moment.
Hiking is healing
Ironically, five months after the completion of my journey, my father died from a one-in-a-million (they say), post-heart-surgery complication. And my momma, she died five months ago, one year and eleven days after my father’s death. Her frail body succumbed to years of the prescribed opiates for pain management of her crumbling structure. They were my reverse inspiration and sadly now they are both gone.
I hike today with even more dedication to my original intention, although not with the vigor I needed to achieve the unintended 180 hikes. Hiking has become a lifestyle choice and passion, along with the subtext of camping, backpacking and frankly anything that gets me out into nature. I find myself hiking again to heal from the loss of my parents. Even at the mature age of 61, I feel a bit like an orphan.
The lessons learned continue to curve as I head toward my 62nd birthday. And this year for my special day I plan on being at one of our glorious National Parks, celebrating and purchasing my lifetime National Park Pass wearing my brand-new and not-yet-worn pair of KEEN hiking boots!
Tips for starting your own hiking challenge
My best advice is not to overthink anything. Make an intention and then walk out the door. It’s that simple if your intention is clear!
1. Get some good KEEN hiking shoes or boots (given) and get a book of local hiking trails in your immediate area. The most important thing I did have for this sport was a good pair of hiking shoes, my KEEN Targhee II shoes. I also bought “Afoot and Afield” for San Diego County. There were over 250 trails listed from low mileage to long distances and overnights. That book became my hiking bible!
2. Start out with a few miles, test out your feet, stamina and overall physical condition. I wore a neoprene knee brace (a precaution for an old skiing injury) and within 12 hikes my legs had developed strength in places I never had before and never wore the brace again.
3. Take the 52 Hike Challenge, one hike per week to start. Work your way up to three times per week for optimal health benefits. Week by week increase your distance and elevations gains. I was surprised at how rapidly I was acclimating to the new activity and how my body, mind and spirit was responding. I was feeling a hiker’s high!
4. Find hiking groups in your area, meet-ups, become a member of the Sierra Club and join in on their hikes. This was a new community for me and finding like-minded people was key to opening paths to new places, people, and gear.
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