Commentary: From misery comes pleasure

My first trek with the Monday Hiking Ladies felt like childhood misery during long grueling vacation trips: "This was supposed to be fun, but when will it be over?"

Before that morning, I considered my husband and I experienced hikers. We'd leave our Green Valley Lake cabin, climb the old ski hill and walk the winding trail through Jeffrey pines, cedars, manzanita and wild roses.

We'd marvel at towering rock sculptures and sudden views of Big Bear Lake. Feeling superior to other vacationers, we'd say, "Nobody else hikes these ridge trails." Back to our cabin in three hours, dusty and tired, we felt like tough backwoodsmen.

I guess we strolled because I was woefully unprepared for the Monday Hikers' pace through nine miles of El Morro. This group of fit ladies bounded along rocky trails, shot up steep inclines and loped gracefully down sheer declines.

On that first morning, I longed to ask, "Are we almost done?" but whining is not the culture of the Monday Hikers. Instead they tossed me a walking stick when I panicked descending a vertical cliff near the hike's end. My toes crammed against the front of my running shoes, I returned to the parking lot in pain and dragged toward the car.

Oddly, I drove right to REI, bought hiking shoes and showed up the following Monday. One part of me likes to master a hard work-out, but the main attraction was the Monday Hikers themselves. They're no-nonsense, accomplished women whose conversation along the trail trumped my suffering. I couldn't get enough of these ladies, who became acquainted at a local gym and bonded. Before I joined they'd climbed Half Dome, completed the Big Sur 21 Miler and hiked the Grand Canyon, rim to rim.

Seven years after that first misery, the Monday hike starts my week properly. I'm motivated to maintain the power walk pace because I don't want to miss conversations about city planning, yacht financing, golfing/biking/swimming, teaching, speech pathology, world travel, algebra, physics and French.

And there's El Morro itself, untouched California coastal terrain. I used to drive down Coast Highway toward Laguna Beach and disdain the coastal hills covered with dead grass. Now I appreciate the coast's delicate seasons. In the fall the popcorn-colored buckwheat joins the yellow telegraph weed. With winter rain, lush native wild rye and coastal salt grasses cover the hills. Spring features a bounty of purple lupine and red Indian paintbrush. Summer bursts forth with the native sunflower.

During early hikes, intricately patterned roadrunners look at us inquisitively, scurrying quail rise up amid peeps and squeaks, shy coyotes disappear over a rise, graceful deer melt into the scrub, and once a bobcat joined hikers for a few steps.

I started with the misery of a fast-paced powerwalk but end with the opportunity to form friendships, feel the cool coastal air, inhale the smell of sage, and catch a glimpse of Catalina Island reflecting sun's early light.

Newport Beach resident CARRIE LUGER SLAYBACK is training to run the Los Angeles Marathon at age 70.

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