The whispering woods

Elizabeth Donald
5 min readAug 18

“The mountains are calling and I must go.” — John Muir

In a recent writing exercise I do with my students, I compiled a list of words or phrases that comprise my identity. We are to strive for nouns, rather than adjectives or adverbs that get to be more subjective. What are the nouns that describe who I am?

woman. mother. wife. daughter. writer. journalist. teacher. editor. book reader. 80s kid. movie buff. horror fan. volunteer. baker. singer. former hiker. disabled.

You’ll note right away that I broke my own rules: one of those isn’t a noun. It also didn’t escape my notice that by reflex, I began by listing myself in relationship to others, but that’s a reflection for another day.

We were next to choose one of those and expound on it, and the one that caught my eye this time — of all the times I’ve done this exercise — was “former hiker.”

I loved to hike. It was my escape during my first marriage, to take a weekend and disappear into the woods with a backpack and ultralight tent. It was solitary and sometimes lonely, but it was also peaceful in a way that my life simply was not as an unhappy wife, overworked reporter and nervous mother. My coworkers were often astounded at this habit — “You mean your husband lets you go into the woods alone?” asked one well-meaning fellow, and I let him know what I thought about the concept of my husband “letting” me do anything.

When I got divorced and became a single mother, I continued hiking on weekends when my son visited his father or was gone on adventures of his own, with friends or his Boy Scout troop. In those days, there was one day per month when I did not work and the Boy was at school, and for most months of the year, that was a hiking day.

I began with base camping and taking hikes from a single location, and soon shifted to backpacking. The simplicity of it appealed to me: everything I needed to survive was there on my back. How much could I strip down my necessities to a weight that I could carry? I read Backpacker and Outside magazines religiously in search of gear that would permit me to hike further (farther?), and explore new places with views that you simply can’t see from a car.

I was never very good at it, mind you. My life is a long history of hobbies at which I suck. I never managed to strip down the gear weight so low that I could ever have impressed true ultralight backpackers. I was slow — so slow that there were…

Elizabeth Donald

Journalist for more than 25 years, freelance writer, editor, photographer, and fiction author. Subscribe at or visit