One of the best ways to commune with nature (and yourself)? Hiking. Pack some good hiking boots and hit the trails at one of the 61 national parks in the U.S. —INGRAIN, Winter/Spring 2020
STORY / Krystle Pyrzynski
It all started when I was a child. On weekends, my dad would pack up the ol’ station wagon with little more than the fam, a cooler full of Busch Light, water, some PB&Js, and the dog.
We would go to either the Forest Preserves of Cook County or the Forest Preserve District of Will County for some day walking, or if we were really lucky, we would drive out to Starved Rock State Park in Utica, Illinois. When we arrived, it was tradition for everyone to find walking sticks; it is important to have traditions. We would search for big branches that had fallen to the ground and carve them into appropriate hiking tools with pocket knives, and off we’d go.
I had my first sip of beer in those forests (a trail-temp Busch Light, of course), I learned how to pee in the woods on those hikes, I learned how to think quickly and navigate maps on those trails, and I learned how to take it slow and enjoy the ride deep in the thickets of the great outdoors. Many of those trail days shaped who I was yet to become.
Fast-forward about thirty years, after a Dr. House-esque mystery illness and a subsequent opiate addiction turned my life upside down, I would learn that the trails were—and always will be—my home. I feel the safest and most at peace miles into the great unknown. But it was quite a journey to get there.
In my mid 20s, I came down with a series of random illnesses. I was quarantined in a hospital while specialists from around the state came into my room to try and figure out why my body was attacking my joints and my skin and essentially rejecting them. Every test came back showing elevated immunoglobulin levels and not much else in the way of answers. I was on medical leave from my job; I was completely isolated. Walking was hard, living hurt, and I was put on one painkiller after another; it was the only means of dealing with it all.
I was eventually diagnosed with erythema multiforme major—in short, a rare medical condition that causes the immune system to damage skin cells. In my case, it was severe and they could not pinpoint an immediate infection. My skin was dying, my joints were swelling, my muscles were stiff, and my whole body felt like it was on fire. I was certain that if this condition didn’t literally kill me, I would be in pain for the rest of my life. Being active was out of the question. My diagnosis was eventually linked to an underlying Streptococcus infection. I was treated over several months with a few rounds of IV corticosteroids and antibiotics. It was nothing short of pure hell on Earth. Once I recovered from the illness, I was left with a wrecked sense of self and a gnarly need to be medicated at all times just to exist. I was only 25. Everything still hurt, even though the skin lesions were gone. And, seriously, what even is outside? And nature? Pssshhh...I was changed. I would never explore or be the person I once was again.
After several years on and off this medical roller coaster, the days blending into weeks spent in and out of hospitals (all while battling this killer need for any and all opiates my doctor would give me), I would go on to meet my future husband, Jeremy. We enjoyed long walks around town or down to the lakefront. It felt amazing to walk for miles and just talk with this man. We would take our first trip to my most sacred of places—Starved Rock State Park along the Illinois River—in the spring of 2014. Boy, did it feel good to be on those trails again. It was like coming home to God, but DAMN did it hurt.
We returned to the park a few months later. Jeremy and I had gradually become more active, taking trips to locations where we could go on more long walks in beautiful places. But that fall, I had an erythema multiforme flare-up with subsequent joint issues, and—surprise—my body started rejecting fructose from foods, causing inflammation in my abdomen as well. But all things considered, I was actually on the up-and-up, given what the last bout had been like. So, I pressed onward.
We took several more trips to Starved Rock; it was the most challenging place to hike within two hours of Chicago. The trails began to take on a stronger meaning again. They were a path to recovery and health for me, and a place for Jeremy and I to bond. You really get to know a person while walking alone in the woods together, when there is nothing else to do but talk to each other. Jeremy proposed to me there, on the Kaskaskia Canyon Trail. We tried to plan a big wedding there, but it just wasn’t our style; as a result, we canceled the whole damn ordeal. So, as you can see, since we’d planned our first trip to a national park together, it was inevitable that we would also elope there! That fateful day took place in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The day before our wedding, we hiked the Ramsey Cascades, a seven-mile trail up to the tallest waterfall in the park. Oh man, did that hurt. But it was a good hurt, a worth-it hurt. It felt amazing to feel all of these pains and emotions. A tradition was born: This country’s great national parks would be OUR THING. I would send my mom a postcard from every visit to a park. Remember what I said: Traditions are important! I also got a passport book at the visitor center on our next trip to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and began collecting passport stamps. Jeremy and I now had a time-stamped record of every time we entered a national park. We collected stamps like Pokémon and began collecting mountains and miles. (Plan are getting into some Pokémon after your hiking trip? Check out the shiny hunting guide.)
I began to feel better and better with every mile climbed. I was learning how to deal with my physical pain in a different way. My body began to get stronger, as did my mind. After several lapses in trying to quit opiates, I finally took my last one on June 21, 2016. I have not looked back; I only look forward to the mountains. (When I see “the mountains are calling and I must go,” a riff on a quote by early California wilderness preservationist John Muir, inscribed on some tchotchke in a gift shop, I truly feel it in my bones.)
Sometimes we take on a trail and fail to reach the summit, or whatever “thing” makes that hike supposedly “worth it.” But in life, you aren’t always going to succeed at everything on your first try. Still, it’s a hard lesson to learn. You have to know how to listen to your body and your mind; it’s easy to push yourself too far.
After a trip to South Dakota for my friend Carol’s wedding in Custer State Park, Jeremy and I drove to Colorado and went camping in Rocky Mountain National Park. We went to bed in the forty-degree chill, and I dreamed of bears rooting around outside of our tent. We woke up before the sun and watched from the tent as it rose to meet Longs Peak from the Moraine Park Campground. When I went to retrieve the eggs from the cooler in the campsite bear box, I nearly stepped in bear poop. I laughed to myself and thought, “If I wasn’t crazy before, then sleeping outside with only a tent for protection where freakin’ bears live has got to be the pinnacle of insanity.”
Jeremy made a skillet of eggs, cheese, and diced-up baked potatoes left over from Carol’s wedding-rehearsal buffet. (Gotta use what you got, ya know? Remember: Good hiking boots are hella expensive! To this day, that is still our favorite breakfast.) And off we went. We reached Emerald Lake for the first time after many previous attempts. The trail is just under four miles round trip from the trail head, but at just more than 10,000 feet and nearly 700 feet of elevation gain in under two miles, it is GRUELING (especially for someone whose hips don’t work and whose shoulders have popped out of place in the past from inflammation). But on this day, we made it.
As I stood in awe of this alpine lake, all I could do was cry and think of how far I have come, how much I have learned, and how far I have yet to go. I walked UP A MOUNTAIN when I once thought I would never be able to hike again. I stayed true to that little girl who learned the simple joy of a cold beverage on a trail with no one around but your loved ones and the sound of the wind through the trees.
As a unit, Jeremy and I have made it to eleven national parks, plus many repeat visits to Rocky Mountain National Park, Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and the sleeper hit and my personal favorite: Death Valley National Park. We have visited the parks alone and with friends who unknowingly came along on this journey back to health and self with me. This is why I continue to travel the country in search of alpine lakes and waterfalls in our national parks. This is why I wake up before the sun and fend off raccoons and look both ways for bears while on “vacation.” This, friends, is why I hike.
The trail will always be there waiting for you, waiting to take you back home.
After several failed attempts at reaching Emerald Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, we read up and learned how to shop for gear. We learned to not buy the cheap shit-shoes or the big-box-store backpack and instead go buy what actually works, even if it is pricey. We learned the hard way that you have to balance your meals and focus on whole foods and proteins. We began making all of our own trail snacks and cooked our own meals before a hike at our campsite or cabin because this was an opportunity to save money (check out this recipe for homemade Beer-I-Yaki Jerky). And especially with my hard-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside body, I needed to know and recognize every single word of the ingredients going inside it. (Thank goodness I married a chef—though, who am I even kidding?!)
We got really good at travel planning on a budget. Sure, waking up in a tent in the woods after fighting off raccoons all night and pooping in a pit toilet kind of sucks. And Airbnb-ing in a shoebox-size camper with spiders lurking in every corner isn’t the most glamorous thing to do, but it is cheaper than a hotel and will almost always put you closer to the trails. So, buy the good boots and stay in the camper...just find one with a hot tub. (Yes, they always have hot tub campers on Airbnb; you just gotta look.) You can thank me later!
Ready to lace-up and head out? Check out Krystle's park picks.