My Personal New Year’s: The Birthday Hike and Recommitment/Reflection

By Michael W. Harris

I have never been one for going in on the hype surrounding New Year’s and resolutions. I get how some people can see the ticking over of a calendar year as an important or significant moment and a good time for reflection and making a commitment for the upcoming year. I understand the hype, but I never really bought into it. It was never, for me, a special or memorable moment (New Year’s 1989/1990 notwithstanding for entirely different reasons), and I treated New Year’s Eve like most other nights, just one with an added excuse to stay up late and maybe marathon Lord of the Rings or Star Wars.

Somewhere along the line, though, I started to use my birthday to actually reflect and look ahead. Which is entirely strange in retrospect since for so long I actually shunned openly celebrating my birthday and would even avoid telling people when it was (thanks Facebook for ruining that!). It was a slow process, to be sure, to change this mentality, but change it did. First, I had to accept getting older and to stop judging my “progress” along the path of the “life goals” checklist against my peers. And I guess that that making peace process can be seen as part and parcel with my newest and perhaps most significant birthday traditions: the birthday hike.

Not always undertaken on my birthday, but always birthday adjacent.

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Ouzel Falls, 2014

I cannot remember exactly what inspired me to start doing the birthday hike in 2013 (my 33rd birthday), but it was the summer after I finished my PhD and right before I my one-year adjuncting career at Metropolitan State University and CU-Boulder. So, on the one hand there was a lot to reflect upon and think about in the upcoming year. And if I remember correctly, it was the beginning—the VERY beginning—of my long weight loss/health journey—which is probably why I chose to take a hike. It would be the year that I made my first, and in many way most significant, health change: I kicked the soda habit to the curb.

I started the birthday hike tradition at Betasso Preserve in the mountains right outside Boulder. If memory serves, I did the 3.3-mile Canyon Loop and was sucking air on the way back up and out of the “canyon,” which featured a (now to me) relatively moderate 400 foot elevation change at 6500 feet above sea level. To put that in perspective, this year I completed my 6th birthday hike, climbing not one, but two, 14ers, and which involved a roughly 10-mile roundtrip hike and over 3000 feet in elevation change. To my credit, it was only in the last 500-750 feet of elevation when we were getting in the 13,500 feet above sea level range that I really started feeling like I had made a huge mistake. Oh, and keep in mind that, unlike previous years, I was no longer living in Colorado. I had just spent the last ten months living at 82 feet (82 feet!!!) above sea level in Virginia. In the span of less than four days, my body had experienced a total of over 14,000 feet of elevation change.

Mt. Sanitas, 2015

So, over the course of the past five years and six hikes, and dropping some 250 pounds (still not an exact number, but it is the one I have settled upon telling people and is probably more or less correct), I have gone from a moderate 3.3-mile hike with 400 feet of elevation change destroying my body, to doing an over 10-mile hike, 3000 feet of elevation change, and summitting two 14,000 foot peaks. And a huge part of what drives me forward, that not only keeps me coming back, but also pushes me to challenge myself year after year, is the underlying philosophy of my birthday hike: an affirmation of what I had done and accomplished in the previous year (both good and bad), and making the on-going promise to myself (and no one else) to do better in the year to come.

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Deer Mountain, 2016

I believe that part of why I latched only my birthday as the time of year to make this reflection and recommitment, and thus feed into the birthday hike tradition, is that my birthday falls naturally at the beginning of the American school year, and in particular the college academic calendar.

As a kid, I always hated that my birthday came so close to the beginning of school. It was too early to have made many friends to invite to parties, and it also meant that, usually, it wasn’t celebrated in the classroom like so many of my classmates. Not to mention that it coming so late in summer is also why I was constantly among the oldest, if not the oldest, in my grade. To wit, I was 18 when I graduated high school and turned 19 on my first day of freshman year classes in undergrad. I turned 21 my junior year of college, though it would still be another year before I had my first drink.

I think this was another factor as to why I shunned celebrating my birthday for so many years. It was an uncomfortable part of the year all around. Everyone was busy getting back to school, prepping classes or buying textbooks, and in general hyper focused on what was to come. That was if they were even back in town yet. Sometimes my birthday would fall during orientation week and would just miss everyone getting back.

Shadow Mountain, 2017

However, once I stepped marginally outside that, it became the perfect time for reflection, especially coming on the heels of finishing my PhD and the first inkling of changing major parts of my life and lifestyle for the better. Granted, it would be another three years before my major weight loss would start, but the groundwork was being laid that first time I hit the trails above Boulder in 2013. It marked my first commitment to myself and to my life, and one through-line in changing my life has been that I will not lie to myself. I will be honest in how I track my food and exercise. I will not cut corners. I made that promise to make myself accountable, and that promise began in 2013 and every year on my hike it is a way of reaffirming that promise for another year.

So, living a life/profession where so much of it is tied to the American academic year, and my birthday almost always falling somewhere in the first week of classes, it was natural to use that as the time to reflect on the past year and the year ahead. I always found it fitting that I taught the first class of my first course as instructor of record on my 30th birthday, so maybe the seeds of my birthday reflection were sown there. But in many ways it doesn’t matter so much how I got to the trailhead at Betasso in August, 2013, as much as I did get there and that it marked the beginning of changing my life for the better, and that the tradition is so important to me that I flew back to Colorado after moving to Tennessee (before I had even finished unpacking!), just to continue it in the state that helped to birth the tradition. And I already have the next two years of hikes planned out…

They both involve returning to Colorado.

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As a way of preserving for posterity a record of my currently six hikes, here is a list of them with approximate distances and elevation changes:

2013: Betasso Preserve Canyon Loop – 3.3 miles, 400 feet
2014: Ouzel Falls (Rocky Mountain National Park) – 6 miles (including a hike to the trailhead), 950 feet
2015: Mt. Sanitas via Lion’s Lair Trail – 5 miles, 720 feet
2016: Deer Mountain (RMNP) – 6.5 miles, 1210 feet
2017: Shadow Mountain Lookout (RMNP) – 10 miles, 1635 feet
2017b: Alberta Peak – 6 miles, 1233 feet
2018: Grays and Torreys Peak – 10.5 miles, 3000+ feet

Alberta Peak, 2017

I am including a hike I did over Labor Day, 2017 (Alberta Peak, along the Continental Divide outside Pagosa Springs, Colorado), with my friend Chase because it was an important hike for two reasons: 1) it was the highest elevation I had climbed to up to that point (11,870 feet), and 2) it was the most technical climb I had done, which involved scrambling over loose rock to reach the summit.

It was also the first time I really shared a hike with a friend. All things I would repeat multiple times in 2018.

And this might be the most significant change in my hike tradition. Whereas all my previous birthday hikes were done solo because I wanted the solitude for proper reflection and to, for lack of a better term, wallow in my singleness, one of the biggest things to occur in the past year is the feeling that not only do I feel like I am “ready” to actually share my life with another person, but also that I really do need people around me to be my best self. So, it was natural to share my hike this year. It was not only a practical recognition of the increasing difficultly of my hikes and needing experienced support, but also an emotional recognition and celebration of the support that I built in Colorado over 10 years.

I may not be able to quietly reflect while hiking the trail with others, but that aspect is less important when weighed against sharing an experience like hiking my first 14er with friends.

The year between my 37th and 38th birthday was one of great turmoil and change, but also one of tremendous growth. It was in many ways one of endings and beginnings, and one that demanded close examination as I move forward with my new life and job in Memphis. And sharing my hike with two great friends was a tremendous way to reflect and kick off my personal New Year.

Grays Peak, 2018

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