Damien Fernandez, hiking this past weekend at Horton Grove Nature Preserve
Damien Fernandez, hiking this past weekend at Horton Grove Nature Preserve

For the next few weeks, we will profile hikers new to the trail. Most of the hikers you’ll read about will be participants in Hike NC! a new statewide hiking program aimed at beginners and sponsored by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North CarolinaN.C. State ParksFriends of State ParksN.C. Recreation & Park AssociationGreat Outdoor Provision Co. and GetGoingNC. First, we saw how new knees transformed Kimberly Dixon of Raleigh. Last week, we covered runner-turned hiker Steve Anderson. Today: Damien Fernandez of our GetHiking! Corporate program, who proves that family and hiking do mix.

As a kid growing up in the outskirts of Miami, Damien Fernandez spent most of his free time playing in “the weeds.”

“It was an area of undeveloped land, maybe 30 or 50 acres behind our house,” recalls Damien, who now lives in Cary. “It was mostly marsh and pine-rock, which was a slightly elevated area that was very rocky. We’d disappear back there and play games — manhunt and other stuff — until our moms called us home for dinner.”

So it wasn’t surprising that when Fernandez, still living in the Miami area, had kids, he wanted them to grow up in an area of diverse natural wonder. With the vast development that has overtaken southern Florida since the 1980s, places like “the weeds” became harder and harder to come by. The Fernandez family started looking at areas of the country that offered opportunity both for outdoor adventure and for Damien professionally in the information technology world.

“We looked pretty much at the north Atlanta metro area, Colorado and the Triangle,” he says. Career opportunity knocked first here, in Cary.

When Damien arrived in January, one of the first things he did was join the GetHiking! Corporate hiking program at his new employer, Quintiles. The group’s first hike: the Loblolly Trail at Umstead State Park.

“It was like an awakening,” Damien says of that first day on the trail. An awakening that started before setting foot on the trail.

“There were cars lined up along the road leading into the park,” he says. “It didn’t deter me. Rather, I thought it was pretty neat that I was in a place where people appreciated the outdoors so much. The trees created such a sense of grandeur. This matched my expectations, and then some.”

The Sunday hikes, each to a different trail — from the Eno River to the Johnston Mill and Horton Grove Nature preserves — continued to build his enthusiasm for hiking. When he left Quintiles and went to work down the road at MetLife, one of his first questions was “How do I join the hiking club?”

“They said there wasn’t one,” he recalls being told, “but that I was welcome to start one. I realized how much I wanted to share this experience with others.”

In June, Damien held an information session and 30 MetLifers showed up. He held monthly introductory hikes in July, August and September, and in October returned with several followers to the GetHiking! Corporate program. Each week, the group tackles different trails in the region, hiking a little farther each week. (The last hike of the fall session is a 10-mile hike on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail along Falls Lake.)

In the GetHiking! program, the majority of hikers are over 50, empty-nesters who are rediscovering themselves and the outdoors. The second largest demographic are in their 20s and largely devoid of family responsibilities. Damien, at age 37 with kids 5 and 6, represents a group that is all-but-absent from the mix. Damien says that needn’t be the case.

“It’s important to me to be out in nature, to be in the woods. And as I’ve grown more confident hiking with the group, I’ve taken my family out on the trail. Over the summer, we went to Sliding Rock, then did a little 0.75-mile hike up to a waterfall. They loved it.”

Damien likes the fact his kids get to experience a bit of what he did growing up in the weeds. He also likes that he’s able to get out with the group on longer hikes that take him deeper into the forest and challenge him physically.

“I’d be cheating myself if I didn’t do this,” says Damien. “And I’d be cheating my family if I didn’t, as well.”