Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset once pointed out, by walking, you assume the attitude of the hunter, the seeker, the eternal problem solver—the “alert man”—for whom “the solution might spring from the least foreseeable spot on the great rotundity of the horizon.”
I’ve returned from a three-week hike in the High Sierras, and am enjoying the luxuries of home: washing my hands with soap and a clean towel to dry them, a comfy chair to sit in, stuff I can leave lying around without it blowing away or getting eaten by critters. The images of bending over a clear, cool lake to wash my hands is still with me, so is the knowledge that not having a chair for three weeks left me limber, flexible and strong. While the fire season was spreading smoke the length of California and Southern Oregon, I was getting my oxygen above the smoke at 12,000 ft altitude with a blue sky overhead.
As I breathed the fresh forest air on my hike, it heightened my senses. I noticed the bark of Ponderosa pine smells like butterscotch. The needles of the Great Western Spruce smell like air-freshener. The rocks along the trail gave off a summer sun-dried sand smell that reminded me of beach vacations. Tall towering granite rock faces don’t smell, but my thoughts bounced off of them. Thoughts of harsh winters, howling winds and unforgiving temperatures. Granite rock faces lifted my eyes up to the clouds, the white billowy ones making dreamy images, the black ones waiting to unload the pelting rain or hail. I talked to the clouds, made deals such as, “I’ll put my rain-gear on if you don’t dump on me.” It worked, just a few sprinkles to dampen the ground, not enough to make for miserable camp conditions, or keep me pinned to the ground waiting out electrical touch-downs around trees or rocks hoping they will miss me. I depended on these deals for my survival, my comfort. What is it that makes man personalize the greater forces around him or her? I don’t believe in God, and I know that my talk with the weather didn’t change the weather. And yet, I find myself talk to greater forces around me when I’m out in the wilderness.
My DNA holds the building blocks of life, and all living things around me. It is obvious when I hike that my life moves with the same electron pattern as the rocks, the trees, the water, the stars above me. I relate to all of it as a living world and lend the inanimate a personhood like primitive cultures have done through the ages. When I feel the deep silence of the granite spires around me, the core of myself melts, my chest widens, my breathing slows. In this place I lose the “doing” force that drives my daily actions.
Despite all the preparations I had done to be safe and comfortable on this hike, fear and anxiety didn’t leave me. The anxiety however, didn’t stop me from moving forward on the journey. I became the “hunter”, the “seeker” as Jose Ortega y Gasset says about people who walk. Not knowing what lay ahead, I became alert and ready to solve problems that sprung up on the way. Should I ford this river and let my shoes get wet, or will I challenge my balance and cross on the log? Will I set up camp in a grove of trees or out in the open? What will happen if lightning strikes? Where is the moon tonight to guide me or keep me awake?
It took about a week before I adapted enough to my environment and trusted that I could manage. The anxiety disappeared. The alertness stayed. Intermittently my thoughts were about things from the life I had left at home. Mostly my thoughts were about what was in front of me, the trail; the rocky, sandy, or duff trail. My legs became appendages of a machine, a breathing, pumping machine. And they moved effortlessly, moved me forward, upward on switchbacks to new vistas, and downward into sheltered valleys, along the banks of a river spewing its snowmelt in an unstoppable force.
I lived life at a minimum. My nomadic routine had me wake up, eat, break camp, walk/climb to the next place, eat when hungry, rest when tired, set up camp, wait for night fall, sleep. No need to hunt for food, I carried it in my pack, no need to build my shelter from natural resources, I had my lightweight gear. To find what the trail could offer, to feel the pattern of living, was simple and yet hard. As I walked, I was a bundle of electrons, star-dust, doing what it knows to do, move forward, move through the big, open spaces with breath-taking slowness, thoughts halting and disappearing in the sky. The building blocks of life fell out of that sky at one point and formed life, gave me a body that can experience its origin, from millions of years ago. I re-discovered that I’m a star child. We all are.
I walked and found the essence of myself. I am back home and pick up where I left off, transformed.