Can Hiking Become Being?

What actually happens to us when we go on a hike? This is what I’ve been asking myself lately. Sure my muscles are getting exercise, my lungs expand, my heart rate shows its ability to handle temporary stress and I come home with a tired, satisfied feeling that allows me to manage the daily stuff of life. Hiking then is a stress reducer, a resiliency builder, a cognition enhancer – YES, hiking improves cognition! But is this how we want to categorize walking and hiking, as a healthy activity? Or is there more to it? 

Going Wild

In my book Walking Gone Wild, I approach walking and hiking as a healthy pastime and encourage those of us who are on the downhill slope of living to engage in it and extend their years or at least make these later years more enjoyable. Hiking though, isn’t just walking gone wild, meaning doing it more and more, an addiction, one you get hooked on because of its benefits, it also isn’t just a gateway to going into the wild, a way to being in the wilderness. Hiking is all that, but of late I’ve been wondering if we’re missing something when we talk about hiking only as an activity; a way to lengthen our lifespan. The word “wild” is on my mind. This last summer I went on a 3-week solo backpacking trip, hiking a section of the PCT in Northern California. 24-Hour immersion in the wild, and because of Covid I met very few people. It was just me and nature with an occasional stop to re-supply and an occasional road crossing that hinted to another world, a busy world, a world of cars, people, consuming, franticness, fear of Covid, political division. A world wild with stimuli. 

Wilderness that isn’t Wild

What happens when I retreat into the wilderness? And I have to admit, a well designed and marked trail isn’t real wilderness even if the surroundings are wilderness. Forests that have grown up after being harvested by humans, aren’t real wilderness, even if we leave them alone to become wild again. Rivers tapped for energy aren’t wild, we control their flow, we protect their banks to sustain the energy industry. The “wild” isn’t wild anymore. This compromised, cultured wildness however, allows me to hike safely at my advanced age with the help of maps, GPS, light-weight gear and the advice of many who’ve gone before me. All I bring to this wilderness is my determination, my will and training and my wish to experience something I can’t experience in my daily life with a safe home, a controlled environment that protects me from heat, cold and predators.

A Cooperative World

This summer I met the trees in a way I have never before. Since there was no-one talking to me and I don’t listen to podcasts or music when I hike, the trees were my companions. I observed things I hadn’t seen before, I connected the dots between shapes, light, density, undergrowth, animals, and soil, the elements of a forest. I slowly understood the “why” of my environment. The world I hiked in started making sense. The elevation, the temperatures, the light, the rainfall or lack thereof, all worked together to sustain these trees. The bigger trees sustained the smaller ones, the dead ones the next generation, the tree’s fruiting sustained the animals. This was a world that hung together. My intellectual knowledge became intuitive and somatic knowing. The trees taught me that the world around me is cooperative and transformative. 

I realized I wasn’t really part of that world; I am a visitor and at some point I go home to a shelter. I don’t offer myself up to sustain the trees, the undergrowth, the animals. I may try to not disturb the ecological balance by staying on the trail, a deep scar carved into the wilderness, by sleeping in a designated camp spot to decrease disturbance of the environment; by eating food brought from the outside world and burying my waste deep enough to not pollute the water nearby and leave little trace. But I’m not part of the natural world. Even 3 weeks or 3 months living in the wild doesn’t make me a link in this amazingly cooperative world. Being in the wild does change me though. When I return to civilization my body is different, my perception more acute, my mind more at ease. I’m transformed. 

Observing the Familiar

I’m back in my cultured, safe world. I go out for day hikes, I watch the seasons change, I admire nature as she dresses in her splendor, I climb her rocky sides and look out over the distant mountains, the valley with a river flowing toward the next river, and on toward the ocean. I’m an observer. Living in the comforts of my home, the transformation that took place in the wild doesn’t last. I gain weight, I’m less flexible, my eyes don’t work as well, I’m affected by the daily stimuli of news and people, less at ease. 
The Covid pandemic has kept my wanderings closer to home this year. I hike known trails. The familiar vistas and landscape don’t bowl me over with awe. Slowly, it’s dawning on me that only if I slow down, listen and interact like I did on my longer hike, will I enter deeper into the familiar. I want to learn and bring the familiar home to me in a way that lets me be part of the whole. Do I have the courage to slow down? Hike fewer miles, saunter on the familiar trails, listen to the wild part of this world so it can teach me what life is about, and what our place in it is? Only in the slow lane will hiking become being and will we figure out how to live in a responsive way to our environment. 

Winter, the season when nature’s growth slows is upon us. Covid is still with us and we too can go a little slower. May we use this time to our advantage, and learn something from our familiar environment for the next season, the next political fight, this and the next pandemic. 

About Brexit and Exits

PCT section C,D, mile 266 – 369, Big Bear to Inspiration point.

Dan is a ruddy robust man from the UK, who, when asked why he’s out here hiking the PCT, tells me, “to get away from the Brexit mess”. His hiking buddy Stu nods his head and in his Aussie drawl confirms he’s getting away from Australia as well. Both are contractors at home and have found kinship on the trail. I camped with them a few nights and saw how helpful they were to others. How they shared their stove with a couple whose stove was malfunctioning. Dan and Stu had an ease about setting up and breaking camp and they were willing to look after me as I tried to cross Holcomb Creek and stay dry. “It’s complex”, Dan says about Brexit, “but immigration has a lot to do with the Brexit mess.” Stu adds, “Yeah, we’re getting African gangs in Australia, they’re messing up the order there.” We agree that migration is a global phenomenon and rattling people’s comfort zones. We’re not coming up with solutions as we talk.

Soon their younger legs outpace me and I meet others who’ve made an exit from their normal lives. There are day hikers, a couple near Splinter’s cabin. He’s done sections of the PCT and looks ready to tackle the whole thing; she tells me their kids are teenagers and hiking the PCT will have to wait. Still there is the longing in their eyes to exit their busy L.A. life.

The greater L.A. enters my awareness as I hike out of Deep Creek to the Mojave River delta. The catch basin behind the dam, when I follow the trail across, is empty, but a downpour could quickly change that. The dam is regulating the water flow in the Mojave river flood plain below. Soon Deep Creek and the Mojave River merge and I cross Deep Creek for the last time, this time it’s a knee deep wade, which feels good on a sunny noon hour.

That afternoon I hike through a landscape filled with poppy bush. I meet a local hiker. He appeared out of nowhere, taking a Sunday afternoon walk among the blooming poppy bushes. The gray in his hair matched his soft-gray SPF hiking shirt. He sports two skinned and whittled sticks for hiking poles. “Ola”, he grins, stretching the wrinkles on his weathered tan face. He is no stranger to this desert landscape. He belongs to this land. For him the exit from his homeland happened a long time ago.

That night I share a small windy camp spot looking out over the Mojave River Valley with “Sunny”, a Swiss psychology student taking a break from student life. “I’m ready for adventure and get perspective on what I’m studying. We talk about Freud and neuro-psychology. She cowboy camps and writes furiously in her journal.

Sunny leaves camp the next morning before me. “I like to hike alone”, she says as she pushes earbuds in her ears. I myself don’t hike with earbuds. I let my mind rock and roll around the issues and challenges of the day on the trail until I get moments of emptiness in my head and communicate with the landscape: the destruction caused by trees and big desert plants falling and disintegrating on a salmon colored rocky plateau; the deep purple masses of bellflowers hanging on for dear life in the poor granite soul and fierce winds in DeepCreek Canyon; the slow growing pines at higher elevation holding their own through snow and drought. The message is clear: “adapt or die”.

With that notion in mind I wind my way to Cajon overpass. I watch Route 66 from afar coming closer. I come close to it and visit MacDonald’s, the only restaurant civilization offers me here. It’s the only stop for food, power and water for the next 22 miles.

After a chat with an Australian family who are in shock over traffic but love how nice everyone is, I set out “cameled up” with water for the next day. I cross under the famous Rt 66, step over railroad tracks an hike back to the hills that will take me to my resupply in Wrightwood.

In the first days of this section temperatures had been down to freezing at night and the last day turns loose a cool low-cloud misty day. The weather gods are with me as I hike up the 5000 ft elevation to the top of the ridge above Wrightwood. When the weather turns colder and rainy in the afternoon with snow on the ground I am ready for my exit from the trail for a few nights.