The Simple Joy of Walking in the Woods
“Being accustomed to climb trees in making botanical studies, I experienced no difficulty in reaching the top of this one, and never before did I enjoy so noble an exhilaration of motion. The slender tops fairly flapped and swished in the passionate torrent, bending and swirling backward and forward, round and round, tracing indescribable combinations of vertical and horizontal curves, while I clung with muscles firm braced, like a bobo-link on a reed.”John Muir
“Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a reverie, amidst the pines and hickories and sumacs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sing around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveler’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance.”Henry David Thoreau
The quotes above represent two ethics in the outdoors community: the first, that of John Muir—explorer, adventurer, thrill-seeker—where the subject pushes him- or herself to the limits of human endurance to learn something about what it means to be human. Muir was famous for putting himself in the face of danger: in climbing a glacier, alone, he pushed himself to the point that going back would have meant death: he once ran from an indigenous hunting party for fear of his life: in the quote above, he has climbed a Sequoia in a hurricane. Placing himself in harm’s way to understand what it meant to be alive was very much Muir’s MO. Henry David Thoreau, on the other hand, is famous for squatting in the woods, reading, and in whose Walden sermonizes upon the value of cloud watching. The truth is, we need both perspectives.
It is all too easy to find amazing feats of human endurance in the media. Last year, for the first time ever, Andrzej Bargiel skied down the entirety of K2; Free Solo just won an Oscar and one of the best adventure docs on Netflix right now is The Dawn Wall, starring Kevin Jorgenson and Tommy Caldwell. Somehow, films and books about walking don’t make the cut. For instance, Six Million Steps: A Journey Inward, and Wanderlust: A History of Walking, are examples. The first is a film you can find on Amazon Prime about waking the Pacific Crest Trail and what it means to find yourself; the second is a book about the history of walking. Both are amazing and no less important.
Certainly, regular readers of this blog will understand the value of pushing their bodies to the limits in the mountains, on a big wall, or kayaking down white-water rapids. We learn something about what it means to be human as we approach the breaking point. When exhaustion sets in, when pain seems unbearable, and when we arrive at the point just when we think we can take no more, we endure; and in those moments we understand that wisdom is the offspring of pain and suffering. Although, what we learn and how we come to understand that will be different for each of us. That is the point. While we may share our journeys with others through interpersonal relationships, social media, or other forms or expression, what we learn in such moments is deeply personal. Discovering those boundaries may be a necessity in uncovering who we are, but discovering who we are and what we are capable of under intense pressure means nothing without pausing to reflect on the value of such experiences. For such an act—self-reflection, mindfulness—requires that our mind slow to match the pace of our feet. In so doing, we become self-aware.
I want to suggest that when anyone talks about hiking, they are necessarily referring to something done over an extended period of time and distance, say, more than four hours and more than four or five miles. Is it possible to take a ten-minute hike? For the sake of my purposes here I would say no. Even when we use the term metaphorically, we imply a difficult or extended task. For a long drive we say, “it’s a hike”. If we want to tell someone to mess off, presumably meaning go away, go far away, we say, “take a hike”. So, even the idiosyncratic ways in which the term is used is often understood to mean something difficult or far away. Anything less is a walk, or a humble-hike—though not ‘hiking’ proper. (If you’re curious about humble-hiking, read about that here.) Therefore, what distinguishes a hike from a walk is the degree of rigor and the span of time over which we complete or participate in the activity.
Both Muir and Thoreau were keenly aware of the need to be present in the woods. Muir even criticized the term hiking:
“I don’t like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains – not ‘hike!’ Do you know the origin of that word saunter? It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the middle ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre’, ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.”
I disagree with Muir in suggesting that we ought never to hike in the woods or the mountains and, certainly, Muir hiked; however, to be present through the act of sauntering, or simply to take one’s time in making one’s way, has great value. Unless we slow down, we cannot appreciate. It is possible to do both.
Walking in the woods brings one closer to nature—of which we are a part—and therefore closer to the self. When we divorce ourselves from the rigors of hiking, that is to say, when we stop focusing on beating our personal best times on particular trails, getting a great workout, or achieving a “healthy heart rate”, we are able to then focus on the world around us and our place in it. The clock, the fitness tracker, the heart rate monitor, the iTunes or Prime Music: all distractions. When we walk in the woods or the mountains, and let fall away that which does not matter, we get a sense of perspective. We come closer to understanding our place in the universe, if not the immediate world around us. When we feel the wind on our skin, rather than the buds in our ears: when we take note of the trees swaying to the passing breeze, rather than the speed at which we are moving through the forest: when we listen to the sounds of the forest, rather than the latest playlist on our devices: when we inhale the scent of an alpine woodland, or a freshly hayed field, rather than automotive exhaust: when we taste the water from a pure mountain stream, rather than the chemically enhanced, store-bought liquids: when we do these things, we may be said to be alive.
When one hikes, one may stop from time to time and glory in the view, but primarily, hikers are concerned with getting there—wherever “there” is; I am no exception to this as I take great pleasure in hiking, and my purpose in this essay has not been to lampoon hikers or hiking. I have only endeavored to make some effort in distinguishing two modes of perambulation, and provide a note, even if it’s to myself, that sometimes, experiencing the simple joy of walking in the woods is what the soul needs.