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 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?
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 even though I may spend 3 weeks or 3 months living in the wild, hiking 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 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 here. 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.