Counting on one hand the days until I go. I start hiking March 23rd, but I leave Seattle March 21st. (You must leave to go, and though they coexist always, leaving and going are different experiences. I’m still in the leaving, but the sense of going is starting to grow.)
The question I get more than any other: Why are you doing this? Why go on long hikes? Some answers come to mind, but this is not an exhaustive list. Even so, it does capture some of why I go, and what I find out there.
-Higher highs, lower lows. The emotional spirals of being human widen when I hike. I get elated, scared, content, tired, lonely, bored, surprised, and I mean I really feel these things. I am colonized by the experience. I think part of why it comes so strong is a general lack of distractions that might otherwise dampen my inner life.
-Lack of distractions. Phone, internet, important emails are absent except while in town. One of the reasons people go to retreats, abbeys and remote mountain monasteries, is to remove the clutter of all these distractions. Time spent without constant interruption is rare and even somewhat painful (see the point above), but so critical to mental health and well being. Who are we when we aren’t using distractions to avoid ourselves?
-Wild outside, wild inside. The language of the soul is spoken in the wilderness. We forget this. We are task-oriented apes, always grinding away rocks and turning them to pebbles, proudly stacking them next to us. We think we will die self-satisfied to have such piles around us, the efforts of hours and hours of labor. But then we have moments where we wake up: a bird in a tree, a nighttime star, wind on the skin. That moment of being awake to the world is like slipping into not knowing and just being. The mysterious wild outside reflects our own mysterious inner wilderness, and a step into the first is equally a step into the second. There is a quote that I love from Samuel Beckett:
Perhaps that’s what I feel, an outside and an inside and me in the middle, perhaps that’s what I am, the thing that divides the world in two, on the one side the outside, on the other the inside, that can be as thin as foil, I’m neither one side nor the other, I’m in the middle, I’m the partition, I’ve two surfaces and no thickness, perhaps that’s what I feel, myself vibrating, I’m the tympanum, on the one hand the mind, on the other the world, I don’t belong to either.
-Body imperatives. The objectives of a day on the trail are absurdly simple and driven by the needs of the body. At its most basic, there is one meta goal: step by step, make it to the end of the hike. That goal provides the general orientation for everything else, the way a magnet under a sheet of paper will organize iron filings. Everything else is the body: hunger, thirst, tiredness, pain. The day to day work of hiking is optimizing these parameters, a two-month balancing act that brings a deeper embodied experience.
-The wilderness will change you. You’ve got to get out into it and really become vulnerable. Let it make you suffer some and also let it soothe you. It will get into your body and do work on you. You will adapt. You will fall into its rhythms. You will learn that fearless means knowing the nature of your fear and the quality of its voice in your head, and knowing how to walk step after step with it. Wait for your body to harmonize with its environment and live in exchange with the rocks, the rivers, the weather. This is art as experience.
-Snickers. Enough said.