Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people.
A reflection on walking
The art of walking is to observe the rhythmic cycles and to go with them.
The art of walking is to observe the rhythmic cycles and to go with them.
I was standing at the Southern Terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) with an entire country in front of me. I was 65km east of San Diego and the U.S/Mexican border fence threw shadows across the red dirt. The great American expanse stretched out before me as the sun rose, revealing the burnt landscape of the Mojave Desert. I was with a young man from Oklahoma that I had met the night before. After a nervous laugh that lingered underneath the cloudless sky we started walking.
I had been preparing for this 4265km hike that snaked up the west coast of America for over a year. I wondered how many consecutive horizons I would reach on my adventure from Mexico to Canada. I was far away from home. For the next five months my waking hours would become fragmented into times when I was walking and time when I wasn’t. The PCT would present me with extraordinary beauty and revelations, but none more valuable than the art of walking. What I discovered all stemmed from a commitment to a seemingly straightforward act: walking. It became my practise, my craft, my guide and my teacher.
A long distance hike is a patchwork of stitched-together beginnings. Each morning I was born anew into the forthcoming day. I hobbled my way through my first steps, much like an infant that wobbles down a narrow hallway. I became the humble pupil of an endless path, a narrow ribbon of earth that was constantly unfolding before my feet. There is a profound, elemental elation arrived at through the simple act of walking. My imagination met the guttural cries of the hawks that soared overhead and my body began to pulse with a gentle, primitive cadence. Loosed from the sanctuary of home I walked the unkempt southern prairie.
The great naturalist, and tireless walker, Henry David Thoreau unceasingly declared that life endured in wildness; to be most alive was to be most wild. To the extent that we become subdued and tamed by modernity is the extent to which we relinquish our ability to feel alive. Walking in the wilderness, then, is a way to self-reflect, a way for the distant vigor of our ancestry to be explored.
In the purity of the desert air, as our bodies slowly became hardened to life on the trail, the obvious physicality of walking gradually waned. We pressed forth incessantly. It reached such excruciating temperatures that we would hike by the light of the moon and in the company of stars. It wasn’t uncommon to hike more than 35kms without a reliable water source. The desert immediately drew everything out of us. It siphoned all the moisture from our bodies. It cracked open our outer shells and dehydrated us down to our innermost essence.
Slowly, as our calloused feet refused us less and less, as our bodies habituated themselves to a diet of processed junk and we settled in to a rhythm, we began to hit our stride and our gait became less like a limp. Then, just as we started to settle into a pace, and our bodies accustomed themselves to life in the desert, everything changed; we hit snow. For so long we had been scouring stagnant horse troughs or ponds for some drinkable water and now, in the snow capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada range, we had fresh snowmelt cascading down the mountains and onto the trail. After such a long, parched section in the arid Mojave our souls started to rehydrate and our minds started racing.
Echoed and encased in the mountains the songs of birds persist in perpetual merriment; the chorus of the mind is no different. If on the surface walking appears to be a physical journey, underneath, at it’s core, it is psychological. The mind has vast, open deserts, cavernous valleys and soaring peaks. When walking one steps into new terrain where the trail transfigures into a stream of thought. The real challenge is not bodily endurance but mental stamina. Each step forward is another step further into the melodic labyrinth of the mind. For some people this was the first time they had been fully introduced to themselves. It was a fascinatingly daunting experience. We started to lose a lot of hikers.
Nietzsche, also a revered walker, wrote passionately about the nobility of adventure and the unfurling of intellect that comes about when one follows the path into the woods. Modern economic thought has changed the way we relate to the plight of man and of adventure. All of us are born into adventure, it is the natural tendency of our soul. Children run straight to the woods if the gate is left open. They rid themselves of civility and embark upon great voyages. The world presents itself to them as a playground; a stage for their wildness to be fully expressed.
Modern maturity is a saviour from these “childish” fantasies. To be “saved,” or to grow up, is to shed the adventurer in one’s soul. It is to reconstruct, to mould, one’s being in the image of due and proper conduct. Walking is inherently exploratory and the sense of adventure sheds you of your biography; each step is a new birth, each switch-back a new height, each view a new perspective. By enduring geographic loneliness you become aware of the perennial movement and regeneration of the seasons. The art of walking is to observe the rhythmic cycles and to go with them.
The human spirit is inherently adaptable and freedom is given to those that move. Walking, then, is an expression of something far, far greater. It is an expression of our deepest truth. Walking is akin to a hummed song; it is barely audible and its beauty exists in the harmonious stringing together of chords. And so, we can see that walking is harmony. Learning to walk, in this sense, is exactly the same process as when we were children. When we first learn to walk we bring ourselves into right posture, into equilibrium, into balance. Learning to walk when we already know how is a reflection and a remembrance of who we are and where we’ve come from. It reminds us of our natural impulse to plunge into the wild and to immerse ourselves in the world that birthed us.
We’d been hiking for four months and yet each morning was still filled with uncertainty, fear and loneliness. We’d learnt to welcome our repetitive mental activities, however painful. Each morning was a first step and we’d take it with good grace. Our home was nowhere and so it was everywhere; we were part of the fabric of the forest. Our gait had developed into a humble dance and we were galloping towards Canada.
Entering the Northern Cascades the leaves started changing colour to a burnt orange and I could hear the strange calls of elk at night. We’d walk for days enveloped in low hanging fog. Like the leaves, the rain started to fall. It rained for 30 hours continuously at one point. I had to stop and hunker down on the top of a mountain in my tent that quickly filled with water. Everything was soaking wet. I rolled the last of my tobacco and waited. I was 225 kms from the Canadian border and I was in my element. I was freezing, tired, sore and completely content. I was at home. I felt alive. The colours, the birds, the rain, the rivers, the peaks, the snow; I had tasted it all. I was in the Northern Cascades and I’d walked here from Mexico.