Hiking has taught me many different things; none were formulated by lesson plans or by cramming for tests. Hiking did not teach me empirical knowledge more than it taught me a state of mind.
As a young boy, my backyard was an undeveloped endless tract of rolling Texas Hill Country in West Austin. The Austin Chalk comes to the surface there and is milky white as it outcroppings are exposed by the thin soil. Water quickly cuts the chalk limestone into fantastic shapes, creek beds with deep pools bounded by cliffs, natural amphitheaters and the ever present chalk. Miles of deer trails under the cedar breaks were the hiking trails. In the shade of the cottonwoods and sprawling live oak limbs I hiked the creek beds as far as I could go, grabbing crawdads and having them grab me when I was too slow or unsure in my movements. I was a troubled youth: I wouldn’t wear shoes, I was in constant trouble for coming home late after dinner, clothes I wore were often returned in tatters, and falls from crumbing rocks or slipping out of the trees that we climbed left behind broken bones and scars.
I enthusiastically pushed the boundaries of my world as far as I could, remembering every tree, each rock, where all the forts were and which creeks always held water in their tinajas in the Texas summers. I was proud that nobody knew those woods as well as I did. Hiking taught me all this.
In middle and high school my dad would take me and my buddies to State Parks like Enchanted Rock and Pedernales. We would walk in, set up tents, eat freeze-dried backpacking food, sleep on huge camping air mattresses, in the wildest wilderness imaginable to us. During the day my dad would relax in the tent while we boys took off to destinations unknown. Unlike our mutual friends, none of us were in Boys Scouts and it was great. No merit badges for knives, we just brought our own, to flick open and shove into the dirt around creek beds. No knots to learn, we just jury-rigged our own sorry slings to haul stuff into the crowns of Live Oaks. We were our own masters to learn about smoking grapevine, with nobody to tell us that rocks were too high or too dangerous to climb. If we fell off, we fell off. That was it. Hiking taught me this too.
Later on in college the same group of friends and I started planning our own adventures. We set our sights high, on lofty ambitions toward the North West. We started learning how to mountaineer by reading books and practicing with our new ice axes. We figured out what to do if members of a party fall into a crevasse, how to set up a Z-pulley, how to put on crampons for glacier travel and what the proper following distance and slack should be for glacier travel when roped up. Then we bought plane tickets and climbed pinnacles of rock and ice. Hiking taught me this.
I had first learned of the Appalachian Trail in my living room from a TV, of all things. Dad and I were watching PBS and they ran a special about the Appalachian Trail. That was it, I was hooked. Age 9. After graduating college and years of longing, waiting, and planning I quit my job, determined to hike the Appalachian Trail. I had felt drawn to the power of Mount Katahdin for all those years, with a burning in my gut that I could not then, and nor can now rationally explain. Now this would be hiking! In Georgia, two close friends and I entered the green tunnel. When we emerged from that green tunnel in Maine I had lost one friend, derailed by money issues, but I had gained many more friendships than I bargained for. It was one of the best times in my life despite losing a serious girlfriend, while on the hike. I saw everything that you would expect to see on the trail and our group eagerly sought out each new experience. I took in as much as I possibly could.
My old and new friends inspired me, taught me things and surprised me; I learned from new experiences, but ultimately it was the hiking that taught me.
Recently I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail with some of the same friends from the AT. My brother came along to see what long distance hiking was about. The Pacific Crest with its mighty shining mountains, the cold snow melt rivers, and heat wave over trackless desert. True wilderness it was, from the black twisted lava flows of Northern California and Oregon to the dense rainforest and glacier-clad peaks of Washington state. The Pacific Crest Trail had nowhere near the power that the Appalachian Trail holds in me, but I did it anyway. It was one of the best times I have ever experienced. Risk coupled with reward. The end lesson from the PCT was that hiking’s end result is not quantifiable. I don’t have to walk 2,800 miles to feel accomplished. When I walk downtown to revel in drinks and debauchery, I am hiking to get there. When I walk up the street I am hiking. Every day I hike to and from my car. It is the act of walking – hiking, the same processes are still at work. Hiking continues to teach.
Now what did hiking actually teach me? It showed me about life and it showed me life as it exists on Earth. It taught me, most importantly, to be happy. Happy with yourself, the knowledge of who you are, what makes you tick. Being happy with where you are at any given minute, even if you might be standing short of where you want to be. Hiking taught me the art of reflecting, introspecting, where life scenarios are played out before your bored imagination while walking, the wild improbable daydreaming dreams. You are trapped with yourself with no way out. To be comfortable in your own skin is paramount to the level of happiness one can achieve. Know thy self, and not the shallow surface because that will quickly be stripped bare, but the deeper knowledge of that self.
I have learned patience – not with people I dislike, or work scenarios that I wish would go away – but with life, with the pace of walking, the pace of a snail. Patience is a virtue that was taught to me by life spent in the outdoors. Calmness comes hand in hand with patience, and peace, an inner peace.
I observe the landscape before me and see its past and future; its current state of health. I have not studied forestry or geology in a classroom, but I have studied and kept my eyes open in the outdoor classroom. I have not heard, but I have listened, to people that know about a wide variety of subjects and kept my mind open to learning at all times. I experienced an intimate relationship, forged by geography and the time spent in its clutches.
When I am not using my MP3 player I listen to the forest and hear the sounds of the trees flexing their boughs, the birds in the air calling shrill tunes to each other. I feel and taste the movement of air. I smell the damp forest floor leaf litter, the ozone before the impending storm.
Hiking has taught me about diet and how my body works when pushed and how my body pushes back.
Hiking has taught me about pace, cadence, and the sounds of my own body enveloped in the outside world, to tune myself down so I am able to listen.
Hiking has taught me about suffering through the art and science of deprivation. It is the learned ability to swallow hardships coupled with grueling schedules and learning to enjoy it. While experiencing physical and mental exhaustion, and uncertainty for the future I figure out how to overcome and subdue any given situation. I find myself making the best out of a bad situations without complaining about it.
Hiking teaches me about exploration of the unknown. I know where the final destination is, yet the experiences along the way are what I look forward to. It is as close, in this day and age, as one can get to pure exploration; as if we crossed the plains in 1849, as if we were with Lewis and Clark, as if we moved with Cook and Sir Frances Drake, adapting to the ever shifting dilemmas of foot travel. Things don’t always go as planned and I practice the ability to change fluidly within the situation at hand without losing my mind. To embrace the unknown, while knowing that it will all end up taking care of itself is my lifelong lesson.
Hiking has taught two most important things, while living on and off the trail: how to enjoy the now and how to be happy.
(by Louis LeSassier)