walking around, looking around

You wanna know what men are really thinking? ‘Cause I could tell you. Would you like to know? All right, I’ll tell you. Nothing. We’re not thinking anything. We’re just walking around, looking around. This is the only natural inclination of men.

Jerry Seinfeld, I’m Telling You for the Last Time

Lately, as the Utah spring has very gradually matured into summer, I’ve enjoyed getting some regular hiking in. I’ve been reminded again and again this season how fortunate I am to have the mountains nearby, with an extensive network of trails that I’m still just beginning to explore.

Seeing my enthusiasm for all of this, a friend of mine recently asked what it is that I enjoy so much about hiking. My first instinct was to say that it’s because I like being in nature … but I realized almost immediately that this was a lazy, obvious answer without much truth behind it. Sure, I appreciate nature—lots of people do—but I think it’s the walking part of the hiking experience that I’m really drawn to.

Something about traveling on foot has always appealed to me. In high school, for example, I was frequently stepping out at night for a quick run or a stroll around the block. During my visits to India I spent hours wandering from place to place in unfamiliar cities rather than using faster, more convenient modes of transportation.

After some consideration, I’ve decided that it’s the way I experience space on foot that I find so satisfying. Space is one of those aspects of human existence that (along with time) defines our day-to-day lives in fundamental ways that we take almost completely for granted. This is especially true in these progressive times, when we travel encased in metal and glass, reposing in cushioned seats while enjoying music or movies, breathing filtered, temperature-controlled air. Here in the western United States we’re particularly accustomed to ranging far and wide, rocketing at over seventy miles per hour across sparsely inhabited wildernesses and vast stretches of suburban sprawl. You can watch the terrain whipping by your vehicle, and track the gradual transformations  in that distant skyline; still, it’s as if those rubber wheels insulate you from any real dialogue with the surrounding landscape. You sail through the world as if on a cloud, like something from from another world.

It’s an entirely different experience, though, when you have solid ground beneath your feet, when you have dust gathering on your trouser cuffs, the sun warming your shoulders, and your lungs filled with free and open air. Under such conditions there is a sense of fulfillment in connecting two points on the map with your own treading steps. Rather than merely leapfrogging from origin to destination, you prove their coexistence, their relationship, within the same plane of reality; you comprehend the intervening spaces and master a piece of the universe.

In my recent hikes this experience has been particularly exhilarating. I will walk for quite a while—for hours, sometimes—and then turn around to suddenly have the whole world spread out below me. I can see the grid of roads and buildings where I spend my days, all of it contained in one sweeping view. At such moments all that separates me from my apartment, my place of work, the grocery store, the library, or any other one of the frequent stops in my mundane, day-to-day existence is empty space; yet I stare across that tremendous gap and marvel that I managed to cross it with just the strength of my two legs.

At times like this I feel like a drop of the sea thrown out of a breaking wave, startled to be suddenly and so briefly a distinct and individual being; I feel like the atman, separated from Brahman by its own self-delusion, yet for a moment looking back at my true and universal self, seeing it from my solitude with such pristine clarity; I look down into the valley and feel that I’m beginning to comprehend the sage’s words, “Thou art that,” “Tat Tvam Asi.”

It’s ironic, perhaps, to feel more connected to the world after experiencing a moment of distinct individuality, but this is exactly what I get out of hiking. This is what I like about walking. So while you should definitely let me know if you want to go hiking together sometime (I’m probably interested), I hope you won’t be offended that I also sometimes walk alone.

Suggestic comic on fast travel: xkcd: Warning

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9 responses to “walking around, looking around

  1. Reading “those rubber wheels insulate you from any real dialogue with the surrounding landscape” made me miss you, Ashley, and hanging around the field studies office. Only there have I heard the word “dialogue” used so often! Love the thoughts, thanks for sharing!

    • That’s funny you associate that word with Field Studies. I think we’ve probably moved on to other vocabulary these days; I don’t think I use it all that often.

  2. My brother, forever a man to place words in exactly the right order. With Katie okay in the mornings, I’ve finally permanently reclaimed my mornings to walk. You’ve defined it perfectly for me. There’s just something about experiencing each step past a house I usually whiz past in the car or taking that side road that I’ve wondered for months where it leads. And it’s even better when I navigate that new road to find a great view at the top.

    I have taken JoAnna and Hyrum each exploring with me once. My walks are becoming something to be coveted by them. I think that’s a pretty decent gift to give my children – a love of walking. But, I still think I’m going to hoard it to myself most of the time for now. :)

    I do believe, however that I’m finally ready to face that trail you’ve mentioned up here. I’ll even be as eager to ignore you as you are to ignore me.

    • We’ll have to make a plan for that hike. I’m kind of wondering how adventurous it will be these days with the spring runoff still, you know, running off. I still think it will be really beautiful and a lot of fun!

      • I’m laughing a little because you talk about giving your children a love of walking as a gift and it reminds me of Mom dropping me off halfway to school in seventh grade. Her reasoning was that I had enough time to go at least that far on foot and that the walk would be good for me. It didn’t feel like much of a gift at the time … and the kid in my class that lived right where I got out thought Mom was some kind of crazy :D

  3. This is what I like about archaeology. You get a totally different view of the landscape that you would never have otherwise, you see it totally differently because of the experience. You see birds and tumbleweeds and dirt a whole lot differently when you are staring at them for days at a time and watching them change, though slowly, day by day.

    • That’s why I like hearing you talk about archaeology. I get a new perspective on things, but without all the work ;)

      Honestly, I hadn’t thought much about how connected you must feel to a site after looking at it, thinking about it, and analyzing it over a long period of time. I’ll admit my interest in archaeology, long presumed dead, has been piqued a bit by your comment.

  4. The only difference I see between archaeology and social anthropology is that the social anthropologist has the potential to ask their subjects questions. But there’s no guarantee they’ll get an answer, or even understand the answer they get. You remember I lived and worked in Delta for about 3+ months, well most ppl drive through Delta and they see a hot, sweaty, smelly desert and not much else. Archaeology gave me a rose-colored view of Delta. It made me think about my country/heritage/ancestors in a different way b/c I connected myself w/ their footsteps so intimately. My experience made me think about the people who lived in or travelled through Delta and wonder ‘why’ they stopped, what they saw there, if I could ever do it, or what archaeologists of the future will find of me and what they will surmise as a result of that discovery. Finding the skeleton in Italy was also very moving, my eyes were opened to details about past people’s lives that i wouldn’t have understood without seeing it first hand… the ppl I study become personal to me by seeing how they carefully etched the corners of a stone to be used to cover their 4 year old daughter’s body when she died, and placed a coin in her hand so she could get through the gates to the afterlife… I feel connected to these people and stories in much the same way you might through your own research in India. I wouldn’t presume to say that either your field nor mine is ‘more’ effective at getting information, we are just using different tools and asking somewhat different questions. Essentially either field is just trying to see the world through different eyes. We just engage in participant observation in a different way. :) I love archaeology!!

    • The ability to ask questions seems like a BIG difference to me. The implications are huge, as far as the day-to-day work is concerned. Either you’re talking to people all day, thinking and writing about your conversations, trying to uncover some hidden meaning to it all; or you’re looking at and collecting things all day, studying their spatial distribution, trying to uncover some hidden meaning to it all. Sure, the goal is the same, but the work is entirely different.

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