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.
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