"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."
-- Henry David Thoreau, Walden
In the woods, we walk to get here we need to go. Our legs feel the ascents, the descents, the sting of thorn and slash of bush. Our speed varies little; we pause often and see much. In the woods, we eat when we are hungry and drink frequently of freshly filtered water from cold streams. In the woods, we pause to identify a small gentle flower or the impression of cloven hooves in mud. In the woods, we live and feel life.
Last weekend, my husband and I hiked through the Great Burn in Idaho. We had just paused to ford a rushing creek and to stare at water cascading over rocks when I started a dialogue about why we love backpacking. We both love the adventure, the self-reliance and the scenery, but we decided that the immediacy of those qualities is mostly due to the experience one has through walking.
I have always enjoyed walking, and I am not alone in the passion. Aristotle was reputed to lecture while walking. William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge spent large portions of their days walking, crystallizing their thoughts and composing their poems. (Writers of that time made the two synonymous, in fact.) The great thinker Immanuel Kant walked at the same time everyday. And one of the most famous of saunterers, Henry David Thoreau, wrote an entire essay on walking. To say that walking is only about getting somewhere is erroneous. Walking is about the journey, about seeing and smelling, about directing our wandering attention to our surroundings. Walking is about staying present. Thoreau advocated "sauntering" -- which he, tongue-in-cheek, defined as searching for the holy land -- a wandering without a destination in search of that which is greater than one's self. Some may say in these modern times that such wandering is a waste of time, that it is decadent and without purpose. But what better use of time and what better purpose than to seize your time and interact with the world around you, to slow down in our fast world and see what it is you speed past?
Through walking, the entire experience of a city or place changes. You see it slowly, slower than we are used to. You face it head on without protection of glass, metal or wood. You are open to adventure. There is nothing between you and wildlife, mountain storms and treacherous precipices. At night, there is but a thin membrane protecting you from the dark world outside. But within this vulnerability, you learn the relative order of things. Before you are gaping mountain crevices, and suddenly your earthly concerns seem so immaterial. You stand at the edge of a vast, sublime and indifferent world -- a world in which you must function with focus, must move with attentiveness.
We go into the woods to live deliberately. We carry all we need upon our backs like great snails inching their way along. This is a great simplification. You must pare down to the essentials. You are forced to think: What do I really need? Food, shelter, clothing, fuel. And you rely entirely on yourself. And in doing so, you can see beyond those things that cloud your focus and encounter the sublime itself. You have left behind the detritus of your life and find that you can focus on the now, on the here.
While walking, you can pause and consider something closely, observe minute details, feel the rush of the air, smell the rank moss or the oncoming rain. You can get stuck in bogs, ascend mountains and feel completely alone surrounded by neck-high prickly bushes. Butterflies flutter at your feet, deer bound across a field, brittle bones of last year's bear grass break under your step. You look and listen; you pay attention to everything. And, as poets of the past have discovered, the attentiveness isn't just to the external; focusing on the outer world retunes your ear for hearing the still, small voice within. Simply, you can hear yourself think -- and this attentiveness, as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Aristotle, Thoreau, and other creative spirits know -- pushes you out of your stagnant pool and its whirling busy-ness into fresh waters, fresh life, a necessity for allowing something new to grow.
At the end, you come back to the trailhead. You are exhausted. You take off your pack and you feel like your feet could leave the Earth. You get in your car and drive, and it feels too fast. The forests and mountains fly by. You go from gravel to pavement, from small roads to I-90. The setting sun burns your eyes through the windshield. When you get home, you take a shower. The water feels so good, washing away days of dirt and sweat, sunscreen and insect repellant. But it does not wash away the experience. Your muscles feel alive. You feel alive. You have accomplished something. You have gone into the woods, and you believe. You believe it can be done, that a human being can navigate a world that is so much larger than her.