Friday, February 13, 2004

Touchy-Feely Philosophical Moment
A friend sent me this article about a movie review of the mountain climbing documentary Touching the Void. The reviewer expressed that he felt mountain climbing to be a silly undertaking and wrapped up in vacuous philosophy. Interviews with mountain climbers tend to be punctuated with references to experiencing God, or the spiritual realm, or touching the boundary of heaven or other such sentiments. The reviewer seems incredulous to the possibility that such an undertaking as mountain climbing would even encourage a spiritual sense, and that when examples of such are spoken of, they are, in his mind, just an airing of psychobabble justification for putting oneself in harms way to begin with.

Which got me to thinking about what it is about hiking that engrosses me so. It operates on a number of levels for me. The exercise is good, for one thing, but it's no different than what one experiences on the Stairmaster. I think on one level I approach it spatially. I love looking at maps of wilderness and wondering what is in there, those blank spaces of unconquered, undeveloped territory - that what makes up these areas is not ordained by man. Contrast this with towns, cities and the like that are man's creations. The wilderness happens in spite of man, and thus makes it an unknown frontier - something to be pondered over, puzzled over, feared over, explored, figured out, unlocked.

Trails in the woods are sort of on the boundary of policed pathways that we create. The hallways of offices, libraries, stores, restaurants, public buildings, homes, apartment buildings, etc are policed by their own will and order. They have a certain logic that you understand and take for granted because you know what their purpose is for. No one is enthralled by a hallway. No one is quizzical about what might be around the corner of a hallway. When you go to a hotel, are you curious about the hallway, where it leads? Not really insofar as you are interested in getting to your room door. The hallway is just a means, but offers little wonder. It offers little wonder in restaurants if you are heading to a bathroom. It offers little wonder if you are heading to your cubicle at work.

However, there's something about trails though that offer the unknown and become for me the curious sideshow leading up the final destination (summit, ledge, waterfall, etc). The trail goes through many changes, takes different directions unexpectedly, has changing environments to keep you on guard (falling leaves and sticks, sightings of animals, the surprise of other hikers coming upon you unexpectedly). Plus your imagination runs at a fever pitch - will there be a moose around the bend? A Bear? You think of all your vulnerabilities, all your fears, all those things that run across your mind when you walk the razor sharp boundary of known and unknown, man's world and nature's world.

And the pace is refreshing. You are in a spirit of easy contemplation. You recognize the play of light, the rhythms of nature, the ebb and flow of wind, the laws of elevation gain. You operate within the elements: rock, dirt, tree, sun, wind, clouds. You come face to face with your insignificance. You realize your own fragility than at any other time. A wrong step, a wrong turn, a sudden storm can put you in more peril than you would think possible. And yet you recognize it more viscerally than one does in the normal day to day (like driving a car for instance. The peril that we could face, but don't even think about).

Its an alive experience for me. The intellectual exercise of making known to me those dark places on the map that are unknown. Its a spatial exercise for me, fulfilling a need to be a personal witness to the works of nature. Its a spiritual exercise for me, offering contemplation and resonance with my surroundings and the march of time. Its an emotional thing for me, experiencing the thrill of accomplishment and savoring the grandeur of special places, and its a physical thing for me, pushing my body forward to bring me places only possible by my two legs.

I don't suggest that mountain climbing is the only way to gain such experience. Heck, I gain some of the same experiences simply sitting in a lawn chair at the beach. However, it is an activity that reliably offers me a consistent means of escape - physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. And in a world of constant encroaching cultural artifice - whether by the incessant diet of pop culture, overpoliticized events, celebrity worship, and the human brotherly need to share one's negativity with others, the escape that mountain climbing provides is as good as gold.


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