We’re grateful to still be putting distance between us and normal life, in which routine elbows exploration aside, society orders nature off the premises, and sedentary work pins physical fitness to the floor.
We’ve been hiking in the Alps since mid-June. We’ve remained injury free, rainy spells have been brief, and we’re disciplined about keeping down-time (shopping, driving, resting, etc.) to a minimum. So we’ve actually hiked most of that four-and-a-half months. In summer, we hiked six days a week. Fall weather and shorter days have recently reduced our average to four or five days a week. Of the 135 days we’ve now been here, we’ve spent approximately 108 days on the trail.
This has been our Endless Summer. The classic film of that title follows surfers on their quest for primo waves rolling toward exotic beaches. Our quest has been for fascinating trails probing sensational mountains. We’re fulfilling a dream. We’re not at home, living a relatively normal, work-constantly, hike-when-possible life. We’re traveling, living a highly unusual, hike-constantly, work-when-possible life.
We have and will continue to blog about our sojourn. Our chief goal—certainly in our books, but even in our blog—is to inspire others to hike and guide them on especially rewarding trails. But during this endless summer of hiking we’re also exploring metaphysical terrain. The terrain to which we turned our attention when we wrote the book titled Heading Outdoors Eventually Leads Within. It’s this terrain we’re compelled to write about now.
Hiking constantly—far and fast—limits human contact. In summer, on some trails, yes, we crossed paths with many hikers. But even then, we were alone most of the time. Now it’s fall, and we’re inching southward, toward the Med, away from the big, famous peaks. We’re encountering few hikers. When we do meet others—on the trail, or in towns—they’re French. We speak little of their language, they little of ours, so discourse is usually simplistic and fleeting. We don’t have a cell phone. We get internet access rarely—perhaps once a week—in places where we can’t or don’t want to linger long. So communication with friends, family or business affiliates is minimal. Plus, the way we’re traveling—driving a campervan, free-camping in the loneliest, quietest spots we can find, usually at or near trailheads—also limits human contact.
This near-constant state of solitude is conducive to frequent, penetrating introspection.
During a recent spate of rain, for example, when we’d declined to hike for a couple days, we were holed-up in our van, writing. A quiet backroad allowed us to tuck into the forest beside a stream. The trails had been ours alone on our previous two dayhikes. Nobody drove or walked by our van that day in the rain. It was quiet, save for the water music. Fat clouds waddled slowly among the treetops. Fog slithered through the forest. I became aware of how isolated we were were at that moment, how we’ve always isolated ourselves even at home in North America, and how this summer—despite being in heavily populated Europe—we’ve been especially isolated.
I said to Kath, “I feel like we’re in a very small sailboat, far out at sea, on a trans-ocean voyage.”
“I know,” she said. “I feel the same.”
A long discussion ensued, punctuated by several realizations:
• It’s not the hiking that’s difficult for us. Ever. It’s when we’re off the trail, between trailheads—that’s when our life doesn’t always flow smoothly. During those lulls, we’re in a kind of limbo. Like those couple days we were hunkered in the forest, sitting out the rain. That’s when we get antsy. That’s when our minds sometimes become infested with conventional thought: “Should we be doing this? What are we doing? It’s been four and a half months, isn’t that enough? Maybe we should end the trip, go home. Wouldn’t it be better if we had some friends with us? I wish I could be with my family right now. Maybe instead of hiking, gathering info for a future book that might not be profitable, we should be at our desks, marketing our current books.” And on, and on, and on.
• When hiking, we’re immune to all that monkey-mind stuff. On the trail, we’re almost always relaxed and content. We feel very present, fully alive, completely engaged. We never question why were doing it. It feels absolutely right. When hiking, we feel we’re being our true selves. Just as some people have a meditation practice, or a yoga practice, we have a hiking practice. Doing yoga frees the body from tension. Meditating frees the mind from aimless wandering. Hiking frees us from uncertainty and anxiety.
• We’re now engaged in our hiking practice with the same level of devotion as are those for whom meditation or yoga is central to their lives. When getting ready for a hike, we don’t think about the getting ready. We don’t question if we should go hiking or not, if we’ll enjoy it or not, if the trail we chose is the optimal one for that day, if the weather will cooperate… and so on. Mindfully, but without mental static, we simply prepare, then set out. Pre-hike, it’s as if we’re propelled not consciously, but subconsciously. We’ve come to believe that the adventure ahead is more apt go smoothly if, before setting out, we’re calmly focused rather than frantic and anxious.
All that monkey-mind stuff? The uncertainties and anxieties that bubble up when we’re between trailheads? That’s our conscious minds seeking distraction. Distraction from whatever is: the sound of rain dappling on the roof of our van, the difficulty or tedium of writing, the realization that we are utterly alone, etc. Often, whatever is, just doesn’t seem to be enough for the conscious mind. We think we want, need or deserve… something different than what is. Precisely what that difference actually is, we’re not sure, but our conscious minds insist that whatever is just isn’t satisfactory.
• Observing our conscious minds seeking distraction is a new insight for us. We’re now able to recognize the seeking of distraction for what it is, which allows us to let go of it, and settle back into contentment. This glimmer of understanding is one of many that have arisen during our endless summer in the Alps. They’re the result of our new level of dedication to our practice.
• We’ve also seen, with distilled clarity, how little we want. Health, each other, good food, deep sleep, agreeable weather, and wildlands to hike. That’s it. The swarm of concerns, the pile of possessions, the restricting obligations, and the frenetic busyness that seem to consume most people’s lives have, for us, fallen away. We’re completely comfortable—absolutely at home—alone in nature. Noise, crowds and urban bustle have become increasingly agitating. There’s a simplicity and focus to our present existence that’s immensely fulfilling. Wanting so little feels liberating.
• But questions now loom on our horizon: What happens when our endless summer ends? Will we be able to adjust to a life in which we cannot be as dedicated to our hiking practice as we are now? What would it take to indefinitely continue our present level of dedication to our hiking practice?
Meanwhile, our endless summer continues into fall. And each time we look back over our shoulders—at normal life, in which routine elbows exploration aside, society orders nature off the premises, and sedentary work pins physical fitness to the floor—we’re grateful we’re still putting distance between us and it.
Thanks for following us.