There are people who feel that the meaning is in the moment, that the individual sights along the way are the answer, and it is for these things that they and we should travel through the woods in the first place. And yes, there are times that I would agree with these wise sages of the trails, but there are other times when I don’t since sometimes it’s about beating a path through a forest highway to push the body through to some kind of accomplishment of hiking.
And yes, it is true that I would be inclined to state my allegiance to their cause and to believe these people if the destination included some sweeping cliff-side view that swept out into forever and showed its viewers that the world below was full of a certain form of life that could only be witnessed from up where the hawks and vultures fly except for here’s the thing – there aren’t always cliffs that drop away from the mountains or rock piles to open the forest up into sky so that we can stand there and see this eternity.
See sometimes, it’s just a woodland walk, and a woodland walk is what a woodland walk is. It’s long and it’s boring and it’s a journey through the woods that takes the hiker from here to there without offering him or her anything “special” to look at. Not everyone can or wants to do that, and I get that. I don’t fault them. There should always be a purpose in why we go out, but it’s just that it’s not always a super fun, big destination hike that brings people in from miles and miles away.
Sometimes, it’s just all commonplace. The trees look pretty much the same in one section as another unless said hiker is coming out of deciduous trees and starting to traipse through coniferous trees. Then, it’s nice to notice that this is what these trees do, but isn’t that what trees do? One day in what seems like hundreds of years ago, they took their place on the forest floor as a seed, and then they grew down with roots pushing through resistant dirt to find a way to anchor themselves to the forest floor, and then they grow strong and tall until they one day fell to the ground and provided food and home for other critters of the forest. And in between this, they stood tall as trees do, but who pays attention to an individual tree unless it grows at a weird angle while pushing through rock to stand against the elements? Of course, there are the trees with weird bulbous growths that come to be a 50-100 pound burl sticking out of their “necks,” but nobody goes to visit a tree because it has a wooden beach ball sticking out of the side of it. Sure, there could be an embrace of wandering through the tall up-stretching of a section of very alive pines that enclose the trail as they open up on the sides to showcase the lake below, but that only goes so far when it is about trying to double up the pace to get to them.
The pine forest ahead is not a secluded waterfall along a stream. It doesn’t command attention as a stream does when it roars off the edge and stops all resistance while eroding out the path that it will travel. It simply is, and for that, it simply is the place that is traveled through to get from here to there in the exact same way that most skinny little forest streams that never drop off into grand, secluded waterfalls are exactly what they are – environments for life and elements of differentiation on the path, but mostly just a little babble and / or an opportunity to walk through the water or over a bridge to get to the next woodland path that goes on and on and on.
So yes, the pine forest is what the pine forest is until it isn’t. And when that time comes, the pines give way to maples and oaks and birches. See there comes a time when their needles end, and then it’s back to the same wide leaf forests that were walked through before. And now, there is no soft undergrowth of needles and intoxicating smell to captivate. Instead, there are thick overgrowths of brush and collapsed tree trunks along the sides of the trail, but there is no forest scent past the leafy decay of past years to breathe in deep and to pin to the memory as if it were the greatest be all, end all destination that could ever possibly be traveled to.
People can get their thanatopsis anywhere.
In the meantime, maybe the forest will open up for a time, and the hills will be revealed to allow for open walking through farm fields. Maybe the rocky trail will give way to some tractor tire impression to walk through for miles and miles or maybe it will just feel like miles and miles because the sun is set to broil and now it is burning the sky and draining every single ounce of water reserve in the body, and with that, there’s no perfect amount of water to carry with because if there were extra water, that would be downed in no time as well as all of the water that is on the back, and besides, it’s no longer cold water. It’s stagnating into that table water temperature water that seems more about simple hydration as opposed to the pleasurable joy of holding the cold of icy water in the mouth.
And who would want to hike that long that even the simple pleasure of a cold drink is gone from the list of options?
I know, I know, there are animals and flowers to be seen. The birds soar overhead. Sometimes, they dart out of brush to appear for a second as they climb the sky to get above it all. The chipmunks and squirrels scamper as do the groundhogs and rabbits. Occasionally, a deer or two will show white tail until the brush hides their tails from sight. While some forests will house bears and turkeys and coyotes, these animals are usually found in bigger and wilder and more northern places. Not all hikes offer the endless isolation of forest for deep squared in miles and miles, especially those hikes that exist mere miles from the suburbs of some urban sprawl. For this, getting living and breathing nature is about accepting what’s given and hoping for a raccoon, opossum, or fox to quickly pop out and say hello until they too are gone as quickly as they came before even allowing the hiker to get a paparazzi-style photo.
And yes, even the presence of the dangerous and mysterious copperheads and rattlesnakes are more likely to be replaced by the smaller and less harmful garter snake or a big ugly rat snake. Sure, they are to be watched out for while walking the dirt paths, but when they do appear, they shuffle off in much the same way as the hiker dances his or her boots away from their incoming trajectories. With that, their presence is watched for consciously, like jutting out rocks or sticker bushes on a gnarly section of the trail, but it isn’t expected or guaranteed.
Instead, it is just potential reward for time spent in the woods.
And besides, when the body’s reserves are being drained to the point of exhaustion, the desire to watch for flora and fauna is minimal. It’s more about where does the trail lead to. It’s about where the mile marker is and whether the feet can carry said hiker to the next one or if this grassy side of the trail is a perfect place to throw body down and unstrap the backpack, take off the sweaty hat and soaked through shirt and to just thank the universe for the breeze that is now pushing through the corridor.
Because this moment of temporary reprieve is there and it’s good and now is the time that it can be felt in perfect stillness and escape from what is. Whether it’s in the middle of the forest or sitting above the lake on some cliff, there is always that sense of being thankful both for the breeze and the fact that there are no teenagers and early twenty something visitors partying it up in the woods while taking away the sense of serenity there above the passing boats.
For there has to be some reward for pushing it all out past the halfway point to think of Lynyrd Skynyrd songs that equate calm winds with rambling around the country from place to place or loving multiple “Georgia peaches” since settling down is just too foreign to ever think about, at least to Ronnie Van Zant. For me, it’s just those 2 lines: “They call me the breeze, I keep blowin’ down the road.”
So yes, while there are colorful wildflowers along the paths and the roads, the pinks and the purples and the whites and the blues and the yellows, they are just specks of adjectives and nouns to season a fairly bog standard meal of typical southern Pennsylvania forest. Sure, the blossoming of rhododendrons, mountain laurel, and water lilies is a time where hikes are more enjoyable, but what about when they aren’t in bloom? Why hike through the woods then?
Along the way, the gnats crawl all over the flesh, and they stick to a sweaty brow while trying to crawl up into the ears or succeeding in finding nourishment from poking into the flesh on exposed arms. Ticks find their way onto bodies and hook on until they can be discovered and picked off – hopefully before they do their damage. Mosquitos draw additional blood that sticker bushes can’t get. And poison ivy! That’s everywhere, just rubbing up against exposed flesh and waiting to leave its nasty rash that will spread and spread as it itches and itches!
Why hike in just any old woods for the sake of hiking when there are these things – especially if there is no grand destination along the way? Why hike just to be in wooded sections and farmlands for 11 hours at a time? Does it really mean that much just to get away from it all, to be in the great wide open, to take nature in?
Or is there something else to all this? Is there something about pushing it all out of the body, giving it all to walk mile after mile up and down the hills, which aren’t even mountains for God sake?!! Is there something in the sheer act of endurance that can find a certain twisted pleasure in walking 23 miles around a manmade lake just to say that this endurance march has been completed? Sure, there is a sense of saying that this hike can be replicated again and again with less pain and suffering at the end than was done before. It can be pushed faster and quicker.
But is it really necessary to do it 2 or 3 times if a person can do it once? Shouldn’t it be enough to just do it and call it a day?
And with that question, there is another: Is it really that important to know that one person can do what other people can’t do?
To all of these things, I would say there is a hidden special meaning if a person is willing to look for it. There is a certain humble scream of victory that says that I have trained my body to do what your body can’t. I am in the process of challenging myself to overcome the extent of your accomplishments that you wear like a badge of pride and / or I am trying to replicate the joy of your accomplishments for the sake of my own sense of self-discovery. I am overcoming my fears, my resistance, my weakness, and the years of misuse of my body to arrive at a place where I feel whole again. I am regaining control of my body’s functions, and I am becoming pure again.
And I am in complete control of whether or not I can succeed in this or not. The mathematical precision of the yes or no answer is everything for me. All of the entitlement of the world around me is reduced to my sense of accomplishment’s basis being centered on whether I can do the hike or not. For all of the jobs that I tell myself I can do, the world gives me opportunities to try my hand at some, but it also tells me that I am “highly-qualified” for others. While this label would give some people pleasure, it is not the badge of “best qualified,” so I have been divided out by the normal distribution. For this matter, I may as well be “unqualified.”
This sense of someone else’s judgment doesn’t exist in the woods. I take my skillset to play, and I either kick it up a notch to give myself the skill or I stay the same. If I work at it, I give myself the experience. The real world isn’t always like this. If real life won’t give me the experience of other new jobs, I have to keep plugging away and finding resistance points to erode away at until I find a way to get the skills and experience that they want or I become satisfied with the niche that I have been relegated to.
For me, the physicality of a forest, even a forest that is just a forest with nothing special in it, is appealing because it allows for growth of the individual heart. In hiking and all things physical, it’s about what I push my machine to do or not do.
In the end, either I can, or I can’t. If I need to advertise my attempts to the world to keep myself honest and in fear of what they will say if I don’t do it, then so be it because I will take that as added inspiration to the cause. I will move through all of my steps. I will check off the percentage of the accomplishment and see myself progressing to the next part of the journey. I will wear the pain in my feet like a badge of honor.
And when I am done, I will wear my success with pride because it will allow me to join ranks with those who have. It will allow me to rise above those who haven’t. It will give me the opportunity to walk with the seasoned veterans while rising above the commonplace world I live within in so many things I have done.
And perhaps it’s wrong to look at them for what they haven’t and that I have, but there are these feelings.
You have not felt this pain. You have not sweated this much. You have not walked through the cobwebs and felt the nibble of the bugs to the extent that I have. You have not rationed your water while feeling too tight internally to want to eat anymore. You have not gone the journey hour after hour after hour. You have not been percolated by the sun. You have not done your business out of doors.
I will yip and yeah for this. I will triumphantly raise my trekking poles to the sky just for the appearance of my car in the distance somewhere at the bottom of the hill. I will know that I gave it more for longer and that I endured it all to become more. I have gone beyond the sampler course, and I am becoming proficient to a new level altogether.
And when it is over, I will be able to admire my pictures of commonplace nothingness because if they are all lined up together, they represent a sense of something more than they would be if they were divided into smaller journeys.
Because they are not smaller journeys.
They are A JOURNEY both into and out of the person, which is what I was told that all of our stories are. I am creating a story. I am writing it myself. I am finding a way to make sense of all things for me and I am attempting to utilize these skills learned in the mountains and forests and fields and hills and valleys to become something more in the world that they live in and that I am forced to work through to keep returning to these places.
In the end, that is what it’s all about.