Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Hiking with Jeremy

My mother, who is not a hiker, has asked me on several occasions why I hike. “Why do you need to go climb up on the mountain?” she asks me in Russian, always in a slightly judgmental tone, as I load up a pack with water and rain gear and prepare to set out. She leaves the rest of her question unsaid, but I hear the criticism. Why do you spend a whole day hiking when you could be reading or writing or doing something useful with your time? My answers are usually evasive, laconic. “Because I can,” I might say. “Because it’s what I do.”

On most trips back to California, I go hiking with Jeremy at least once. He is in his early seventies and hikes nearly every week in the summer, somewhat less frequently in the colder months, sometimes with one of his grown daughters but most often alone. He’s ascended Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous U.S., three times, most recently at the age of sixty-five. I haven’t accompanied him up Whitney, but I have done several grueling day hikes with him, including a twenty-four mile trek up Mount San Gorgonio, the highest peak in Southern California. In the summers, we hike in the San Bernardino Mountains. In the winters, when the mountains are snowy, we hike in the desert at Joshua Tree.

“Do you ever write about hiking?” Jeremy asked me on a hike last summer. “Well, no,” I said. “Not really.” Because, I thought, hiking itself is so much like writing. Looking at that trailhead or that empty page, I always begin with resistance. I am reluctant to get going, and yet, as I do, as I slowly begin to warm up, I am reminded again why I do this. As I get into a rhythm, as I lose sense of time and distance, I am astounded at the views around me, at the ground under my feet or the words on the page. And then the hard parts come upon me when I think I can’t possibly keep going, that what I am doing is simply too hard, too grueling, not worth the effort. And yet I go on, and the drudgery somehow gives way to moments of euphoria when I believe, for an instant, that I have found the one thing that I was destined to do on earth. But this short-lived rapture is inevitably followed by the exhausting parts, the painful parts, the long dreary slogs up endless switchbacks. Then there is the false hope that comes with believing the end is nearer than it actually is; there is the disappointment in reaching a plateau that only reveals a clearer view of the difficulties that still lie ahead. But finally, finally, when I reach the top, the view is always grand, even when obstructed, because the view is as much a looking inward as it is a looking outward. And when I am finished, when the hike or the writing is complete, I feel the deep satisfaction that comes with using my body for what it was intended to do and spending a day in a worthwhile pursuit.

On that same hike last summer, I asked Jeremy, “Why do you hike?” He thought about his answer for several minutes as we walked steadily along in silence, trudging through a long series of switchbacks. And then he told me his answer. Since we were hiking at the time, I didn’t write down his answer verbatim, but waited until we took a break to take out my pocket notebook. His response, which I try to recreate below, is, I think, better than mine.

Why do I hike? It’s hard, and sometimes it’s painful, and you’re out in the elements, and you often have to do the same parts of the same trail over and over, but when you reach your goal—if you reach it—it’s an accomplishment. You’ve done something. It’s more than sitting around the house or going out in the yard and walking around. And if you do it more than several times, if you keep hiking, it gets in you. It gnaws at me, and then I have to go hike. And I see people who don’t get around well, or at all, and maybe someday I won’t be able to get around and I’ll be in a wheelchair, but for now I can do this. This is a gift. We have this gift.

Why do I write? Why do I hike? Because I can. Because every day that we work hard to do something well is a gift.

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