A Familiar Sight, Both Pleasurable And Reassuring

My family and I have gone hiking on several occasions. While on them, a general pattern emerges–I normally walk ahead of my wife and daughter. When my daughter was a toddler, though she did walk for some short stints, at most times my wife carried her on her back in an Ergo carrier; now my daughter walks on by herself for the entire trail. In the ‘old days,’ my daughter often required some persuasion to continue; such persuasion was more charitably and kindly dispensed by my wife; as such, she became the primary caretaker during a hike. Moreover, because my daughter would not let me carry her, a straightforward manifestation of her preference of her mother’s caretaking, my wife also became the primary carrier and beast of burden. (Her child-carrying feats evoked many cries of admiration from fellow hikers who were battling the switchbacks in Jasper and Banff National Parks in Canada in the summer of 2015; my daughter was then three and a half years old, and weighed in at a hefty thirty-five pounds.)

And so, on the trail, we set off together, but a gap slowly emerges between the two ‘groups.’ As it grows, I stop to let my companions catch up; sometimes I cannot even hear their voices behind me, and though the silences and the calm of the woods and the slopes are especially calming and thought-provoking, I still hanker for the familiar pleasures of hearing my wife and my child talking to each other. Somewhere deep within me is buried the fear that we will lose each other; that my wife and daughter will wander off into some cul-de-sac; that the prudent thing for me to do is to continue to provide them close company. So I cease motion; I take off my backpack, and rest on a boulder or tree stump. I look back along the trail, waiting for them to hove into view. If the gap has grown, it may take a minute or two before I can hear them again; it certainly takes a while before I can spot them again. Sometimes they are obscured by the woods; sometimes by the curvature and the bends and twists and turns of the landscapes.

Then, finally, as I hear my daughter’s high-pitched voice grows louder, I see them emerge from the woods, make the turn around the bend, up the path, through the trees. They see me, and our expressions light up in unison; we are happy and, yes, relieved to see each other. Sometimes, having spotted them, I move on; sometimes, we all stop for a break. We swap stories of what we have seen and heard; we know we move through the same landscape but our experiences are quite different.

It never gets old; that complex feeling, when I see my wife and daughter reappear, of a quiet happiness tempered with a relief that has grown in response to the tiniest of terrors. Here, in the wilderness, we are happy to be with each other again–even if only momentarily separated. We realize, thanks to that particular and peculiar reminder that only the wilderness can provide, of just how much we mean to each other.

Learning To Live With The Fear Of Heights

I’m terrified of heights; vertigo, nausea, fear, and anxiety instantly make an appearance as I near an airy ledge of any kind. Cliffs in the wilderness, building balconies, these all induce these effects in me. My fear of heights bothers me; I like hiking, I like mountain views, and the best ones are always up among the regions where my fears are at their most insistent, clamoring for attention, demanding control of my body and brain. I gaze at photos of mountaineers on ridges and summits and ice walls, and I’m thrilled and nauseated alike. I want to be up there, but I know what I will feel: terror. During my boarding school years, in the tenth grade, I took up rock climbing in an effort to try to either master, or co-exist with, this fear. Those motivations were quite conscious; I hoped to move on past the worst aspects of those sensations so I could enjoy the mountains. My rock climbing was elementary but I did achieve a moment of acute insight once while abseiling down a training cliff: my feet slipped momentarily, I swung back hard into the rock face, and panicked. Around me, mists swirled, and below me lurked a seemingly bottomless chasm. As I called for help, my instructor yelled at me to push away from the cliff and continue moving down. I was not going to be rescued. A few seconds later, I came to an overhang, pushed out, and smoothly swung down to the floor to come to rest; I was exhilarated. I had encountered trouble in a scary place, and somehow, I had moved on–despite my fears. I had seen a glimmer of a better place; perhaps by controlled exposure to heights, I could learn to live with my fears well enough to be able to travel to places I wanted to see.

Over the years, this insight faded; I left my boarding school in the hills, returned to the plains, graduated from school and college, migrated; I’d gone back to my old ways. I continued to hike in the mountains, but I never took up any kind of climbing again. I remained scared of the heights.

Sometime last year, I began resolving to push myself back to the heights, to train, formally and informally, to get back to trying to ‘master’ those old fears of mine. I took a climbing course in New Hampshire, and an ice climbing course in the Catskills; neither of those classes involved exposure to great heights, but I hoped to start learning those skills and techniques which would let me make a foray to places where I would encounter them. I also hoped to start pushing myself to, er, ‘expose’ myself to, exposure.

This past week’s hike to Mt. Yamnuska–while ostensibly an elementary recreational jaunt, one that thousands of local teenagers pull off every year–thus constituted an integral part of this strategy; the tiny cabled ‘via ferrata‘ section on its approach had filled me with much trepidation when I had first read about it, and so it made eminent sense to attempt it. Online guides said it was not for the ‘faint of heart’; I thought I recognized myself, the very faint of heart. The evening before the hike, I was suddenly struck with fear and doubt; What if I slipped? What if I fell? What if I looked down?

On the day of the hike, the cabled section finally made its appearance; one hiking partner went first, and I followed next. Because the cable is strung tight, it affords a comfortably secure grip as the ledge is traversed; there was one tricky section where the slack in the cable sent me alarmingly into open air. I hung on, slid my hands across, as I hung on tight and moved on. There was some genuine fear in there for a second, but it subsided. A second later, I was done. The summit was a short scramble away. (Interestingly enough, because you have to concentrate on your grip and the placement of your feet, there is little time to think about the exposure behind and below; a very useful lesson.)

I feel faintly ridiculous as I write these words; all I had done was walk across a short section of a cliff ledge, all the while hanging on to a cable. But these sorts of things add up, I suppose, and I can only hope they continue to. I don’t think I’ll ever ‘master’ my fear of heights, but perhaps I’ll learn to live with them in a way that will allow me access to those regions up among the clouds that do so much to lift my spirits.

Back To Conferencing, Thanks To The Mountains

Last year, indeed, almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a post titled My First Academic Conference. In it, after describing my reluctance to attend academic conferences, I closed with the following lines:

Now, I don’t go to conferences any more; the travel sounds interesting, but the talks, the questions and answer sessions, the social schmoozing, the dinners, (and the conference fees!) don’t sound enticing. I prefer smaller-scale, more personally pitched interactions with my fellow academics.  But perhaps a suitable conference venue–with mountains close by–will overcome this reticence.

Well, that ‘reticence’ was ‘overcome’ and unsurprisingly, mountains had something to do with it. Last week, I attended the University of Calgary Philosophy Graduate Student Conference to deliver a talk–as one of four plenary speakers. Calgary is, of course, wonderfully proximal to Banff National Park and the Bow Valley; hiking opportunities would be ample; so I gratefully accepted the invitation. My wonderful host was Justin Caouette, a doctoral candidate in the department who had organized the conference, and amazingly enough, offered to put me up and arrange a couple of hikes too. His hospitality and friendship made this trip memorable; he is a professional ethicist engaged in a constant struggle to abide by the theoretical principles he espouses; I can extend no higher praise to a practicing philosopher.

On arriving in Calgary on the 2nd, we drove up to Banff for coffee and some pleasant strolls around the stunning local lakes.  The next two days were taken up by the conference; I attended all the talks and participated in most question and answer sessions; I’m glad to say that these went well and were not hijacked by the kind of querulous interactions that are the bane of academic philosophical discussions. My talk closed out the conference; the time allotted to my session was generous and allowed for a very engaged interaction with the audience. (More on the content of my talk in a separate post.)

Once done with the conference, Caouette and I headed off to hike Mt. Yamnuska in the Bow Valley. The hike is an elementary one in terms of distance and elevation gain, but the scrambles above the treeline make it an exciting one, as does a short cabled ‘via ferrata‘ section leading up to the final summit ridge. Descending by a looped route requires scrambling down long scree slopes, an experience which was utterly novel. The views from the summit were stunning; the good ones always require a little work. (I will write more, in a separate post, about the personal challenge that the cabled section presented to a terrified-of-heights person like me.)

On the following day, Caouette and I had planned to hike Mt. Rundle, but locals in Banff informed us that avalanche conditions made that too dangerous. We settled for a pleasant hike from Lake Louise up to Lake Mirror and Lake Agnes. The lakes were still frozen; they were stunningly beautiful. The forested paths leading up to them were blanketed in snow, and hikers were rare. We were able to enjoy the stillness of that snowy walk in relative solitude.

Finally, on Sunday, we went for a little indoor climbing–my first crack at this endeavor. I chose a wall equipped with an auto-belay and tried a few routes; the 5.7s were elementary but the 5.9s defeated me. I consider myself a reasonably strong and fit person but was amazed at how quickly my arms grew tired; some failures resulted just because I could not hold on or pull up any more. (Much more on this experience too anon.)

I’m back home now, and have already notched up a full day’s teaching. But I’m only partially here; one part is still dreaming about the mountains.

Colorado Notes – IV: The Outdoor Act That Dare Not Speak Its Name

Apparently bears shit in the woods.¹ What about hikers? Forget about ‘going’ in outer space. How do you ‘go’ in the great outdoors? The answer to this question scares many off from overnight camping, sending them back to the safety of the trailhead, the car, and then, onwards to modern civilization’s greatest achievement: the indoor toilet, complete with flushing system, toilet paper rolls, liquid soap dispensers, and towels. There’s no getting away from it: the call of nature must be answered, even if in the midst of, er, nature. Everyone poops; that fact does not go on vacation when you do.

And it ain’t straightforward, for the list of standards and guidelines to be followed are extensive, with conformance to them expected by all those you share the trail with: be discreet, sparing fellow campers a sight that cannot be unseen; stay away from water sources for those who transmit E coli to drinking sources are condemned to damnation; dig holes with a shovel for disposal of waste; do not use non-biodegradable wipes, otherwise, you need to pack it out (yes, pack it all out).  The physical requirements are equally onerous: deep squatting is a physical movement that makes many of us uncomfortable, but until Portosans start dotting the landscape–a fate too grim to comprehend–it is the only way to facilitate you-know-what. In ever so slightly buggy environments, some protective hand waving is required as well, up top and down below. (I cast my mind, ruefully, back to some New Zealand experiences involving sand flies; my rear end complained for several days afterwards.)

Morning rituals at camp are mostly uncomfortable and bothersome; stiff and sore bodies roll out of damp tents to pack up and get moving; the trip to the ‘outhouse’ is an important component therein. The dread that precedes it is, however, matched, if not surpassed by the almost euphoric sensation that follows its completion: body, mind, and step lightened, the hiker is ready to face the trail, its challenges suddenly less onerous. Cover on the trail is always harder to find; better to get things out of the way and set off with a clean slate (among other things.) Feel that skip in your step? You won’t if you don’t lighten up. Literally.

Despite my knowing tone above, I’m not an expert yet in the fine arts of outdoor pooping. And neither have I yet won mastery over the anxiety and angst that envelops the conception and execution of the act. My only consolation is the anticipation of that much-awaited–if stiff and painful to begin with–standing up and walking back to campsite with a huge grin on my face, now suddenly prepared to hoist those recalcitrant forty pounds or so on my back and get walking. With thoughts of next morning’s anticipated deeds held in abeyance.

Note #1: So I’m told. I’ve never seen one, nor have I ever come across any photographic or video evidence to this effect. Testimonial evidence and all that.

Colorado Notes – III: Solo Hiking As Novelty

I’ve always struggled to understand the solo hiker. Walking alone in the wilderness suggested a journey suffused with equal parts boredom and fear: no one to point to a sight seen along the way, no one to seek refuge with in case of danger. (These considerations apply to travel in general in my case: I’ve traveled alone, but have always preferred to do so in company.) But those who walk along wilderness trails with no one to keep them company have clearly overcome these challenges that seemed insuperable to me; they’ve clearly figured out something I haven’t. They’d figured out how to find solitude, not loneliness, on the trail. On my recent Colorado trip, once my original plans for hiking the Collegiate West section of the Colorado Trail had been derailed, I had resolved to hike from Cottonwood Pass  to Tincup Pass Road, supposedly the most beautiful section of the trail segment, as a partial consolation. I tried to arrange company for the hike–a sixteen mile day-hike which would require a very early start to avoid any of the Rockies’ usual afternoon thunderstorms–but those plans fell through. I would have to hike this segment alone if I wanted to do it.

Let’s face it: I’m a pretty anxious, easily panicked person; I am terrified of being lost; momentary losses of orientation easily trigger ominous internal losses of self-control. I’m not your ideal solo hiker. But I was desperate to hike this section–one that had little camping cover and which would require scurrying down and away from its exposed ridgelines in case thunder and lightning threatened. The mind of the anxious is not easily tamed though, and I effortlessly conjured up one desperate situation after another: what if I sprained an ankle and was unable to walk? Eh? What then? I arranged for a ride, even as it seemed to me that the rendezvous I was arranging at night for a pick-up seemed a little tentative and might easily, on failing, cause me considerable inconvenience and perhaps even place me in some danger.

As you can tell, I was one reluctant adventurer. But I was a disappointed one, still smarting over the derailment of my original plans to hike the Collegiate West. So I gulped and resolved to wake early and set off alone. It was the most minor of decisions in one sense: all I was planning to do was wake up early and go for a longish walk–in the mountains. But knowing what I knew about myself, it wasn’t.

I set off at six in the morning, shivering just a little from the cold wind that raked Cottonwood Pass. The sun greeted my presence on the trail quickly, warming me up, and firming my resolve further. At Sanford Saddle on the Continental Divide, a black bear, sprinting downhill, induced some momentary apprehension but that emotion quickly gave way to gratitude for being lucky enough to witness such a spectacular sight. A little later, I met a thru-hiker who turned out to be great company; we hiked together for the rest of the segment, bidding each other farewell as he continued on from Tincup Pass Road. I wasn’t hiking solo anymore but the challenge had been met: I had set off solo. The hike was as beautiful as promised; I would have been a fool to have missed out on it.

More importantly, of course, I had partially mastered an old fear. And I had done it in the oldest ‘proving ground’ of all: the wilderness.

Colorado Notes – II: The Kindness Of Strangers

Before my recent trip to Colorado, I had not hitchiked in many years. There was no need to. And it seemed like a bad idea in most cases. (As in anywhere in New York City.) But over the past week or so, I racked up an impressive number of hitched rides. All thanks to the kindness of strangers who rescued me from inconvenience of varying degrees. One stranger did not give me a ride, but a roof for the night. Yet another provided a home in Denver. Those strangers are friends now.

On 9th August, my partner and I hiked up to Cottonwood Pass planning to make a short resupply run to the town of Buena Vista. At the pass, we met several day-trippers out to ogle the Collegiate Peaks, Cottonwood Lake, and other attractions. We struck up a conversation with a pair of women who turned out to be a retired school-teacher and her former student taking their vacation together, and who offered to drive us the eighteen miles into town. After resupplying, we needed a ride back to the trail. On asking a local jeep service, it seemed like we would get a ride much later in the evening. I asked around a bit more. Hearing me ask for referrals to jeep services, a young man at a kayaking store offered us a ride, refusing payment as he did so. We finally persuaded him to accept some gas money. Bad weather forced us off the trail that night, so incredibly enough, we needed a third ride, this time back to Buena Vista again. A Texan couple whom we asked for a ride said they were only going to a campground along the way, where they could drop us. We accepted and hopped in; a short while later, our conversation was flourishing to such an extent that our hosts kept on driving right till Buena Vista.

A day or so later, I made a trip to Salida for the day. I was dropped off by my new host, ‘L,’ the same young man who had given us a ride to Cottonwood Pass. He had also offered to pick me up in the evening and drive me back to Buena Vista after he was done with his river running work for the day. On arriving in Salida I found myself facing a longish walk of sixteen long blocks. No matter; by now, I knew the routine. I stuck out my thumb. A few minutes later, I had my ride. When I returned to the city center, I hitched another ride. My hitchhiking instincts, long made dormant in urban settings, had been reawakened by the kindness of Colorado’s drivers.

The best, obviously, was reserved for last. This past Sunday, I decided to hike from Cottonwood Pass  to Tincup Pass Road. I wanted to start hiking at 6AM, and would need ride. Needless to say ‘L’ was on the case. He offered to pick me up at 530AM in the morning from my accommodations, and to pick me up late in the evening from my hike’s endpoint. (My accommodations deserve a special mention. The night before I had rented an AirBNB room on a discount from a very generous host, ‘E,’ a prominent local figure in town known for his involvement in civic affairs after a career in a successful river running business. As  I checked out, I told my host I did not have anywhere to stay for the night. On hearing this, he offered me crash space; his seven-year old son was away on vacation, and I could have his room. ‘E’ even offered to drive me to the trailhead if my morning ride did not materialize.)

On completing my hike, I found myself at Tincup Pass Road trailhead, and quickly realized I had made a mistake and faced a severe problem. I had asked ‘L’ to pick me up at Tincup Pass itself, which was several miles away. He would not be arriving till 830PM; I had finished my hike by 330PM. I would not only have to wait five hours for his arrival, I would also have to hope he would realize my mistaken directions and drive to the trailhead instead. My phone had no service, so there was little chance I could contact him and correct the miscommunication. I was facing a long, cold, confusing and anxiety provoking wait, and possibly a very long walk back down a dark 4WD road back to the main highway. My best bet was to, you guessed it, hitch a ride. I saw an elderly gentleman with a young woman emerging from a trail close by and walked over to ask for help. I was told that I could count on a ride because ‘my son has done this sort of thing in the past many times and people have always helped him with a ride.’ I was to be the grateful recipient of an act of paying forward. Sure enough, his son, who had climbed fifty-three of Colorado’s fifty-four fourteeners, and offered me a beer as a well-earned reward for my hike, was willing to drive me into town. An hour later, I was safely back in my  cabin. That night, my new friend ‘L’ spent the night at my motel so that he could rise early in the morning and drive me to the Buena Vista bus station for my bus back to Denver. On reaching Denver, I knew I could count on the hospitality of my host, my hiking partner’s friend, who had also put us up on our arrival in Denver a week ago.

The most straightforward expression of my feelings on leaving Colorado was that I was overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of all those I had met: the folks I met on the trail, and the ones who helped me off it. The acts I encountered were among the simplest and most complex of all–extensions of help and caring and hospitality. But they were rescues from inconvenience and danger too. They were reminders that the human bonds so necessary for the sustenance and flourishing of our most important relationships can be made visible by these sorts of gestures. If only we would try.

Colorado Notes – I: The People You Meet On The Trail

It’s almost a cliche, I suppose: hiker returns from a trip from to vale, glen, mountain, and stream, with tales of folks met on the trail, their idiosyncratic characters, their inspirational accounts, their quirky characteristics, their reminder that the world is full of interesting and distinctive people, that, strangely and ironically enough you can leave a bustling city full of strangers standing cheek to jowl with you, and on entering a stark wilderness, meet people who in the space of a few brief hours can become companions and something approaching friends too. But cliches become so because of the hint of truth they contain. And so, because stories of how interesting people can be should occasionally turn out to be true–on pain of this being too tedious a world otherwise–I can report to you with some relief on my return from travels on some trails in Colorado that these kinds of stories are indeed genuine glimpses of the pleasurable varieties that mankind can provide for us.

Last week, during a brief jaunt on the Colorado Trail‘s Collegiate West section, I met: a retired couple from San Francisco thru-hiking to Durango from Denver who breezed past us effortlessly on the way to the top of a high pass, pointed us to a very good campsite, and dispensed some useful advice on how to pack lighter the next time; a young woman who had hiked the Appalachian Trail whose Army husband in Colorado Springs periodically–and perhaps redundantly–exhorted her to not give up as she moved solo, with her dog, on this new trail; a young woman who had hiked the Pacific Crest Trail; a pair of women hikers from Arkansas (one had done the John Muir Trail); a Christian architect from Mississippi (we talked theology, Heidegger, existentialism on several ridge-tops); experienced trail runners of all sexes, shapes, and sizes. They were all inspirational in their own way: from them I gleaned much wisdom.

P1070094
There were tales of how to ‘keep at it’ on the trail; the importance of riding out the first seventy-two hours; camping tips and tricks; stories of survival and fear and joy but much more importantly, I learned a bit about just how many different kinds of strivings and motivations there are out there. The trail is a good place to remind us that the world of people and the world of the wild is endlessly varied with its very own onion-peel characteristics; the trail and its accompanying wilderness can do a good job of peeling off our own layers. Hikers go on the trail for many reasons; no two will furnish exactly the same set when asked why they set themselves to walking in the wild. Sometimes they do it to see distant things; sometimes they do it to look much closer, at themselves. The people we meet on the trail don’t just inform us about themselves when they talk with us in the wild; they hold a mirror up to us as well. As we look at them, we see a bit of ourselves, and thus come to know ourselves a bit better too.

Next: A post on the many acts of kindness that sustained me on my travels.