Departments

Hiking

[Being the Ruricolist, I try to touch on a rural subject at least once a year. The last was A house in the country.]

Often, where I have been accustomed to walk, other people hike. I—a mere walker—don't dare speak to them, so determinedly professional and businesslike do they seem. But I have been able, from time to time, to distinguish a few of the principles which elevate this art of science of the hike above the common walk of walks. In order that others may benefit, though indirectly, from their wisdom, conscience compels me to share those observations.

The hike, for instance, is a group project. One hikes in groups, from pairs to parties; and thus one talks. This has two consequences. First, talking, hikers are loud; they laugh and shout. I infer that hikers are unusually polite: they wish, wherever they go, to announce and introduce themselves. It is laudibly urbane. Second, talking to each other, hikers look at each other; again, very polite—they would not want a speaking human being to feel ignored for the sake of wordless nature. Hikers are true members of the vanguard of the modern spirit—they form ambulatory social networks; and such is their mastery of collaboration, that even their castles in the air are open-source.

Too, the hike is planned. One does not spontaneously take a hike—even, I have found by experiment, when told to. Days, weeks of effort go into establishing the rendezvous. I hypothesize that this is one of those echoes of military life which passed to civilians after WWII. Surely, in hikers' pouring over maps arranging of their timetables, and in the logistics implied by their man-high piles of equipment, more is in common with the meetings of a committee of the General Staff than a careless gathering of naïve nature lovers who don't know that even in loving nature, one must work at the relationship.

The hike is equipped, and even the equipment is itself equipped. The hiker is equipped with a water bottle, the water bottle is equipped with a holster, the holster is equipped with a harness, and the harness is equipped with a hiker. And this equipment is very specific—designed around the needs of hikers. The hiking pole, for example, is distinguished from the cane in being too long to lean on, and from the staff in being too short to lean from. Or hiking shoes, which combine the advantages of shoes and boots: they are as heavy as boots, and as receptive to an accumulation of instant-souvenir dirt, stones, sand and sticks as shoes. But few pieces of equipment are so easily identifiable by outsiders. Only the initiates of the freemasonry of hiking truly understand the use, and the symbolical meaning, of each of the pieces of equipment with which they set out girded.

Most of all, the hike is a microcosmic recapitulation of the natural world it moves in. Consider the ingenuity of the hiker's miniature, plasticized water cycle. First, the hiker is wrapped in plastic clothes to induce sweat; then these plastic clothes (candles of dehydration!) wick the sweat away; and last, and water from plastic bottles refuels the hiker to begin the cycle again.

What could shame a mere walker more than to come upon a resting party of disciplined hikers, disburdening themselves enough to sit, consulting their watches to measure their rest time, panting, rubbing their backs where packs have dug into them, rubbing their legs where their equipment has beaten them?

I feel so amateurish when I pass them.