Here’s a paragraph, yes it’s a long one, from the Complete Walker IV by Colin Fletcher. I haven’t read my Fletcher for many months although it has a permanent spot on my nightstand. On a whim, I opened it up last night at this passage, which struck me as particularly poignant in the way that it conveys the memory of hiking and backpacking. While I like talking about gear and discussing technique on SectionHiker, it’s not why I hike.
This is why I hike:
When I open my mind and let the memories spill out, I find a many-hued mosaic. I remember the odd excitement and the restricted yet infinitely open world I have moved through several times when I have clambered up, very late at night, and following the little pool from my flashlight beam, to the flat grassy summit of the hill on which I wrote at last the opening chapter of this book. I remember a three-day walk along an unspoiled beach with the wind always barreling in from the Pacific and the sand dunes always humping up to my left; and I remember the ceaseless surging and drawing back of the sea, with its final, curving excursions into smooth sand, excursions that sometimes left stranded, high and almost dry, little fragments of transparent protoplasm (which set me thinking, “This is the stuff we came from”) and sometimes cast up a bottle that I could peer at (laughing at myself for being so childlike) in the hope it might contain a message. I remember standing on snowshoes outside my half-buried tent after a four-day storm, in a newly gleaming white world, and watching the guilty, cloud-bearing southwest wind try to reassert itself; I remember a northeast breeze spring up, and almost hearing it take a deep breath and say, “They shall not pass,” and then begin to blow in earnest; and I remember watching, thankfully, as the line of dark clouds was held along a front, horizon to horizon, and then was driven back, slowly but inexorably, until at last it retreated behind the peaks and the sky was left to the triumphant northeast wind and the warm and welcome sun. I remember trying to clamber up a steep woodland bank after dark, somewhere in the deep South (I think it was in Alabama), and finding myself in an enchanted world of fireflies and twisted tree roots and fireflies and clumps of grass and fireflies and wildflowers and fireflies and fireflies and fireflies, a world suddenly filled with a magic that I had not glimpsed since I was ten, and had almost come to disbelieve in. I remember striding down a desert road as dusk fell, with the wind catching my pack and billowing out the poncho like a sail and carrying me almost effortlessly along before it; and I remember how, when the rain came in, it stung my bare legs, refreshing without hurting. I remember, in a different sagebrush desert, coming to the edge of a village and passing a wooden building with three cars that said PENTACOSTAL CHURCH OF GOD, EVERYONE WELCOME; I remember that the church door stood open to the warm evening, and that I could hear a piano and the congregation following along, with only a hint of exasperation, a half-beat behind a contralto whom nature had endowed with the volume, tempo, rigidity, and determination of a brass band. In another desert village, a long dead ghost town, this one, I remember a clump of wild blue irises growing inside the worn wooden threshold of a once busy home. I remember red, red sunsets in a small desert valley when I was not alone. I remember, further back, a dead native cow in a clearing in the dry African bush; and, in the blood-softened soil beside its torn-out entrails, a single huge paw print. I remember the small, round, furry heads of the hyraxes that would solemnly examine us from the boulders just behind our 13,000 foot camp up near Lewis Glacier on Mount Kenya. Further back still, I remember three otters cavorting across a moonlit Devonshire meadow; a stag on a Scottish moor, silhouetted, elemental; and a shoal of small fish swimming slowly over a sloping bed of brown gravel that I can still see, stone fitting into stone, down a seventy-year tunnel. And now, vaulting back into yesterday, I find I’m remembering an elk that stands regally among redwoods trees and the last tendrils of morning mist, and a surprised beaver that crouches almost at my feet and eyes me for clues, and a solitary evening primrose that has prospered in a desolation of desert talus, and a rainbow that arches over a dark mountain tarn, and the huge and solemn silence that encompasses, always, the buttes and mesas and cliffs and hanging terraces of the Grand Canyons of Colorado.