I love hiking. However, unlike most hikers I know, I don’t like viewpoint hikes. I get annoyed when I talk about a great hike to the top of a mountain and someone asks, “How’s the view from the top? What can you see?” as if that were the point of the hike. I prefer trails that meander through the forest, or that follow canyons into the mountains, so there’s no temptation to look for a viewpoint, to wonder when you’ll “get there”.
It’s not that I don’t like sweeping views of gorgeous scenery, it’s that I like them too much. It’s like this: I cannot simply listen to a symphony and be done with it. I can’t let the sounds simply graze my eardrums in a pleasurable way; I have to dig into the textures and harmonies, voices and themes, and know each one—only then can I appreciate the whole. A grand thing like a symphony or a view of geological and biological wonders that extends 50 miles in three directions must, in my opinion, be known fully or not at all. I feel a pang of something like guilt when I hike to a marvelous viewpoint and don’t have time to examine every landform, note variations and colors, identify species and geological events. I feel like I am exploiting the world for its beauty rather than trying to know what makes it beautiful, like buying a puzzle with the pieces already assembled.
When I hike I try to fill every pore with awareness. I consider the rocks, the placement of trees, the soil, the way the sound of the rushing creek changes as I move down the trail. The way the wind changes, becoming suddenly cold as I go up and in, a preview of the ice-cold stream that it sweeps over.
The mountains and rivers that take your breath away when viewed from 3000 feet up are made up of individual rocks, trees, leaves, grains of soil. I prefer to see those pieces step by step, watch the soil profile change as I climb, count steps around the corner of a canyon, feeling the gaining of elevation by my muscles rather than how far down I can see.
The picture at the top of this blog is just the type of gorgeous landscape described above. I was able to spend many days hiking across the valley pictured and got to know the entire place, step by step, rock by rock, leaf by leaf. By the time I had traversed it and climbed to the viewpoint where I took that picture, it was much more than a landscape to me. It was a collection of places where I had set my feet and pitched my tent, a mosaic of footsteps that turned into miles, minutes that turned into days.
Don’t ever go to an art museum with me. I can stare at a painting for an abominably long time. Sometimes I think it is better to know every brushstroke of a single painting than to have a passing glance of an entire museum.