Base Camp: Why Hike?

This is part of Reid Barbier’s weekly “Base Camp” column on the best local hiking and outdoor adventure spots. 

Over the last term or so, I have highlighted some hikes in the area that I have enjoyed, as well as offering some general hiking and outdoor tips and skills that I have picked up over the years. What I have not done is answer a question I hear a lot: Why hike?

Why hunch yourself over with a heavy pack, why cover yourself in dirt and dust, why shiver through miserable nights and scorching days, why leave the pleasure of home for the pain of wilderness? In short, because it is the only thing that matters. It is a hard thing to answer of course, that indescribable exhilaration that comes to us hikers from the gust of wind at the top of a jagged peak, the accomplishment that comes from stretching every muscle of your body to its limit, going farther than you dreamed you could. There are hardly words for such things, and for every person the feeling is different, but I don’t know any hiker who has never felt anything, no one who can remain fully immune to the call of the woods and the hills. I will tell you what I have felt and seen out there, and what I believe in my heart to be true. Hiking and my time in the wilderness have greatly shaped my understanding of life and my own purpose in the world.

Hiking shatters the monotony of life, the daily routine seen in glaring light as absurd and a little frightening, how much time in this life is wasted on the pursuit of nothing. Every minute out there in the woods or the lakes or the streams has a purpose: one more step towards the end of the trail, one more branch in the fire, one more peak ascended. Nothing is meaningless, everything has a place. The tree sways to an ancient rhythm heard for millennia, the star wheels in intricate patterns around countless companions, the bird cries out his eternal lonely song. The human voice of the hiker weaves effortlessly into this tapestry, the laughter and warmth of a campfire filling a spot in the forest much as the chirping of crickets or the sighing of the wind, just one more instrument in the vast orchestra of nature. I hike because there is such meaning in the wilderness, which reaffirms the purpose in my own life, to love every day the gift that is life and the world in which we live it.

There is meaning to life, a great and beautiful meaning that humans can never fully understand. Existence is not just the random slamming together of wayward atoms in some empty void, or some empty plane where matter is everything, and the soul is merely a mutation of the mind. Ask any hiker and they will tell you that the rising of the sun after a sleepless night is not meaningless; or that the pure white of snow does not evoke emptiness but rather conjures up thoughts of purpose and innocence, the innocence that lies at the heart of the universe. The deep darkness of an open cave does not echo the horror of some death which renders life meaningless but rather fills the mind with the darkness of mystery, of the shadowed trail no man will ever hike in this life. This trail is not an end, but rather a new path in the journey of the soul.

Hiking reveals the great order in nature, and is the closest humans can get to the true meaning of life on earth. We are minuscule specks on a tiny blue marble in the horrifyingly empty and dark depths of space, one of trillions and trillions of such specks, in perhaps trillions and trillions of such universes. What is one tree, or river, or towering mountain to such expanse? Or one person, one mind? Logic and reason would tell us these things are surely meaningless, insignificant compared to the blazing infinity of death and silence that smothers all. No, no! The soul cries out that there is more than this; that in the green of a tree can be seen the brushstrokes of a master Painter, that in the sighing of the wind can be heard the grand composer of all, and in the chirping of a bird to its young the magnificent father, who sings to all the world the love he feels for every mind, every heart. Every creature is his son, no life meaningless, all life assured eternally.

To hike is to gaze on the loving work of a grand craftsman, and stand with him on the sharp edge of the world, looking out over everything and knowing that beauty is all around. The beauty of just the painting is enough to bring tears, but the Painter only smiles and says “Wait until you see the real thing.” The colors of this world run into the next, and from high on some lonely peak, the shimmer of those heavenly hues might just be glimpsed.

That is why I hike, and why I must always hike. I hope I will always hike, and never lose sight of the trail that leads ever onward, to the forest and the green hills where the music never ends, and where the Painter is always painting.