My friend Vince, when I asked him lo these many years ago if he wanted to go hiking, politely turned me down and reminded me that hiking was little more than “driving two hours to walk around and drive two hours home.”
So it was likely my Vince voice that was cursing me this morning when my alarm went off some time shortly after six. It was, after all, the first day of my summer vacation (#teacherperks) that I could actually sleep in as late as I really wanted. And apparently in a fit of madness, I only wanted to sleep for four hours or so. I had already reached out to Chuck, promising I would meet him at Hanging Rock by 9, then proceeded to go to bed around 1.
The lure of turning over in my bed, snagging all the sleep I could handle, and settling into a day of doing absolutely nothing was strong. Equally strong was the lure of a productive day at home…the laundry list of neglected chores. Even a productive day of sloth seemed tempting. But the gig was up. My pack was out, and the dogs were hip to the game. After my morning smoothie erupted through the blender, I was out the door by 7:30.
Lately, I’ve been musing the mad-house urge I have to go play in the woods, to chase the sublime in nature, that has only seemed to intensify as I have aged: the drive to find new trails to trek, new waters to swim, new trees to hammock, new places to see the sky. For all its political flaws, my corner of the world is a bountiful wealth of such new adventures. The first hint of spring seems to ignite this fire, and from there I obsess with of time the weather, the calendar, and the ever growing list of places I’ve yet to discover, and every year I vow to myself to spend more time going to the woods.
So, this urge kicked my ass out of bed on Sunday morning when all bets were against it. A quick stop for some road breakfast and two-hours north through Winston-Salem took me to Hanging Rock, a state park of sandy trails, a muddy, swimming-hole lake, falls and cascades, climbs and climbs and climbs. The result of some bizarre geological processes many, many eons ago, the park centers around rock formations that rise mightily out of the piedmont: craggy cliffs, intimidating walls, precariously leaning towers, a “balanced rock” that –according to Chuck– is evidence as good as he’s ever seen for the existence of aliens.
Fathoming the other-worldly implications of geological forces is enough for me begin slow my mad-cap chase and slow down to a steady walk through the sublime, a word that means both “poetic in language” and “awe-inspiring,” While these mountains may seem tame in comparison to the Andes, Himalayas, Rockies, or even the Appalachians they eventually become, there is something overwhelming about sitting so close to the chasm of the void in between peaks, a formation seemingly out of nowhere that allows the human eye to see its potential, spotting mountains hundreds of miles away. There is something intricate about the formation of a cave that gives just enough room for a human to climb in the bottom and twenty feet up through the top. There is something defining about looking back over the miles you’ve trekked, observing bright colored flecks on the lake, swimming and boating two miles and a thousand feet below where you recently left, both churning pride in your accomplishments and ensuring you know how small a bit you are in the vast sphere of just this corner of the world, let alone the continent, the earth, the universe.
The history of this sublime is as fascinating as its form. Etymologically, sublime derives from Middle French, a combination of “up to” and “line or limitation.” So, a view, experience, or day of hiking that is sublime not only inspires awe or the nattering rambles of the poetic faculties; it also pushes one to a limit, and perhaps even through it. “Testing one’s limits” is, of course, a staple cliche of inspirational work-out jargon. Any strenuous or extended exercise can push someone to find themselves testing the limitations of their physical strength and endurance. Going out and finding new paths always puts one in the place to find these. Perhaps today it was the seven hours, the 8 miles. Maybe it was the tower-and-tree climbing combo or the 612 steps to the top of the Tower over look.
But despite the aching quads and burning lungs, walking through the sublime is much more than transcending my physical boundaries and sounding my barbaric yawp atop a mountain. As Emerson once wrote about going into nature, “my head bathed in blithe air, and uplifited into infinite space–all mean egotism disappears.” While many, if not most of my former students scoff at transcendentalists like Emerson, there is the value of transcending the ego in the woods.
As Alan Watts once wrote, it is a particular development and hindrance of our minds that we anticipate the future so well. It allows us to plan and build agree upon a time to meet in the parking lot and read maps and make decisions about which way to go next. On the other hand, the potential of future choices is virtually infinite, and pondering all the things we “have to do” in order to achieve goals we desire…be that a clean house or a well-run enrichment camp or even being well-rested…can leave us cycling constantly through the sources. Lately, when my mind begins racing through all the things I “have to do,” I’ve been trying to tune into that voice that says “No, you don’t.”
That voice, admittedly, is so much easier to hear in the woods. The chatter of constant stimulus diminishes. The necessity of putting one foot in front of the other, eating only when you need energy, drinking when you thirst, is simple. Anxieties over things that can take care of themselves or simply wait altogether seem to melt away. All the things I get trapped into thinking I “have to do” to be “who I am” seem a dim echo in the void as I transcend this boundary.
And past that boundary is a vast openness of experience we often reject in the periphery of our laser-like focus. On the way down the mountain, Chuck told me an off-hand story about a woman at his kids school worried about her kids being taught to meditate in school. We laughed, but as we rolled down the 612 steps, our banter bounced down the mountain, our conversation roaming endlessly in whichever direction it would, both in silence and in exchange, none of which I could have planned or anticipated. By the time the hike was through, we were exhausted. Emptied. In place of the to-do list I had left at home, was another day of chasing the sublime in a meaningless trek on the trail and walking in its gentle breeze, somewhere on a cluster of odd rocks and trees in a crazy little corner of the universe.