“I asked the boy beneath the pines.
He said, “The Master’s gone alone
Herb-picking somewhere on the mount,
Cloud-hidden, whereabouts unknown.”
– Chia Tao
Inevitably I had to arrive at Alan Watts. I’ve circled around his work for some time, and finally landed on Cloud-Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown, which is as much personal journal as philosophical work. And so it was that I lingered on these lines from Chia Tao that open Watts’ book. I thought about my hike yesterday, cloud-hidden myself, with my whereabouts largely unknown on a solo hike. It seemed appropriate to borrow this translation for my own observations. For yesterday’s post was all nuts and bolts detail on hiking Mount Garfield, but it didn’t convey much about hiking solo largely in solitude.
There’s a part of me that wants to knock off the 48 New Hampshire 4000 footers as a solo hiker. Not because I’m anti-social, but because I feel the mountains differently when I’m alone with them. Perhaps I’m more attuned to the ripple of water and the breeze in the trees, but mostly I’m more attuned with myself. Slipping or tripping on a solo hike feels more consequential than it does when you’re with hiking buddies. Sure there are other hikers on the trails, especially on a 4000 footer, but if you’re injured you’re relying on the goodwill of strangers and blowing up their own moment with the mountain. Who wants that memory of your last hike? I’d just as soon take the extra millisecond to be especially sure of footing. To that end, I find hiking poles to be especially valued on a solo hike for the reassurance they provide on the descent. It took me years to conclude that there was any value at all in hiking poles. Now I find them invaluable. I was reminded of their worth when I slipped on a hidden muddy root on my descent yesterday and my right pole bore the weight of my slide, keeping me from a hard fall and now shows evidence of bearing the brunt of the force in the form of a slightly bent shaft. Thanks for your sacrifice, friend.
The summit of Mount Garfield is a knob of granite with an old fire tower foundation set into it. I arrived at the summit feeling a bit like a character in that Chia Tao poem. Cloud hidden and whereabouts unknown. There’s something about being alone in swirling clouds that is otherworldly. I’ve felt this before, most notably when the fog rolled in as I stood alone on North Head at Signal Hill in St. John’s, Newfoundland. My time on the summit lacked the drama of foghorns waking up to blare warnings to all that would hear, but made up for it with wind gusts that implied a threat of their own. Normally the summit is a place to linger, but the mountain suggested I should move along. When you’re on the mountain listen to the mountain.
“The solitary is as necessary to our common sanity as wilderness, as the forest where no one goes, as the waterfall in a canyon, which no one has ever seen or heard. We do not see our hearts…” – Alan Watts, Cloud-Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown
I’m not sure what I’d do if the rest of the world woke up early. I suppose I’d go for long walks alone in the woods, or quietly slip a kayak into the bay or a river, or some such pursuit of solitude. But the world tends to sleep in, or otherwise keep to itself, and so must I in the early hours. Hiking offers a measure of solitude, even when you’re with others. For who doesn’t listen to the mountain when they hike? Sadly I’ve come across such people – loud talkers you hear from a mile away, or worse, people who play a soundtrack through their phone speakers as they tackle the trail like they’re on a treadmill at the gym. There are people who never hear, because they never really listen. I choose to listen.
The morning after such a hike is filled with reminders: muscle kinks and soreness that grumble, memories of moments of lightness and wonder, gear to store away after a night of drying. This is the afterglow of time on a trail, and some of that glow stays with you for a lifetime. I still wonder at moments spent hiking from the Colorado River up Havasu Creek to the lower falls, or watching a meteor shower late in the night on Old Speck Mountain in Maine with college friends. Hiking doesn’t always fill you with wonder, but it generally puts you in the neighborhood. The rest is up to you.