Take a hike

你 想 一起 去 爬 山 吗 ?

“Do you want to go hiking?”  This seemingly harmless question is actually a blood-chilling threat, made popular by a Chinese TV show.  In it, a young husband counters the hostility of his in-laws, who are siding with their daughter in seeking a divorce; he invites them on a hike and then pushes them off the slopes of a mountain.

I say “seemingly harmless.”  In fact, even a hike that does not end in a fatal plunge can still spoil your day.  (You don’t have to add in golf, although Mark Twain considered that a guarantee.)  I think of my first significant jaunt into national parkland, nearly 50 years ago.  A young law student who had befriended me during my sojourn at Oxford University had taken pity on my social isolation as a foreigner during the upcoming spring vacation.  Or so I believed.  I accepted his invitation to come visit him in Lancashire.  He mentioned we might go “walking” in the Lake District near his home.  This was obviously a favorite pastime of his since childhood, and I welcomed the chance to see the sights from the “native” perspective.  Somehow I imagined that a habit of desultory jogging on smooth pavement would prepare me for this adventure.  Of course, part of my naivete’ stemmed from complete lack of experience.  Eschewing the thrill of overnight camping altogether–and this was long before the scandal of scoutmasters–I preferred activities that did not involve prolonged exposure to the elements, except perhaps for sun-bathing at the seashore.  What awaited me could hardly have been more different from the proverbial day at the beach.

Of course, recollection of events from this long ago is notoriously fuzzy and open to question. I am rapidly entering the stage of life where nothing I claim to recall, especially about my youth, should be trusted. On the other hand, studies show that memories formed in the presence of strong emotion are more likely to remain robust–and my feelings at the time were quite strong. To begin with, I had bought some cheap, sturdy leather boots for the occasion, so new in fact that I had barely worn them before hitting the trail. This rookie mistake was compounded by my choice of socks. I had the wit to equip myself with more than one pair–this prevented fungal infection, in the end–but I was lured by the deceptively cushy appearance of some synthetic padded hosiery. The socks promptly folded over on themselves inside the stiff clodhoppers. Within 20 yards of leaving the campsite, this treacherous footwear alternately rubbed my heels and cramped my toes. The only thing more painful than clambering upward, I soon learned, was descending. Here I was, a reasonably fit young male in a landscape that Beatrix Potter had happily traversed in a hoop skirt, groaning with effort.

But it would be wrong to leave the impression that the distress was merely physical. To be sure, we arrived at the otherwise deserted campground and put up a tent in the rain. It continued to pour steadily throughout the night, as the temperature dropped to something appropriate to mid-March. I awoke from the sheer cold (my sleeping bag was also an economy model) and spent the hour before sunrise stamping around the site trying to restore sensation to my feet (conserve the irony for later use). My companion took all of this in stride, literally, and after a negligible breakfast we set off on what I now, with the aid of Google maps, calculate was at least a 10-mile “walk,” following a route that he never disclosed to me. In the end, it was the psychological impact of this uncharted and open-ended expedition that nearly undid me. I was of course determined to keep up and to impress my host with the Yankee can-do spirit, but instead I began to feel the desperation that must have seized the companeros of Narvaez or Aguirre.

Dozens of visitors from this side of ‘the pond’ have remarked on the casual sadism latent in the British terminology for what Americans would instantly recognize as a good day’s hike. For us, “walking” does not ordinarily require a backpack or a map. It might not even necessitate bringing a lunch; often the object in view is itself the local restaurant or bar. Not so among my Anglo cousins. As I recall the scene, there were not many fellow walkers on the scree-strewn slopes of the fells (small mountains). Perhaps my companion had thoughtfully selected this route with the idea of avoiding traffic, but the absence of anyone who was just out to “stretch his legs” was unnerving. Upon departing camp, I would have been content to bring a large umbrella, but these people were all equipped with anoraks, crampons and what looked like ski-poles.

Not that anyone seemed to rely on them. When the rain came–and it did, repeatedly–there was no time to don another layer, and even I would have regarded a walking stick as a nuisance. My friend (he still was, barely) did pick up a piece of driftwood at one point; this rustic staff then became part of his costume as native guide. For the most part, I was observing humans behaving like woodland creatures. Then we witnessed a sight that has stuck with me. A whole string of sinewy men, some of them of an age that at that time still seemed to me quite advanced, bounded up the path towards us. These, I was informed, were fell-runners. And at last, the truth dawned on me. If these happy few were the “runners,” then the rest of us must be “walkers.” But if the members of this lost cross-country team intended to relish, not just survive, an hours-long encounter with this ankle-twisting, compound-fracturing terrain, then was enjoyment positively demanded of mere mortals, proceeding at a lackadaisical pace? What was the way back to the appointed rendezvous with my host’s father–the real host–and how long would it take?

These were questions to which, as I have hinted, I never got a satisfactory answer. Maybe I didn’t actually ask, as it would clearly have been bad form. In the end, I was rescued by the cheery parent, who unexpectedly appeared alongside in the car as we returned to macadam for the last few miles. My biggest worry at that instant was that someone would suggest that I hadn’t yet been given the full tour. Ironically, I do not recall seeing any lakes in the Lake District, unless it was the one that formed under our tent in the night. I did have other important epiphanies, however, above all, about the subtle deceits of English. Whether long or short, it is not a “walk” whenever changes of elevation exceed a few score feet–and especially not when advice about maintaining altitude is crucial, e.g., “you don’t have to use the ‘sheep track’ path, but it avoids losing height.” Language exists to help us make distinctions not obscure them. If it sweats like a hike, wheezes like a hike, in short, if it hurts like a hike–it is a hike. Equally significant, though, is the realization that people often embark together on such excursions not to escape human company but to deepen it. Of course Daoist sages contemplate Nature in solitude, but not many explorers have made valuable discoveries on their own. We take others along on a hike not just to help us get out alive but to share the experience.

So, I am looking forward to the camping trip that our son-in-law has arranged for this summer. I am old enough now not only to recognize the need for modest preparation but also to abandon any particular goals in advance. And in case you were wondering, he really likes us.

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