The natural rhythms of our bodies endure day-after-day, hour-after-hour, minute-after-minute, little noticed. As we work or play or sit and read a book, our hearts beat at precisely the rate our bodies require. Breathing follows, miraculously unnoticed, supplying the exact amount of air needed for fuel consumption. Mother Nature plays this harmonious symphony year after year after year.
As we age, we become acutely aware that this state of bliss does not endure. In the prime of our lives (if you want to call it that), the symphony becomes increasingly syncopated. Chaos theory becomes a more apt metaphor for our sleeping, eating, urinating, and love-making cycles.
Some of us even find that we require a pacemaker — a device to provoke our hearts into beating at the proper rate. It’s as though our hearts have somehow forgotten their natural pace. Or perhaps we simply used up a lifetime’s worth of pacing. We spent far too many long days at work, far too little time with our families, and far too few evenings sitting on the porch making sure that the sun went down once again.
Those of us who, in our younger years, embraced the joys of backpacking know that the high country offered us a chance to re-establish the natural rhythms that we had been taught to ignore. Things just happen more slowly in the mountains. It takes a long time to walk from point A to point B, especially when B is 2000 feet higher! Food even cooks more slowly at high altitudes. A dinner of rushed dehydrated food is, let’s just say, disappointing. And if it rains late in the afternoon (as it often does), a nap inside a dry tent is the only activity that makes any sense.
But even as the backcountry begged and cajoled us to pace ourselves, civilization (with our permission) taught us another way: “We planned this trip carefully — first night at the lake, second night over the pass, then there’s that great fishing stream the ranger told us about.” Fortunately, though, there are a range of backcountry pacemakers that prodded us into establishing more natural and harmonious rhythms for our minds and bodies.
For example, our trips invariably challenged us to expand our concept of “destination”. Some who read this might be tempted to invoke the worn-out old saw about it being the journey and not the destination. But that tired metaphor misses the point. If it were strictly about the journey, we might have simply walked six or eight miles around the neighborhood, poured ourselves a glass of wine, and called it a day.
Rather, we found that it was important to remain focused on “destination”, but with a ready willingness to make a shift in what we called “destination”. If we’d decided to hike to a perched lake at 11,500 feet, but along the way found ourselves in a beautiful glacial valley, we changed our destination. If getting to our planned day’s terminus required a difficult (and perhaps dangerous) stream crossing, we’d stop, have lunch, get out the map, and look for a different destination.
At those times, the immortal words of Buckaroo Banzai were our guide:
Remember, no matter where you go, there you are.
Destination change became such a constant that we often waited to plan the hike during the long car trip from home. And even then, we nearly always ended up going somewhere else. The only time a rigid destination focus was permitted was on the last day of the hike, when obsessing over a hot shower, a good steak, and a soft bed was unavoidable. This was a time to conjure up our inner Terminators.
For practice dealing with destination rigidity, try taking your five-year-old grandson for a warmup hike. If you don’t own a five-year-old, borrow one. There are plenty of parents out there willing to loan you theirs for a day. If you had an overly rigid destination focus at the beginning of your hike with a five-year-old, it is guaranteed to be long gone by lunch.
In our latter years of backpacking, our Old Fart knees, legs, feet, and backs increasingly felt the ravages of a lifetime of wear. Slow hiking and small steps, especially downhill, best respected the state of our deteriorating bodily parts. A slow and deliberate pace helped maintain an even physical strain throughout the day, allowing leftover energy for evening camp.
When hiking with a group, stragglers set the pace. Contrary to popular belief, floggings do not help. A “gear moves forward” rule required that anyone who was unhappy with the slowest hiker’s pace should take on some of their gear. This rule was designed to redistribute weight so as to simultaneously speed up slower hikers and slow down faster ones. Usually, though, it just eliminated complaints about slow hikers.
One of the more important benefits of the backcountry’s slow pace — long days hiking in near silence, times sitting beside a babbling mountain stream — is that it gives one a chance to contemplate life’s many mysteries … such as “What do women really want?” and “Why doesn’t McDonalds sell hot dogs?”.
Rain is the bane of every hiking trip. But as with everything else in the backcountry, going with the flow was the best course of action. Afternoon rain showers provided an incontrovertible excuse for stopping for the day, setting up camp, and taking a nap. When the rain stopped, there was still plenty of time to set up camp, fix dinner, and enjoy the rest of the evening.
Continuous rain, especially in the morning, can really dampen (so to speak) the enjoyment of a trip. We found it was better at such times to embrace misery and hike in the rain, all the while looking forward to an afternoon lying in the warm sun, letting our gear dry, and watching the clouds pass overhead. The inner Terminator was kept handy for when Mother Nature decided to “dampen” an entire week.
Even without rain, backcountry rhythms can become indispensable pacemakers. The rising and setting sun sets sleeping and eating schedules. And embracing the rewarding experience of methodically setting up and taking down new homes each day can be a soul-enhancing experience.
Staying awake long enough at night to take in the brilliant starry canopy can act to almost suspend time itself. The night sky is breathtaking at high altitudes. Contemplating how long it took for those far away points of light to reach our eyes makes time take on a new meaning. And accepting our infinitesimally small place in our gloriously expansive universe usually deflated those low-altitude problems that seemed so important before we left home.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
We Old Farts already provided the universe with our fast-paced, hard-working selves. Whether we did too much or not enough is now irrelevant. It’s time to work less, take longer vacations, and resign as general managers of the universe. The sooner we realize it’s now Young Whippersnapper time, the better. If we can accept the here and now as our proper destination, we can continue those wonderful feelings of well-being that were provided by Mother Nature’s comforting high-country lap.
Elderhood may be the most important legacy that most of us will leave behind. It’s likely that we’ll be remembered more by how we lived as oldsters than how we lived as youngsters. The hike to our inevitable final destination can be traveled with grace by pacing ourselves. Joyful acceptance of our pacemakers might even help avoid the dread and depression that too often accompanies old age. Remember, the Young Whippersnappers are watching.
Kabir, some 500 years ago, left us with important thoughts to ponder:
I talk to my inner lover, and I say, why such rush?
We sense that there is some sort of spirit that loves
birds and animals and the ants —
perhaps the same one who gave a radiance to you
in your mother’s womb.
Is it logical you would be walking around entirely
The truth is you turned away yourself,
and decided to go into the dark alone.
Now you are tangled up in others, and have forgotten
what you once knew,
and that’s why everything you do has some weird
failure in it.