My wife and I recently joined a hiking group and, over the last few Sunday mornings, we have hiked some 30 miles through nature preserves and state parks here in Central Florida. We’ve walked along rivers and swamps, over scrubland, and through pine forests, whose floors have been taken over by dense clusters of palmettos. We’ve come upon the occasional shell, a reminder that where we are walking was once seabed not long ago. We’ve seen animals like alligators, king fishers, and armadillos.
We’ve also seen plenty of humans.
The hiking group could be better described as a social group, one that prefers to do its socializing during a hike. By the time we arrive at the trailhead, there is a group of hikers waiting for us, stretching, and chatting. We introduce ourselves to each other before each hike and, once on the trail, the organizer proposes a question to the group. One hiker after another answers the question before passing it to another hiker. Questions have been of the bad-first-date variety, questions like “What is your favorite moment of 2023 so far?” and “If you could spend a day with someone from the past, who would it be and why?”
Now, there is nothing wrong with this per se. I am happy to see people going into the woods, even if it involves a social pretext. But, per me, I grumble at the thought of hiking with other people.
I do not dislike the physical act of walking with other people. But I do find myself annoyed at a specific species of chitchat, one that orbits around topics that have little to do with anything at all. It is a small talk whose aim it is to abduct our attention and take it to that dark, faraway place otherwise known as our everyday lives. Chatterboxes on hikes like to talk about work, about relationships, about traveling (elsewhere), about domestic annoyances, about the past, and about the future. Here, the demon named Chatterer from Clive Barker’s Hellraiser movies comes to mind. Hell is other people (chattering while on a hike in the woods).
On a recent group hike, I was so pulled away from the hike itself that, on our return to the trailhead, I didn’t recognize the out-and-back path we had been walking on. I was so distracted that the path seemed new to me. Because it was. My mind and attention were elsewhere.
A walk in the woods is a way for us to peel ourselves away from society and from routine. It is to leave behind the noise of the city, its chatter, its preoccupations. It is to surrender our attention and our minds to the environment we are in. It is to briefly re-wild ourselves.
When writing about retreating into nature, the Tang dynasty poet Hanshan wrote about the “dust” he left behind. He, and other Buddhists of the day, used “dust” as a metaphor of the city, of the material, phenomenal world.
I have a single cave
a cave with nothing inside
spacious and devoid of dust
full of light that always shines1
It is not that every walk in the woods needs to be this Zen-like practice in observation or stillness. Not every walk in the woods needs to be one where we become naturalists and identify every living species. We need not renounce the world as soon as we lace up our boots and lock our parked cars with an electronic key fob.
But I wonder if we are robbing ourselves from an opportunity to simply enjoy the quiet of the woods. I wonder if we are doing ourselves a disservice when we pull our attention away from the woods we are hiking through and push it towards that object from which we fled. After all, we don’t need to go into the woods to talk about our miserable lives, though I do acknowledge that talking about things we do not like is perhaps best done in places we do.
In the summer of 1869, one of John Muir’s companions returned to their camp at Tuolumne Meadows after leaving Muir alone for a week. In his journal, which was published in his 1911 book My First Summer in the Sierra, Muir wrote: “Felt not a trace of loneliness while he was gone. On the contrary, I never enjoyed grander company. The whole wilderness seems to be alive and familiar, full of humanity. The very stones seem talkative, sympathetic, brotherly.”2
I should note here that being alone is not the same as loneliness, which—as Muir reminds us—can all but disappear in a engaged state of solitude.3 Nor is being alone the same as being left alone, which is a state of doing, thinking, acting, or existing without obligation, interruption, or distraction. We can, of course, be left alone while in the company of others, which is that wonderful sensation felt in crowds, in cities, or even in the woods with a group of like-minded hikers.