“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.” – Edward Abbey
We live in a wild, wonderful world.
I really love open spaces and the smell of fresh air. The rush of wind through leaves has become my favorite sound – and the misty tops of mountains stir something deep in the pit of my stomach every single time I look up, up, up.
I’ve been lucky enough to live in Ireland for a year and, to me, those misty mountains are the defining feature of the landscape. That and, well, sheep. They’re everywhere. And they’re so cute. And fluffy. And scared of all humans. Actually, they’re scared of everything. Let them be, okay?
I find myself looking up to those foggy peaks most of all. I wonder who, at one time or another, has stood at the very top of Torc Mountain, or Mangerton, or Carrauntoohil, the highest mountain of Ireland and the central peak of the Macgillycuddy’s Reeks mountain range. No, I’m not making those names up.
Anyway, I wonder what these people saw, what the view was like, how tired they were. I try and imagine how their muscles strained, how their bones ached. I myself have hiked both Torc and Mangerton and am saving Carrauntoohil for September. I’ve hill-walked in Ballycotton and Ardmore, walked up Rossbeigh Hill, explored the Dingle, Iveragh, and Beara Peninsulas extensively; I’ve walked the entire length of the Cliffs of Moher, hiked around the Giant’s Causeway, climbed a section of the Shehy range, explored the Burren and the Wicklow Mountains National Parks, walked up and through the Gap of Dunloe…and that’s not even the tip of the iceberg. Even as I write this, I know I’m forgetting ten, twenty, even thirty walks and hikes and runs that I’ve made around Ireland.
I’ve done a lot and I’ve made so many friends. These friends, some of them Irish, maintain that I’ve seen more of their country in a year than they have in their entire lives.
And still, I don’t feel like I’ve seen nearly enough.
I consider this a lot. Why don’t I ever feel like relaxing? Why do I always want to be moving, exploring? This restlessness has caused me pain, both mental and physical. I’ve stressed myself out to the point of tears over the fact that, obviously, it’s impossible to see everything. I find it very difficult to come to terms with that cruel truth. I’ve walked so much and so long that my joints, specifically my hips and left knee, grind and pop. I have to wear a brace now. I’m supposed to rest my knee. Give it a month, at least, between hikes.
But I can’t. And, trust me, I don’t think I’m cool or badass because I ignore advice. It’s just, if I don’t get up and walk around, I feel like my life is passing me by. Something in my heart and soul tells me to go. To do it anyway.
Hiking across Europe and the United States has given me some much needed perspective. It’s easy to think we’re the center of the universe, but we’re so small and the world is so big. I’m a blip on a mountain’s radar. I mean, I once climbed up to the top of a monolith in Chimney Rock State Park and read that it was, and I’m not exaggerating, 535 million years old. This rock has seen the world burn and break and change, and here I am, walking up one, tiny, inconsequential day in July. I’ll be dead in no time, but these rocks, these mountains, these trees, will go on and on. And they’ll always be beautiful.
While walking, I’ve learned to listen and pay attention. I mean this partly in the technical sense. In North Carolina, for example, you need to watch out for bears and snakes. I guess I “listen” for that and I’m as prepared as I can be, but what I really mean is this: I pay attention to the life around me. All of it. I respect it. I appreciate it. If I ever again see someone spit their gum out on the street, I may or may not yank them by their hair and make them pick it up. If I see someone pluck a flower from the ground, I may or may not curse them and their first born child.
I feel endlessly lucky to walk around Ireland and other parts of the world and notice changes in vegetation, to see the sun set and cast mountain valleys in golden light. I marvel at the weather, how volatile and unrelenting it can be. Clouds roll in and an afternoon shower leaves you soaked and cold and cleansed. There’s something so freeing about submitting to things beyond your control. I was once caught in a nasty storm and some really forceful wind nearly blew me off the side of a cliff. I recognized immediately that I was in danger and yeah, you can bet I was scared.
It’s weird to think when you’re out hiking that you’ve gone far enough to enter harm’s way. That no matter what you do, no matter how careful you are, there’s always a chance, however small, that you might not come back down off the mountain. But, after that gust of wild wind, I just planted my feet, watched my step, and accepted the fact that I couldn’t change a damn thing. I was completely at nature’s mercy, and still, I was happy. In a moment like that, all you can do is keep going, keep walking.
Hiking makes me feel completely, wholly alive. A bit banal, but it’s true. I’m thankful that I’m healthy enough to get up, throw on my hiking shoes, and go outside whenever I want. There’s so much to see, and witnessing the world is more important to me than anything else. Honestly, I wish more people cared about it. It’s a shame people rot away in office cubicles and take a trip, maybe, once every five years.
In the case of Ireland, this country has one of the most remarkable and unique landscapes in the world. The resplendent, green fields (Johnny Cash didn’t write 40 Shades of Green for nothin’, okay?), the craggy mountains, the lush, low valleys, the rushing rivers, the bays, the rocky coasts and towering cliffs… I could go on and on. Everywhere you turn it’s a postcard waiting to happen. And remember: sheep! Everywhere! Cuteness!
So, to wrap this thing up… Yes, I’ve walked all around Ireland, and I’m not even going to tell you all I’ve seen. There wouldn’t be enough room or time. I’d probably start crying because I hold memories so dear. It would just get messy, so I’ll save you from my insanity. For now.
Plus, I want you to come and visit for yourself. If you can’t afford it, then fair enough. Look up the closest park or nature reserve and go. Now.
Hiking has shown me what I’m capable of. I’m stronger than I thought. I’m tough. That’s all true. That’s good, even.
But if you hike only for self-gratification alone, for some weird notch in your belt or obnoxious bragging rights, then you’re missing it. Hiking is about getting lost. It’s about noticing the power of nature, of rugged and (relatively) untouched beauty. It is a gift, perhaps the greatest gift, to find a green space and spend a few breaths there. Be quiet. Watch. See life go. Together. All at once. You’re a part of it.
Maybe that’s it. Hiking reminds me, over and over, of how alive I am. When I walk, I can listen to and feel my heart beat as I climb higher and walk farther. I’m right there in the middle of things. It’s a journey.
I know from personal experience that nature can heal us, but it never, ever comforts, and it certainly doesn’t care. It just is. That’s the best part. It. Just. Is. No matter what. Things can change second by second. Our hearts break every day for a million reasons, but those mountains are still there, unwavering, watching, and waiting. We are welcome anytime.
When I’m traveling or walking I make a point to see as much as I can. I don’t stop. I barely sleep. I cry and freak out from excitement at inappropriate times because I just get moved. I have annoyed people to the point that they can’t travel with me. I’m always pushing. I’m always telling them to keep going. Keep walking. Let’s go here. Let’s go there. Let’s see more. We might die tomorrow. Don’t stop. Walk on. Life is too short.
I think it’s because, with nature in particular, I want to know it. I’m looking for something, something I can’t even really name. Maybe one day I will find the words. For now, I just want to see every twist and turn and curve and bend; I want to acquaint myself with every landscape, every snowflake and raindrop and ray of sun. I want to disappear. I want to climb up every rock and walk through every cave. I want to know nature like I know a best friend, completely, inside and out.
Of course, I’ve said already that I know my dreams aren’t the most feasible. I’m guided more by romantic ideals than by what is actually possible. That makes day to day living kind of tough.
I think the best thing we can do is stay curious. Discover stuff. Surprise ourselves.
I’ll keep walking. And seeing. And doing. If my knee dislocates in the process, so be it. Some things are worth the pain.