Take a Hike
Take A Hike
By William S. Kirby
In the opening paragraphs of The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien describes a world with “less noise and more green.” In these days of crushing news cycles and social media blues, less noise and more green sounds like paradise. It can’t be a surprise that one of 2017’s biggest on-line stories is how unhealthy being on-line is. The issue is compounded for writers—most of whom are planted in front of a computer screen for hours on end. Stuck with uncooperative characters, unforeseen plot complications, beeping text messages, racing Twitter feeds, and a Google calendar reminding you of all the stuff you really should be doing.
I suppose you could get some relief by going to Amazon for one of those inspirational posters with a quote from John Muir or H.D. Thereau about getting back to nature. Or—and I’m just spitballing here—you could forego the poster (Thereau’s whole Waldron Pond thing was a sham anyway) and actually, you know, take a few hours to risk a real life encounter with nature. In the meantime, since you’re still at the computer, take a few seconds to zip over the WebMD and check out the physical and mental benefits of taking a hike.
And those aren’t even the primary motive for writers to step into the great outdoors. The real reason is that exciting things rarely happen to people who have their butts parked in chairs all day. How can you write about adventures when you never have any? Forget about epic, world-saving exploits. Do we even remember what mild discomfort feels like?
Go stick your hand in a glacier-fed lake. Your fingers feel like they’re on fire. The more of your arm you stick in, the harder your chest contracts. Keep going, and your hand will begin to turn a pearly white-blue. This would probably be a good place to stop. Or if it’s a warm, sunny day and you’re a maniac, you can strip down to your chonies and have a seat in the water. If you try this as a male, you’ll find you now speak in a falsetto that is quite amusing to your friends. Your chest will feel like someone dropped an anvil on it. After about three seconds, you’ll find yourself scrambling to a sun-warmed rock to dry off.
Why do this (other than to win a foolish bet)? Because it provides one of the most valuable weapons in a writer’s arsenal: experience. The next time something bad needs to happen to your protagonist, drop her in an icy lake. She doesn’t just swim for shore. She struggles with lungs constricted by cold. Numbness in her hands and feet is creeping inward. Her foot might even be broken, but she can’t feel it. Nor does she have any way to warm up even if she does make it out because you were thoughtful enough to make it midnight.
Amazing things happen when you step away from computers and out of cars. You actually experience life first hand. Seeing a fox and her kits turns out to be entirely different than seeing a picture of a fox and her kits. Who knows what might unfold outside of a sheltered office? Once you take the first step, you might discover looking around the next corner is addictive. Normal people take vacations to relax. Most writers I know take vacations to hike.
In the Colorado Rockies, I discovered the seventy-year-old wreck of a B-17. Surrounded by the shredded aluminum remains of the plane, I felt an echo of the crew’s dread as the bomber’s iced-over wings lost their grip on the air. How emotionally different to see this wreckage in the cathedral silence of a forest rather than the sterile confines of a museum?
In Croatia, I have walked (unintentionally) onto a nude beach—one filled (amazingly enough) with people you’d like to see nude. What does that feel like? What does it feel like when your wife is walking next to you when it happens?
In Utah, I have been caught in rain that turned the trail into clay. Each step required lifting pounds of red-brown mud that had cemented itself to my boots. Worse, wet clay is as slick as ice. Good luck running anywhere. (What a great setting for a chase scene…)
In Nebraska, I have seen a friend leap a solid three feet up and back at the sudden, dry rattle of a diamondback. You cannot believe just how fast humans can react unless you see it.
From a safe distance, I have seen avalanches and rock slides. The sound of big rocks tumbling downward with increasing violence and speed will teach all but the most obstinate student the meaning of humility.
Walking in Hawaii, my wife and I helped a man and his fifteen-year-old daughter cross a river. When the girl slipped, she dropped to her shoulders. Unconscious of the resulting transparency of her shirt, she stood up. For once in my life, I acted with speed and grace. I turned away and grabbed my wife’s windbreaker from my pack, handing it to my wife to give to the girl. The handshake and eye contact her father gave me when we reached the end of the trail was the most sincere gesture I have ever received from a stranger.
I have wondered through medieval ruins in the forests of Austria. What does it mean when one society collapses and another takes its place? What memories remain?
Hiking the Nevada desert, I saw my wife slip and snap her right tibia and fibula clean through, internally severing her foot. Before the swelling took hold, I could make out the end of her bones bumping the inside of her skin. Not a single scream. Hollywood gets it all wrong. Just a calm assessment of the damage: “I broke my leg.” And then, amazingly, laughter as endorphins kicked in. In the three hours it took Flight for Life to reach the scene, she had begun to sink into shock. Silent and shaking, her eyes closed and her face covered in sweat. I have never felt such anxiety and helplessness in my life.
I have hiked to the summit of a 14,000-foot mountain and watched the sun rise over endless pine forests. From the top of a smaller mountain, I have watched the sun sink in a green flash over the South Pacific.
Why relate these events? I’d be hard-pressed to say they’ve made me a better person. But they have convinced me that if you want to write about life, it helps to live a little. There is a reason so many great writers have been adventurers. It’s the one snippet of writing advice you never really hear: You want to become a better writer? Take a hike.
** Photo taken along Taiwan 092 Trail from Maokong Station