(I originally wrote this as a newspaper column in 2005. I’ve edited it a bit. Please enjoy this in the interim, when The Tension will be silent as I vacation in the Russian Wilderness Area this week.)
A walk into the woods is a scrub brush for the soul.
Thoreau knew that, as did Whitman, Muir and certainly Leopold. Drawn by respect and awe, they all ventured into the woods and used their words to paint broad strokes of wonder and wisdom that now are used in motivational posters pinned to cubical walls.
“Talk of mysteries! Think of our life in nature, daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?” Thoreau wrote in “The Maine Woods, Ktaadn.”
“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness,’ Muir wrote in “John of the Mountains.”
“There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot,” Leopold wrote in “A Sand County Almanac.”
I side with cannot. This is where I'm supposed to be, for right now, right here. Surrounded by the wilds of Northern California and enough gear and time off to explore. A walk into the woods, a chance to repair the mental weight of modern life.
With all the fortitude of Atlas, you heft the pack and of giddy heart, start up a dusty trail that splits tall pine. A sweat begins to rise at the small of your back and on your brow. You notice that for the first time in too long a time, it seems the only thing you hear is the beat of your own heart, the breath through your lungs and the rush of air though the pines.
A scrub brush for the soul. Nothing matters but that next step, the next switchback, the next creek crossing.
Simpler times for men like Thoreau and Muir led to an all-consuming awe of the natural world. If it was that easy now. Four miles up the trail and the mind begins to wander ...
I just quit my job. I’m moving to New York. What?
And then you enter a meadow that's split by a cool-running stream, with old-growth pines that stand watch like Centurions. The scent of pine, grass and clean water washes over you and instantly you're snapped back into a clarity of thought and senses. You stop to lie in the cool grass in the shade of a pine ...
and ... just ... stare ... into ... a ... sky ... so ... blue.
But the trail beckons, another few miles to another campsite, another lake.
Curse the modern man, whose problems weigh the mind down as to cause a stoop.
You swear you can't help it.
How am I going to get my stuff to the storage place? What do I do with my truck? Do I really need this, or can it just go to the Salvation Army?
At the end of the trail, there is fellowship and cold beer at the Etna Brewery. We recount trail tales that won't make it to wives and girlfriends. We plot our next walk into the woods with the innocence of children.
Unfortunately, the stress we left behind begins to creep back. Projects to complete. Family issues. Work, politics, mortgages, traffic, road rage.
And then, a Pacific Crest Trail thru-hiker walks in the door. The weight of his pack makes a sweaty "H" on his grimy shirt. He's gaunt later he tells us he's lost 30 pounds and has the stare of a man who has had lots of time to think. The PCT is 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada; from the PCT, it's a 13.8-mile trek into downtown Etna.
He wolfs a burger and three beers, tells us he quit his job, just for the chance to walk into the woods. We pay his tab for PCT hikers, it's called Trail Magic and he's more than grateful. Handshakes all around, and a look of pleasure from a man who has miles to go, which for today is another 10 miles before bedding down for the evening.
He'll average 20 miles a day, every day, for six months. But he says it's where he needs to be.
And I think back to my problems, my life. What lies ahead. Luckily, I’ve made decisions that have set me on a path that will lead to enlightenment and growth this next 14 months. Soon, I will slip off life and slip on a backpack and walk into the woods with friends, all who I haven’t seen for a few years. We’ll settle into a pace, we’ll needle one-another, we’ll fish and eat and talk and drink whiskey and be silly.
A scrub brush for the soul.
“We need the tonic of wilderness ... We can never have enough nature,” Thoreau wrote.
And I know this is where I'm supposed to be.
(For this week, anyway.)