My former coworker had hiked the Camino de Santiago, a long pilgrimage trail in Spain, and I told her I wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail and was looking for all the insight I could get. One thing she told me was that hiking was such a raw and real experience, something so different from our world steeped in the abstract. I understood what she said, or at least thought I did, and agreed with her sentiments. I found out later that I didn't really understand. Rather, I understood, but not in a personal, experiental way. I didn't understand in a way that really “clicked” with my soul.
Only after bowing out of the “real world” and hiking for months at a time, then coming back to the “real world”, my coworker's words about the “world of abstraction” were now understood and resonating within me. It had taken the very experience in order for me to appropriate the meaning, to make the understanding - the truth - my own in a very subjective way.
After years of sitting in offices and working in front of a computer screen, I didn't realize it, but “real life”, for all of its wonders, is really a bunch of scaffolding and paving over the “real” natural world below it. It really is just a world of abstractions. From the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep, you are carried about the world from one abstraction to another: a chain of human inventions that have almost become invisible in their everydayness, because we have all slowly have grown to accept them and become used to them. Like a frog eventually boiled alive in increasingly hot water.
I remember my routine in the so-called “real world”. When I lived in Santa Cruz, on weekdays I would wake up in my apartment, which was paid for each month with currency. My apartment, currency, and even the idea of a month are all abstractions. (When I first typed that out, I didn't realize that even the idea of a month was also an abstract, as it's so embedded and taken as a given).
These are all abstractions, incidental inventions in our world that need not necessarily be here. But they are, and the world (marketing, rather) is quick to convince us all these things are rather quite necessary, far from being accidental.
From the second floor of my apartment, I walked down the stairs to the ground level, got into my car, and drove it across the highways that took me up and over the Santa Cruz mountains. The stairs, car, roads, and job are all abstractions - things that do not exist in nature, but have been created for our comfort and convenience. But if these things were removed and the goals changed, would we suffer, or would we be better off? I can't help thinking of all the mental illness that abounds in our cities - perhaps not all of these invented abstractions are for the better after all? Which things could we remove to be happier? And that is what hiking is in a way, temporily removing as much as possible.
I drove further into the mountains, and soon descended down the highway that spilled out into the arteries of Silicon Valley, full of other commuters also trying to get to work, some more aggresively than others. All to arrive at jobs and doubtless spend the next eight or more hours of the day in front of a glowing screen casting unnatural blue light into their eyes. And then finally return home, eat, relax in front of more glowing screens, and finally fall asleep and do it all over again the next day. All this for something we've invented called currency, which we exchange in order to purchase other bits of invention and abstraction which we think we need. And an entire world marketing those abstractions to us on the daily (including YouTube videos selling us on the idea that we need the latest and greatest hiking gear to escape this very world).
And at the end of the day we may feel directionless. After ten or so years of doing this same routine and buying things and more things, stuff upon stuff, until there is no more room for the stuff. “The rich man owns so much stuff that he has nowhere to shit” (Menander's Phasma [The Ghost], also quoted in book 5 of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations).
And then after a while, it's no small wonder why we may find ourselves running into a bit of a midlife crisis. But what's changed? Why don't these material things bring the same joy they did ten years ago? For what end are we working hard for, if not for more things? I am being handsomly paid, but why do I feel such emptiness at buying more or even just saving up money? All this for the sake of what, exactly? And why am I not happier now than I was when I was poorer?
The “real life” of working in the world of cities differs so much from the long-term hike, the evisceral experience with a definite goal. On my hike, each day I woke up, tore town my tent, cooked breakfast, had some coffee, then set out for eight or more hours hiking the trail and coming closer to a concrete goal, pushing my body to the limit. Often alone with my thoughts, or simply allowing myself to daydream as much as I was allowed to when I was a kid (before I had to take things seriously in school and really focus).
Usually completely immersed in nature, listening to my ever-present bird companions and the rustling of squirrels which I often mistook for bears. Though I could often hear the sounds of civilization around me, it didn't demand my attention.
I'd take breaks by natural springs and drink the purest, most refreshing water I've had. Then I'd finally get to my next campsite, setup my tent, and cook dinner, before settling in for a very long and satisfying sleep, definitely the best sleep I've ever had. And each day working towards that end - that abstract terminus - Katahdin - working towards it a little each day until it was no longer just an abstract thought, but a reality that I was climbing up step by step and sometimes grip by grip, as there's a few rebar hand and footholds on the ascent.
I don't think a complete back-to-nature movement is what's needed though, somehow. My hike benefitted in so many ways by advances in technology and modern life. And by having money to pay for good gear, I was relatively safe and well-fed. I didn't mind those areas where “real life” had paved my way to make it possible to hike deeper into the primeval forest.
So hiking in large part removes this abstraction of city life, but it also benefits greatly from it. If you're willing to spend enough money, you can shell out for gear that's lightweight enough to enable most anyone to hike long distances. Even for those cheaping out a bit and going for the midrange gear options (like yours truly), the amazing advances made over the last decades means that the average backpacker thankfully carries less. Even the technology of the beleagered United States Postal Service, for all its faults, enabled me to mail supplies ahead to myself to the next trail town, instead of requiring me to haul it all on my back.
While hiking I once heard a hiker refer to their hike and contrast it with the “real world” which they would inevitably have to go back to. All us hikers would have to do that eventually, and it was often experienced with a great deal of what's called post-trail depression. This hiking life unfortunately just isn't sustainable. But in a lot of ways I thought this was strange - this “real world” was the one of abstractions, of a world that we humans had manufactured on top of the more natural world. If anything I'd tend to think that the “real world” should refer to the more primitive, the natural world buried under all that concrete and abstraction. But this isn't how we think of it. Our conception is all topsy-turvy and upside-down, as it were. And our abstract world is of course going to be biased and claim itself as the truly real world. According to it, what is the real world? The one we have built. What is the fake world? That chaotic, untamed natural world which you have escaped into.
It is true that long term hiking is an escape, so in that sense it truly is an escape from the “real world”. We all must face the “real world” and find our lot in it, one way or another. And we must separate from our fellow hikers and return to our disparate ends in this world, perhaps our means and ways of living and working and suffering in this real world are so disparate that we would even hesistate to call them our neighbors otherwise. But when hiking, we are all classmates, all aiming for that one goal - the end of the trail.
All along the trail there are “trail registers” where hikers can sign in and leave their thoughts, or if they wish, simply just a name and a date. At the Mason–Dixon line, a historical abstract line that roughly divides the “North” from the “South” in the US, there's an unusual trail register: a notebook and pen placed inside a stone mailbox. Inside a hiker wrote something along the lines of “it's a pity that goals and milestones in real life aren't as clear as they are on the trail”. This resonated so much in my thoughts, and I still haven't found a way to remedy the situation. I think it would help to set long-term goals for myself in a similar way as when I was hiking, but I haven't yet been disciplined enough to sit down and do this. But I suspect that even if I did, I would need to be very diligent each day in tracking my progress towards this abstract goal. How much easier when hiking, to figure out your progress for the day and your remaining miles until you hit Katahdin. Experiential progress that you can physically feel in your aching body, enough to know that you are still bringing yourself to that real goal. In contrast, when setting a goal in our abstract “real world”, I doubt that progress made has the same visceral feeling of physically being there in that state, standing on top of a mountain. The experience of having physically defied not just this mountain but the entire trail (or, erm, in my case just over half the trail). And to reach the end, what a wonderful thing, but what does it mean to reach the end of an abstract goal? Something quite different I think. Something that must feel quite different at the very least.
But to reach the terminus of a trail, and then to have nowhere left to go after that - that is a real experience of great joy and great loss at the same time. Which new goal should I set now? Yesterday it was quite clear, but now I'm directionless. Which direction to go in now?