The predominance of sidewalks and the crucial need for mountains.
Anyone who has staggered out from an epic in the backcountry in the dark and finally stepped out onto pavement has felt the relief that easy travel can bring. Though not home and warm, you are “out of the woods”. Yet in the Swiss Alps a few seasons ago, along the summer hiker’s version of the Haute Route, I noticed the preponderance of hiking poles along a track that was described as well-marked but for short sections that ran through fresh landslides, boulder fields, or hard late-season snow.
I had finished a long consultation the winter before where I watched middle-aged project managers growing exasperated because events kept cropping up that derailed their careful project plans and schedules. When did smooth travelling become the expectation?
Ask any mountain guide preparing a trip: hope for the best, sure, but plan for the worse because certainly something will go wrong. In their case, how the unknown is handled is the measure of their ability, not the unwavering sanctity of their initial plan.
As I watched hikers in Switzerland wielding their poles across loose sections of scree, testing their placements before their feet, I realized that they trusted their hands and their grip far more and before their feet and balance.
This is the age of hands and grasping. Of typing, swiping, gesturing. Of clinging. As a friend that worked with the First Nations in Alberta once told me: walking barefoot is like shaking hands with the earth at each step, but most people cover their feet, clad them in hard soles, protect them and in the process never actually touch the ground. Perhaps because the ground is now covered itself with concrete and asphalt, or perceived to be too rough.
Walk along any sidewalk and notice how people walking side-by-side will hardly move when you approach. They may shift inwards with their outer shoulder in a shy attempt to give way, but they are ruled by blind inertia. This is not the age of being light on the feet, of springing, of changing direction. Physical motion is the reflection of the mind’s mirror, and people are becoming entrenched in thinking, lulled by convenience.
But life isn’t easy, and shouldn’t be. Anything of value must test us. The ideal of a sidewalk—the ease and convenience—should be the exception, not the expectation; the vacation, not the vocation. Mountains are the preserve of the rough—natural, original—ground, necessary to keep our balance from atrophy and remind us to trust our feet, and continue moving, not clinging.