Hiking is an activity that is enjoyed by millions of people around the planet. You can summit peaks in the Colorado Rockies, or explore a system of paths in greenways in an urban center. But what is it about hiking that is so enjoyable?
Hiking is so much fun because it activates not only our bodies but also our imagination since it is a metaphor for life. When you embark on a hike, you begin a journey of exploration into the unknown where you perceive possible danger and potential rewards.
Hiking is the Hero’s Journey.
When humans began bipedal movement across the African grasslands they eventually walked around the entire globe. Humans are movers. We love to go to new places and discover new things. Hiking is a rehearsal for human discovery and so it resonates with our inner beings.
Joseph Campbell discovered that the myth stories of cultures from all over the world and from different time periods featured similar elements. He called this cycle the Hero’s Journey. You can read about it in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. This book inspired George Lucas for his famous space opera, Star Wars. The Hero’s Journey is an archetypal story that resonates with our inner being and is often present in the stories we adore the most.
Hiking is fun because it presents both a physical and psychological challenge.
The Call to Action.
When you go on a hike, you answer the call to action. You decide to leave the comforts of your routine to go toward the undiscovered. Usually, you receive an invitation or an urge to go on a hike or to save the princess in the case of Luke Skywalker. Whether it is a friend inviting you, or Obi-Wan Kenobi, stepping out of your door to go on a hike is exhilarating.
In the Spring of 1992, while studying abroad in Italy, I visited Bavaria with a fellow student. We had just finished touring the ‘Cinderella’ castle, or Neuschwanstein Schloss. Matt said, ‘Hey, why don’t we hike over to that chair lift at the ski resort nearby and ride the gondola back down to the valley below?’ I was ready!
We missed the last ride down by five minutes and the sun was setting. We slid down the groomed ski runs on our butts racing to get back to our youth hostel before the midnight curfew. It was an adventure.
In the second act of most good stories, the hero meets the villain. When you are hiking, you never know what is waiting for you around the next bend on the path. It could be a field of wild blueberries or a large male black bear. The threat could be your physical condition. Will you have enough energy to summit the next pass? Will you make it to the trailhead before nightfall? These potential threats stimulate our survival instincts and connect us to our physical bodies in a way that modern life rarely does.
Matt and I were not prepared for snow. Here is a post I wrote about hiking in the snow. Matt and I quickly lost the trail that we had followed from the castle.
At a certain point, we were stuck at the bottom of a steep cliff just 30 feet from the gondola entrance. We had to climb up the frozen snow. We were tired and cold. I was using my hands to carve out handholds and footholds for me and Matt.
The gondola was just above us. We could see it and were concerned that we would miss it. Time was running out.
In the Hero’s Journey, there is usually a series of challenges that can threaten completion of the journey. Half way through a hike you are usually committed since there is little sense in turning back. You are now at the point of no return and must complete your journey through your own determination and strength. It is at this point that you typically feel the most tired and you understand that you have to repeat the same distance again.
Our goal was to get to the gondola before it closed so that we could ride back down, get some dinner, and find our way back to our hostel. When we finally climbed up the frozen snow cliff to the entrance for the gondola, the operator said one word to us: Kaput! Broken?
There was no internet. A guide book in 1992 did not update you on local closures, or the depth of the snow on a hike. Matt and I were at rock bottom. We did not give up. We faced down this challenge and formulated a plan for self-rescue.
If you persevere in your hike and overcome the challenges that are presented along the way you are transformed. Your body is now in tune with the experience and your mind has linked up with your destiny. At this point in your hike, you might be experiencing increased levels of creativity and a renewed sense of purpose with your life. You have essentially hit the reset button and are ready to slay a Sith Lord.
We found our way to the bottom of the ski slopes, hiking through the woods to see the road back to our hostel. Matt shared his last few pieces of beef jerky. We ate snow to quench our thirst, as the sun set. Nothing was going to stop us from getting back to the youth hostel before it closed for the night.
The most challenging part of the Hero’s Journey is the end. The hero must bring the treasure back to society. For the hiker, this means carrying some of that mental and spiritual rejuvenation with you back to the routine of life. Fortunately, the trails are nearly endless. Next weekend another journey awaits and a treasure to be discovered. May the force be with you!
Matt and I had faced significant challenges, but we overcame all of the obstacles. As we emerged from the forest onto the road, we had 10 minutes to walk two or three miles. The thought of having to find a hotel after we had already paid for the hostel was a difficult one for two poor college students.
Two minutes later a local man asked us if we needed a ride. We made it back to the hostel before they locked the door.
The next day my fingers swelled up like hotdogs. The wrinkle lines around the joints in my fingers disappeared as my skin stretched tight. A week later, my fingertips peeled.
I had accepted the call to action, or hike in this case. What was supposed to be a simple walk up to a gondola we had read about in a guide book, became a survival situation with a happy ending.
Hiking is so fun because it is a story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is a story that you write, as the hero, overcoming your fears as you leave society, explore the wilderness, and overcome difficulties. This experience changes you, and you bring back your treasure to society.