Sauntering With Phil

“I don't like either the word [hike] or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains - not 'hike!' Do you know the origin of that word saunter? It's a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, 'A la sainte terre', 'To the Holy Land.' And so, they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not 'hike' through them.” – John Muir

Sauntering with Phil

My friend Phil has a long stride. He speaks in short sentences.

I enjoy walking and hiking with Phil. Although I find the exercise exhilarating, the conversation is pitiful as perhaps it ought to be while hiking. Phil believes his legs and lungs are his greatest physical trait supporting his lifetime love of walking alone in the woods. But he speaks in short sentences if he speaks at all.

Weaving through thorny tangles with his shotgun in hand and following his beloved setter, Hawthorn, we punch through river currents in a favored trout stream. In winter, we glide over snowy corridors on cross country skis. But most days, alone, he simply hikes unpeopled mountain trails, walking staff in hand for the sheer joy of inhabiting his animal body. Rhythmic breathing and repetitive footsteps enable entry to this animal body and when he is safely back inside, his emotional pain is muted. Absorbed by the beauty of the natural world, his losses and sorrows are driven to the background. It’s called peace.

As growing things on my farm nurtures my soul, walking, hunting, and fishing does the same for Phil. Like me, he enjoys a solitary life. The pleasures of lying next to someone and companionship are forgone in a trade for a quiet walk in the woods. Although longings for intimacy persist, this life works, or so we keep telling ourselves like a mantra. Having tried the "deep meaningful relationship" path that is wide enough for two to walk abreast, we find narrow trails and the absence of people more suited to our nature. Perhaps we are too selfish and too "damaged" to really put out the effort that deep meaningful relationships require. Perhaps we just enjoy our own company. Of course, in the recesses of desire, we remain hopeful.

I say "damaged" but not in some extraordinary psychological way. It’s like a tree, bent in its formative years, that forever leans that way kind of damage. It’s not painful and won’t kill you but it makes you reach for the sun in a different way than most. Some might say in a twisted way. But we don’t care and neither do the trees. We grew and are growing. We have “headed off” the bad growth and found new ways to see the sky.

People who are deeply wounded speak in short sentences. Every breath is carefully metered out as it may well be the last. Phil speaks in short sentences like “Send in the Clowns”. That’s the way people speak when someone falls from the trapeze. That’s how people speak when broken and lying on the ground, or all alone in bed wondering how it all went so wrong. That’s the way you speak when you have to learn to walk again.

A near fatal auto accident almost ended Phil’s hiking ability. Trailing a boxy regulator inflating his collapsed lung, he walked the hospital halls on his third day of admittance. There are no grouse to be found in the hospital hallways but the legs must be tested and built. A sage adage amongst grouse hunters is that “legs harvest grouse”. Upon discharge, he began walking a mile daily, seeking restoration of both body and spirit.

Phil was soon scouring topo maps and taking quiet early morning walks prospecting for new grouse coverts. These days, the cupboards are mostly bare. As grouse numbers grow progressively thinner, the miles between flushes increase. Shots at birds are counted on one hand each season. Numbers are so reduced that sometimes a year or two passes between a dropped grouse. Nevertheless, his love of being in the woods with one of his setters has never diminished. The prize of bagging a grouse is almost incidental to the pleasure derived from walking and beautiful landscapes.

Grouse coverts are typically found along transition areas between habitat types, places like mature forest and young forest, swamp and mature forest, old fields and young forest. These transition areas for hunting are not much different from the rock-strewn river where he fishes. Good legs are needed for both.

On the occasions when I hike with Phil, this is when he speaks the most. He eagerly points out grouse coverts and other telltale signs of animal activity. It is fascinating to listen to him and watch him point at one thing, then another. His encyclopedic knowledge of woodlands, developed over the years, is parsed out slowly but with great clarity. He points to a Thornapple bush, and reminds me his setter is named after this favored grouse food, also known as Hawthorn. Again, he points, those are hemlocks, a favorite grouse shelter tree. His speech and animation are love made visible.

Although we have been good friends for many years, we really know few details of each other’s lives. One might marvel at two good friends who know so little of each other. But it’s in the not knowing, and more importantly, the not asking that our friendship is wrapped. We know we are wounded. We find no need to talk about our wounds. The therapy for our injuries in found in the earth. Phil by walking on it and me, by digging in it.

A restless dry fly fisherman, Phil often wades a mile or so of river in a day. With the strong currents and an unstable river bed, a good fatigue awaits him at the end of the day. I do not join him on these trips. Having tried my hand at fly fishing in the famous Yellow Breeches Creek in Central Pennsylvania, I felt I could club the trout swimming around my feet faster than lure them with a fly. I haven’t the patience for the sport.

While gunning woodcock in early November we stop to wonder at the swirl of spawning brook trout along a mountain stream. Phil bemoans the lack of his fishing gear while I just stare at the circling fish. Woodcock is the lauded king of game birds, greater even than canvasback duck. Its flavor is strong, gamey-in-a-good-way like nothing else. The earth moves when you bite into one that has been perfectly cooked, or so they say.

By design and temperament, Phil hikes obscure trails to enjoy the solitude. For that reason, he eschews the Appalachian Trail but enjoys a brief chat with the thru hikers he encounters. His conversation, as always, is guarded and brief. In summer, with the trails infested with ticks and the rattlesnakes active, he hikes a specific ridge along a dirt road. It affords good aerobic exercise and a better than even chance to chat with a local woman who hikes these early morning roads year-round. Phil assures me that these conversations are amiable and short as she values her solitude as much as he. When he tells me this, I do wonder why the extra effort along this specific ridge. I remain unconvinced that the aerobic exercise is the primary motive!

Phil is never without one of his hiking staffs and I count myself a most fortunate friend that he bestowed one of his favorites on me. On a recent fishing trip, he lost his most treasured staff, which he had plucked from the top of a beaver dam with signature teeth marks along the top. Of the two remaining, he kept for himself the one found floating barkless on a lake. My gift was cut from a limb of ironwood that he sawed, stripped and applied a coat of finish. Friendship indeed. As indispensable to hikes as good footwear; a hiking staff aids balance, punctuates footsteps, parts foliage and as a third limb, prods the questionable.

In the woods, there are no greens fees or health club dues. No posing, poseurs or special wardrobe required. Whatever personal religion one has developed has migrated from soles to soul. Oftentimes, hiking mountain passes awakens a felt kinship with ancient Buddhist monks. Particularly in the Chungnan Mountains in China, there were those who walked from temple to temple on long pilgrimages. Walking was their Zazen.

Without anger, without speaking
Without covetous,
Walk slowly, walk steadily!
- Santoka Taneda

On a recent hike along a lake path in early Spring, we viewed a flock of migrating snow geese on the partially frozen surface. Soon the loons would arrive along with the annual pageant of assorted waterfowl. Each year has its delightful encounters with animals. The albino turkey last summer. A July hike meeting with three coyote pups with the mother milling at a bend in the trail not far away. Two of the pups ran towards us, one plump youngster within twenty feet. Another day, we willingly relinquish the narrow mountain path to a yellow phase rattlesnake, admiring his striking markings and the lovely olive-gold cast to his skin. In late summer, we pluck and eat high bush huckleberries by the handful while keeping an eye out for chanterelles. To walk is to gather treasure.

The longer the hike, the quieter the mind. Within the stillness of the mountains, silence gradually descends, displacing the endless internal chatter. Problems resolve, or lose their importance and are temporarily forgotten. Sudden insights or lines of a forming poem emerge. “Work with no effort” as Lao-tzu would have it. As a lover of words and walking, Phil rightfully claims a spiritual lineage to such beloved writers as Wordsworth, Machado, Thoreau and Jim Harrison. This story is mostly his creation.

For both of us, life has been a long walk from toddler into late age. Our paths crossed many years ago and although his stride can tire me, his softness and serenity heal. Perhaps we shall cross paths again on some mountain trail. More likely, is that we shall die in circumstances unknown and reported to us long after passing. Our communication is limited to once or twice a year at most. As we’ve come to understand, there is nothing much to say.

Our friendship is a meeting at a trail crossing. We cheerfully greet each other as the good friends we are. We hug with hesitation so as to protect our wounded selves. We remark about the glorious day (regardless of the weather), and resume our hike down different trails. Both of us grateful for the moment and the times we hiked together. We have seen and experienced much. There is more to come I know. For my friend, Phil, I wish what I wish for myself, a quiet walk with an expanding awareness that continues until the path trails off on a distant horizon.