In Other Words
Backpacking With the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as a Spiritual Practice by Belden C. Lane
Wilderness Hiking as a Spiritual Practice by Belden C. Lane, Oxford University
Press, 288 pages It’s a commonly held wisdom that somewhere along life’s way we lose ourselves. It’s assumed that the self, whatever it might be, cannot stay lost, not without potentially disastrous results, and must be found. And though experience teaches that we might find ourselves anywhere, certain locations — like barrooms — seem conducive to the hunt. The most favored places, the ones that guarantee the required solitude and challenge, are remote and wild. Christ wandered in the wilderness, Thoreau was rejuvenated among the trees, and John Muir stirred an entire movement to protect the mountainous sanctuaries where we now orient our global positioning devices. Consider the subtitle to Cheryl Strayed’s movie-inspiring memoir of self-discovery, Wild: From Lost To Found On the Pacific Crest Trail.
When Belden C. Lane goes into the woods in search of understanding — as fine a synonym for “self” as you might find — he takes help. Backpacking With the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as a Spiritual Practice is an argument for carrying more weight, not less, when we walk in the woods. Its first short section, “The Power of Wilderness and the Reading of Dangerous Texts,” argues that wilderness makes a perfect stage for self-realization and that the experience can be enhanced by confronting certain writings, notably from saints, poets, and a variety of cultural and spiritual theologians. “Reading a potentially dangerous book in a landscape perceived to be dangerous can be doubly hazardous. The place heightens the vulnerability occasioned by the text,” Lane writes. Those same ideas — danger, vulnerability — reappear in the book’s second part, Lane’s accounts of bookburdened trips into landscapes including Wyoming’s Medicine Bow range and Arizona’s Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness, but most frequently the Ozark Mountains of Missouri and Arkansas.
Lane isn’t naive about the rigors of backpacking. He suggests that taxing one’s endurance invigorates the mind. He calls this “thinking with the body.” “Plodding an uphill trail, mile after mile, it’s the body that leads, not the mind,” he writes. He knows that you not only carry the weight of the essentials you’ll need to survive, but “interior baggage” as well, often just as heavy and exhausting as an overstuffed backpack. Adding a copy of 17th-century mystic poet Thomas Traherne’s Centuries of Meditation to the load may seem like sacrilege to minimalist hikers, but it makes perfect sense to Lane, who ponders Traherne’s declaration, “You must Want like a God that you may be satisfied like God” (desire is a principle theme of the book). Lane sees no contradiction between his “chief reason for hiking ... to ‘walk off’ an inordinate attachment to words,” and studying books full of words as he hikes: “The words of the saint[s] aren’t meant to absorb me in thoughtful insight. More often than not they stop thought altogether.”
Lane’s traveling companions, one to a trip, are a secular lot — a Celtic saint, five Catholics, four Protestants, a Buddhist, a Hindu, and a Sufi Muslim. Kierkegaard and Dag Hammarskjöld make appearances, as do Rumi and Gandhi. The writings he carries in his head, from Erasmus and G. K. Chesterton to Edward Abbey and Toni Morrison, add even more weight. Lane’s mind-set is guided by the third-century Desert Christians who wandered Egypt’s wilderness with the conviction that, as paraphrased by Lane, “there are no easy routes to self-realization; it begins, ironically, with self-abandonment.”
Heaviness aside, the second section of the book can be enjoyed just for its realized descriptions of the natural environments Lane travels. Lane is adept at making us see what he sees. His ability to connect intellect and emotion with physical experience — the fear he suffers climbing California’s Mt. Whitney is a dizzying example — bears witness to the spirituality of mind that the body facilitates. He doesn’t rely on easy metaphor. The Whitney climb ends in retreat, the summit — spirituality’s most frequent symbol — unobtained. This falling short suggests what he calls a “Theology for Times of Failure” modeled on Protestant reformer Martin Luther, who frequently failed to meet expectations as a boy. The more personal Lane’s accounts are, the better. His descent into a Utah canyon to witness pre-Anasazi wall paintings depicting death is woven together with his memories of losing his father at age thirteen and his mother’s resultant nervous breakdown. In the middle of this chapter, he tells how St. John of the Cross, the shoeless Carmelite, came to hold a somewhat Buddhist view of possessions: “In order to possess all you desire, you have to give up all desire for possession.”
Most of Lane’s little enlightenments don’t necessarily result in self-discovery, and too often they involve a barely defined embrace of love. Some of Lane’s scholarship, like backpacking itself, tends to be mostly exercise. But when he takes time to find himself in a place, the weight of the saints aside, he gives us the chance to find ourselves right where we are, without leaving our reading chair. — Bill Kohlhaase