In Other Words

Back­pack­ing With the Saints: Wilder­ness Hik­ing as a Spir­i­tual Prac­tice by Belden C. Lane

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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

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