Towards Evolution Creek
I hiked along in the early morning, waiting for the sun to rise over the nearest ridge. My shadow soon appeared on the grass to my side, a companion hiking along next to me. I encountered a deer and we stood silently, our eyes locked on one another for several seconds. Then it twitched, leapt into the air with all four legs tucked tight into its body and bounded off into the trees.
Memories of my childhood seemed to flood my mind. Is there a correlation between how we perceive the wilderness and the way we saw the world in our youth? Everyday I witnessed something new and different as I traveled through the backcountry with what could only be described as a childlike sense of wonder. Though at times I failed do so, I was more or less living in the moment - certainly more than I did in my "normal life." Like a child, I was concerned primarily with my immediate needs. Food. Water. Shelter. Finding a place to use the bathroom. For the most part there wasn't much existential fear or worry out there on the trail. Time passed slowly - the way summers seemed to last forever as a child - and my thoughts rarely strayed too far into the future.
As a child I had some sense of the fact that I saw and experienced the world differently than the adults around me. I can even remember promising myself at a very young age not to lose hold of the way I viewed the world. I didn't know what it meant to be jaded or cynical but yet I still sensed that quality in some adults. As an adult now I see just how easy it is to go down that path, forced in such a direction by the stress and demands and responsibilities of life. As I grew up I found art and travel and nature to be the perfect antidote - a constant exposure to new and wondrous things.
As for adults keeping alive the spark of childhood, Steinbeck offered a good example, retaining that childlike view of the world as he aged. Benson writes in his biography:
A sense of fun, a probing curiosity, and a capacity for wonder - all of these are qualities that we associate with childhood, and there was a good deal of the child in Steinbeck throughout his life. He was a big man who took great delight in small things. He never got too old to take things for granted or to accept the unacceptable ... Just as his father would get on his horse and ride off to be alone, John Steinbeck had to get away from his house, from his family. Perhaps it was this impulse to get away that brought him so close to nature so young. The emotions stirred by childhood communion with nature, the excitement of secret experiences and private discoveries, stayed with Steinbeck throughout his life ... Over and over again in looking back on his childhood, Steinbeck uses such words as "secret," "special," and "magical": he has secret places in nature to which he can retreat, the Santa Lucias are "curious secret mountains," the discovery of a rare flower is "magical" and evokes a "special" feeling, and in reading Malory, the "magic" happens. Such language points to the ability that Steinbeck had - and kept for all his life - to take delight in small things and to be open to the possibility of the wonderful. His use of the word "magic" calls up the intensity, the excitement, the sense of discovery of childhood. He carried this mode of feeling with him out of childhood ...
Benson notes that Steinbeck's mother helped to instill in him the idea "that all things about us are enchanted, if we had but the eyes to see. There was the potential for magic everywhere and in every experience ... " I found the PCT, both the idea of it beforehand and the actual experience, to be full of magic and no section of it was more magical than the High Sierra. The trail was full of drudgery and discomfort and difficultly to be sure, but those aspects were greatly overpowered by the enchantment of the entire experience. Benson also states that "the childish sense of wonder was also present in his feeling that the act of writing was a sort of miraculous thing, and I think he thought it was sort of a miracle that he could spend his life doing it." While I have yet to find a way to spend my life thru-hiking, it nonetheless felt like a miracle that the trail even existed in the first place and once I found myself out there actually walking it for months on end, life for that short time did feel truly miraculous.
Then there were harebells, tiny lanterns, cream white and almost sinful looking, and these were so rare and magical that a child, finding one, felt singled out and special all day long.
Steinbeck, East of Eden