Our Father Who Art in Nature
Mack and the boys are the Beauties, the Virtues, the Graces ... Mack and the boys avoid the trap, walk around the poison, step over the noose while a generation of trapped, poisoned, and trussed-up men scream at them and call them no-goods, come-to-bad-ends, blots-on-the-town, thieves, rascals, bums. Our Father who art in nature, who has given the gift of survival to the coyote, the common brown rat, the English sparrow, the house fly and the moth, must have a great and overwhelming love for no-goods and blots-on-the-town and bums, and Mack and the boys. Virtues and graces and laziness and zest. Our Father who art in nature.
Steinbeck, Cannery Row
The sharp volcanic rock destroyed my feet as I hiked along Hat Creek Rim in the early morning, hoping to get down off the plateau before the heat of midday. Mt. Shasta was beautiful at sunrise, its snowy crown glowing pink in the clear air of morning. As tough and trail-hardened as I thought I had become with more than half of the PCT behind me, there was always a new way to be humbled. The lava rock baking in near triple-digit heat proved disastrous for my feet. Blisters had formed under calluses and the backs of my heels were rubbed raw. I sat along the side of the trail recouping my energy and morale when two young hikers, Pigpen and Handy Andy, blazed past me, unfettered by the travails of Hat Creek Rim. They were attempting a one hundred day thru-hike, hoping to finish before their fall classes resumed.
"Are you thru-hiking the PCT?" one of them asked me. "Because you look really clean."
I passed over a paved road where large white foot prints had been painted across the asphalt, leading hikers to the other side where the trail resumed. They were spaced dramatically far apart as if to shame me for hobbling along in pain rather than forging ahead with a confident stride. Around me was a landscape of dry grass and sparse trees. Cattle flanked the trail on both sides. A bleached jawbone and section of vertebrae lay in the reddish soil and beyond that was an arrangement of porous lava rocks spelling out "1,400" to indicate my cumulative mileage. A few miles later, inexplicably, a ladder straddled the trail as if to test how superstitious each hiker might be. I walked directly underneath and continued on towards Crystal Lake Fish Hatchery. It was an oasis among the parched landscape and all manner of birds had congregated there; of them all, the pelicans seemed most out of place.
I passed several fishermen and reached shaded picnic tables where hikers commiserated and sought refuge from the heat. I used the nearby restroom and found Early B washing his clothing in a small, filthy sink. Pigpen lay on his side in the dirt, sleeping under the shade of a tree, an expression of beatific calm on his face. Between his dirt-stained thumb and index finger he delicately clasped a tiny sprig of greenery, while the overall position of his hand resembled some benedictory gesture from a medieval painting. His clothing was tattered and covered in blades of grass and bits of dried leaves. His other hand lay gently across his forearm and his legs were both bent identically at the same slight angle, with one bare foot tucked behind the other. There was a childlike innocence to his repose and an air of tranquility - he seemed almost cherubic. A saint and a vagabond alike.
In an essay on Tortilla Flat, Robert Gentry explains the characteristics of Steinbeck's central philosophy, that of nonteleological thinking. It is a way of recognizing "what is rather than what was or what may be. More important, one examining life using "is" thinking does not look for why; he looks at life as it is without looking for the reasons or causes for its present state. The teleologist looks for the causes and the reasons for events; the nonteleologist accepts life as it is."
It is a philosophy, he says, that involves several principles. The first is a closeness to nature. In Tortilla Flat, for example, the paisanos are a natural part of their surroundings - they are nature. Steinbeck writes in the preface of the novel that Danny is a nature god and his friends primitive symbols of the wind, the sky, the sun. At that moment, Pigpen too seemed inextricably linked with nature. He, along with many thru-hikers, seem to me to embody the principles of a nonteleological philosophy, principles exhibited by both the paisanos of Tortilla Flat and the residents of the Palace Flophouse in Cannery Row. All three communities are deeply connected to their natural environment. Another critic, Robert S. Hughes, Jr., observes that it is the temperate climate of Monterey that influences and enables a particular way of life for Steinbeck's characters. He points out that "rain, once or twice mentioned in [Cannery Row], never seems to fall. This temperate, dry climate results in what Edmund Wilson has called a 'sun-soaked California atmosphere of laziness, naivete, good nature, satisfaction in the pleasures of the senses and indifference to property rights. Characters may live indoors or out, depending on their preferences ...' " The summer climate of California, Oregon and Washington allows a fairly similar existence for the thru-hiker, minus the laziness of course. While the blustery winds, fog, bitter cold, snow and ice that Hughes observes as absent from the Monterey climate certainly exist along the PCT, they are relatively short-lived, and the entire experience is one of pervasive sunshine and relatively few days of precipitation.
The second nonteleological principle is a love of freedom. Freedom is one of the most appealing aspects of thru-hiking and it is a freedom that lasts for months on end - a lifestyle for the most part devoid of responsibility. A love of freedom "is certainly the cornerstone of the paisano's lifestyle," Gentry writes. "He resists responsibility of any type, for accepting responsibility usually means some loss of freedom." Peter Lisca writes that Cannery Row is "a community upon which no convention or authority imposes conformity or direction. It has instead the natural order of a biological organism, manifesting its own inner dynamics." During his time on the trail, the thru-hiker exists outside of society and the trail itself is the only thing imposing any sort of order or direction upon. In recent years, however, the number of prospective thru-hikers has exploded, so I must add one caveat: to reduce overcrowding in Southern California, hikers must now obtain a permit that dictates which day they begin their hike, restricting the number of hikers who can proceed north from Campo on any given day.
A third principle is the acceptance of things as they are. The thru-hiker has no choice but to cultivate acceptance. What can anyone do about the heat and dryness of Southern California? The snowpack of the Sierras? The rain of the North Cascades? A thru-hiker either accepts the trail for what it is or quits the trail altogether. At the beginning, I had focused more on what could be. There could be more water. There could be less heat and less wind. Now, 1,400 miles later, I had begun to evolve past that into a state of acceptance. The trail was not going to change, therefore my thinking had to.
Finally, there is the lack of concern for material possessions. Gentry writes that seeking freedom and living for the moment "usually results in a non-materialistic approach to life; materialists are often destroyed in Steinbeck's novels." Material belongings play some part in the thru-hikers' life, to the extent that gear is necessary, and at times the thru-hiker can slip down the rabbit hole of coveting the newest and lightest gear. At least, however, one is limited to what can be carried on his back. Money, as well, plays a role in the thru-hikers' life and certainly thru-hikers can fall anywhere on the spectrum between rich and poor. One's position on that spectrum may become more evident when in town, but out on the trail, at least, money is irrelevant.
We thru-hikers were lucky enough to be bums, no-goods and rascals, to exist in a more natural human state, to be truly free - even if only for a short time. Like Cannery Row, the long-distance trail is a place where the bum can exist freely. When one spends all day simply walking, calmed and soothed by nature, its hard to do much harm to the world or to others. Some thru-hikers have chosen to permanently live outside of society, like Mack and the boys, but most of us, when our hike was through, would return to society and struggle with the "ambition, nervousness and covetousness" that Steinbeck described. In that moment, sleeping there in the grass of the trout hatchery, Pigpen seemed to represent everything that was right about thru-hiking. His gentle repose was an outward representation of the calm I felt after so many weeks of living a life outdoors, filled with beauty and simplicity. Like Mack and the boys I felt relaxed, "healthy and curiously clean." I was able to satisfy my "appetites without calling them something else," for my appetites were quite simple.
At the same time, I struggle with the notion that perhaps the lives of Cannery Row's dropouts and Tortilla Flat's bacchanals are overly idealized. One could argue that Steinbeck's amiable and idle characters are nothing more than glorified derelicts. I appreciate the idea of resisting unhealthy ambition, but these characters of Steinbeck's who so strongly resist Western capitalist ethics seem sometimes to lack ambition altogether. In Cannery Row, the character of Henri loves boats and he finds happiness despite not ever completing the construction of his vessel, thus never having to go out on the water - which he fears. Is the person who dreams about the trail but never musters the courage to hike it, or who quits only days or weeks into their hike, just as happy as the thru-hiker who reaches Monument 78? Before I started the trail I had heard about the stereotype of the hiker who exists mainly to enjoy the social aspects of a long-distance trail - the "traveling party" as it's known. They have no real ambitions of making it to Canada or Katahdin, often skipping large sections of trail or spending most of their time in trail towns until their money runs out. Their domain is the crowded, early sections of the trail, not those sections further north where trail-hardened thru-hikers single-mindedly focus on reaching the end. Who am I to say which is happier? Nonetheless, only the latter held any appeal to me.
There seems also to be a dismal side to the lives of those who inhabit Cannery Row. At one point in the novel Mack confides, "I been sorry all my life ... Ever'thing I done turned sour." As Lewis Owens notes, there is a "darker side of the flophouse castaways, a sad and less pleasing dimension of failure, rejection and withdrawal. Rather than adjusting well to life, Mack and his buddies represent severe maladjustment. Mack is in retreat from the world outside of the Row; he has failed in love and in any kind of deep commitment and has come to hide out from further commitment on Cannery Row." I could see that to a certain extent in myself, as I had used the trail, and my zealous commitment to preparing for it, as a way to withdraw from society and escape from all that I saw lacking in my life. I could see it in some other hikers, who spent year after year out on the trail, often hiking the same trail multiple times. While I can only guess as to their motivations, for some I imagine the trail becomes a place to hide from everything that is undesirable and difficult about regular life, a place to shun all responsibilities.
I left the hatchery and ventured back into the sunlight where the temperature had reached over one hundred degrees. The rhythmic sound of a helicopter filled the air as it hovered above Hat Creek. It raised slowly into the sky, revealing taut cables suspended down towards the water. A large bucket broke the surface of the water and hung heavy below the chopper as it gained altitude up and away towards the plume of smoke I had seen from atop Hat Creek Rim. Less than a mile down the trail I passed a congregation of firefighters standing in a forest clearing as the ground smoldered beneath them. They turned and silently watched as I hiked on, leaving me to feel as if I were somehow intruding.
I hiked on towards McArthur-Burney Falls State Park, passing over cougar prints in the reddish dirt of the trail. I departed from the PCT and dropped down to the state park campground. En route I stopped to watch the falls, fed by spring water, thunder down into a blue pool. Two main cascades and numerous tiny rivulets created a veil of white that passed over a dripping, green wall of moss and rock. It was a sight to behold at the end of a dry and scorching day that began atop a desolate plateau. I discarded the shoes that had carried me across the Sierras and into the Cascades, mangled, full of holes and stained with the red-orange dirt of seven hundred miles of trail. I opened a package containing a new pair and stared down at them as they gleamed pristinely in the sunlight.
As I lay in my tent that evening, I thought that perhaps the one lesson I might take away from my thru-hike is the value of delayed gratification. As Doc described Mack and the boys, "they just know the nature of things too well to be caught in that wanting" that permeates most of society. There is a lot to be gained from depriving oneself of what one desires. In this world of smartphones, social networking, online shopping and the immediacy of all information via the internet, one can have exactly what one desires almost instantaneously. On the trail I found myself nearly always wanting for something - a shower, clean clothes, something to drink other than lukewarm water, something to eat other than dehydrated meals, a soft bed, a roof over my head, sexual pleasure, entertainment - the list goes on. We take many of these things for granted in daily life - but not on the trail.
I loved that yin and yang dichotomy between trail and town. Life never really gets boring on a thru-hike - when you're on the trail you have all the excitement of town waiting for you. When you're in town, you know you have all the beauty of the wilderness beckoning you to return. Perhaps it wasn't Canada, as I thought before, that was my Big Rock Candy Mountain. The trail wasn't something leading me to a destination, it was the destination itself. When I was in the backcountry I longed for what town provided. When I was in town, I longed for what the wilderness provided. The beauty was that I could keep going back and forth between the two for the entire length of the trail. The whole experience of the trail was my Big Rock Candy Mountain and surely when it was all over, back in Seattle, I would stare out at the distant mountains on the horizon and yearn for it.
When you're lacking something you appreciate it so much more. There's a cleansing of the soul that occurs when we're deprived of things - the asceticism of thru-hiking if you will. I felt a deep and sincere sense of gratitude for my experience, for the freedom I felt, the beauty I saw, the fatigue and discomfort and challenge of it all. For everything I had already seen and everything I knew and didn't know about that lay waiting for me through the rest of California, Oregon and Washington. The longer I spent on the trail the more I noticed that each night, as I lay back upon my sleeping pad and stared up at the sky through the mesh of my bug net, I felt so utterly full of excitement and desire to begin the day anew. Another day just like the dozens before of walking from sun up to sun down. As Gentry writes about the paisanos, "the friends had sunk into a routine which might have been monotonous for anyone but a paisano - up in the morning, to sit in the sun and wonder." To be sure, there were difficult times in Northern California that made me question my desire to thru-hike, but for the most part I knew just how lucky I was to be out there - to be up in the morning, to walk in the sun and wonder - and for that I was grateful.
Our Father who art in nature. Amen.
The flaming flies made halos above their heads.
Steinbeck, Cannery Row