~This essay previously appeared in Chautauqua (2014).
Hiking With Kierkegaard
The Struggle Between the Idea and the Experience of Nature: A Debate Informed by Goethe, Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, the Velveteen Rabbit, and a Hike to the Top of El Capitan.
Before dawn in late September, I stand on a bank of the Merced River, below black mountains in silhouette, and watch the river’s dark blue water flow out from the forest and surge quietly past. The undulating surface reflects glints of silver from the sky’s early light. Mist hovers in the chill above the autumn meadow. When there is enough light to see, I begin a ten-hour hike by going up the steep switchbacks on the canyon’s north wall to the top of Yosemite Falls.
An hour and a half later, catching my breath on the canyon’s edge, I glance back at Half Dome across the valley, locate my trail, and head into the forest for El Capitan, anxious to see what it looks like from above. From the valley floor, El Cap is a smooth granite monolith that rises 3000 feet straight up. Rock climbers travel from around the world to spend days pulling their way up its vertical face; for them it’s a rite of passage. I prefer to hike over the mountains and explore the forest along the way.
In a shaded grove near Eagle Peak, I pause for a quick drink of water, but as I look around the landscape at an elevation of 7400 feet, a strange sensation invites me to sit on a boulder. What’s confusing is that on a long hike I don’t usually stop for water because I want to get back to camp before dark. I just swing my backpack around, grab a bottle and drink without ever breaking my stride. Setting my drive to get to El Cap aside, I wait to discover what is causing this feeling. It seems like something that I’ve forgotten or lost.
The growing heat of the sun filters through the trees and balances the crisp, cool air of early morning. Chickadees are chirping, chipmunks are scuffling through the dirt and leaves looking for stray acorns, and the breeze hums as it twirls needles in the sugar pines towering above me. I am energized by the quiet sounds and scent of pine, and the moment feels perfect, although this doesn’t say it right. I feel physically connected to the land. This says more, but the words don’t say enough. I linger for twenty minutes letting the presence of the landscape deepen.
I come into nature because of surprises like this, whether I’m hiking in Yosemite, canoeing among the moose in the Boundary Waters above Minnesota, walking the old prairies of Wisconsin, or poking around tide pools on Oregon’s serrated coast. Yosemite Valley is seven miles long and one mile wide, and by camping for a week I experience something of the rustic life of John Muir. Nature’s architecture has created a place both intimate and open where people can explore the boundary between self and the wilderness.
This trip I’m also here because grief has morphed into Moby Dick at home and I’m locked in a battle like Ahab, unable to kill it or let it go. Five months after my wife’s sudden death in her forties, I’m stuck in anger, depression, and apathy, and I’m hoping that nature can help me with this.