John Muir, an early advocate for the preservation of the wilderness, was involved in the creation of some of our national parks. Since so many hikers (those who have heard of him, that is) seem to revere him, I always assumed he was an avid hiker. Not so. He once said, “I don’t like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains — not hike!”

He continued, “Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’ It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, “A la sainte terre,’ ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.”

This might be only Muir’s interpretation of the word saunter because most definitions say the origin of the word is unclear. And yet, there is this from another source: “Usually the pilgrims [to Saint Terre , the Holy Land] — traveled in caravans for safety. Many saints, and good priests and bishops, from the East and West, preached against what they often saw in such journeymen as a spirit of uncertain and sometimes even scandalous restlessness. The French coined the word saunter to describe such peripatetic meanderings of vagabond types on their way to Saint Terre.”

Sauntering, with its connotation of a spiritual ramble, is exactly what I do. Even though I use the term “hike,” the truth is, I don’t really hike. Or even walk. I saunter. I stop to look around. Breathe in the ambiance. Listen to the stillness. Smell the air. Feel the holiness of the land. Touch the spirit of the place. Sometimes even reverently touch a rock or a tree. (Or, not so reverently, the ground, if I trip.)

I used to go on group hikes, but even though there is supposed to be safety in numbers, I never felt safe. I always had to “hike.” To go at their speed. To hurry to catch up after stopping to savor a place. So not my idea of a proper wilderness experience!

Although my dream is of an epic hike, for me the challenge and the joy would be the time spent on the trail, not the distance traveled. Although thru-hikers deny that that hiking one of the major trails such as the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail is a competition, there’s really no other way to describe it. The competition might not be against each other, but there is definitely a race against time, the weather, even one’s own ability. There are only so many months to travel the trail before the winter snows make hiking impossible, and so sometimes grueling paces have to be set. And sometimes people try to break the record of how long it takes to hike the trail.

Not my idea of a spiritual journey or even just a good time.

Now a saunter — yep, that’s for me.



Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.


Where I Am Supposed to Be

When I was starting to come out of the worst of my grief, when life overwhelmed me, I used to take a deep breath, let it out, then tell myself, “I am where I am supposed to be.” The ritual brought me comfort even though I don’t really believe that there are any “supposed to be”s. There just is “is”. And yet . . .

Because of an unexpected series of events, I spent the night in a town I had never heard of. The string of happenstance began even before the encounter between a peacock and the Amtrak bus I was in yesterday. (In case you didn’t read yesterday’s post, a few minutes after I began my trip, the bus I was in collided with a peacock in flight, which destroyed the windshield. The poor bird died.) I would not have been in the bus except for a series of unexpected events — the woman I am going to visit offered to pick me up in a distant town, and the woman I was staying with so kindly agreed to get me to the station at 6:00 am, so that allowed me to take a different and quicker route than I had planned.

As things worked out, it wasn’t quicker (though the hours spent on bus and train remained almost the same). Because of the peacock incident, I missed my connection to Eureka. Antrak put me up in a motel. (A very expensive motel that certainly didn’t use the money to clean.) Amtrak also paid for a taxi to and from the motel, as well as dinner last night and breakfast this morning. All that was wonderful, of course, especially since it will allow me to see the scenery I pass through today. (If all had gone as planned, most of the final leg of this journey would have been I’m the dark.) But all those perks are not what gave last night its “supposed to be” feel.

I’m using my new backpack for luggage, and every time I put the thing on, I had to wonder once again if backpacking, even short distances was for me. And yet, whenever we passed a trail of any kind, I could feel the pull. I’ve always liked mysteries (though it’s really the truth finding I love more than the mystery itself. I like to know esoteric things that not everyone knows). And the pull of the trail is its mystery. Where does it go? What’s around the next bend?

So, after a day spent watching the world pass by my window and wondering what it would be like to be walking instead of being driven, I ended up spending the night in Martinez, in the Muir Lodge, two blocks from where John Muir lived.

That sure gave me pause!

John Muir was a naturalist, co-founder of the Sierra Club and was instrumental in the development of our national parks system. He is something of an inspiration to hikers, the grandfather of ultralight backpacking. And last night I found myself steeped in his aura.

Maybe I am where I am supposed to be. If so, then where I am currently supposed to be is on an Amtrak bus, heading for other places I am supposed to be.


(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

The Relevance of Wilderness

I read an article today that called John Muir’s philosophy irrelevant. In case you don’t know, John Muir was an early environmentalist who believed in our oneness with the earth and advocated the importance of keeping some wilderness areas as undisturbed as possible so we can experience nature in its original state and to ensure that there will be wilderness areas for coming generations to experience. He founded the Sierra Club to further promote his ideas, and while the Sierra Club has gone beyond strictly environmental issues into other political arenas, Muir’s philosophy still holds true. It is important to spare at least parts of the earth from human depredation, because who are we and who would we be without the earth?

Muir’s detractors think his philosophy implies that only awe-inspiring parks are worth saving, and that his vision is rooted in economic privilege and benefits mostly rich white folks with the leisure to backpack, rock climb, and otherwise enjoy the far off places. They say that new generations, especially the diverse communities of working class and minorities, see the world differently than WASPs such as Muir, and that it’s more important to cater to their vision by creating and protecting urban parks and close-in mountain areas.

I don’t know what the rich think — as a matter of fact, until reading this article, I haven’t even seen the phrase “White Anglo Saxon protestant” in years. I’m certainly not a WASP — well, technically I am white, I suppose, though traces of Finno-Ugric blood might skew that a bit. But I am not Anglo-Saxon, protestant, rich, or privileged in the way such folks are said to be.

Nor do I know what the poor or those in diverse communities think. Perhaps they no longer believe it’s important to keep some wilderness areas pristine for the sake of our souls. Perhaps close-in parks are more important to them, but that is their choice. It does not negate the need for hard-to-reach wilderness areas. Besides, most people I know who love to hike or commune with the mountains or find solitude and spirituality in the far reaches of the wilderness are not rich. Some are retired with fixed incomes, some make great sacrifices to be able to afford the lifestyle they love/need, and some indulge their nature-lust in the small increments their time or money afford them.

I’m one of those who like close-in places because of the ease in accessing them. I can walk to the desert from where I am currently staying, and in fact have spent thousands of hours hiking those informal trails. Even if I never went up to the mountains, I still like knowing there are relatively untouched places, and that we as a people value them so much we will protect them.

Seems to me, such an ideal is always relevant.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.