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 Unfinished, Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, 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.