Have you ever heard someone say about a particular habit “I can give it up any time I like (honest!) - I just don’t want to”? Well, sometimes it feels like that with me and hiking. It’s one of the things that gives my life meaning, but it can also feel like it’s out of control.

An Easter conversation

Earlier this month it was Easter. Here in Australia, that means a four day weekend with both Friday and Monday off. The weather was nice, so I planned to do some hiking, but I really didn’t think I’d want to be out all four days.

On Easter Saturday, that led to a mental conversation between two voices I’ll call “Voice of Reason” (VoR) and “Hiking Spirit” (HS).

VoR: You did a 10 km walk yesterday, you’re planning a longer walk tomorrow, and it’s going to be a hot day today. How about we take a break?
HS: That makes sense, I guess. But surely we can take a short walk?
VoR: I guess a couple of kilometres wouldn’t hurt. We don’t want to be stuck in the house all day. But no driving to the other side of Melbourne or anything like that.

VoR: We used the last of our fruit yesterday. We should go to the grocery store and get some more.
HS: That makes sense. But it would be a bit of a waste just driving to the store and back again. How about we drive somewhere nearby, have a short walk, and get groceries on the way back?
VoR: Yeah, OK.
HS: I know - you’ve been wanting to check out the latest signs on that house with Covid signs. How about we park in the village, then go through the cemetery on the way to the house?
VoR: That sounds reasonable.
HS: And while we’re at it, we might as well keep going to that nice park and down to the rail trail to make it a circuit.
VoR: (Sigh) You mean, make it a 5km loop? Wasn’t this supposed to be a rest day?
HS: Well, yeah, but when else are we going to get another opportunity like this? You’re going to love it. Trust me.

And, truth to tell, I did. I left it to the hour before sunset, so it wasn’t too hot and there was a nice breeze. Voice of Reason was being sensible, as usual, but Hiking Spirit wasn’t entirely wrong: That walk broke the day up nicely, it didn’t interfere at all with Sunday’s walk, and if I was really worried about whether it was the best use of my time, I should probably have been more concerned about over-sleeping that morning.

And who doesn’t want to see the latest state of a Spoonville?

Clear the spoons!

A common conversation

This mental conversation is just one example of many, and Hiking Spirit usually wins. I very nicely acknowledge that Voice of Reason is being sensible, then ignore it anyway.

Sometimes it’s during the hike, and can end up feeling very like a bait and switch. Voice of Reason vetoes a longer walk, so Hiking Spirit gives in and suggests a shorter walk. However, part way through there’s a change of direction, or I decide to go a little bit further, and then it ends up that I’m close enough to the original walk that I decide I might as well do it. Or I do a walk that’s different, but just as long as the one originally planned and rejected.

Who cares that Voice of Reason originally (and sensibly) vetoed the plan, and is still muttering in the back of my head? What does it matter if I return exhausted? Or long after dark? Or even soaked through and shivering, if that’s what it takes? Hiking Spirit will probably turn out correct: I will enjoy it and be glad that I’ve done it, even if it means other things end up not done.

I value the freedom to change plans, whether I change those plans because of things I see or just on a passing whim. I value the spontaneity.

In truth, my Easter Saturday walk went pretty well - I enjoyed it, and once I’d started I resisted the urge to add extra detours. At the end, even Voice of Reason probably had to agree it wasn’t a terrible idea.

The lure of hiking

For me, the lure is almost constantly there. There’s that urge to go further or to climb higher or to discover a new trail. And I find it difficult to control those urges - as I’ve said, Hiking Spirit usually wins over Voice of Reason in the mental debate. What else do you call that but an addiction?

When talking about the lure of the mountains last year, I turned to Tolkien. This time, I have to turn to the poetry of Tolkien. The Road Goes Ever On is probably his best known walking song, but Upon the Hearth expresses better what I feel:

Upon the hearth the fire is red,
Beneath the roof there is a bed;
But not yet weary are our feet,
Still round the corner we may meet
A sudden tree or standing stone
That none have seen but we alone.
Tree and flower and leaf and grass,
Let them pass! Let them pass!

Usually when I go hiking I have an objective. It might be following particular trails, or reaching a particular location, or seeing something specific (maybe spring flowers or autumn leaves or a sunset). I may achieve that objective, or I may decide part way to do something completely different.

However, part of what keeps me interested is the unexpected happenings. It may be seeing a previously unnoticed trail and following it. Or encountering birds or animals doing interesting things. Or just discovering what’s really round that tantalising next corner beckoning to me.

For example, on Saturday I found the autumn leaves I was expecting - but I also came across a wombat busy looking for food:

Wombat crossing the trail (Dandenong Ranges Botanic Gardens)
Time for a scratch (Dandenong Ranges Botanic Gardens)

This part of the poem can apply to me too:

Home is behind, the world ahead,
And there are many paths to tread
Through shadows to the edge of night,
Until the stars are all alight.
Then world behind and home ahead,
We’ll wander back to home and bed.

Sometimes when I’m out in the evening I make decisions which guarantee the hike won’t be over till dark. Possibly not till long after dark. But I press on anyway. And night under the moon or the stars can be wonderful.

Not a bad thing

None of this is new. I can see it in the naive Bible software developer who tacked on a little exploration of the American West and discovered I liked the freedom and the spontaneity and the beauty of hiking. I can see it in the conflicted missionary in India, there to restore his faith, but finding joy and interest in a little exploration. Probably further back, if I really looked for it.

However, what I’ve found is that the more freedom I’ve had, the more I’ve made these kind of choices. And leaving religion in 2016 gave me much more opportunity to follow that lure and see where it led.

I do believe that making the choice to go walking somewhere every Saturday and Sunday was a good choice. It improved my life in many ways, both expected and unexpected.

I don’t know what the alternative version of me who listens to Voice of Reason more often looks like. It might mean having more time available to do other things I value. But it would mean missing out on many unexpected and wonderful experiences. More importantly, though, it just wouldn’t be me.

So it’s not that hiking is a problem: It can provide me both exercise and relaxation. Nor is it necessarily that changing plans spontaneously and hiking further than originally expected is a problem. However, taking it to excess can be a problem: I need to make sure it doesn’t get in the way of other things I value.

Return to the office: A time to re-assess

As I described in my last post, a year of working from home during the pandemic gave me many opportunities to explore my local area, and that has changed my relationship with hiking. Where in previous years much of my weekday exercise was going to and from the station as part of my commute, working from home gave me the freedom to seek more variety in my daily exercise.

This time last year, all the public messaging was that we should “Stay Home”, and those round me seemed to be living in existential dread and/or having Netflix parties and Zooming with family and friends. That made me wonder how exactly I’d ended up spending so much time in the great outdoors, seeing sunsets and walking longer and longer circuits in my local area. Part of it was that it was permitted, and I did consider it relatively safe (it was outdoors, and at the times I walked I saw few other people). And part of it was that the days and weeks ended up blurring together, and I wanted variety to help keep track.

However, then I read an article suggesting that in times of stress people do more of what they already do. That eases the stress as well as giving a feeling of something you can control when other parts of life are out of your control.

And to me that made a lot of sense and matched my behaviour. I couldn’t spend time in person with family or go to the office, and I’ve never had a Netflix subscription, but I could seek out another sunset, climb another hill, or gaze out over another vista.

The hiking habits I got into may not have been perfect, but they helped me cope with working from home during a pandemic. However, now I’m back in the office full time, I need to consider which of those habits to keep, and which to leave behind.

This is actually something I’ve already had to do several times as Covid regulations changed. Most notably, during the depths of our second lockdown we were only allowed one hour of exercise a day. For me, that meant feeling like I had to make that hour count, and that one hour walk/run became my minimum. When that restriction eased I had to consciously reset that expectation. I needed to only choose to walk an hour or more when I actually felt like doing it, not just because that was my habit.

This time round, at least for weekdays, I have to accept that the majority of the exercise will be part of my commute. I won’t be able to do as much hiking as a separate leisure activity, and I’m probably going to see more of the path to and from the station, and fewer sunsets. And that’s OK. After all, it’s not like I’m addicted or anything. I can stop any time I like.