Wednesday, May 18, 2011

At a Wandering Pace - John Muir

I remembered a John Muir quote incorrectly. I thought he said that nothing could be seen at 40 miles an hour because everything becomes a bewildering, swirling blur.

When people arrive in Yosemite today, after having spent four or more hours in the car driving 60-70 miles an hour across the Central Valley, up through the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, and into the valley, they do stagger out of their car dazed. At those speeds, the landscape has been a blur. Trees flash by the windows as we focus on staying on the road. We would be able to see much more if we slowed down to 40, but Muir doesn’t think this is enough.

And he’s right. In Peoria, as the sparseness of winter trees fill out with summer leaves, they begin to hide the contours to the hills. The little valleys and creeks that crease the rolling hills that I could see in winter are hidden behind trees. When I drive by a woods going even 25 miles an hour, all I see are the trees that stand alongside the road.

Yesterday I ran across this quote again. It doesn’t say 40 miles an hour. I had mistakenly thought that Muir was berating people who arrived in the valley by stagecoach, zipping over the new dirt roads, or taking the train to El Portal at the breakneck speed of 40 instead of taking their time by riding horses over trails. Muir took things even slower by taking several weeks to walk the 200 miles from Oakland. (Wendell Berry wrote an insightful essay on adjusting to the pace of the nature, “An Entrance to the Woods.”)

What the quote really said was 40 miles A DAY.

Harkening back to my time as a Boy Scout, I know that a good hiking pace is 4 miles an hour over relatively flat or gently rolling terrain. Ten hours at this pace would make a full day. You can see a great deal more of nature going 4 miles an hour rather than 60.

Yet even at this pace, if you keep to it hour after hour, you have no time to explore what is around you, what catches your eye. You can’t investigate the open patch of sunlight 100 yards into the forest, or check out the sound of running water to see if it’s a creek, a waterfall, or a pool that would be ideal for cooling your sweaty feet. If you are trying to get somewhere, even at 4 miles an hour, you are moving too fast to experience the landscape you are moving through.

So where does this leave us?

When you find yourself outdoors in a beautiful place, take your time. Savor what is there. Do not hurry on to get to some place else. Stay in the moment until it is over, then go on to the next. This is also important for the other events in our lives, like the deeper conversations we have with others.

Life is not a linear experience, a matter of getting from here to there. It’s a collection of special moments that we linger in, explore, and thereby come to cherish.

Not all who wander are lost. -- Tolkien