A stone on Mount Watatic in honor of when it became a local park. "Other stones in other places may commemorate the histories of people and things now dead and gone. This stone marks the site of a mountain that lived, a mountain that lives on because of people who cared, people who started with nothing but a dream and the will to work for it, until the dream became as real, as solid as this stone, as sure as this ground beneath your feet, as true as this mountain on which you stand, this mountain holding you up to meet the sky."
Hiked Most Recently on September 9, 2022
Most people I know--be they casual walkers or intense backpackers and peak baggers--have a favorite hike or walk. For some people it is the longest (or most difficult) trip they had. Maybe it is the hardest (or tallest) mountain. For others convenience and accessibility are key. Maybe there is a pretty spot involved. Sometimes it is a place where an important personal event occurred. As with most heart-centered choices, the reasons vary. For me, the decision really comes down to how it makes me feel.
What I want to talk to you about today has to do with the internal dimensions of hiking. We live in an anxious world. Some of us internalize that anxiety as we move through an era that tries its best to push us away from our center. Make no mistake, this is intentional. Anxiety (along with a number of negative emotions) makes us feel empty and unworthy. It also makes us buy stuff to fill the emptiness. The Man gets rich off our unhappiness.
I know this feeling very well. I start worrying before I get out of bed in the morning. I worry all day. Sometimes I worry in my sleep. Every moment of every day, even when I am doing or thinking about something else, I am anxious about something. What that thing is doesn't really matter. It can be big or small...but it is always there. So when I think about what I need in a hike, the "challenge rating" is not foremost in my mind. Availability is. Remoteness is. Primarily, though, I am looking for a chance to transcend that worry.
I want to be away from everything. I want to be insignificant in the face of the vastness of the universe. I want to sink into my surroundings until I know that whatever personal failing or foible that is concerning me is insignificant, too. This technique is different from things like positive self-talk designed to build ourselves up. I am a believer in that too. However, when I hike (or walk or whatever) I am trying to find my way to a positive connection with the Divine. I am trying to be part of a whole that will lift me up as I swim in its current.
I want to snicker at the trippy prose of transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson when he writes in his book Nature, "Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God." I can't though. Not really. After all--when I am out in the world trying to feel the wind in the air and the rock beneath my feet--what the heck am I doing if not stumbling toward the same thing?
This brings me to my current favorite mountain. A couple of posts ago I included a picture of Bradbury Mountain near where I grew up. It is where I learned to connect with the natural world and where I learned a certain sort of nature-spirituality that stays with me even here in the suburbs where I live now. These days Bradbury is too far away to really be my current favorite. That said, it is a good indicator of what I am looking for. It needs to be near enough so I can visit when I need to. It needs to be far enough that I have the process of physical as well as spiritual journeying.
It also needs to be challenging enough that not everyone uses it for this purpose. It doesn't need to be--in fact it shouldn't be--risky. It just needs to be inconvenient. When I manage to strategically select my time, I want the place to myself or, at least, to be in the company of other people seeking the same isolation. I climb plenty of mountains and hike around a large number of lakes. If there are too many people--and I love people--then it is a different sort of walk.
So when I need to clear my head, Mount Watatic gets the nod these days. It is right of Route 119 (in Ashby and Ashburnham) and a little over an hour from my house. The climb can easily be made into a 4 mile loop by including Nutting Hill and heading over to the New Hampshire border at the end. It gets busy on the weekends and on many weekdays too. However, if you get up early, you can have the place to yourself.
This is what I did on Friday. I left the house at 4:45 and arrived a bit after official sunrise. I walked to the top--getting turned around a couple of times--and made it to the ledge just below the peak where I sat alone for an hour.
Watatic is a Monadnock which--as I have mentioned numerous times--means that it juts out alone over an otherwise flat landscape. Wachusett is easily visible. That is another great hike. To the north one can see a number of larger peaks across the NH border. It also serves as a trail end for the Wapack trail that heads up the Pack Monadnocks to the north. It is also the northern end of the Mid-State trail that heads south across Massachusetts. Or, at least, the NH border just beyond it is.
Anyway, on Friday I spent the hour at the ledge not thinking very hard. There is plenty going on in my life right now, which is typical for most everyone. We need to slow down and shake off some of that burden when we can. As often happens, this became a theme in my sermon Sunday. It was already a theme for sabbatical just around the corner.
It took a while to get in the mood. I put my bag down, had a snack, and wandered around the ledge trying to decipher the 19th century graffiti scratched into the rock. Finally, though, I settled in. After that there isn't much to say. I didn't make it to "transparent eyeball" status by a long shot. However, there was a moment when my brain stopped sprinting toward numerous finish lines. That was the longest period of not worrying I have had for a long time. Both my body and my mind were grateful for the break.
When I think about what attracts me to walking and what makes a "good hike" I can make a list.
I take sabbath walks because...
1) I can connect to nature, "creation," and God
2) I can to witness the beauty and the silence
3) I can escape the suburbs and the often-mindless busyness they represent
4) I can experience the mental challenge of doing something difficult
5) I can experience the physical challenge, too
All of these are spiritual reasons. They are good Watatic-climbing reasons, too. Does this activity constitute a "church"? No of course it doesn't. Churches are communities first and foremost. They have a call and a hold on a person. On the face of it, these are potentially solitary reasons even when they are shared among others. Still, they do form a framework for a discipline, or a prayer. They make a walk a "walk"--both literal and metaphorical--which gives me strength to head out into the world.
This may not be your bag. If so, what is? What do you love doing? Can you make a list like this one as to why? What is your "walk"? I would love to know.
Update: I hiked Mount Watatic after a big snow storm in 2023 so I have added the video ove recording the trip!
I am a full-time pastor in a small, progressive church in Massachusetts. This blog is about the non-church things I do to find spiritual sustenance.