Hiking–like study, like horses, like composing poetry–is one of my passions. It’s kinesthetic learning, thinking on (or through) my feet. As my stride finds a rhythm, my sensory perceptions sharpen, and I notice more and more of what’s around me. The upward-spiraling notes of a Swainson’s thrush, the white flash of a flicker’s tail feathers, the piney flavor of ripe salal berries: these details I notice, note, and distill into my poems. A beloved teacher and mentor, the poet Luci Shaw, once told me, “Jennifer, you do your best writing with your hiking boots on.”
Walking anywhere inspires me. I love walking downtown Bellingham, Washington, to learn the layout of my city. (I call this foot-mapping.) I love walking Boston–have you hiked the Freedom Trail?–and taking in its history. But my favorite walking is off the pavement, anywhere. Dirt trails, kind to my plantar fascia, rate highest, with bonus points for a cold stream to cool those grouchy heels in. Before our son was born, my husband and I used to take long-distance walking trips in England and Scotland: one to two weeks of hiking village to village, carrying light packs with just rain gear and one change of clothes, doing “sink laundry” each night at the inexpensive b & b’s where we stayed. In the Highlands, we hiked the Spey River Valley, sampling single-malt whisky along the way to the North Sea. In Yorkshire, we hiked a route linking Wharfedale, Wensleydale, and Swaledale. (As I struggled along with a case of bronchitis, my husband flatteringly nicknamed me The Greet Snorking Fellwheezer.) Despite the frequent rain, despite the exertion on top of the jet lag, despite the occasional bull ignorant of the laws granting public right-of-way on trails through farmland, walking the long-distance paths of the U.K. is our favorite form of travel. We use trains and buses to get to our starting point, then do the main route on foot, freeing us to slow down and re-ground as pedestrians.
Our first walking trip (echoing the one in 1990 that I took with my mother) was in the Cotswold Hills, stopping at Roman ruins, 12th-century chapels, and the remains of a medieval monastery pulled down by order from King Henry VIII. It was experiencing these evocative historical sites that initially linked foot travel with my love of the ancient. Visiting, I launched my search for the meanings of the ancient symbols still visible in those places. What did that grape-leaf inscription signify to the Roman craftsman who carved it into those stone tiles? What did the cross, and Christ, mean to the Normans who constructed that church, and to the conquered Anglo-Saxons who worshiped there? What significance would the monks have seen in the wheat-sheaf pattern decorating the broken stone arches of the abbey? And more: how did those long-ago people and cultures eventuate in the people and cultures now living? How did “they” become, broadly speaking, “us”?
My husband and I eagerly await the year that our son, now five, will have the height and stamina to trek a countryside route with us. In preparation, I’m already nourishing his hungry interest in geology and archaeology, as well as in apples and cheese (our favorite trailside lunch).