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Ghost hikers: Fading marks on the land, and in the mind

Ghost hikers: Fading marks on the land, and in the mind

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Bootprints fade, the land remains. Photo by the author

There are stories all across the land, and when we choose to tell one we set a course and decide which path to follow and which ones to walk past. We call that set of choices a narrative. Sometimes the possible paths are practically infinite, like the myriad ways to pick a route through the streets of downtown Chicago. Sometimes the land chooses the route for us in advance, like the Bright Angel Trail zippering its way down through the neatly cleaved cliffs of the Bright Angel Fault.

The trails are there to get us from Point A to Point B, but we know they have a larger meaning too. Aboriginal peoples in Australia are famous for their songlines, their spoken or sung stories that link the present day to the distant past Dreamtime when the land was first peopled, the tales of creation and conflict and persistence following the terrain of dune and watercourse and mulga woodland and spring and billabong, the detailed information about how to find food and water and shelter in a tough environment encoded into the telling, so that walking the path on the ground calls forth an entire suite of place-grown knowledge vital to both physical and cultural survival, just as relating the stories back in camp calls forth in initiates the detailed sensory and muscle memory of the terrain. Meaning grows from the land just as the land itself as a deeply understood home may be said to grow from the meaning of the stories.

And so, we hike. I hike. I hike alone, with friends, with family. I have the usual justifications for this—the movement is a needed workout; the scenery is often grand; working our bodies together outdoors is one of the best forms of companionship; these days, just having a focused purpose for getting out of the house can seem reason enough. But as I get older and as the pangs of various physical ailments accumulate—knock on wood here, nothing too serious just yet—I realize that the other reason to hike is perhaps even deeper and more meaningful than even those excellent ones: namely, that I hike in order to store up memories for the time when I no longer can.

I know I am not alone, these days, in having some unquiet nights, in lying awake wondering how the world puts itself back together in the wake of the pandemic, or how we as a nation will survive the current election season, or how we address the various climate breakdowns that will make the pandemic look like a mild warmup session, and when I’m lying there one of the greatest comforts I can find is to get back on the trail again. It only works for the paths I know well, so there I go heading down through the Kaibab

Limestone in the first light of dawn, past the firs that cluster in shaded nooks, then descending into the Coconino Sandstone, the various red layers of the Hermit and the Supai, the quick elevator descent through the Redwall Limestone, and on and on. It’s inevitably a good memory insofar as every hike I have ever been on—so far—is one I have survived, even the awful one coming up the Tanner Trail in summer heat while suffering what must have been a mild case of hyponatremia—but still, here I am to tell the story. In these recollections I am, de facto, always fit enough to make it back out again, and so I believe that when I no longer am it will be a great comfort to me to relive the hikes in my mind, to recollect the feel of sandaled feet on crushed sandstone, the smell of turpentine broom that announces the hiker’s arrival on the Tonto Platform, the cool shadows of the Tapeats Narrows, my favorite part of the trail whether I’m heading down or up.

I can’t imagine I am alone in this and so each time on the trail I find myself thinking of the ghost hikers, the adventurers who can’t be there in person anymore but no doubt are in spirit, gazing up into the black of night, perhaps in a retirement home, relishing from below the Narrows the great curved basin that holds the Devil’s Corkscrew—or, at the bottom, mustering the nerve to wind up those steep hot switchbacks. They’re out there, I know, even if we never see them, and when I think of the long time horizons of the land it even makes some sense to think of those hikers who are truly long gone from the scene, likely my own dearly departed mother and father and grandfather, all of whom stood aside to let the mules pass, swigged the last drops of water from a canteen, stopped perhaps more often than planned on the long slog up to catch their breath while gazing upwards at the rim.

If nothing else this is an excellent way to not feel alone when I grow weary on a tough stretch of trail—there is fellowship in the shared going, even when shared with total strangers separated by both time and place. But it also pulls into focus an even deeper connection to the land, a sense that all those departed generations who have lived on the land are still out there, no longer visible as individuals but rather merged into the land just as a fallen ponderosa log slowly slumps into the soil and enriches it for many human lifetimes even as its shape is lost. It’s a notion that in the Grand Canyon region has been given no more eloquent expression than the traditional Havasupai Farewell Song, a lament to lost youth and joy in the physical experience of the land that finds sad acceptance in the knowledge that people come and go, but the land continues:

I thought I'd live forever,

thought I'd travel forever,

    thought I'd always be that way;

that's how it seemed to me.

    But now my strength is gone.

Land that I wandered,

    that place.

Listen to me:

    forget about me.

Peter Friederici is a writer and a former itinerant field biologist and tour guide who in his spare time directs the Master of Arts Program in Sustainable Communities at Northern Arizona University.

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