Time and Moments
The way we mark the seconds and minutes, sixty of them, goes back to the Babylonians. I assume the twenty-four hour clock is also astoundingly ancient. The western calendar of months goes back to Roman times, with major revisions by Julius Caesar and several Popes. I make no claims to historical expertise here. I am merely acknowledging how people mark time; seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years. You hang that lovely gift calendar and a few blinks later you’re hanging another. For the purposes of making rent or mortgage payments and showing up to work on the right day and right time, the way we mark time works wonderfully. But how we subjectively experience the passing of time is another matter, one that has interested theoretical physicists, but also, hiker trash. This matter of marking time, of consciously separating segments of time that haven’t happened yet and trying to plan events within these imaginary categories of auto-mythological ether, provides the unifying delusion that holds civilization together.
The feeling that time has slowed is one of the sensations I miss the most about thru hiking the Appalachian Trail. Living on the trail, the natural light cycle (dawn, midday, sunset, moonrise) provide the cues for segments of time– psychological time. For instance, in the woods, “bedtime” is when the sun goes down. Some people call this “hiker midnight.” There’s time for breakfast. Privy time. Lunchtime. Nap time– some hikers take naps between hiking. Time to get a move on before dark. Time to hang the food bag. Time to take a pee in the cold darkness of strange Appalachian woods. Time to find your way back into your sleeping bag without stepping on strangers in the shelter in the dark. There’s a time to wear rain gear and a time to wear sun glasses. The subjective experience of time changes on the trail because the segmenting of time changes. Instead of time being linked to industrial production, the hiker experiences time in relation to the sky and weather, to light and darkness, to patterns originating from nature rather than mechanized systems. Over weeks and months, this change in perception has profoundly positive psychological effects.
This psychological tilt in relation to the human invention called time becomes apparent the first time the hiker remembers that the Post Office in the next town has hours of operation. More than one hiker has awoken unsure if it is Sunday or Monday. Part of the exhilarating feeling of a thru hike is being unchained from the clock. The world that made appointments by such categories as “midday” or “evening,” was probably a much less hurried world. (Unhurried at twelve hour agricultural labor, but I digress.) It is lovely to run into the woods for days and forget time altogether. A septuagenarian section hiker told me “hiking makes you age backwards like Merlin.” Now forty-one years old, I like to think that statement is true.
Time is another product of magical thinking. It is a central concept of civilization, as I mentioned, but I’m not sure if anyone has exactly defined what it is or that it really exists. Marcus Aurelius, the ancient Stoic and Roman emperor, reminds us that whether living seven or seventy years, we experience life one moment at a time. The hiker experiences the trail one step at a time. If a thru hike requires five million steps, and every few steps is a moment, such an experience provides millions of moments. If you have ever experienced repetitive motion labor, an entire year at work can melt into one moment. Anyone with experience as an hourly employee knows how to make eight hours go by faster. Making time go by faster is the name of the game in the “real world.” It is strange and wonderful to realize that it is possible and practical to slow time down.
It excites me to think about all of the fretful yet ecstatic Appalachian Trail NOBO hikers out there planning and counting down the days to Springer Mountain. Such a time can be an excruciating moment. The dream is becoming a plan but is not yet a plan in motion. Jobs, spouses, banks, and all manner of civilized authorities will continue to operate on the clock. You may be asking yourself, “have I gotten away from it all yet?” That’s a good question. You’ll be in the woods when you finally feel like you’re off the clock. You’ll spend a little too much time looking at things. You’ll feel happily and unashamedly purposeless except you’ll put distances behind you that may amaze you. Or maybe not. I don’t know anyone but myself, but I do know that hiking on the AT requires a series of simple deliberate actions (mostly rigorous walking) and provides an entire new rhythm to life.
In this current season of New Year’s resolutions that will be broken by Groundhog’s Day, embrace the notion that planning is a necessary but sometimes futile endeavor. The weather will do what it does and not consult your calendar. Nature in general seems rather hostile to anything jotted down on a calendar. In the visceral sense, there is no past and no future. Dreams are wonderful and provide another kind of compass to show us a direction, but like white blazes, dreams don’t hike the miles. When the next mile is before you, you will make that mile. Maybe now it’s airplane tickets or some other logistical crap. Soon enough there will be trail in front of you. If any soon-to-be NOBO hiker is looking for a New Year’s resolution, might I suggest getting a head start on “taking it all in,” as my photographer friend puts it. I think he means practicing being present in the moment.
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