Category Archives: Nature

Inside Out

Mountains in the Wasatch

The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

I stare into the glow. My mind races. Images and words scroll by without end. The river of information, of which I see only one tiny rivulet, rages on, a mighty Ganges of human experience from the absurd to the sublime.

As I scan, my mind dances through a chaotic jumble of emotions: delight (kittens, baby sloths), envy (pics from friends’ exotic vacations and climbing trips), annoyance (knee-jerk political posts, chronic over-sharing), frustration (all the intractable problems of humanity’s own making), confusion (what does it all mean?!)… . There is so much information “out there,” but staring into the screen only pushes me deeper into my own head, creating a cacophony of disembodied voices and stoking a sourceless anxiety that feels all too real.

I set down my phone (does anyone else think it’s ridiculous to call these things “phones” anymore?) and drive up into the nearby canyons of the Wasatch. I park my car and walk away from the road as quickly as possible, rock-hoping up a steep talus slope towards a different headspace.

An hour of slow plodding later, perched on a high boulder with the noise of the road a faint shush, I get a view out across the facing slope of the canyon and to higher peaks in the distance. A large bird lands on the twisted old branch of a long-dead tree and watches me across a wide expanse of open air. We sit like this for minutes, both of us the most recent representatives of our respective, billions-of-years-old evolutionary trees. The scale of this place starts to pull my gaze out towards the world, away from my own special blend of worries and desires. The considerations that earlier had filled my entire awareness now feel small and inconsequential.

“How important is a constant intercourse with nature and the contemplation of natural phenomena to the preservation of moral and intellectual health!” wrote Henry David Thoreau in his journal back in 1851. Sitting on a plank of granite, feeling its cool rasp, following the acute green arrows of a hundred thousand pine trees all pointing in unison towards distant peaks and cloudless skies, I cannot help but agree.

Now the metaphors of the natural world begin to present themselves. There are lessons in the talus fields (something about chain reactions and unintended consequences). There is meaning in the bushwhack (a funny realization that you can only really be off-trail if you have a destination in the first place). Looking out over a landscape marked only faintly by human passage, I start to get the sense that the separation between “here” and “there,” between “me” and “it” is much fuzzier than it felt just hours before. Like the moon in the daytime sky, these realizations were always present, just hidden.

My phone is in my pocket, just in case: maybe I’ll score a selfie with the local moose, or need to call for help when that seemingly stable talus block shifts ever so slightly onto my tibia. Later, I’ll use it to map the coördinates of the boulder I found, as big as a McMansion, near the top of the ridge. Later still I’ll open up my laptop and start typing this blog post. I’ll use Google to find that Emerson quote I was thinking of and to look up the etymology of the world talus (disappointingly, it’s French for “embankment”). There’s nothing inherently wrong with the world of the screen, after all, just the eyes with which we regard it.

That night, half asleep in my room with the window open, the crickets chirp so loudly and in such synchrony that for a moment I think the neighbors alarm system has been triggered. A stormy wind respirates the curtain in and out. Thunder rolls back and forth across the sky. The trick of taking lessons from nature is, I think, carrying them with us wherever we go: at home, to the office, in the subway, on the airplane. It’s keeping the perspective that nature offers us on our tiny but integral place in this world and on the even tinier worries that loom large until we hold up a finger and realize they’re no bigger than our thumbnail and no closer than the moon.

Social Climbing

Crowded climbing area

The climber in isolation is just a thought experiment.

Climbing, for all the complexities we may encounter on a big objective or during the course of a long project, is relatively simple: we find a line and we try to go up.

People, on the other hand, are complicated. We are full of contradictions and conflict; we hate each other for weird reasons or made-up reasons or no reason at all; we blame and expect and manipulate. Meanwhile, most of barely understand our own motivations. And don’t even get me started on politics.

This messiness of humanity is, I think, what draws a lot of us to climbing and back to nature. We crave the clarity of climbing’s challenge, the solitude of the high mountains and boulder-strewn deserts. The bright mist of stars over our heads at night asks no questions. The cactus prickles our skin but not our conscience.

But climbing is about people as much as it is about nature. If you’re a free-soloing hermit, maybe you can avoid humankind for a while. But for the rest of us, there are belayers and regular climbing partners; love interests or former love interests we can’t help but run into at the gym; that career couch surfer we met once two years ago and who seems always to need a place to crash. There’s that one partner who doesn’t like that other partner, so we do a little scheduling dance to make sure they don’t overlap. So many dynamics to consider!

And of course, there will always be the friends and family members waiting nervously for our safe return. They’re the ones visiting us in the hospital after a bad accident, attending the funeral after a worse one. Was it worth it? people will ask. Is it a consolation when a spouse or parent dies doing something he or she loved? Are we brave or selfish or stupid who risk our human bonds for the “freedom of the hills”?

For the climber in isolation, such questions hardly mean anything. There is only the line, the path that resolves itself one move at a time. There is only the weather scrolling in and the decision: go up or come down. There is only the rasp of stone on skin, the cold prick of spindrift in the face, the lungful of air tinged metallic with primal exhilaration and fear.

Ultimately though, the climber in isolation is just a thought experiment. We are social creatures by nature, and no matter how high we climb, we cannot extricate ourselves from the tangle of human interdependencies. Thoreau knew this even as he wrote Walden, which many view as an ode to the hermit’s life, disengaged from society, but which Thoreau wrote while frequently visiting town to dine with friends and while engaging sufficiently in political activities to get him thrown in jail.

We cannot live or climb in a vacuum. Even in the mountains and remotest crags we encounter politics and seemingly intractable social issues: the relationship between climbers and Sherpas on Everest, for example, or the “ethics” of bolting and fixed draws, debates over the land-use rights of native people versus recreating people, the environmental impact of our rapidly growing pastime, and so on. Even when we want not to take sides on such matters, sides are often assigned us.

The simplicity of the challenge is what draws many of us to climbing. One spire, needling against the clouds, one body with more-or-less known capabilities. A few knots and safety systems. A weather report. We see the challenge, we accept it, and we adapt ourselves to it. Maybe our only choice is to adapt ourselves to the challenges of our messy human life the way we adapt to the challenges of the ice and stone: navigating it as well and with as much style and idealism as we can muster, making the best decisions possible while realizing that not everything is within our control, and not every well-intentioned choice ends up the way we expect.

It is common to divide the natural from the cultural, but maybe it’s not a valuable distinction, after all. “Those who deny that nature and culture, landscape and politics, the city and the country are inextricably interfused have undermined the connections for all of us,” writes Rebecca Solnit in her great essay on Thoreau.

Climbing would be so much simpler without the climbers, but the problem with that sentence is clear, isn’t it? Pull at one thread in the tapestry and we find they’re all apiece, after all.

Stuck Without a Spork: 10 Workarounds for Eating in the Outdoors

The classic: biner as beer bottle opener. Photo: K. Marine

I was seated on a rock amidst the loosely consolidated dirt of the southern-Utah desert after a long morning of climbing, and I was feeling mighty hangry. The only sustenance I carried in my chalky old pack was a cup of delicious strawberry yogurt. Eagerly, I peeled back the foil lid and reached for a spoon, only to discover there was no spoon! I felt stranded, with no way to stir that fruit-on-the-bottomy goodness or convey it to my pie hole.

How little we appreciate the simple functionality of a spoon until we find ourselves without one! And while foods like sandwiches, fruits, and trail mix yield handily to manual eating techniques, others, like yogurt, soups, and saucy pastas, pose more of a challenge in the absence of proper utensils.

Science has shown that our nearest evolutionary relative, the chimpanzee, is quite deft in the use of tools for accessing and ingesting food items. So, too, have modern climbers and other outdoors people devised ingenious eating implements out of necessity. I, for example, was able to fashion a primitive scoop from the flimsy foil circle I peeled from the top of my yogurt cup, giving me the precious energy needed to finish out the day and perhaps live on to spread my genes.

Following are a 10 clever cutlery workarounds spotted in the wild. What tricky tactics have you employed when caught without a spork?

Sticks - Among the most obvious improvisations, a well-selected stick, de-barked and whittled to varying degrees, can be used to spear and roast foods like hotdogs and marshmallows, scoop messy foods, and even to stir things like cocktails or coffee.

Vadim using toothbrushes as chopsticks

Toothbrushes chopsticks. Photo: Gail Rothschild

Toothbrushes - Most climbers carry old toothbrushes for banishing excess chalk from handholds. The rigid plastic stems can double as chopsticks—particularly handy for noodles or salads.

Rocks - A good sharp rock can serve as a knife, while a slightly scooped stone takes on spoon-like properties. Large, flat ones can even be used as makeshift frying pans or plates. Pro tip: brush off dirt, lichen, or bugs before using.

Carabiners - The quintessential climber bottle opener. There are many ways to pry open your favorite non-twist-off bottle of suds with a biner—just be sure you don’t cause any sizable gauges in the rope-bearing surface, as it could end up snaggletoothing your rope’s sheath.

Shoes - Hard to open without a purpose-made tool, a wine bottle can be made to give up its cork with repeated blows against a wall using a shoe as padding. Behold, this instructional video stands as proof:

Knives - An advanced technique known as “the lip splitter” involves using the blade of your Swiss army knife not only for cutting, but also spearing and scooping food into your mouth. Zen-like focus is required to avoid terrible injury.

Nut tools – Sometimes all you need is a way to shovel stuff out of the container and into your hungry face. A climber’s nut tool, with its flat metal end, can tackle this task quite handily. These tools can even be used to cut or spread soft cheeses or similar.

Tin foil – One friend of mine commented that he has used tin foil to make a cup, bowl, shot glass, and spoon. The origami skills required here are not as advanced as they might sound, depending on the food substance you’re looking to contain or manipulate. Getting peanut butter out of the jar with a foil tool, however, requires a working knowledge of engineering principles.

Here have a tin foil hat.

Tinfoil: you’re using it wrong.

Bread - In Ethiopia, the Middle East, and various other cultures, flatbreads are used to pinch and scoop deliciously messy foods. If you have a slice of rye, crackers, or a tortilla among your rations, you have with you an edible utensil! Pro tip: the under-appreciated heel of the bread loaf here becomes the hero, offering superior scooping power.

Fingers - When all else fails, we return to the original eating implement: our fingers. These marvels of engineering can manipulate a vast array of objects, including those stinky tinned sardines in oil you brought because someone told you they were high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Hopefully you didn’t forget your wet-wipes, too.

Post Picks from 2013

Image from top posts 2013

As Seth Godin wrote recently, “My most popular blog posts this year weren’t my best ones. … ‘best’ is rarely the same as ‘popular.’” It’s a worthwhile reminder, even though most of us intuitively sense the disconnect between popularity and quality. The problem is, the fast-flowing social Internet buoys up catchy, controversial, or otherwise, “sharable” content, while everything else sifts to the murky bottom. On the other hand, this means that for those hardy souls willing to dive for it, there is a fortune in buried treasure to be had.

For this reason, today I’m sharing not only The Stone Mind’s 10 most-viewed posts of 2013, but also a more personal list, comprised of posts that I’m particularly fond of. In keeping with Godin’s quote, only a few of the posts on the first list would have made the second.

If your favorite post didn’t make either list, consider posting a link in the comments. I’d love to hear what you enjoy reading (and why) and to make this post more valuable to others.

See you next year!

Top 10 Posts of 2013

  1. Thanks, Climbing… 
  2. Surviving A Honnold “Rest Day” 
  3. 10 Tips for Climbing on Opposite Day
  4. Everyday Climbing
  5. Put A Lid On It: Some Thoughts On Helmets In Sport Climbing
  6. 10 Rad Valentine’s Day Gifts for Climbers
  7. Fear, Fun, and Trying One More Time
  8. How to Make a Climbing Movie
  9. “The Sensei”
  10. The Professionals

10 Picks from the Author

  1. On Balance 
  2. Memento Mori
  3. The Art of (Almost) Letting Go
  4. Hueco Lessons
  5. The Importance of Respect
  6. Climbing Yourself
  7. Good Luck and Bad Luck
  8. Bouldering Alone 
  9. Running It Out
  10. The Mind/Body Problem

Hiker’s Zen

We don’t look at the ferns or aspens or ghostly white Indian Pipe plants along the trail and say, “that’s not good enough.”

I don’t look at the ferns or aspens or ghostly white Indian pipe plant along the trail and say, “That’s not good enough.”

I like to mediate in the morning. I don’t have a shrine or even a particular belief system that I’m meditating for. I just get up early, sit down on a pillow on the floor of my dimly lit living room, pull my legs into a half-lotus position, and focus on breathing. I focus more on breathing out fully, as the inhale seems to take care of itself. I try to keep good posture, as if my body was suspended from a string affixed to the top of my skull (I read somewhere this is a good way to think of it). Sometimes it’s hard: my legs ache, my back aches. But I try to come to the meditation as if I’m going hiking on some new trail. Maybe this sounds strange; let me explain.

When I go for a hike, especially on a new trail, I don’t expect things to look a particular way. I set out walking to see what is there. Sometimes the trail will be flat and easy, sometimes rocky and full of ups and downs. Sometimes there will be water, other times I’ll see a moose. I don’t look at the ferns or aspens or ghostly white Indian pipe plant along the trail and say, “That’s not good enough.” I say, “Oh, look, an Indian Pipe!” When I come to a bridge over a babbling stream, I don’t think, “I wish this stream were deeper and those rocks were more angular!” The stream has a natural beauty however it is. The trees are in just the right places. The grass is just the right color.

This is how I think about meditation, only instead of a trail, I’m moving through my internal landscape. It’s full of strange thoughts, old memories that rise to the surface like water from a spring. I encounter fears and aspirations, feelings of pride and embarrassment, high-priority items on my to-do list. Meditation is my time to let go of the attachments I bring to all these things. I see them, but I don’t assign them a particular value and don’t let them create anxiety inside me.

Some days I get stuck on an idea, and I don’t feel my meditation went very well, but then I remember that I’m just taking a hike. Some days on a hike, it’s cold and snowy, but who could deny that a snowy hike is as wonderful as a sunny one? Some days it rains, turning the lichen on the rocks a brighter green and making the leaves glisten like jewels. You wouldn’t think, “I wish these leaves would shine brighter and the rain make a sweeter music.” It doesn’t make sense. The mountain peaks we see on our hikes are rough and asymmetrical, but they are perfect. There is no argument against their form.

In life, every day we judge our actions and the actions of those around us. It’s very hard not to. But the idea of the hike can be useful here, too. On a hike you might twist an ankle far from shelter. You might get lost, or a big storm might make it hard to find the way. You could call this bad luck. Still, when you’re alone in nature, there is nothing to do but face the difficulty. You can get angry or scared, but for what? You have a challenge, and how you feel about it won’t change that. In fact, your strong feelings about things can be harmful, as panic tricks you into working against your own best interests.

Climbing a mountain is a big challenge, but we don’t resent the mountain. We look inside ourselves for the right mindset to go up, to deal with the difficulties we meet along the way. The challenge is actually what we love. Why should we see the other challenges in our life so differently?

The Seven Pleasures of Climbing

Climber's miming moves

Kenny Barker loves climbing THIS MUCH!

“Oooooohhhh… yeeeaah,” moaned the old woman with pleasure, her jaw dangling, a pair of binoculars pressed to her eyes. Around her, a motley group of bird watchers, their binoculars similarly erect, stood transfixed by a little orange and black ball of feathers high in the trees above. This odd and comical scene from the documentary Birders: The Central Park Effect underlines the deep obsession and primal pleasure that birders can take from their pleasantly innocuous, if not a little nerdy, pursuit.

As I watched the movie, a central theme of which is the total dedication of a small group to something that most people don’t understand or care about, I kept feeling strikes of recognition. The way in which these birders were taken over by their “hobby” seemed to perfectly parallel the climber’s obsession.

“My fiends mock me for what I do in the spring,” explains a character in Birders named Chris Cooper. “Because … from April 15 until Memorial Day, they won’t see me. Because I’m birding.” He describes the same communications barrier that climbers with non-climbing friends must navigate.

How does the climber translate for the non-climber the strange sign language he uses to mime the moves of a route? Or explain that he’ll be missing another work party because he’s making a 4am start on tomorrow’s multi-pitch outing? What words can convey the joy of wedging your hands into a sandstone fracture and scraping and grunting your way up until your knuckles, knees, and ankles bleed, until your shoulders fail, until you fly through the air and smack into the rock like a clacking ball from an executive’s desk accoutrement?

How can you make someone understand when they just don’t understand?

Well, you could make a list…

In an effort to express why he watches birds in the park for hours a day, every day, to those who would really rather not, Cooper created a list he calls “The Seven Pleasures of Birding,” as follows:

  1. The beauty of the birds
  2. The joy of being in a natural setting
  3. The joy of scientific discovery
  4. The joy of hunting without the bloodshed
  5. The joy of puzzle solving (figuring out what bird you’re seeing based only on little glimpses of color and form as the specimen flits between lofty branches)
  6. The joy of collecting (bird species)
  7. The unicorn effect (the moment of awe that comes when you see for the first time a bird you’ve only ever read about in field guides)

I think three of these could be transferred directly to climbing without much adjustment: numbers 2, 5, and 6. Clearly, the natural setting is a huge draw for your average climber. Solving puzzles, yes, obviously — whether through finding the right line up a mountain, the right gear to protect a route, or the right moves to unlock a sequence. And how many of us collect climbs? Colorado’s 14ers or 5.12s or all the four-star routes in a guidebook… . There are nearly as many ways to collect as there are climbers driven by collecting.

The other points are connected a little more loosely, but I think they can be made to work. Number 1, the beauty of the birds, for example, could be seen as a more general aesthetic appreciation. Here, too, lies an attraction for many climbers; the look of a beautiful line or of a particular movement certainly enriches the climbing experience.

The joy of scientific discovery could be turned inside out to suit the climbing life — instead of learning about the external world, we rock rats meticulously monitor and experiment with our own physical and mental states as a way of improving, overcoming psychological barriers, and collecting new climbs.

Hunting without bloodshed (number 4) could be seen as the urge to find new routes, new cliffs, new climbing areas or mountain faces to be scaled — it is the developer’s urge, the thirst of the first-ascentionist for the new.

And then there’s the unicorn effect, which at first blush might seem hard to recognize from the climber’s high-angle perspective. But rotate the idea just a quarter turn and you’ll likely recall the first time you visited a classic area or climb you’d only read about in magazines and seen in videos: Yosemite, Cerro Torre, the tenuous summit formation on Ancient Art. My alpinist friend spent hours scrutinizing aerial photographs of a peak in Alaska he was planning to climb. He must have experienced the unicorn effect when he stepped on to that glacier and for the first time encountered his objective’s mythic visage.

So, then, would the Seven Pleasures of Climbing be as follows?

  1. The beauty of the climb
  2. The joy of being in a natural setting
  3. The joy of discovering and overcoming ones own limitations
  4. The joys of exploring new territory
  5. The joy of puzzle solving
  6. The joy of collecting
  7. The unicorn effect

A while ago, I wrote a blog called Climbing Is (Not) the Best. In it, I argued that climbing is no more or less special that any other pursuit. Birders reminded me of that idea and reinforced it, but also helped me to remember that just because it’s hard to convincingly argue for the primacy of one passion over another, that does nothing to diminish the value, the depth of meaning, that a passion holds for the passionate.

Whether birding or climbing, gardening or knitting, cooking or painting, any pursuit can help us to see and feel deeply. Why any activity snares the wild heart of one person but not another remains fairly mysterious. But the mystery, I think, only adds to the fun of it.

Still, I’m not sure these seven pleasures really encompass all the many things about climbing that bring joy to an obsessed climber. What would you add to the list?

A Trip to the Zoo

JKR_9201_sm

I went to the zoo this weekend, and as always I departed feeling a little ambivalent. When you see creatures like leopards, lemurs, elephants, and apes in those drab enclosures, mere simulacra of their natural habitats, it’s hard not to feel sorry for them. I doubt any faux rock cliff or pool of hose water will ever fully engage their wild intelligences. As I wandered the paved footpaths between continent-themed enclosures, I remembered how my sensitive, vegetarian friend Ben used to call zoos “animal jail.”

On the other hand, these creatures are safe — from predators, from food pressure, from droughts, from us. And isn’t safety what we humans have been striving for since the very start? Our drive to find shelter and protection, to isolate ourselves from the constant threats of the world (coupled with an overdeveloped prefrontal cortex), is the very thing that’s made us so successful on this planet. Maybe it’s because we’ve grown comfortable in our world of boxes that we feel animals will take some sanguine comfort in a zoo’s protection.

But why then do most of us assign a certain sadness to animals in zoos? Is it because we grok that it’s a fine line between being protected and being trapped? Personally, when I feel that boundary growing threadbare, a trip into the mountains becomes particularly important to my sanity. I can only imagine how the silverback gorilla feels as he peers through the glass day after day, at the gallery of baby strollers and hairless apes with cameras, while waiting for his food to be delivered.

A mother tending lovingly to her young, a playful polar bear, a sad-looking gibbon — you can hear the children exclaiming in surprise how the animals are just like people. Through the fences and over moats, the creatures in the zoo always seem to remind us of ourselves, but rarely do we invert that logic and draw the conclusion that we are like them. Or not so much like them as are them.

Granted, it can be a problematic perspective to take. After all, when the boundary between “us” and “them” grows blurry, so do many things we hold to be self-evident. Better to do as I did and gaze with wonder at that enormous, flat face in the glass, with its black leather skin and dense fur and searching eyes, and then get back in your little box of glass and steel and drive away.

One of the Most Important Things to Know About Snorkeling or Pretty Much Anything Else

Photo by Joe Shlabotnik

Photo courtesy of Joe Shlabotnik

“Those who can be like a puddle become clear when they’re still,”
– Lao-tzu

The first time I panicked while snorkeling was when I hit the water. Immediately, I felt like I might sink. Or if not immediately sink, quickly exhaust my energy, snorf a lungful of sea water, maybe vomit, and then sink.

Just 30 seconds earlier, I was standing at the edge of the catamaran. I turned to one of the guys working the tour.

“So just jump in?” I asked, peering through the smeared and scratched glass of my mask. He smiled big and reached out to tighten my straps.

“Yeah, just hold your mask when you jump so it doesn’t come off.”

I took a deep breath, peered down into the azure sea as it fwapped against the boat hull, and jumped.

Let me say that I am a poor to mediocre swimmer and had never snorkeled before this trip. Right away, I was in distress. Trying to keep my head up in the air while dumping water out of a snorkel felt way too complicated. At first I used one arm to handle the snorkel and straighten my mask, but quickly realized I’d need both hands to get everything in order. To accomplish this, I pedaled my flippered feet madly, exhausting myself. As if to mock me, the small ocean chop kept slapping me in the face.

You’re not going to drown, I assured myself. I stopped futzing with my snorkel and paddled away from the boat. As soon as my thrashing slowed, the ocean floor became visible through the crystalline water. The sand was pale, inviting, and I could make out the indistinct shapes of sea creatures moving below. Excited to see more, I bit down on my snorkel and started to breathe. It felt funny, not surprisingly like pulling air through a tube. I dunked my face into the water and panicked for the second time.

For some reason, it felt much harder to breathe with my face submerged. I sucked desperately on the mouthpiece just as a wave welled up and filled my snorkel with sea water. I gulped a mouthful and narrowly avoided regurgitating my grilled mahi-mahi lunch. OK, man, time for a reset, I thought. I went to my happy place, found my power animal, and reminded myself that I was not the first person to use a snorkel. Several million people, many much older, younger, more out of shape, and/or worse at swimming than I have successfully snorkeled. I just needed to relax.

It’s amazing what not freaking out can do for you. In a very general sense, freaking out is the best way to make all of your fears come a little closer to reality. When rock climbing, freaking out makes you the worst climber you can possibly be. This also holds true for traveling, cooking, trying to pick someone up at a bar, playing badminton, or pretty much anything you can think of. The only good time to freak out is if you’re an actor whose character is freaking out, or if you’re in a freak-out contest, which I’m not sure even exists. When you don’t freak out, you’re much better at having fun and, not coincidentally, you’re more fun to be around…

Or, more poetically, “When we stop struggling, we float,” to quote Mark Nepo. It’s counterintuitive, but there’s a truth to it. Calmer, I found I could stay comfortably on the water’s surface with little effort. I tried looking down again, but since I was no longer hyperventilating, I could breathe.

In my field of view appeared spectacular mounds of pale coral speckled with sea urchins. Some were black and spiny, like balls of lacquered toothpicks. Others had rounded spines like fat pink tongue depressors. A small, dark green sea turtle with a light band around its neck glided by. Big black fish with flowing fins, yellow stripped fish, a long, silvery fish with an eel-like body and pencil-thin nose… A little bit of water flopped into my snorkel, so I puffed it out with a sharp breath, like the guys on the boat suggested. Not only wasn’t the experience scary or hard, it was relaxing, almost meditative.

“Don’t do this,” explained one of the tour leaders before we jumped in, waving his arms and legs in demonstration. “If you’re thrashing around down there, you’re scaring the fish.” So I moved slowly, comfortably buoyant, serene. I dove down into the water-warbled light and gently touched a lipstick urchin. Schools of fish divided unhurriedly at my approach. I was a visitor in their quiet world for a moment and they seemed OK with it. I was OK with it too.

Walking on Lava: A Pedestrian Lesson from Hawaii

Lava sunset

Take the helicopter tour, one friend suggested. You can hire a boat that takes you right up to where the lava meets the sea, someone else offered. But when the guy at the hotel info desk mentioned a walking tour to see the Mauna Loa lava flows in Kalapana, on the Big Island of Hawaii, my wife and I decided immediately and in unison that was the way for us.

We signed up for the tour and drove the Saddle Road to the town of Hilo, on the other side of the island (walking this leg of the journey would have taken days — a little long for this trip). We ascended nearly 7,000 feet on the drive, passing over the southern flank of Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain in the world provided you measure from its base on the sea floor, and through several different climate zones along the way.

In rainy Hilo, we met our tour guide, a young blond girl from Massachusetts who’d just graduated from the University of Hawaii with a degree in volcanology. We were the only two on the tour that day. We followed our guide to the lava viewing area just outside of Volcano National Park, parked our cars, and started to walk.

Walking is by definition a human-scale endeavor, measured in footsteps. “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking,” Nietzsche said, and maybe there’s something to this. I certainly use walking to clear my head when things get too crowded up there. Thomas Jefferson praised walking as a key to good health for the body and the mind. A slow amble puts us down in the landscape, on intimate terms with the real cost of getting from here to there. On foot, we get to experience the fine textures and details of a journey.

We crossed the expansive lava fields, our shoe soles the only barrier between skin and blasted black landscape. We trod on the cracked and crazed mounds of lava rock, wove in an out of big broken domes called tumuli, crunched over the fragile folds of ropy pahoehoe. The trek offered a sense of what the beginning — or maybe the end — of the world might look like.

Our guide stopped and knelt carefully. The ground was mostly silica, and can cut with a touch. She pinched what looked like a fine, straw-colored hair between thumb and forefinger.

“Have you heard of Pele’s hair?” she asked, handing me the fragile strand. “It’s lava that gets spun out by the wind and cooled into a thread… Who knew Pele was a blond?”

Three miles over this terrain and we felt it in our legs and ankles. Each step landed on a different texture or angle. In the distance, a plume of pure white steam rose from the lava entry at the water’s edge. We walked by homes and vehicles that had become embedded in the lava flows. Studded with little bursts of red flower, an ohia tree 10 feet tall stood as a measuring stick to the decades since the lava had passed that spot.

An hour and a half into the hike, we came to the sea cliffs. Here, molten stone broke through a burnt veneer and globbed into the foamy, chaotic surf, generating steam billows that rose up and black sand particles that filtered down.

“There aren’t many places you can see new land being created like this,” our tour guide said with a geologist’s indefatigable reverence.

Nearby, we found a fresh “toe” of lava that had broken through its crusty containment and bulged up and out, folding over onto itself repeatedly, like glowing red layers of hot fudge. It quickly cooled and sealed over, only to break through again. We poked it with long sticks, which burst into flame on contact. Our shoe rubber grew soft.

On the way out, it started raining, offering a welcome coolness. The sun set behind the shoulder of Mauna Loa and we clicked on our headlamps. Certainly, the different perspectives of a boat or a helicopter would have been interesting, more cinematic maybe, but we already observe so much of our world through screens and windows. Better, we thought, to go face to face with the lava fields — slow, with effort, scorched and soaked and awed by the primordial beauty of it all.

Walking is not the fastest way or the easiest way to do just about anything. Humans have invented countless modes of conveyance to spare ourselves from the drudgery of conducting our many chores and journeys on foot. But in this age of acceleration and expediency, walking remains important. It gives us a chance to think or, if walking with another, to discuss, unhurried by the relentless ticking of The Clock.

We returned to our cars in the drizzling darkness, dreading the drudgery of the slow, winding drive back across the island, but happy that we’d chosen to go by foot. Walking is a great reminder that the journey is, at the very least, as important as the destination… If there even is such a thing as a destination, after all.

 

Animals that climb

Baby squirrel climbing concrete wall

We humans sure like to make a big deal out of our climbing feats. But anyone who’s spent much time on the rocks knows that nature has produced all manner of creature that excel at high-angle maneuverings in a way we clumsy Homo sapiens sapiens could only dream. Here’s a collection of 11 such variations from Mother Nature’s menagerie, all of which utilize unique and often strange modes of vertical locomotion.

Bears

This video of climbing bears started making the rounds in April, 2014, and really caught fire—probably because the climbing bears look so much like climbing humans when they move. According to the YouTube description, these “Endangered Mexican Black Bears” are scaling the walls of Santa Elena Canyon. The videographer spotted the momma and her cubs while kayaking and whipped out the ol’ camera, just in time to make an Internet sensation.

Baboons

Like most primates, baboons are excellent tree climbers. But did you know they also climb rocks? And because they’re built a lot like humans, they look like us when they climb, too. Aside from a killer strength-to-weight ratio, baboons benefit from long tails they can fling around for balance, and prehensile toes that can grasp the rock as ably as fingers. Baboons dig congregating on sheer cliff faces because it keeps them pretty well beyond the reach of natural predators, like leopards and cheetahs.

Geckos

These radass lizards have been the subject of endless scientific study due to their ability to calmly stroll up even the smoothest surfaces — glass, for example. They achieve this sweet trick thanks to their hairy feet. Not quite as gross as it sounds, geckos use superfine hairs called setae to adhere via van der Waals forces (which attract molecules to each other) to pretty much any surface. Adhesives have since been created that steal a page from the gecko’s playbook, and we will no doubt soon have climbing shoes coated with setae. Which would be totally cheating.

Sloths

Sure, they’re a little pokey, but what the sloth lacks in speed, it makes up for in efficiency. Sloths have long hook-like claws they use to dangle from the tree branches they call home. If you were to ask a sloth for climbing advice, he would probably say, “Simple. Don’t let go.” That’s advice these shaggy, muppet-looking creatures really take to heart — so tenacious is their grip, they’ve been observed to remain suspended in a tree even after they die.

Squirrels

We’ve all seen squirrels blast up a tree at warp speed, but did you know they can also climb a blank concrete wall? I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself, when a baby squirrel in Colorado fell from a tree and then scampered for the nearest wall to climb away from danger. Squirrels’ sharp, hook-like claws, coupled with a highly mobile ankle that allows them to rotate their rear feet around backwards, lets them hang from and climb a variety of surfaces. In the case of the baby squirrel I saw, tiny air-bubble pockets in the concrete were just right for claw placements.

Snakes

Like squirrels, the fact that snakes can climb trees is no big deal. But, troublingly, they can also climb other vertical surfaces — brick walls, for example. Researchers have found that snakes use what’s called a “concertina” mode of locomotion, in which some regions of the body stop and grip while others extend forward, to climb. Snakes not only have amazing flexibility (due to their hundreds of vertebrae) and muscle control, but they can also extend tough scales on their underside for increased grip.

Mountain Goats

Perhaps you’ve seen this photo, showing a bunch of goats (mountain ibex, specifically) chillin’ on the wall of a dam in Italy like it’s a nice place for a nap. Aside from a Honnoldian head for free soloing, many goats also have feet custom-made for vertical exploits. This passage from Douglass Chadwick’s book, A Beast the Color of Winter, describes the mountain goat’s special climbing footwear: “The sides of a mountain goat’s toes consist of the same hard keratin found on the hoof of a horse or deer. Each of the two wrap around toenails can be used to catch and hold to a crack or tiny knob of rock…The mountain goat is shod with a special traction pad which protrudes slightly past the nail. This pad has a rough textured surface that provides a considerable amount of extra friction on smooth rock and ice.” The list of all-terrain features goes on…  Five Ten take note…

Crabs

Wait. What? That’s right, crabs can climb — or at least one kind can: the coconut crab, which is an arthropod related to the hermit crab and is found across the islands of the Indian Ocean and parts of the Pacific. (FYI, the coconut crab can grow to be almost ten pounds and three feet across.) These fruit- and vegetable-loving critters will actually climb trees using their long, spiny legs and grab coconuts, which they then smash open using their powerful claws and eat.

Cats

As we all know, cat videos are the heart and soul of the Internet, so it was easy to find videos of cats climbing things. Still, it’s impressive that cats have so thoroughly honed their face and arête climbing techniques. Cats big and small rely on tactics similar to that of the squirrel — i.e., sharp claws and an awesome kinetic sense — to scale trees and manmade structures alike. I’d bet a can of Fancy Feast maneuvers like those shown in this video are the root of the term “cat burglar.”

Spiders

Like geckos, spiders legs are studded with microscopic hairs which, scientists postulate, allows them to stick to walls via electrostatic attraction (the afore-mentioned van der Waals forces). Spiders and most insects also sport tiny tarsal claws that can grip the minute texture of surfaces that, to our eyes, appear smooth. Hence their ability to hang upside-down on the ceiling and then drop on you. Which is totally creepy. In fact, I think I feel a tickle on my neck right now…

Snails

Lubricated with a mucus layer secreted by a gland near the mouth, snails are able to glide, albeit slowly, on a layer of slime. This terrestrial gastropod mollusk’s flat underside undulates in a wave-like motion to propel it forward. Its slimy excretions, combined with a smooth, flat base, creates a powerful suction, allowing snails to climb walls, trees, etc. This method of climbing, although effective, is undoubtedly the grossest method, and it really louses things up for other creatures who might want to climb afterward, like that super sweaty guy in the gym.