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the big hike

Walking speed? Now there's a contradiction.

In an over-accelerated world, foot travel is the closest thing to living in slow motion. But isn't that the point? Our norm is the plane and the car, vast distances covered in no time, places and cultures and histories glimpsed through a passing window and briefly acknowledged by a multitasking brain.

Hiking recalibrates the relationship between who we are and where we're going: You see the world the way the world wants to be seen, at ground level and in human time. I'm grateful for the cars and planes and trains and buses that combine to get me to the first step on a long walk, but the mod cons of transport are all just means to an end.

Which is the beginning. Not to get too mystical about walking, since in many ways it is the most basic and earthy mode of travel you could hope to find, but because the rest of the world has imposed its hurry-up values so successfully, taking a hike has come to feel like a step-by-step quest for instant enlightenment.

It's just a humble trail, a beaten-down patch of earth that doesn't presume more than to get you from here to there. In the cold and hilly interior of Sicily, I shared my route with families of wild pigs scurrying along age-old tracks to their dependable feeding stations and strange breeds of cattle who weren't doing much of anything beyond mucking up the path and picturesquely blocking my way. The transformative possibilities of foot travel, the strangely intense postmodern ecstasies I was feeling as I encountered them in their off-road element, were hardly on the minds of those who most belonged there.

And yet for a hiker, the pleasures between point A and point B, like the microscopic dots that ultimately add up to a line, are seemingly infinite. Are your senses heightened because of the absence of the usual distractions, because of the acute attentiveness that's a necessary part of backwoods hiking, or maybe because of the slight adrenalin rush that comes from stepping so energetically into the unknown?

Because how else can it be the case that a semi-obscure landscape sampled at foot speed offers such profound satisfaction? I can walk across Paris or Manhattan or Rome and be happy as I move, but it's never clear to me that my motion is key to my enjoyment. The luxury of inertia, the moment when everything comes to a stop and you separate yourself from passing time, can be a huge pleasure in the bustling city. You stand on a bridge, sit still in front of a painting, throw back an espresso, and feel like the ultimate hedonist. But the countryside at its best requires effort, and then rewards it many times over.

The achingly beautiful vistas of distant seas and snow-capped mountains are always going to be a part of it, the hard-earned postcard views you use to sell the merits of your 100-kilometre trek to trophy-vacation colleagues who wonder why you go to such great lengths to see so little. But when you're in the moment, you're just as likely to be sampling the steady succession of small pleasures - the sudden coolness of a running stream, mountain herbs crushed underfoot, deer darting out of the bush, the eerie closeness of a holly thicket, an apple savoured at the top of a climb, tricky fog turning to brilliant sunlight, silence where there should be noise - that suddenly accumulate into a day of hyperalert sensation.

Hiking is hard-working self-indulgence. Maybe there's always an element of the pilgrimage involved, with the pilgrim's usual proviso that it's the patient and painstaking getting-there that matters, that the highest spiritual quest can be firmly grounded in the mundane. Carried to an extreme, this aura of work-ethic delight may become ridiculous, if no less real - as we revel in overcoming a pesky barbed-wire fence at the end of a nasty, sweaty climb, we almost miss the sudden appearance of Mount Etna back over our right shoulder.

And that's why it's so necessary to emphasize the sheer pleasure of it all, because surely that's why we go for a walk. Bonus points: When else is lentil soup going to seem so delicious, a hot shower so soothing, a good night's sleep so effortless and well-deserved?

A hiker by definition is someone who likes to get lost, so maybe we're not the best judges of joy, but all these tests and obstacles and forked turns and uphill ascents we put in our way are just the simple instruments for enhanced experience, deepened memory and a much more nuanced sense of fun. Years later, my walks of a mere week or two are still potent in my mind, displacing reality's drab orthodoxy to make me believe I'm still there. And to tell the truth, I am.

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