How does it feel to be a human?
The first big step in anyone’s life is learning to walk shortly followed by learning to talk, though some of us are early talkers and late walkers. As babies, some of us find the need to speak unnecessary in a world that can be absorbed through the sensory and explored on foot after learning to walk. These babies take the route of peaceful protest—Gandhian toddlers boycotting the use of spoken word. Finally at the age of three or so, they will come to the realization that they can advantageously use language to describe the environment they have been ambling about in. We are all discoverers in our own right. Putting the right words to what we see is a challenge from birth to death. For the experiential part of life we rely on age-old devices. Walking and talking are the two fundamental aspects that make us human, and it is no surprise we are met with the challenge of their mastery early on in our lives.
We all share the name Homo. Homo sapiens, to be specific. We are the only true bipeds in our hominid family, but we weren’t always that way. Coming out of the trees in the Great Rift Valley of east Africa, we started off awkward and unimpressive—three and a half feet tall unsure whether we were tree or land primates. We had the arms of arboreal apes and our heads hung far over our chests. We slouched. Then we were Australopithecines like Lucy. We completely left the trees for the plains. A lot of us didn’t make it. Times were tough. There were a lot more predators in the grasslands than in the trees. But we hung in there and some of us survived. Our gait got longer and our gluteal muscles got shorter. Then we became Homo habilis and erectus. Rocks became tools and the first weapons. We harnessed fire. Our brains grew. Some of us left Africa and we walked our way to Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Then it was cold and there was lots of ice. A few of us tracked gigantic Pleistocene Mammoths on foot and walked from Asia to North America. Still others continued on to South America. We, Homo sapiens, aged 200,000 years, walked our way across the planet.
It was only after hundreds and hundreds of years of slowly modifying our environment through the sculpting and terracing of land for crops (which we domesticated from tasty wild species) and building fixed communities that we began to discover ways to forgo walking. In Eurasia the horse was domesticated, and in South America the llama. We had direct dependence on these animals to help us out. We found we could not only get from point A to point B quicker, it was also easier. But even with our newly found quadruped friends, we kept on walking. Sharing the burden with animals, we continued to discover and modify. Our technological adaptations utilized the wheel and we made carriages, wagons and carts. We became better and more efficient at not walking.
Somewhere along our journey before we were truly human, we figured out how to use fire. Jumping many years ahead, we harnessed its properties and made engines. Train tracks would clink their way across open country like ants across a leaf. Locomotives made their way from point A to point B much faster than the llamas could have, and held more people. Then in America Henry Ford invented the Model T and people began zipping around the world in wheeled combustible engine powered boxes. To facilitate these new inventions, we created black and grey scars that would follow train tracks, spreading quickly across the landscape. These roads would spiral into freeways and overpasses and cars would fill them. 5:00 PM on the 405 in Los Angeles: bumpers touch, people sit, patiently impatient. Some of us wake up, walk to the car and drive to work, sit at work, drive home, and repeat.
Planes, trains and automobiles later, we still walk; thing is some of us disdain the old ways when we had to walk everywhere. We have constructed around us concrete barriers to our history. Entertainment is on a box, travel is in a box, and we all live in little boxes on the hillside made of ticky tacky, little boxes all the same. Breaking the mold means not forgetting our origins and who we are. We are all Homo sapiens. The biped that mastered travel. We are also the product of a lineage of social animals, and our species has the unique ability to be expressive in language. Our Broca’s area in our brain and our soft palate give us the ability to produce speech. As the smartest animal in the history of animals—or so we tell ourselves—we are physiologically designed to walk the walk and mentally talk the talk.
Being in touch with ourselves means walking and talking. Though it sounds hyperbolic, our lives are made vibrant through movement and through the sharing of our experiences with other people. When we are young, we are enlivened by new experiences. In our world today—urban America that is—we have to leave the manufactured metropolitan habitat for the woods and mountains. Despite the dichotomizing separation of urban and rural wildernesses, we still have a fairly good-sized chunk of the latter in our country. Long may it be that way. Trails, the roads and train tracks for the feet, allow us to access these places. Through heading out on trail, we are able to stay in touch with our roots of the once migratory animal that felt a deep and direct reliance on nature.
However you go about it—day hiking, backpacking, or simply a walk by a creek—these are simple ways for us to reconnect with an innate feeling of how we used to live. You can’t stop and smell the flowers from a car. Getting away from modern technology’s increasing ability to create comfort and stagnant ability to create happiness is always good motivation. As is taking only what you need outside and nothing you don’t and heading out to explore for miles and miles, only requiring your own two feet and not any gas. America may have 330 million people but it also has 7,700 miles of walking paths in the Appalachian, Continental Divide, and Pacific Crest trails. As John Muir once said, “The Mountains are calling and I must go.” Many of us are drawn to open country. Is it because we haven’t forgotten where we came from? Or is it because our senses are often insufficiently excited and engaged? This is a philosophical question that I can’t begin to answer, but maybe one-day technology will be able to tell us. In the mean time, it should be enough to say that all over the world, there exists a tendency to be instinctively partial to slowing things down and reencountering natural beauty. However, ours is a culture that unless you hit pause from time to time, this aspect of life will pass you by.
For the most technologically advanced society, we suffer from unique first world problems. Our children are suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder more than any other society. Ever present advertisements, television, cell phones; they are thrown into a world of overstimulation right from the beginning. Surrounded by an electronic rather than natural world for the majority of their lives, the average modern American child is missing the experience that for so long was the essential root of our interpretation of the world. Culture once stemmed from our local environment. Now it is based upon production and consumption, imaginary virtues of monetary success and its relationship to happiness. We have by and large removed ourselves from our relationship with nature and relegated it to the service sector of society.
No matter how far we distance ourselves, we are products of nature. It should come as no surprise that getting back to it on our feet is invigorating. Though we have changed it to facilitate the ease of our existence, we stay the same. We’re still the same goofy upright primates we were 200,000 years ago. There are still visible vestiges of these important criteria for being human to be seen in the world’s cultures. In Australia, adolescent Aborigines go on walkabout into the wilderness on foot to recall their ancestral history. The German word for walking or hiking is wandern, revealing of the care free association of walking in new terrain.
Articulating what we see can be hard when we’re young. We lack the vocabulary. But it is often still an arduous task as adults. We have a plethora of words that we have obtained over the years. However, it often comes down to how things make us feel, not our ability to explain them. It becomes increasingly difficult to explain the vigorous satisfaction of getting mileage outside. On one occasion, I left sea level in southern California with two friends for the Eastern Sierra. Spending a single night at 8,360 feet at Whitney Portal to acclimate, we “alpine started” at 4 AM the following day to summit Mt. Whitney at 14,505 feet. After nearly 18 hours on trail, 12,000 feet gained and lost, one friend losing his lunch, climbing a thousand foot vein of snow and an overhanging cornice that had recently avalanched, we had a successful summit. Getting home and reflecting, I looked for words to tell friends about our recent trip. Completely at a loss to properly explain the combination of utter exhaustion and satisfaction, I limited descriptions to “it was awesome,” or “it was unbelievably pretty.” “It was really difficult.” I still can’t explain the feelings of exposure and pleasure, and the only people I will be able to truly share that experience with are my two friends who were there that day.
Some humans have pushed the limits much further. There are ultramarathons such as the Badwater race that goes from close to 300 feet below sea level in Death Valley for 135 miles to the summit of Mt. Whitney. People are consistently pushing the limits. But for many the satisfaction comes not from personal triumph but from sharing it with others. Folks like Peter Jenkins who in A Walk Across America chronicled the quaint Americans he met and the towns they live in on his massive journey. The feat of crossing America on foot is inseparable from the people he met along the way. In a similar manner, Scottish historian Rory Stewart walked across war-torn northern Afghanistan in 2002 as chronicled in The Places in Between. What comes out of it is a triumphant story of Stewart’s ability to cover more than a hundred miles on some days through snow and occasionally under threat, but also rich descriptions of a lost history and an isolated people. This is not to say, “You, there! Get off the couch, walk across a country and write a book about it.” Rather, despite being an extreme example, it is revealing of a pervasive theme in the great big story of us. We all have the ability to walk and talk—this and a big brain is what make us human. Some of us have just taken advantage of it more than others. We do not have big canine teeth like our relative the baboon, nor do we have prehensile tails that allow us to hang from trees like the noisy woolly spider monkey. What we do have is the ability to journey on our own terms, in our own evolutionary vehicle, and to later share our experiences with one another. Be a good biped and take advantage of what you inherited. Go for a hike with some friends and remember where you came from.