It was a Friday morning. I woke up early because I always wake up early. We have to get the boys to school by 7:30am. And I like to get a run in first. And a shower. So my alarm goes off around 5:30am. Becoming a teacher really ruined me. Always up at dawn. You know what they say. The early bird gets the worm. I’m not a bird. And I don’t eat worms. But I do get up early.
Katie and I dropped the boys at school. Then we drove a little further up the road. Parked near a hiking trail. A path that leads up the modest mountains behind our house. We were alone on our walk. My favorite way to hike. The sun was just coming out. A spring breeze blew through the trees. The walk was easy. Into the forest. Up the gentle slope. An hour later, we were standing at an overlook, surveying the valley below. Happy Valley looks peaceful from a distance. Most things do.
“It’s so quiet,” Katie said once we got to the top. “Let’s stop and listen.”
We stopped. We listened. It was so quiet. It’s so strange to be in a place that can be so quiet. No cars. No airplanes. No noise. Just birds and a gentle spring breeze. The modest mountains of Pennsylvania are very much unlike the clamor of the Twin Cities.
You should have seen us. Two rugged Central Pennsylvanians scaling a mountain. I’ve come a long way since we moved out here. At one point, I grabbed onto a small tree for support. The tree snapped in my hand, and fell to the ground.
“Did you just push that tree over?” Katie asked.
“I think I just pushed that tree over.”
The past six years in State College have changed me. Now I’m a man who crushes trees with my bare hands.
That’s pretty badass.
I might be badass, but I’m also a computer nerd. Still teaching virtually. And meeting with folks virtually. And doing improv virtually. Most of my day is spent staring at a screen. At a desk in my basement bunker. One Zoom meeting or another. Constantly replying to email. Flipping between Word Documents. I’m not sure I understand how much this virtuality has effected me. So maybe I’m not that badass. Maybe I’m just a good ol’ fashioned computer nerd. Sitting at my chair and staring into the void. This routine has taken a toll. I’m sure others can chime in. Take my pandemic, please. Oi vey.
Climbing a mountain was such a relief. Fresh air. Morning sunlight. My body moving through the world. Spending time with Katie on a mountain highlighted how deadening my virtual routine is becoming. I needed something else. A hike along a mountain trail was that something else last week. I think I need more of those something elses. This academic year has been a Zoomy blur. Gloomy blur, too. My cell phone humming with constant notifications. A text. An email. A meeting reminder. Always reacting to some piece of virtual information. I’d rather be in the woods. Listening to the sound of nothingess.
It’s April, now. The semester will end soon. Summer is coming. I’m vaccinated. Katie will be vaccinated soon. I’m hopeful that we’ll be doing more moving through the world soon. Getting up from my office chair. Exercising this aging body. I just want more disruptions to our routine. More excuses to not be checking my phone. Staring into the void. Zooming from one meeting to another without ever leaving my basement.
We only walked for a couple of hours last week. Still, it was as though we stepped outside of time for a moment. Walking in the woods or the mountains always feels like that to me. Or near the river. It always feels like leaving this world for another. There’s a world of memories behind me. Walks I’ve taken with people. With my father. With Katie. Those walks are universes onto themselves. I was reminded of that last week.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that walking was like gymnastics for the mind. Or something like that. The idea is that walking frees the mind to move. If that’s true, I wonder what sitting and staring at a screen does to us. To our minds. Deadens them? Constricts them? That feels about right. I can be sitting in a Zoom meeting with some of the most creative, intelligent people I know. And I can’t escape the sinking sensation that, no matter how funny or brilliant something somebody says is, something is missing. A little spark of vitality. A little connection. A little of that sensation of moving through time and space with other people. Traveling together.
All of this is to say that it was nice to move through time and space with Katie last week. To be pushed along a mountain path by a gentle spring breeze. I highly recommend such an expedition for those of you who face the same unending doom and gloom of Zoom meetings that I do.
Who knows, maybe you can crush a tree with your bare hands as well? Maybe there’s pent up aggression in us after all of this pandemicing. Beware, forests, Sam Tanner is unbound.