Between my first and second years of college my dad and I hiked across Scotland. I had been camping plenty of times as a child, and I spent a few weeks worth of days paddling back into remote lakes of Algonquin Provincial Park during my high school summers, but this was my first experience of long-distance backpacking. The trail we walked was the Southern Upland Way, spanning a bit over 200 miles between Port Patrick on the west coast and Cockburnspath on the east. Heading into the hike I didn’t have any real concept of what sort of daily mileage I could expect to cover. I mean, I knew that my Grampy Mitchell, who walked 3 miles a day religiously right up until the end, did so in precisely 51 minutes, and I knew what it felt like to try and keep up with his refined pace. But with a pack on my back, loaded with a couple week’s worth of provisions, I wasn’t sure.
Our first day we hiked hard and checked the map at the end of the day finding we had walked 20 some odd miles by accident. We scaled our pace back after that and soaked up 10 or 15 miles of countryside each of the remaining days. I was beginning to learn something about pace, and not just about the mechanics of pace, but about the spirituality of pace.
A new friend recently gave me Robert Moor’s book “On Trails: An Exploration” where, in the prologue, he writes:
My spiritual path, to the extent that I had one, was the trail itself. I regarded long-distance hiking as an earthy, stripped down, American form of walking meditation. The chief virtue of the trail’s confining structure is that it frees the mind up for more contemplative pursuits. The aim of my slapdash trail religion was to move smoothly, to live simply, to draw wisdom from the wild, and to calmly observe the constant flow of phenomena.
Midway through our Scottish trek my dad and I met another backpacker crossing through in the opposite direction. His name was John. We stopped briefly to talk with John about the trail, about midges, miles, and cow patties. I still remember this vividly because it was the first instance I recall of having encountered someone with an articulated philosophy of the trail.
It was simply this: To try and see how long he could take. John spent his holidays walking Scotland. This was his third time walking the Southern Upland Way. The first time he had completed it in something like 10 days. He whittled it up to 15 or so the second time. And now, he said, he was going for a full 25 days on the trail. I continued on the way, after that brief encounter, with John’s trail philosophy percolating, resonating, inducing a smile on my lips, and instilling the spirit of pause into my stride.
Given that Renewal in the Wilderness retreats take the shape of different locations, durations, and group dynamics, it’s difficult to distill a precise description of what exactly a Renewal experience is designed to entail. An afternoon strolling and meditating beside the Presumpscot River near my house is going to have a different feel than a strenuous stretch of several days hiking through the Paria Canyon in Utah and Arizona. But where each experience of Renewal intersects with the others is in the intention we set to disrupt the straight-line sensibility that our front-country lives so often demand of us. We do not retreat to find solutions to the (legitimate) urgencies that pepper our days. We retreat to renew our sense of capacity and connectivity, so that we may return with the strength that our work in the world deserves. Nor do we go to become enlightened, as if spiritual fortitude were a commodity to be attained by effort. We go to wild places so that we may return to our front-country efforts in a way that is informed by the possibility of pause.