Solo sport, team sport
One of the things I like the best about the way we hike is that our trips are sort of like playing a team sport and a solo sport simultaneously.
Especially when we're hiking a trail for the first time, we're full of conversation: about the lay of the land, the weather, how the trail is marked and maintained. When one of us finds something remarkable, we'll all pause to examine it. This past weekend, hiking the Bartram Trail near Warwoman Dell, we paused over blueberries and some near cousins to blueberries, and discussed berry morphology. (Well. I listened attentively, having much less knowledge on this subject than my companions.) We paused on several bridges that passed over shallow points in the river and watched the sand glittering with bright mica in the clear water. We followed the small, cloven-footed tracks of a young deer that had walked along the soft earth of the trail sometime earlier that day. The conversation is great. It helps the miles pass, and it sharpens my attention.
I like noticing the details around me -- the color of the wild flowers we're passing, the sweep of a steep hill beside the trail -- but I can't notice everything, and it is a wonderful thing to go into the woods with three sets of eyes to take things in. Clare spotted a large, peaceable toad sunning on a log next to the trail (he obliged us with a photo op before he went on his way). Russell, hiking in front of the group on the way out in the morning, had a good view when a large brown something fluttered heftily into a tree about 30 feet in front of us: wild turkey!
We keep up with each other on the trail, and as our pace varies, we keep each other in sight. We share out the weight of the gear and commiserate about whatever is aching at the moment. At the same time, there is a pleasantly solitary aspect to hiking. We each have to put one foot in front of the other to cover the miles. When we're moving along in silence, I listen to the woods, think my own thoughts, and I think I'm more at peace in that kind of solitude, with companions nearby. I'm usually sure-footed enough, but I'll occasionally take a misstep or worse (a month ago, on the Foothills Trail, I let haste and carelessness get the better of me on a rocky trail, and I went knees first onto a boulder). That's a sobering reminder of the individuality in hiking -- no one can be careful for me, and if I get careless, it will be my knees (or whatever) that pay.
I've never been fond of playing sports, so perhaps hikers who have also been on baseball and football teams have had thoughts like this. For my own part, though, this kind of hybrid group and individual activity brings my mind back to playing an instrument in band. When I was in high school, my band teacher brought in a guest director for a weekend clinic -- this guest director was a brilliant, loony, explosively energetic figure (perfect for keeping the attention of high schoolers), an amazing musician and a bonkers personality. He drilled us hard by section and as a whole ensemble, even as he kept us laughing with his banter. Before one play-through of a whole piece, he raised his hands to begin and said to the band, "I'll see you at the end!"
I thought that was pretty funny at the time. I'll see you at the end -- as if he weren't going to be directing the music the whole time? But he was on to something, amidst his wackiness. Each musician is responsible for knowing and practicing his part, rehearsing individually before playing with the group. When the whole band is playing, each musician has to keep tempo with the others, adjust his balance, stay in tune. The group doesn't do that for you. Even when the whole ensemble is in the middle of a piece, every musician is still, in a way, playing a solo.