Sunday, April 1, 2007

to saunter

I am fat and out-of-shape, with messed-up knees and the lung capacity of a teeny-tiny bug. I can walk and walk and walk but if there's an incline I tend to huff and puff and look like a fool. I warned Linda by saying, "if it sounds like I'm going to fall over from exertion, don't worry. I'm fine. I just sound like an idiot." It's true, and I sure did even on the slightest little incline. Someday that will improve. I didn't used to be like that, but years of sitting on my ass and gaining weight and not going outside has really messed me up. I vow to change when I go to Washington.

Anyway, I have mixed emotions about the verb "to hike." "Hiking" sounds strenuous. It does not sound fun or enjoyable. So, I occasionally used the verb "to saunter," except when I had a bout of lameness and thought that I wasn't fully taking advantage of Yosemite by merely sauntering around and needed to sound like "ooh, hiker! hiking! hard! whoo hoo." Yeah. That was dumb.

Our first saunter was after breakfast on Saturday. We walked to the bottom of Yosemite Falls (pictured here), then meandered around the rest of the 1.1m path. Muir had a cabin at the bottom of those falls, off to the side next to the creek formed by the runoff. The cabin isn't there anymore, and I doubt there's even a plaque. But we traipsed over the same ground.

Then we did our "big" saunter: Mirror Lake & Tenaya Canyon. It's just a mile up the road to Mirror Lake, which isn't actually a lake at all—it's a pool formed by Tenaya Creek and it isn't there year-round. It's called Mirror Lake because it's so (very very) clear (as is all the water in Yosemite) that you can see perfect reflections of North Dome (to the left) and Half Dome (to the right). I noted that if it had been a bit warmer, I'd have walked into the lake. I have (another) irrational fear, that of bodies of water where I can't see or touch the bottom, but clear creeks and rivers don't bother me at all. Not so with this one...clear as a bell.

You can turn right around at Mirror Lake and walk back down the road, but what's the point of that? We kept going, up to the Snow Creek intersection. At that intersection is a big ol' sign that says, basically, "if you keep going, you're a hell of a serious hiker, so get on with your bad selves and for the love of god be careful." It takes you up and then down to North Dome, then over to Upper Yosemite Falls if you want.

We did not go that way.

We went to the right, around Tenaya Creek and back down the other side. At one point, we stopped and looked ahead: we were following a large animal down the trail. Both of us (Linda and I, not the animal and I) thought to ourselves, "huh. kinda looks like a mule, except it isn't." Since I was looking at its butt and not its side, I said "looks like a white-tailed deer." Yeah, except its tail wasn't really white and then when it walked into the sun it wasn't brown with white spots. There goes my future as a nature expert. We followed it for awhile (it was on the trail, after all), and it could not have cared less that we were there. It moved over into a meadow to chow down, and we walked right on by. I believe it assessed us thusly: "wow. you guys are so NOT A THREAT to me."

It was that evening, when reading the hiking book, that we caught a clue. "Oh yeah, a MULE DEER." Duh.

The rest of the saunter was uneventful, unless you count walking through an intensely cold spot (cave/spring under a rock pushing cold air onto the path) and looking for a footbridge that never materialized as events. It was pretty damn fun (and 5.4m).


I meant to write this post yesterday, but I got caught up in "to saunter" versus "to hike." Muir was very much opposed to the verb "to hike," and in fact it never appears in his letters or books or fragments of rewritten journals. However, he uses "to saunter" no less than fifteen times in his book The Yosemite. So of course I had to go to the OED and see when "to hike" became popular, and it was only the early 19th Century. I wanted to see if Muir had a reason for disliking the word, and I found "A Parable of Sauntering," by Albert W. Palmer, excerpted from The Mountain Trail and Its Message (1911):
There are always some people in the mountains who are known as "hikers." They rush over the trail at high speed and take great delight in being the first to reach camp and in covering the greatest number of miles in the least possible time. they measure the trail in terms of speed and distance.

One day as I was resting in the shade Mr. Muir overtook me on the trail and began to chat in that friendly way in which he delights to talk with everyone he meets. I said to him: "Mr. Muir, someone told me you did not approve of the word 'hike.' Is that so?" His blue eyes flashed, and with his Scotch accent he replied: "I don't like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains - not hike!

"Do you know the origin of that word 'saunter?' It's a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, "A la sainte terre,' 'To the Holy Land.' And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not 'hike' through them."
If you've read Thoreau, you immediately say "hey! That's Thoreau! Almost word-for-word, in fact." Palmer goes on to say, "Now, whether the derivation of saunter Muir gave me is scientific or fanciful [...]" and by this we can determine that Palmer didn't read Thoreau, or if he did, it wasn't the second paragraph of Thoreau's "Walking":
I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks,—who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering; which word is beautifully derived "from idle people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going à la Sainte Terre"—to the holy land, till the children exclaimed, "There goes a Sainte-Terrer", a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander.
So, we sauntered. And it was good.