Monkeying Around in the Woods

Hiking with a monkey

The nature writing genre is replete with glowing accounts of spiritual epiphanies gained out “in nature.”  Magical misty mornings, spiritual solitude, life lessons learned during tough climbs, serendipity in meeting and making a friend, or helping a stranger.  All of these things happen out there.  There is a real spiritual component to trudging through the wilderness – it cannot be denied.

I’m here to provide an honest exposé of another side of hiking.  Yes, there are moments of bliss and oneness with all that is: read someone else’s blog to hear about that.  I am here to share about those other moments that occur in vast quantities.  90% trudge, at least.

Imagine, if you will, hiking with a monkey.  You can leash your monkey or let it run free.  Either way – it makes very little difference.  You set off, your monkey climbing all over you, running off into the woods, running back to your side, climbing up your legs like tree trunks, getting stinky monkey paws in your hair, and so on.  Excited by the new surroundings, sights, and smells, your monkey is unstoppably active – until it realizes that this is the Catskills, not the tropics, and there are no banana trees, no yummy rain forest fruit, and no awesome cockroaches the size of a small Buick.  Aah, the Catskills: it may be summer, but most likely it is cold and raining.

Your monkey starts entertaining itself by abusing you.  First all the taunts: “This is boring.”  “This is annoying, not peaceful.”  “This is hard.”  “This is taking too long.”  “This is work.  You do this for fun?”  “You’re tired.”  “You’re not enjoying this enough to spend a whole day out here.”  See?  Your monkey zeroes in on your weakness, and makes increasingly insightful assaults.  “You aren’t having a spiritual experience yet.”  “You are not mystified or blown away by being out in nature.  You are just here, thinking about other things.  You could be home doing the same thing.”

Or perhaps your monkey starts throwing acorns (or worse) at you: “I’m hungry!”  “I want to go shopping!”  “Your teenage son is contemplating raiding your liquor cabinet right now because he knows that you won’t be home for hours.”  And so on.

Your monkey is mean and your monkey is smart.  At this point, it will shut up for a little while – long enough to lull you into a false sense of triumph over monkey-mind.  You walk along lost in your own thoughts, or perhaps you stop to admire a view or some exquisite fungus.  You look, and you are in the moment, in the zone, without self-consciousness.  A sitting duck.  Your monkey whispers “Let’s go.”  That’s it.  Just a tiny, well-timed suggestion of impatience. Now you can take over.  You no longer need your monkey to yell at you, throw poo at you, torment or distract you.  The seed of doubt is planted and you do the rest.  “I’m not really good at this spirituality stuff.”  “I don’t really get it, I just pretend to.”  “It’s not just monkey-mind.  I really am kind of bored with all this looking at trees and rocks.”  “I want more bang for the buck.”  And so on.

My solution is to decide to try to enjoy my monkey’s company.  Sometimes I even try to out-monkey my monkey, singing show-tunes as I bushwack through prickers or indulging in OCD-style mathematical calculations, like figuring out how many footsteps I’ll take to get back to the car.  Mostly I just hang out with the little brute letting it pick at the dog hairs on my fleece pullover, and hide (or squish) some yummy treat on the bottom of the pack.

I take my solace in the notion that I am the driver, and I have the keys.  I’ll decide when we leave and where we go next.  My monkey may be a jerk, and a real pain in the neck, but it’s my monkey, and I have to accept it.  I can’t get rid of it, I can’t control it and I can’t kill it.  Spending my hikes fighting with it, trying to pretend it isn’t there, or stubbornly ignoring it doesn’t make it go away.  Some things just are, and the fact that I hike (and write and cook…) with a monkey is one of those facts.  May as well move over and make room ‘cause this little bugger is coming along.

But every now and then I slip out while the monkey is still sleeping, and hike unencumbered.  Those hikes stand out in high relief, touch-points to return to, to remember.  I don’t believe that all those other nature writers that romance the spiritual hike without a monkey all the time.  I think that they just write about the times that they ditched the poor creature.  Yes, it is different, and yes, it becomes possible to experience deep and profound moments without a dirty paw tugging at your sleeve, and the equivalent of your three year old doing the pee-pee dance at your feet.  But the jury is still out on whether or not it’s better.

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