My 13 year old Nissan Altima, may it live and be well, surpassed the 200,000 mile mark this past week. And as I watched the odometer in anticipation of this occasion I began to think about how our Western society is built around motorized transportation of one sort or another.
Whether one drives, takes a bus or train or even plane, we have created a society that depends on the ability to get from here to there quickly and with ease. In the course of 200,000 miles of driving, most of that commuting to and from work, I burned about 10,000 gallons of gas!
I drive at or below the speed limit in part because I like to take in the scenery around me – the trees in various states of seasonal growth, the nascent wildflower patches slowly slowly coming into bloom, frequent sightings of deer and the occasional red tailed hawk perched on a roadside limb. Once I even saw a coyote with his straight back loping along the side of the road. But no matter how slowly I drive I know there is much I miss.
The past week while walking less than 3 miles per hour in the woods I had ample time to pick and eat wild blueberries, notice types of lichens I had not seen before covering the fragmented rocks on the forest floor and observe a widow skimmer dragonfly stone still on a twig, the first time I saw this interesting insect so up close. Yet ironically, I depend on my car to drive to almost all of the nice spots where I like to hike.
I appreciate my car for safely transporting me 200,000 miles. I thank God for such a loyal vehicle. It has enabled me to get to work and home again as well as drive to so many beautiful fields and forests in which I like to walk. But there is a bittersweet note. No doubt our modern lives would be dramatically different if we were a society primarily of walkers and only occasionally of drivers. But how would each of us individually be different if we embraced the opportunity to truly observe and take in our surroundings whilst traveling at a leisurly 3 miles per hour?
My son and I hiked what is commonly referred to as one of the more strenuous day hikes in the greater metropolitan New York region, noted for its steep ascent requiring both hands to navigate several steep rock scrambles. The route begins on the eastern shore of the Hudson River, separated by the Metro-North Hudson line train tracks. The route ascends promptly and continues to do so for seven tenths of a mile, climbing 1,260 feet to the summit.
Ascending Breakneck Ridge (photo credit Daniel Chazin, NY/NJ Trail Conference)
While clinging to the precambrian granite gneiss and searching by feel for a toe hold to provide a slender ledge from which to push myself higher I thought for a moment of the footsteps upon which I stood 48 hours earlier. Two days prior I had visited the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan and spent a few moments in the Hall of Human Origins. Near the beginning of the exhibit stand two short hairy human-like people, holding hands, one male and one female. Their gaze is straight ahead and has an air of contented surprise.
The curators have placed in front of this couple a casting of Austrolapithicus footprints, discovered by anthropologists Mary Leakey and Paul Abell in 1978 and taken from a dig in Laetoli, Tanzania, not far from the Olduvai Gorge. About 3.5 million years ago dozens of footprints were fossilized in volcanic ash. The footprints appear human. The great toe is not simian –not angling wildly away from the foot. Rather it is parallel to the other toes and the footprints also reflect an arch, another human characteristic.
These prints are significant because they are among the earliest signs of bipedalism in human ancestors and scientists believe they are proof of when our ancestors mastered walking on two feet, which they also conclude was long before our ancestral brain increased in size.
Visitors of the exhibit are invited to place their feet on the fossilized prints. That I do. My size 10.5 foot dwarfs these uber-ancient footprints. I stand there face to face. This moment of staring in their eyes while also standing in their footsteps came back to me while on Breakneck Ridge, as I searched for a toehold on metamorphosed granite, hardened deep in the earth’s crust eons before man took his first step.
Austrolapiths’ footprints are recorded for all time, a record of a straight-ahead walk across a muddy flat. My toehold on the granite gneiss will leave no mark, no impression on the earth. Yet at that very moment for the first time I contemplated a connection between myself and the most early walkers: a relationship between those early humans we know by their footprints for whom walking upright was a seminal event in human history and me and my fellow humans for whom a good toehold on the rock is just another day well spent.