Walk in alone. Walk out together.

March is the unofficial start to the hiking season, at least for people setting out to hike a long trail, like the 2,100 mile Appalachian trail. Setting out in March avoids the coldest, snowiest part of winter and provides a long enough time to walk until the cold settles in again in the fall. More times than not, hikers start out on a solo journey, hoping to challenge themselves.  But along the way, even the most solo of solo hikers will find comfort in commiserating, camping, hiking, with others he or she meets along the way. And while the time spent in the company of others may be brief, that joining together can lift the spirits of even the most aching, blistered and tired soul.

We have many journeys in life that we must embark on alone. But ‘alone’ does not mean abandoned. My nieces and nephews just lost their mother, my brother lost his wife, who passed away at the age of 55. The end arrived as they sat by her side for long days and nights over several weeks. They are a close and united family, but naturally still face this challenge each on his and her own terms. The husband and the children entered the hospice room as individuals but they emerged from that space and a week of mourning together, bereaved, yet even closer.

The Appalachian Trail is often referred to as ‘the long green tunnel’. The trail is a single-track which passes through mostly forest, a long tunnel amidst maple, birch, oak and hickory leaves, verdant green in the spring and summer. Walking  along you can feel isolated, traveling alone with the burden of your gear on your back,  rays of light squeezing between the dense canopy of leaf filled branches, illuminating the ground with occasional spots of light here and there. But as you make your way and meet others who share your journey, your steps feel lighter as you share your burden. And despite your physical and emotional exhaustion, the journey through the long green tunnel does eventually come to an end. When you emerge, no matter how alone your sojourn felt, at journey’s end, know that you did not walk it completely alone.

Howard E. Friedman

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On the Trail: Personal challenges and personal agency.

(Forestwander.com via Wikimedia Commons)

(Forestwander.com via Wikimedia Commons)

Six wild turkeys emerged from the wooded shadows into a clearing,  single file, variously walking on and sinking in to the foot of snow on the ground. Than another six than another dozen emerged, walking, sinking, moving slowly and circumspectly, stopping to forage among twigs branches and fallen tree trunks.

I had just finished running and walking among the same trails as these wild, ungainly birds. I knew a bit about the challenges they faced moving over uncertain and unwelcoming terrain, having sunk through the snow myself. Moving overland in the winter woods was laborious.

Today’s temperature was 20F, much warmer than last week’s low teens. But there was still a sense of accomplishment in managing the environment, wearing three layers instead of 4, one pair of gloves instead of two.

‘Manage the environment, don’t let the environment manage you’, an intrepid outdoors friend commented.

Humans have been struggling, and mostly succeeding, to manage their environment for thousands of years. And there is a satisfaction that comes with surviving frigid temperatures, avoiding hypothermia and frostbite and yet enjoying the out of doors, with its rich palette of colours, shapes and textures. It is the pleasure of matching personal agency against the challenges of the environment.

And we have largely mastered our environment, be it climbing tectonic uplifts soaring five miles into the hypoxic frigid sky, like Everest, or submerging to study thermal vents miles below the surface of the ocean, like the Marianas Trench, or, of course, the ultimate mastery by man- space exploration.

Yet assuming our personal agency always results in ‘mastery’ is a fallacy. It is a fallacy in the outdoors as witnessed by the many fatalities- Rob Lowe, dying on the cold shoulder of Everest moments after calling his wife in New Zealand to say ‘I love you’, Chris McCandless whose death by starvation trapped in the Alaskan back country was famously chronicled in the book ‘Into the Wild’, to name only two of hundreds, if not more.

And personal agency as ‘mastery’ is a fallacy in our day to day lives, as it only takes us so far. This is truest especially when faced with overwhelming challenges against which no one can prevail, not the smartest, the prettiest, not the wealthiest or the most accomplished, not the most important. No one.

In the test of man against nature, the latter always prevails. As for our personal agency, we can manage, or try to manage, our responses especially in the face of impending loss.  We can take small comfort that we have, at the least, participated in the process. The winter trail will test your ability to survive the inhospitable, the uninviting, the unnatural for us warm blooded, furless mammals. And it is that mere survival that makes the successful days on the hard packed snow among the barren trees and frozen ponds so gratifying, even as it gives a fleeting, albeit false, sense of invincibility.

Howard E. Friedman

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On the Trail: Hiking alongside evolution

Tabun Cave, site of pre-historic human activity,  lies next to the Israel National Trail (phto: Albatross Aerial Photography)

Tabun Cave, site of pre-historic human activity, lies next to the Israel National Trail (phto: Albatross Aerial Photography)

Israel is in the news for the recently announced discovery of the Manot 1 pre-historic modern human partial skull, carefully dated to 55,000 years ago. The skull was found in a limestone cave in the Galilee region of northern Israel in 2008 and carefully researched for the past 6 years by Professor Israel Hershkovitz and a team of anthropologists from Tel Aviv University. The find was published in the respected journal Nature and reported widely across the world. The skull has features of modern humans but also some Neanderthal features, again focusing attention on the question: did ancient Homo sapiens interbreed with Neanderthals?

About one month ago I was fortunate to have an opportunity (thanks, Mom and Dad) to visit the Carmel region of Israel and hike a bit of the Israel National Trail, a hiking trail which extends the length of the country, 1000 km, from north to south.

Blue, white and orange triple color blaze of the Israel National Trail

Blue, white and orange triple color blaze of the Israel National Trail

The section of trail I visited is literally a stone’s throw from another important anthropology site, the location of Tabun, Skhul and El-Wad caves, also limestone massifs, with a commanding view of the Mediterranean Sea and Israeli coastline just 5-6 miles due west.

View of the Mediterranean from Nachal Meorot

View of the Mediterranean from Nachal Meorot

These caves were discovered and excavated beginning in the late 1920s by British paleontologist Dorothy Garrod,a pioneer and rare female in her field. The site continued to be excavated into the 1960s and was recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This collection of caves demonstrates more than 200,000 years of human existence including Neanderthal and early Homo sapien remains, living in the same location, even if not at the same time.

Looking into Tabun cave. Neanderthal remains were found in the middle layers and ancient hominid remains above and below.

Looking into Tabun cave. Neandratal remains were found in the middle layers and ancient hominid remains above and below.

Moreover, one of the adjacent caves presents a clear example of Natufian culture, humans who began to settle in one location and live a more agrarian lifestyle, no longer living a nomadic ‘hunter-gatherer’ existence. Just outside this cave system were multiple buried human skeletal remains, more than 10,000 years old, decorated with various ornaments. These may represent one of the earliest burial sites in the world.

And now, just dozens of miles away, we now have evidence of human remains which indeed represent another example of ancient humans in transition. Just exactly what that transition was from and where it was going to remains to be proven more definitively.

Manot-1 partial skull with features of ancient hominid and Neandratal (photo: Prof. I. Hershkovitz, in Nature, on-line Jan. 2015)

Manot-1 partial skull with features of ancient hominid and Neanderthal (photo: Prof. I. Hershkovitz, in Nature, on-line Jan. 2015)

It is rare these days to see “Israel” in a newspaper headline without some human tragedy or geopolitical tragedy following close behind. For the story from Manot Cave, at least, the only controversy would be of a scientific nature. And on that point, remarkably, most scientists interviewed have praised the Tel Aviv University researchers for their careful, deliberate study, analysis and conclusions.

While most tourists who travel to Israel do so to visit and bask in the holy religious sites of the past couple of thousand years, be they Jewish or Christian or Muslim, very few people travel to Israel to see where ancient Neanderthals once lived. I myself have traveled to Israel on multiple occasions, and only recently even knew such a site existed in Israel (thank you Professor John Hawks and for your Coursera course on Human Evolution).

Perhaps after visiting all the holy sites, tourists and locals alike should visit these most ancient sites of human habitation, to underscore our common heritage and to know that what joins us all into the family of ‘Man’ is so much more ancient than what divides us.

Howard E. Friedman

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Off the Trail: Marking time.

This weekend Jewish congregations around the globe will once again resume the weekly out-loud public readings of the Torah (Five Books of Moses, aka Old Testament)  from the beginning, Genesis. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” the Torah opens. The statement is simple but jarring. Every year at this time we are confronted with our humblest of beginnings. Not our personal beginnings but the earliest explosive cataclysmic beginnings of a universe so vast as to be incomprehensible.

Geologists estimate the age of our planet Earth as 4.6 billion years old. Yet multicellular life did not make its appearance for almost 4 billion years. John McPhee, pulitzer prize winning non-fiction author of Annals of a Former World, a 660 page collection of five books published under one title for the first time in 1998, writes succinctly: From an interstellar gas cloud, evidently, the solar system began to form about 4.56 billion years ago. The first eleven verses of Genesis cover more than 4 billion of those years – the entire Precambrian and the first one hundred and fifty million years of Phanerozoic time (p. 630).

jpegIn his five separate books written over about 20 years, McPhee accompanies leading geologists along as they explore and explain the geology of the United States. McPhee’s plum line is Interstate 80, which starts near the basaltic columns lining the Hudson River just north of New Jersey’s George Washington bridge and following it as it crosses the mid-portion of the country )what he refers to as “the craton” and continuing from East to West ending in or about the San Andreas fault which runs right through San Francisco. McPhee queried one geologist and asked him how he reconciled his professional work that dealt in hundreds of millions and billions of years with his daily life which operates on minutes and hours, days and weeks. The rock scientist explained that his was indeed a schizophrenic existence.

We focus on the now, because, after all, that is where we live our lives. The present. Our sense of history spans decades, and in some cases, centuries and once in a while, a millenium or two. “Classic rock” music goes back only fifty or so year, making a mockery of the word “classic”. But, rock music is not that old. The rocks that are the actual foundations of our cities, the bedrocks under the dirt holding our homes up, are, however, beyond ancient. I don’t think we have a word to capture the span of ‘billions of years ago’. “Ancient” is lacking. “Old” is not even a consideration.

The woods are an antidote to the “now-ness” of mundane living. In the forest, or mountains, or wadi, whether hiking or running, you travel among the extraordinarily ancient rocks, some sculpted by water running intermittently over thousands of year, between boulders carried and left behind by advancing than retreating glaciers, and summit mountain tops rounded by tens of thousands of years of erosion, shaping the land bit by bit. Out there is where we are confronted with our planet’s unfathomable past. And at least once a year, Judaism reminds us all that our lives area a fleeting nanosecond in God’s intergalactic time scale. But soon enough, within minutes of the opening of Genesis,  we will begin reading about the exploits of Man and Woman, as they begin to build their lives, in the slow motion that sometimes seems so real. In fact, we make our appearance just 16 sentences later, and mankind remains the focus from then on.

Our challenge is to synthesize these two schizophrenic realities, and make some sense of the now.

Off the Trail: California – Paradise Burning – The New Yorker

This is my second re-post from The New Yorker in one month, a practice I hope  not to rely on. But, the following video, by Sky Dylan-Robbins of The New Yorker illustrating a piece written by Dana Goodyear in the current issue, about the effect of the severe drought on California’s food basket farm lands, delivers a real jolt, especially if you live in a verdant part of the world, shielded from dire water scarcity. For United States citizens who consume a lot of food from California, this drought will likely have real implications: food prices going up is the best case scenario. Food scarcity is the other real possible outcome.

It’s interesting to hear the seasoned California sheepherder Martin Etchamendy who is interviewed, an older man with sunburned chiseled facial features, the lines in his face shaded just a bit by his large straw cowboy hat. “Water, we need water. Water, water, water,” he says gesturing emphatically toward the opening of the 7 minute long video. “Sometimes,”, he continues later in the piece, ” it is easy to forget who produces the food”.

As the Jewish people gather to mark the new year this week, may “Who Produces the Food” shower His countenance favorably upon us and the entire world.

California: Paradise Burning – The New Yorker.

On the Trail: ‘Shelter’ outside

West Mountain Shelter, Eric Koppel

West Mountain Shelter, Eric Koppel

“Shelter” is not a word commonly invoked to describe the vagaries of our modern 21st century day to day lives. We don’t say “I am going into my shelter now”. Rather, we say “I am going inside”, meaning, of course, we are returning into the safety and security of our homes. In fact, “shelter” evokes images not of home and hearth but of a bomb or air raid shelter, remnants of the 1950s cold war. If you live in Israel, a “shelter” is part of your normal vocabulary as all new construction must include a shelter or “safe room” to protect from missile attacks, or worse. And, a little over a year ago the word “shelter” was repeated frequently as Boston police warned residents to “shelter inside” while they searched for the Boston marathon bomber.

In all recent examples, “shelter” has a negative connotation: a place to retreat from mortal danger.

And so, the notion of a 3-sided low ceilinged stone structure built on the side of mountain, miles from a road,  town or city being called a “shelter” is anachronistic. Afterall, this primitive structure could only protect from rain and snow, and that only if they are not blowing in sideways. These shelters are no protection from wild animals, big or small, and offer only partial protection from cold or heat. Yet, these structures found along most long distance hiking trails are in fact referred to as “shelters” for they do offer a hiker  a modicum of protection from the weather. A “primitive shelter” is a more apt name.

As I set my backpack down last Sunday on the stout wooden floor boards of the West Mountain shelter in Harriman State Park, about a half mile from the Appalachian Trail, I felt indebted to the men who, in about 1928-29, went to great effort to build this structure in the woods. In their prescience, they sited the West Mountain shelter on pre-Cambrian granite bedrock,  to face an unobstructed view of the Hudson River and off in the distance, the Manhattan skyline, a skyline that was only just getting started at the end of the roaring twenties.

This shelter, like so many shelters on hiking trails in the northeast, is a substantial structure consisting of three walls built from bowling ball sized boulders of different colors and shapes, held together with no mortar noticeable, yet impermeable to wind and rain blowing through the walls. The ceiling consists of shingles on top of wooden beams and slats. The West Mountain shelter even includes two built in fireplaces on either side of the broad open front entrance. It does not have a water source nearby but I can not fault the nameless men who built this edifice 85 years ago. They were clearly taken with the beautiful view, water or not.

Volunteers continue to maintain and build hiking trails all over and even refurbish shelters when needed. But I do not hear of many cases of shelters being built at new locations, although it probably happens. As I ‘sheltered inside’ the West Mountain lean-to, protected from nothing in particular on that sunny, balmy, picture perfect day, I wished I could have offered a personal thanks to the people who chose this location, gathered the boulders and wood needed to build this old fashioned trail shelter so many years ago, rock by rock, beam by beam.

Howard E. Friedman

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Why Walking Helps Us Think – The New Yorker

by Alex Majoli (Magnum), in The New Yorker Sep. 3, 2014

by Alex Majoli (Magnum), in The New Yorker Sep. 3, 2014

As you settle in to the beginning of a new work week, here is something to ponder. The following article by Ferris Jabr which appeared in The New Yorker September 3rd, 2014 looks at the role walking has played in some popular English literature and how walking might just make us more productive thinkers. This, of course, will come as no surprise to walkers. Thanks to my son for the link.

Why Walking Helps Us Think – The New Yorker.

Howard E. Friedman

Off the trail: A fresh look at dirt.

I have hiked or run on dirt trails for a number of years now so it is odd to look at dirt in a new way. But now, I am careful where I tread on the dirt, lest I stomp on and kill a seedling.

A few weeks ago I was assigned a community garden plot. I did not receive the news until almost the end of June so it was a real race to find seeds to purchase, till the soil and plant my garden. By the middle of July, late one night after work, after dark, my garden was fully planted. I opened the spigot and jiggled my thumb over the end of the hose to create an arcing spray. By the light of my headlamp,  globules of water looked like pearls in the beam of light, disappearing silently into the dirt. With a great deal of good fortune I might just get a crop of corn, lettuce, carrots and zucchini in the early fall.

Now on summer evenings I am drawn to my garden like I used to be drawn to the dirt on the trail. But now I am not interested in how much ground I can cover and what I might see along the way. Rather, I am interested in how much I can grow out of this plot of earth.

Surprising as it might seem, gardening in any organized way, and certainly modern corporate farming, is relatively new to the human race. What with homo sapiens dating back almost 200,000 years ago, anthropologists believe that we humans only began to actually plant seeds to grow food sometime around ten thousand years ago. We gathered plants, fruits and nuts to eat prior to that. But cultivating an understanding of gardening took many, many years.

Indeed, scientists explain that at first human ancestors practiced not agriculture, the planting of seeds in cleared plots of lands, but rather vegeculture, that is planting a seed or two outside of the cave entrance in an available clearing. Only after years of experience with vegeculture did humans develop the ideas and concepts which ultimately led to modern gardening and farming: clearing tracts of land, mass planting of seeds and watering and fertilizing the crops.

When hiking along the dirt trail in the forest I pass through the land. Now I  myself am rooted to the soil, fingers deep into the dirt, like tendrils of a seedling. I tread lightly, checking each step again and again so as not to stray onto the tiny emerging sprouts.  And though I stay by my hundred square foot space, the experience is immersive, expansive, not claustrophobic or limiting. And I leave with a similar sense of calm I get from time spent deep in the woods.

The dirt is common to both the trail and garden.   It is an alluvial silty outwash from rocky sediment, mixed in with composted lichen and forest litter, serving as a home to thousands of microbes, yielding a magic carpet that bedizens our forests and farms and helps nourish a planet. And we should respect this life giving resource. Now well into the summer of 2014 we are inundated with painful news of planes falling from the sky killing all aboard, school girls gone missing, teenage boys abducted and murdered, conflicts around the globe, in Ukraine and Israel and Gaza. Body counts of killed and wounded climb.Mourners’ tears water cemetery grass. One response to ongoing conflict will ultimately come from the soil, which will outlast all combatants and go on in the fullness of time to hide the remnants of the warfare we wage. American poet Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) recognized the power of the soil to hide the horrible in his poem Grass. For Sandburg, the grass hid the memories. Perhaps we the citizens of the earth can learn to till hope from the soil, instead:

Grass

BY CARL SANDBURG

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work—
                                          I am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
                                          What place is this?
                                          Where are we now?
                                          I am the grass.
                                          Let me work.
Howard E. Friedman

 

 

 

 

 

“A Window on Eternity”, in Gorongosa and Chernobyl

Destruction of our natural habitat comes in many many different forms. Edward O. Wilson writes about destruction and rebirth in one such place, Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. And Timothy Mousseau, professor of Biology at University of South Carolina, studies destruction and its impact on rebirth in another location, Chernobyl, Ukraine.

A Window on EternityIn A Window on Eternity, A biologist’s walk through Gorongosa National Park (Simon & Schuster 2014), Wilson briefly recounts the history of Mozambique’s 16 year civil war ending in 1994 which resulted in nearly a million people killed and the creation of several million refugees. A collateral effect of the war was near extinction of what Wilson describes as “the megafauna” of Gorongosa National Park, a wildlife refuge located in Mozambique, but too close to the fighting. Large edible and/or valuable animals were killed for food or profit. Elephants decreased by 80-90% in number. Cape buffalos went from 13,000 in 1972 to 15 in 2001, Wilson writes. Wildebeest went from 6,400 to one and zebras from 3,300 to just 12 he adds.

Thanks to the great efforts of U.S. businessman and philanthropist Gregory Carr who began over seeing the reintroduction of large animlas back into the park, Gorongosa is staging a slow resurrection.

“Another several decades may be needed for Gorongosa to return to its old preeminence, but given the persistence of its undergirding of plants and invertebrates which largely survived the war intact, I believe this  will surely come to pass,” Wilson concludes in the chapter called ‘War and Redemption’. In the chapters that follow Dr. Wilson describes findings from his and his colleague’s expeditions to Gorongosa as he shares their ground-eye view of ants, katydids, praying mantises and others. “None to me is a bug,” he writes, “Each instead is one kind of insect, the ancient legatee of an ancient history adapted to the natural world in its own special way. I wish I had a hundred lifetimes to study them all,”  he writes in the beginning of chapter eight, ‘The Clash of Insect Civilizations’.

But while E.O.Wilson is sanguine about ‘The Conservation of Eternity’ (title of chapter eleven) in nature’s ability to recover from war in Gorongosa park, fellow biologist   Timothy Mousseau, professor at University of South Carolina is less optimistic about the resilience of various phyla of the animal kingdom to survive nuclear fallout. Dr. Mousseau has been studying how various species of birds, spiders and insects have fared in and around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor which exploded 25 years ago, releasing large amounts of radioactivity into the atmosphere. His work was featured on Newyorktimes.com.

Dr. Mousseau in Red Forest, Chernobyl (http://cricket.biol.sc.edu/Mousseau/Mousseau.html)

Dr. Mousseau in Red Forest, Chernobyl (http://cricket.biol.sc.edu/Mousseau/Mousseau.html)

Still a hot zone, the area around the old plant has been off limits to humans, making it an interesting living laboratory to study flora and fauna without the day to day interference of human life (though one could make an easy argument that after contaminating an entire region with radioactive waste, day to day human activity is kind of negligible). Since 1999 Mousseau and Dr. Pape Moeller have been documenting aberrations in spider webs, bird beaks,  insects and rodents, all of which they say reflect genetic mutations in animals living in the most radioactive zones around Chernobyl. And, while some researchers take issue with Mousseau and  have pointed to the fact that any wildlife that persists around Chernobyl is proof of the resilience of  various species, Dr. Mousseau cautions that if you look more carefully, life has persisted but not robustly and not in good health.

Neither scenario is appealing. Dr. Wilson documents a resurgence of wildlife in an area that witnessed almost a million human deaths, thousands of animal deaths and which required importing ‘megafauna’ species to help repopulate the area. Dr. Mousseau documents the persistence of weakened and wounded life which, however, has been able to survive a near direct nuclear explosion but which has little hope of ever returning to full health. Perhaps for either scenario, Edward O.Wilson was prescient in selecting the opening quote in his latest book: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live . – Moses at Mount Nebo, Deuteronomy 30:19.”

Howard E. Friedman

The Evolution of Walking: From Laetoli to the Exodus to the Appalachian Trail

hiking in Chamonix

Ambulating on two legs dates back  3.6 million years ago according to anthropologists who have studied human like foot prints preserved in the volcanic ash in Laetoli, Tanzania. Those foot prints were discovered by anthropologist Mary Leakey in 1978.

http://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/newsletters/10_1/laetoli.html

The Laetoli footprints, from http://www.getty.edu, photo-Martha Demas, 1995.

The human like Austrolapithicenes who left those foot prints were quite possibly walking for a utilitarian purpose, like searching for food or shelter, or returning to their shelter. As our human society has evolved, however, walking has evolved right along with it. In fact, one could suggest that as a species, we have evolved to no longer need walking for distance travel.

We walk now to thrive, not survive. Evening strolls, weekend hikes, backpacking trips, laps around the high school track. Humans continue to find new but non-essential ways to exploit the simple, elegant act of placing one foot in front the other. And that act, in fact, is one of the hallmarks of what it means to be human.

Today, walking for long distance travel,  on the other hand, has become rare. And this might explain why last month, when the Tougas family of New Richmond, Canada, announced their plans to walk more than two thousand miles, together, on the Appalachian Trail,  they saw it as a viable marketing opportunity to raise money for their project.

The Tougas family announced their planned family through-hike of the AT on Kickstarter.com.  They  received pledges of $19,109 (Canadian), surpassing their goal of $16,000. The family spokesperson and father, Damien Tougas, explains on his KickStarter site that the monies raised will go to fund production of a video series that sponsors will receive in installments, once a month. The money raised, he said, will not be used to pay for the hike itself. The family has already put aside funds for their 6 month sojourn, he explains.

Walking has always been a sure mode of human transportation. Early humans of course had no alternative. Hunting and gathering required walking and beasts of burden had presumably not yet become part of daily life.  Even Americans, thousands of years following hunter-gatherers, still walked alongside their covered wagons,  for upwards of six months.  400,000 or so people migrated, on foot, westward to  Oregon, Utah, New Mexico and California, between 1840 to almost 1870. Their wagons were so full of family belongings and food there was precious little room left for riders. But these hearty pioneers were perhaps among the last of the long-distance migratory walkers, at least in North America.

Human beings have slowly, but persistently, sought out alternatives to walking. Even several thousand years ago, Egyptian soldiers used horses to pull their chariots. Some Greek warriors rode into battle on the backs of elephants and trade routes in the Middle East have domesticated the camel.  In more recent times horses have either carried riders or pulled wagons and carriages.  The horseless carriage morphed into the car, and now motorized transportation has become ubiquitous.  Walking as a daily means of transportation has become a rarity, at least in western civilization.

Tougas family (fimby.tougas.net)

Tougas family (fimby.tougas.net)

And while the Tougas’ get great credit for their planned family adventure, we are left with the question, why is watching another family walk intrinsically interesting? Certainly there are challenges and risks with a long distance hike and even more so for the younger Tougas children.  The AT however,  is well marked, well traveled and fairly close to civilization along most of the route. Although  a 2,100 mile trek is big undertaking, and the trail is quite strenuous at times and weather is always a variable.

Nonetheless, I suggest that our societal de-evolution of long distance walking is the key to family Tougas’ ability to raise close to twenty thousand dollars from 267 people who are willing to pay to see that family walk. Almost like paying to watch an IMAX movie about rock climbers, or cliff divers or base jumpers. In 2014, traveling a long distance on foot is a novelty and considered an adventure, only for the intrepid among us. And I suspect that even if family Tougas said they were going to walk strictly along back-country roads from Georgia to Maine and stay in bed and breakfasts along the way, and not pitch their tent in the woods, they still would have been able to raise money for their trip.

From Biblia Das Ist, Martin Luther (1486-1583), a depiction of the Exodus. Courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University

From Biblia Das Ist, Martin Luther (1486-1583), a depiction of the Exodus. Courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University

In one week the Jewish people mark the exodus of the Children of Israel out of Egypt, when they began their forty year sojourn toward the Promised Land. After hundreds of years of bitter enslavement the Israelites walked out of Egypt, away from their life of servitude, to follow Moses, a leader appointed by God. During four decades the Hebrew tribe walked from encampment to encampment in the Sinai peninsula, until they finally crossed the Jordan River to enter the city of Jericho in the land of Israel.

Next week, when Jewish families gather to commemorate that night about four thousand years ago when the Israelite  begin their long walk toward freedom, let us also remember that one of the most basic human functions, walking, is so simple and elegant. The long walk should not be considered a novelty,  since  the process of walking can transport us, physically and figuratively, toward a new beginning.

Howard E. Friedman