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Hiking through family history

Hiking through family history

Hiking through family history

For many people, hiking is one of the most important sources of inspiration. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: "It is our habit to think outdoors - walking, leaping, climbing, dancing, preferably on lonely mountains or near the sea where even the trails become thoughtful."

With my hiking boots laced tightly and my backpack filled with sufficient provisions, my father Willi and I take our first steps in the fresh mountain air as the sun slowly rises. Although you could hear a pin drop in the Schönenbach car park, we are too tired to talk and still preoccupied by the bone-chilling cold. And yet by the time we reach the Schönenbach limits and the settlement disappears behind a hilltop on our way to today’s destination, the Hoher Ifen mountain, the words begin to flow. With each step, superficial topics are abandoned as we move on to deeper topics. I’m reminded that hiking in the mountains, surrounded by the spectacular rock formation of the Hoher Ifen, is far better than gathering around a table to chat.

We have a long hike ahead of us. Some day in future we’ll tell stories about our adventure: reaching the summit, the long way back, seeing ibex and getting a little lost on the Gottesacker plateau after dad insisted he knew the way. Enthusiasts and great thinkers alike know that a hike is both the best time to talk and the perfect setting for a great story. After all, writers such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Hermann Hesse and Thomas Bernhard have all drawn inspiration from hiking. Thoughts, musings, conversations and stories are closely linked to hiking, which like any great narrative has a beginning, a middle and an end.

How hiking stimulates both thought and reflection

If you think about it, it’s actually not all that surprising: “When we walk, we move our bodies and stimulate our minds,” wrote the Austrian author Thomas Bernhard. Today, neuroscientific studies prove what Bernhard experienced first hand: moving in the open air with a steady pace stimulates thinking and the rhythmic movement of walking activates the brain. This effect can be traced back to the brain’s primary original function, controlling the body’s movement. It’s therefore not an exaggeration to say that the brain is made for hiking! After all, walking activates the brain and thereby promotes the formulation of abstract thoughts. In addition, hiking gets the circulation going without drawing complete attention and concentration to itself, thus providing the ideal conditions for deep reflection.

Hiking also has a grounding effect, returning one back to the here and now. These days, we are all too accustomed to hunching in front of the computer and beautiful landscapes are instead enjoyed as the desktop motif on our PCs. By activating our bodies and hiking through the mountains, an environment which is not commonplace for the majority of us, we can perceive the environment more intensely. The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty explains how important sensory perception is for understanding the world: What one sees, hears, feels, smells and tastes establishes our connection to the environment. Without such a connection, it’s difficult to stay grounded. According to the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “you’ve only really ever been somewhere if you’ve travelled there by foot.” This connection to the environment, the physical perception of the texture of the ground, the play of light on the forest floor, the tug of a branch on your sleeve, makes for the best conversations and for long lasting memories.

Hiking allows us to open up

While maintaining heightened awareness and remaining firmly anchored in the present, hiking forces us to talk while also maintaining a rhythmic pace. As we proceed, it matters not whether we converse with others or with ourselves, lost in deep contemplation. Conversation is what makes us human, because it is only through dialogue that we are able to put encounters, places and sensory experiences into context. Through conversation, simple observations become shared experiences. Thanks to this dynamic, even those who travel alone can enjoy thoroughly interesting mental monologues.

In a group, such as the one I travel in with my father and the dog, we experience the effect that movement in the great outdoors has on talkativeness. What the sauna is to people in the north, the mountains are to the people of the Alps. The mountains make getting distance easy: often there isn’t mobile phone reception or any of the disturbing noises common in everyday life. Instead there’s just the whispering of the wind, the chirping of the crickets and the rustling of the grass. Those finding it hard to speak openly in the cold morning air (as we did when first setting out), will soon discover how naturally the words flow after just a few steps in nature.

Not only does hiking provide the ideal setting for storytelling, the parallels between the structure of a story and the structure of a hike may also explain hiking’s popularity with writers. In addition to exciting experiences and immersion in awe-inspiring scenery, hikes provide an ideal outline for a story: setting out into the unknown, hiking companions get to know each other better; a long and windy trail to the summit, overcoming natural obstacles such as ridges, saddles, and passes, testing one’s own limits, and, finally, the feeling of accomplishment after reaching the peak.

It’s also small wonder that poets and writers draw inspiration from the mountains. In his collection entitled ‘Wandering,’ German-Swiss author Hermann Hesse, a Nobel laureate in literature, describes his own transformation from city dweller to adventurer during a hike in Ticino in Switzerland. He recounts crossing the mountain pass thusly: “I still have the choice to look north or south. And yet in just fifty steps, only the south will be visible. How it breathes mysteriously up from bluish valleys! How my heart beats with anticipation!”

Such transformations of character are also possible on the trails around Schönenbach. When hiking to the Alpe Wölflersgunten mountain pasture, one first walks along a forest road through a mixed wood with leaves that make the light dance on the ground. Soon the forest road becomes a narrow path, nestling against a rock. It leads up to the Alpine pasture in a hollow, which seems to defy both wind and weather. The evolution of one’s own character often follows a similar path: a meek, naïve person who walks along broad paths without obstacles can be transformed into someone who instead negotiates a spectacular but arduous trail to become a strong, resilient person shaped by experience. The French communication theorist Michel Serres even goes so far as to say: “One composes with one’s feet,” referring to the rhythm of walking that also sets the rhythm of verse in many poems.

Hikes become memories that last

Narratives also connect time and space. The British writer Robert Macfarlane deals with this theme in his book “The Old Ways.” “On old ways, the past becomes tangible,” he writes, i.e. tangible through the “glue” of the narrative. In the Bregenzerwald, his meaning becomes clear, e.g., on the Sagenweg trail from the village of Alberschwende to Andelsbuch. On old mule tracks, hikers walk in the footsteps of the legendary Ilga and her brothers Merbod and Diedo, who promoted Christianity in the Bregenzerwald in the eleventh century. Our connection in time and space to these siblings becomes apparent through short stories written on panels and posted in various places. Interestingly, our personal experiences on hikes also connect time and space: Those who walk a trail several times constantly enrich their experience of the spatial conditions and temporal experiences, noting new and interesting things along the way.

Such familiar trails can even become a family tradition, as it is in my family. It turns out that a place or path that is hiked by several generations grows into a treasure trove of personal anecdotes that connect the generations through story. In my own life, I experience this phenomenon again and again, because for generations my family has hiked the area around Schönenbach and family stories cover the landscape like cobwebs. For example, I can’t hike past the water level gauge without hearing my father tell of the flood he experienced here in his youth.

Walking past the “Tiefer Ifen” Alpine pasture, I think of how my great-grandmother Emma, already very old and frail, made one last hike up here while my grandmother waited for her full of worry. The hike up the Hoher Ifen, where we got lost on the Gottesacker plateau, will also go down in family history along with the stories my father and his brothers told about their ascents of the Hoher Ifen mountain.

Due to their structure and the experiences shared along the way (some of which become adventures), hikes provide a natural subject for conversation. The most exciting narratives, as everyone knows, arise from errors and confusions along the way. The most terrifying hike makes for the most exciting story. In any case, however, hikes inspire us to talk and tell stories, even en route! As we experience the landscape with all our senses, and especially while thinking and talking along as we go, the experience of hiking becomes entrenched in our memories. Thus, with every step on the mountain, we come closer to the inspiration for narration, whether autobiographical or fictional, whether directly or with others as a shared experience. A hike may start out quietly, but an adventure is always told out loud.

Author: Hannah Greber
Issue: Bregenzerwald Travel Magazine – Summer 2021