Coffee, Hiking, and Interrogations of My Own Ipseity.

“Are you and your husband hikers?”

I was at a playdate, loosely chaperoning my highly independent toddler daughter, idling in conversation and coffee with the parents of one of her classmates.

How to answer?

In the sense I presume it was intended, no, in that we do not seek out hiking excursions on the weekends, and at the same time yes, in that we enjoy it when presented to us, especially on summer vacations in picturesque bits of the country. And just like that — though I easily perceived the inquiry to be a carte d’entree to a discussion of the father’s favored hobby — I sank into memory, longing to outline in words the frosty-fresh Rockies air, the trickle-trackle of the narrowest bits of the Roaring Fork, the wild and stirring sensation of broaching the summit at Independence Pass, looking down one side of the crest to see Independence Lake and looking down the other to see the steep incline we’d just mounted, feeling — though I knew this wasn’t a particularly aggressive ascent and though we’d passed at least a dozen other hikers and though this bit of the Rockies is a fairly heavily frequented one in general — that I’d achieved something notable. I was with my husband, my father, my sister, and my brother-in-law, and we all stood planted in exhausted stupefaction, hands on our hips, lungs burning with the thin air, hearts racing in a heady mix of exertion and elation.

It was a golden moment if I’ve ever seen one. The weather cold but hot in the way it can only be when you are at substantial elevation (we were somewhere north of 13,000 feet), under the sun’s merciless rebuke. A badgering sense of camaraderie with my family tinged or perhaps elicited by the awareness that these moments of nearness were growing far too few and far and between. And that soul-expanding, heart-rending emotionality of standing face to face with the majesty of nature: the shock of the azure sky, the sloping snow-dotted greenswards behind us, the still secrecy of the lake, the knee-buckling scale of the jagged Rockies all around us.

So — no, I am not a hiker, but yes, I am, in the sense that some of my most cherished memories and hard-earned insights from childhood and beyond cluster on the paths of the Rocky mountains, often wearing too-big hiking boots (hand-me-downs from my brother) and too little bug spray. It’s an odd thing, hiking, at least the kind I’ve always enjoyed: you are marching up a narrow trail where many have gone before, often with others close by, and you know that there is nothing particularly remarkable about your effort, but it elicits a kind of tranquil contemplativeness that nearly always borders on the solipsistic. I experience a strange ballooning into and out of myself when hiking: I am focused only on the crunch of rock and dirt beneath me and the placement of my feet in order to avoid debris and twigs and slicks of stone, registering the faint roar of the Roaring Fork or the whistle of wind through the Aspens or the belabored breathing brought on by hiking at elevation, and I find myself alone and empty of thought. It is as if my concerns and anxieties have cleared right out and I am only me, observing the minutiae of this world with a kind of placid vacancy. And I feel at once my centrality and my utter insignificance. I am a speck of dust in this enormous chain of mountains in this vast world and yet the enormity of my experience and the rhythmic thud of my boots on the trail returns me to my body, draws me back in, and I am reconstituted.

“No,” was all I said, stirring my coffee, wordlessly setting aside musings not far afield from Keats’ concept of the negative capability. “We enjoy it but we’ve not been in some time. What about you?”

He pounced on the question with vigor I’d anticipated, informing me enthusiastically of trailheads not far from Manhattan and little stretches of the Adirondacks that he deemed unmissable.

And I nodded and took down the names with appropriate seriousness and all the while wondered, puckishly, what he might have said if I’d replied: “Oh yes, I love to hike. It elicits the dissolution and reconstitution of my soul. What about you?”

The exchange had taken the shape of metafiction. I was aware that I had engaged in a kind of self-abnegation in order to make way for polite conversation, all the while writing a disquisition on the way in which hiking itself interrogates and compromises my own ipseity. The conversation left me pensive, though I believe I successfully cloaked my melancholia with chirpy follow-up questions and commentary on the children playing at our feet, whose candor and expressiveness I suddenly appreciated with new eyes.

I began to wonder when it was, exactly, that I learned to silence myself, and whether it was out of propriety or privacy or both. At one time in my life, I laid claim to an immediate parity between what I experienced and what I expressed: I do not like this; I will scream. I do like this; I will laugh. I want this; I will ask for it. As an adult, on the other hand, I live in a constant state of self-mediation. As it should be, of course: if we all behaved with the compulsiveness of children, spilling whatever was on our minds the minute we felt it, the world would be even ruder and louder than it already is — and, it must be said, we would not be nearly as successful or efficient in achieving various goals of various degrees of purity. Silence, after all, can be a powerful bargaining chip.

But sometimes, the chasm between a polite “no” to accommodate casual conversation and the inward melee of corresponding emotion is so extreme that self-restraint borders on the ascetic, as it did that morning in Gramercy Park, when I felt ill-equipped to outline the scope of my emotions around hiking to this new friend and yet guilty of self-erasure in my silence. Perhaps next time, I’ll leave a bit more meat on the bone. I’ll toss out how much it has meant to me in the past, angling for an opening to more serious exchange. In the meantime, I’ll come here, share this tumbleweed of observations, wonder if I’m alone in it, wait for the ping of an email letting me know how you feel about it all.

Post-Scripts.

+More insights from Aspen.

+If I did hike more regularly, I’d buy these boots.

+These are the best jackets for hiking/outdoor activities while on vacation. Every single member of my family owns one! They are super lightweight and packable and they are great whether in snow or rain. They also insulate surprisingly well with additional layers beneath.

+THIS SWEATER! Dead ringer for a much more expensive style from Rebecca Taylor!

+What is the best class you ever taken?

+I am actually dying over the Intermix sale right now — an extra 50% off all sale items, which means these Jimmy Choos are only $130?!?! In my cart right now: this Saloni ($110?!), this pearl Alexander Wang, and this Stine Goya top ($60!!!)

+Hunter boots for kids, on sale! The classic yellow are only $33!!

+Speaking of rain gear for kids, this gently-used Petit Bateau raincoat is under $40! I love this brand and had this exact color/style for mini when she was itty bitty. (More great rain gear here.)

+This dress is SO FUN.

+Writing and the Roaring Fork River.

+Adore this cheery, 70s-era floral dress.

+Such an elegant blouse in such a beautiful peony pink color. (On sale!)

+Another Staud dress I’m in love with — kind of grown-up, modern-day Felicity Merriman. HA. Can you tell I’m not over my obsession with this podcast?!

11 Comments

  1. I love this piece — as usual, you’ve inspired me to think deeply about a topic I’ve considered, but have never fully fleshed out in my mind … thank you for that! FWIW, I also go through similar situations related to small talk in social situations that make me feel a similar way. I think it’s more common as we grow older — when I was younger, it was somehow easier to dive into these conversations & make my true feelings known, I think!

    Oh, those Danner boots … I want them so much! There’s an independent outdoor gear store near my house where they stock them, and I’m regularly tempted to pick up a pair…

    That floral Zimmermann mini is too perfect — it looks like something my mom or aunts would have worn in the ’70s (in the best way!)

    xx

    1. OMG, I just read over my comment … could I have said “situations” or “similar” more?! lol. Sunday morning & my caffeine supply hasn’t fully coursed through my body quite yet … !

    2. Ha!! Did not notice!!

      That’s an interesting point about it happening more frequently as we get older and older. Maybe we are more guarded or aware that people are generally not as interested in you as you think they are? HA. xx

  2. I’ve often encountered this dynamic, swapping hiking for running. Yes, I am a runner. But am I a “serious” runner? Depends on who is asking and which measuring stick they’re using. I am not particularly fast (I am firmly a middle-of-the-pack runner) nor do I run particularly far (no marathons for me, ever- half marathons only) nor do I run daily (I run every other day). That said, I do run year round no matter what the weather and have for over a decade, and get up at 5:30 AM twice per week to do speed workouts with running group. So yes, running is part of the rhythm of my life- so ingrained in the fabric that it hardly seems worth commenting on, or featuring on social media. etc. But to the ultramarathoner, or the 3:00 hour marathoner, or the daily runner, it’s small potatoes. To someone who has never put on a pair of running shoes in their life, I’m basically Usain Bolt. I suppose this is wandering a bit far from the premise of your very nuanced musing, but all this to say…rarely is a simple question just a simple question. You never know when your polite small talk has opened a giant mental cavern in someone else’s brain. Isn’t human interaction amazing like that? What I would give to peer into the minds of others…

    1. Yes — yes! ” You never know when your polite small talk has opened a giant mental cavern in someone else’s brain. Isn’t human interaction amazing like that?” This is really the crux of it.

      And I agree with you on the relativity of labels. I used to always cringe when people described me as “a blogger.” I felt like I had to quickly explain that I was actually more of a curator or essayist than anything, that I didn’t really qualify since I didn’t have my own pictures or my own styling on the site…but it truly is all relative! FWIW I would categorize you as a very serious runner!!!

      xx

  3. You dive so deeply into topics that could be/are so superficial, it’s amazing – and I do mean that as a compliment, though I can see it might not sound like it.

    I have such a hard time with introspection – often taking the first decent thought that comes to mind and going with it. “Do you hike? ” “No, I don’t enjoy it much.” While in truth I did enjoy it quite a bit at one time, but (after pushing myself to think about it) there are about 100 different reasons why I no longer do. However, I would have never given a second thought as to why I would gave that answer.

    I have more thoughts on this but I’m struggling to articulate them, so I’ll end here by saying that I really appreciate your ability to think so deeply about inconsequential topics. Maybe I’ll go forth with “WWJT? What would Jen think?”

    1. AHHH I’m so flattered! To be fair, this blog gives me a lot of space to sit and think 🙂 But I will take that compliment regardless. Glad this sat well with you this Thursday morning!

      xx

  4. Jen,

    The writing in this piece is just wonderful: the word choice, the sentence structure (“At one time in my life, I laid claim to an immediate parity between what I experienced and what I expressed: I do not like this; I will scream. I do like this; I will laugh. I want this; I will ask for it” – *chef’s kiss*), the introspection. You prompt me to consider activities that inspire a “dissolution and reconstitution of my soul.” W

    You have me now working to untangle silence as a tool in self-preservation and outward civility while reconciling its role in “self-erasure.” It makes me think of the quote by Dr. King: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.” The “things that matter” to which he was referring are, of course, matters larger than ourselves, but it’s an interesting exercise in which we all could engage a little more: what are the “things that matter” to us? Should those items remain constant as the North Star in any situation, prompting us to speak up and direct the discourse down deeper avenues even in polite small talk (like in the instance cited here)? Or do the “things that matter” morph and shift from circumstance to circumstance, giving us the space to remain silent in certain situations without feeling diminutive? The answers to these questions will be different for everyone, which I like.

    Thanks for spurring deep thoughts at 6:30 in the morning! What a way to start the day.

    Annie

    1. Thank you so much, Annie!! “Silence as a tool of self-preservation and outward civility” — yes! That’s exactly it. Self-preservation is exactly the right word. I think you are right about thinking of this from the lens of the “things that matter” — and also in terms of social cues. We all know people who seem completely out of sync with the tone/vibe of a group, who are asking too-serious questions in a light-hearted group or behaving with too much levity in a more serious situation.

      Anyway, thanks for writing in! Love connecting with you here. And thanks for reassuring me that my wild musings weren’t too out of left field. xxx

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