February 2016, I am driving through the Atlas mountains in Morocco. The air is crisp, the mountains are powdered with too little snow for the season. I am careful, there are potholes as big as craters, rocks, a drop of a few hundred meters on the side. The road is narrow. I wished I had a jeep or a 4x4. Instead, I honed my skills as a small car driver, fine tuned my reflexes when oncoming cars come racing on the other side. Thankfully they are few and far between. The difficult access keeps those areas relatively unspoilt. Each valley or pass was breathtakingly beautiful. It ranged from dark volcanic rock, to a yellow, red clay, to a lunar and martian landscape. I was transported to a suspended time full of anachronisms. Villages looked stuck in a different era, until you see they all have satellite dishes on their flat roof ( with often no hot water or heating) The road became significantly worse, the car felt very fragile. This is the moment I thought: You Mountains, you really make me earn this.
I stopped, I took a shot.
It required going against many including my family’s advice to drive alone up there, it is not something customary in my estranged home land. It required me to look at a map and go, see what happens. Exciting !
I make sure I have cash, there are no Atm up there, check the weather forecast and the roads status.
The car however is a bubble, a cell, a shield. The car provides a skewed perception of time and distances.
Hiking can provide us with a more bodily experience. It allows us to move through time and space in the mountains, the valleys, the coast line, feel their temperatures, their scent, overcome their challenges and our vulnerabilities in both physical and mental way. We can then start to understand their identity, and our own..
I hiked Arouss gorges in the Happy Valley, a 10 km / 600 m elevation day hike through a gorge that took me to Ikkis, at 2276m altitude. It is a very rugged harsh beautiful landscape, the ascent is very slow. I had to understand the habitat to understand the berbers in the Atlas.
Time slows down, almost stopped. Stillness. Silence. Only the wind speaks. Donkeys appear carrying loads of bushes to the village a couple hours down. They walk alone, they know the path, it is by now in their genes. They carry the history of this land on their backs. I reach the small cluster of houses that is Ikkis, only reachable through the path I walked. They offer me tea and bread, a welcome warm drink for the wind turned bitter cold. Villagers here have next to nothing, they live a very harsh life, yet they will always offer a cup of tea and something to eat. I am likely the only distraction of the day or week. There is barely any visitor in this area at this time of year.
No matter how remote you are, you are never totally isolated here. There seem to always be someone somewhere, a camouflage village, closer than you think.
Canada's rockies have a totally different identity. They have a lot more sounds, the dead trees squeak, the leafs whisper in the wind in concert with birds and squirrels.
Vast takes a whole new meaning here, upscaled. I picked a target and off I went. Trails can get very busy here, I prefer the quieter ones, I set out early. I encounter a lot hikers or campers and wildlife but no hidden villages in those immense spaces.
The sentinel pass is a 12 km day hike starting in the very busy Moraine lake near Lake Louise, with a 732 elevation gain. It has it all, a steep switchback through a dense forest at the start to feed and challenge fitness, it had me huffing and puffing. After that welcome active rest through the larch valley had me eaten alive by mosquitoes the size of helicopters, but gave me goosebumps with the view of the 10 peaks and Minnestimma lake before the second switch back to the ridge. That one was more challenging than it looked and was in part still covered in some snow.
I had to pace myself in the Rockies. Altitude demands it. I didn't like it. I didn't like feeling out of breath and dizzy if I sped up. Part of me thought: Good thing I am alone, no one is watching me struggle, after all if I backtracked no one would know. But I would. The other part of me wished for a voice telling me: Come on ,you can do it! That too, I realise I can do.
Giuseppe Penone, an artist of Arte Povera movement, speaks of " the space of an identity, how space, in an architectural sense is identity". This identity is not only perceptible through a visual observation, it has to be interacted with, sensed, sweat, smelled. The world around us isn’t to be appreciated solely through our eyes. We have a lot of other tools at our disposal. I am not talking about external ones. It is more bodily than that.
Our bodies do take up space in the world, they are space in the space of this world, they are surface and containers, a landscape in itself. There is also a space in our minds, a very expansive one. All these 3 are connected. We sometimes forget it. Wilderness reconnects the dots.
Challenge we embark on alone allow us to grow, take off the layers and step out of our old shoes faster. Nobody around has any label or expectation of how we would react “traditionally”. We are free to drop the old way as we go through landscapes and mindscapes.
Upon reaching the ridge at the Sentinel, I found myself taken by a swarm of butterflies in my stomach. I couldn't stop smiling, I wanted to jump up and down. I was mindful of the few others on the ridge. At the top it always make perfect sense. I didn't want to go back. Going back down is always filled with a mix of melancholy and euphoria. I like hikes that offer a different way down.
The time at our disposal each day is elastic; the passions we feel dilate it, those that inspire us shrink it, and habit fills it. Marcel Proust. Everything is relative and subjective. Time also. It has tension, it can be elastic.
A couple of years ago I decided to take the yellow line of the road i have been following into the sky. I learnt to skydive solo over the Atlas mountains. It was my hardest challenge. By taming the landscape, we tame ourselves, our fears, we face them and their puzzles. Skydiving calls for a complete rewire of reflex and proprioceptive feedback. We are terrestrial beings, with feedback on the sole of our feet. Through flight there is no feedback on the sole of the foot. Learning to navigate in the air at 250 km/h is a totally different ball game. Now there's a totally different way to feel and experience the landscape, through speed this time and a totally new viewpoint. It also flips the slowing down time to experience fully on its head: speed and adrenaline do slow time in this occasion and 40 seconds freefly can feel like 10 minutes.
The way up is vastly different from the way down, with a landing on a total high!
What is your experience of taming and feeling the world around? Are you on foot, bike, boat, on or under water?The desert, the mountains or the ocean?Tell us!