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.