I could write of the beautiful woman with the sad face, or the strange man living in a tent in the middle of the track. Instead, I would like to write of an empty mind.
I first noticed– if I can put it that way – my empty mind on the third day of a recent hike in the mountains. It was an afternoon, when I would typically tire of the steep climbs and sharp drops, when I began to sense that my feet had had enough, when I automatically put one foot in front of the other with little thought for what was to come. All of a sudden, I had a thought. I do not recall the thought, but I was struck by the fact that it was actually a thought. Or rather, I became aware that this was the first thought that had come to my mind in more than two hours.
Until that moment, my mind had been completely empty of any thought whatsoever. Normally, my mind is full to overflowing. A crucial part of hiking or indeed cycling over long distances, day after day, is that my mind may run freely. Thrillingly pleasant and completely unpleasant thoughts run across one another without hindrance. I revisit old arguments and win them. I recall journeys once made, places where I stopped and camped, even retracing in detail the trails once followed. I talk to trees, thanking one for giving me some dropped wood for a fire or thanking another for taking care of my pack as I lean it up against the trunk. As I become older, I have ever richer memory tracks, conjuring up moments I thought forever forgotten.
But I have rarely had an empty mind. Once that solitary thought had come and gone on the third day of hiking, my mind became empty once again. Half a day it continued – blank. The next day was the same, and the next. In the mornings, I went through the routine of packing the tent and sleeping gear without thought for what I was doing. The evenings were the same, with pitching camp, lighting a fire and cooking a meal. Twelve hours sleep would follow and the day would begin again.
The day after I had finished my mountain hiking, some thoughts began to return. Above all, I wondered about – indeed, I marvelled at – my experience of an empty mind. Was it exhaustion, when all my energy was devoted to finding water, to determining how much food remained, to making it to the next camping spot? Not really, since I was not that exhausted. Normally, tiredness brings out old annoyances and arguments, even people with whom I no longer have any contact (in fact, I see little point in maintaining any contact whatsoever with such people). On a bicycle or out on a trail, I clear those annoyances from my system, leaving them beside the trail as I ride or hike on. By contrast, the empty mind was akin to the effects of meditation. My body’s repetitive acts, of walking for hours on end, up and down one mountain after another, brought my mind to a state of complete calm. Not an easy achievement in a time of information overload and endless stimulus, of massive diaries and appointments to keep. But it is one I wish to achieve again.