It’s the Little Hikes that Mean the Most

In 1997 I hiked the Alpine Pass Route (APR), a 340 km (211 mi) trail that spans the breadth of Switzerland. Starting in the village of Sargans on the border with Liechtenstein, the route traverses sixteen mountain passes before reaching its western terminus at Montreux, located on Lake Geneva. Although I’d been hiking and backpacking for many years prior to the APR, for all intents and purposes that was my first “long-distance” hike.

Yours truly on pass #7 of the Alpine Pass Route / Switzerland, 1997.

The Swiss Bombadil

One of the most memorable aspects of the APR was meeting and spending time with Marc, a 66-year-old gentleman who hailed from the Bernese Oberland region. Marc had a sage-like quality that struck me from the moment we met. He had spent his entire life in the Alps and had trodden many of its vast network of pathways. In his youth, he accompanied his father and grandfather, and as he got older, he introduced his own children and grandkids to the wonders of walking in the Swiss mountains.

When Marc spoke of his ‘hiking life,’ the abiding connection he felt for his native region shone through in every word. The way in which he described each valley, peak, meadow, cirque, and lake was as if he was talking about a beloved family member or a dear friend. The same applied when he mentioned local fauna, such as the sure-footed ibex and chamois, or the majestic golden eagle. No detail was too trivial or small. The warmth in his voice was equally evident in his deep smile lines and weather-beaten countenance. He was like a Swiss Tom Bombadil – without the endearingly silly songs and yellow boots (though he did have a blue jacket). Speaking of footwear, one of the many things I remember about Marc was that he had been using the same leather walking boots (they were Raichles) for 33 years. He told me that he needed to go to his village cobbler every three or four years to resole them! 

If you’ve gotten this far, you may be wondering why I’m reminiscing about an elderly Swiss chap I met almost a quarter of a century ago? What’s the story behind the story?

Lake Oeschinen | Alpine Pass Route, Switzerland, 1997

Finding the Extraordinary in the Ordinary (and the positive in the crappy)

When I met Marc, I was in my mid-20s – a wayfarer whose imagination brimmed over with dreams of experiencing the world’s far-flung corners. In contrast, he was an ambulatory homebody who was on a first-name basis with every root, rock, and blade of grass in his local area. Despite this difference in our ages and hiking dispositions, Marc may have influenced my outdoor life as much as anyone I’ve met. 

In him, I sensed a mutual affinity with the natural world that went beyond the norm. I remember writing in my Spiral notebook journal at the time, “I wonder if I’ll still have the same twinkle in my eye and skip in my step forty years down the track?” However, I also discerned another quality to which I aspired but hadn’t fully realized until then –  the ability to identify and embrace wonder within the parameters of my everyday life. Or, to put it another way, find the extraordinary in the ordinary.

You might be thinking, “that doesn’t sound so tough in a place as beautiful as the Swiss Alps.” Perhaps, however, I would counter with the following points: 1. Familiarity can be a harbinger of disinterest, irrespective of how aesthetically pleasing a landscape may be, and; 2. The weather was uniformly crappy for the two days Marc and I spent hiking together. 

Regarding the first point, whether on trail or off, the wide-eyed curiosity we have as children can often be dulled by the repetitions and responsibilities of our everyday lives. The reverse seemed to be true with Marc. In his case, familiarity had led to a more profound level of appreciation. Every natural feature and creature meant something to him. As for the second point, he was hiking in wet and wild conditions on a trail he’d done countless times before. Unlike myself, he wasn’t on a schedule; he had no train or flight to catch. And yet, there he was happier than a St.Bernard with two tails and a bottomless food bowl. He was out there simply because he loved it. I’ve never forgotten that.

Channeling my inner Marc on the infamously inclement Arthur Range Traverse / Tasmania, 2015.

Taking Notice

Not long after saying my farewells to Marc, I finished the APR and flew back to Mexico. The beauty of the Swiss Alps had left an indelible impression, but perhaps more importantly, there was a change in how I felt about the daily walks I took in the mountains around my home. I’d always loved these hikes and had never taken them for granted, but after returning from Switzerland, I made a concerted effort not to overlook the little things simply because they were familiar. That shift in perspective was subtle rather than seismic, but by upping the awareness ante, I started noticing more of nature’s mini-miracles, and the feelings of union I had for my surroundings grew even stronger. 

Hiking locally in Mexico’s Sierra Madre / October 2021.

Cornerstones

In the years since my trek across Switzerland, I’ve had the good fortune to do many more long-distance hikes around the world. Among these trips have been ancient pilgrimage paths, well-known classic trails, and challenging routes in remote backcountry areas. I’ve enjoyed them all, and some of the most memorable times of my life have occurred during these extended wilderness journeys. 

However (you knew that was coming), it’s the little hikes on trails I’ve done hundreds of times that I ultimately cherish the most. Just like the consistent and unbidden small gestures of love that are more important than grandiose gifts in a relationship, these regular walks represent the cornerstones of my ‘hiking life.’ They are the paths I walk on chilly mornings, in the pouring rain, on steamy mid-summer days, at sunrise, at sunset, and sometimes under the light of a full moon. They are the portal through which I endeavor to see the “world in a grain of sand.” And for this gift of perspective, I need to say thank you to a venerable Swiss gentleman with the most well-worn pair of hiking boots I’ve ever seen.

Marc – Swiss Alps, 1997

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19 Replies to “It’s the Little Hikes that Mean the Most”

  1. Well said Cam!
    At 83 it is surely the local hills so well known that give meaning to life. Even after a fairly major heart attack I can still walk my lovely Port Hills for a couple of hours or more. I never tire of the same walks as each time is a little different, clouds, mist, wind, rain or changing seasonal flowers etc. Nothing beats the dawn viewed from a peak overlooking the Port of Lyttleton heads and a coffee from the Sign of the Kiwi afterwards is fantastic.

  2. This immediately takes me back to 2000 when I lived in the Sargans valley in Vaduz for work. I loved it and felt one with nature. I did not hike APR (yet) but only the Mont Blanc Circuit and many trails around Sargans and Liechtenstein.

    Now, I have my own hutte in the White Mountain National Forest in NH which always reminds me of my hiking days in Switzerland.

    1. Hi Karen,
      Thanks for the message. I remember your comment on the Liechtenstein Panoramaweg from a year and a half ago, relating to the WW2 bunkers in the Sargans area.
      Cheers,
      Cam

    1. One of my favorite authors! Funnily enough, I was going through a Hesse period in my mid-20’s when I hiked the Swiss trek referenced in the article.

  3. I too have some local favourite hikes that I love to do regardless of conditions. Thanks for sharing this new perspective! I will continue to do these and keep noticing the unique rock or wild tree root, and even find something new!

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Mags! When I was writing the article, I actually remembered all of the hours you used to spend driving out to remote parts of Colorado and Utah just for the weekend.

  4. Wonderful perspective! I very rarely get out more than one night at a time, but I know the local trails like the back of my hand. It is truly grand to see the changes with the seasons, the unique arrangement of the leaves on the ground in fall, the alternating of snow, ice, and mud in the winter, the greenness of spring and its gradual fade through the summer. It’s all part of what allows me to truly enjoy the same 25 miles of trails every day of the year. Keep up the great work, and enjoy the Sierra Madre! Un saludo cordial.

  5. Thanks for the article. It is true, some of the little hikes are not first to pop up in our minds, but the little hikes have a very interesting story to tell too. You’ve encouraged me and given me another wonderful perspective. Thanks.

  6. Great article Cam, with a powerful meaning. Being a local guide for 30 yrs. in the same areas, I figured out pretty early on, that I needed to keep it fresh, interesting and always new for my clients. Luckily, (like you), I’ve always had a sense of wonder regarding nature. I would almost always find new things on trails hiked hundreds of times, and still do, since nature is constantly changing, evolving, growing, moving etc. It surely didn’t hurt that I had a nat’l park, (Joshua Tree), and couple state parks, wilderness areas, natural palm oases, streams & waterfalls, the San Andreas fault and much more, to journey into.
    I liked your comment about how this attitude can also apply to relationships, (even to ourselves).
    Btw, always enjoy the photos you include to give us all a feeling on the area & what you may have gone through.

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