04 // Hiking, Camping, and Freedom From Choice

Hiking along the Muddy Hollow trail, toward Limantour Beach, at Point Reyes National Seashore. Image by Gitanjali Bhattacharjee.

After an intensive end to the spring quarter here at Stanford, I was glad that I’d had the foresight at the start of the quarter to book a campsite at Point Reyes National Seashore for a few days at the end of June. I wrote a lot while camping, turning the past year over in my mind, reflecting on how I'd grown and what had helped me to grow.

During my trip, I realized once again that above all, order and discipline bring me peace of mind. This is one of the fundamental draws of camping, and of hike-in sites especially. I cannot rest until I’ve had dinner, and I cannot have dinner until I’ve unpacked my pack, and I cannot unpack my pack until I’ve set up my tent, and I cannot set up my tent until I’ve located my campsite, and I cannot locate my campsite until I’ve reached the campground, and I cannot reach the campground until I’ve put one foot in front of the other, over and over, for a few miles.

So there’s no point in thinking too far ahead - there is one order, a definitive linear order to follow in the world of camping. Sometimes, I don’t even have the extra energy to think - I am entirely consumed by the act of putting one foot in front of the other, perhaps because my pack is heavy, or the sun is hot, or the trail goes ever more steeply upward. In any case, I cannot progress unless I follow that one order to things. And it’s soothing to not have any choices beyond when to stop for water, or to admire a view.

View of the estuary from Muddy Hollow Trail, Point Reyes National Seashore. Image by Gitanjali Bhattacharjee.

It’s for that reason - that certain and linear, though not predictable path - that hiking and camping never fail to transport me back to l'Abbaye de Sénanque, in the picturesque paysage of southern France. This is a landscape baptized by the blazing sun, which dries out the earth and everything on it, reducing the scene to essential hues - saturated, sun-baked lavender, sand and gravel, brush in shades of green and red and purple and yellow, bursts of flamingo-pink flowers beneath an azure sky.

Salle du chapitre at l'abbaye de Sénanque, where we sat and discussed the monastic life. Image from the website of l'abbaye de Sénanque.

In the valleys of this landscape are abbeys, some of which I visited as part of my artist’s education at the Marchutz School. We were assigned to read not only about paintings and drawings but also about literature, architecture, music - I quickly lost the sense of these fields as separate things, and began to see them as different approaches to the same thing instead.

And so we read about the architecture of the Cistercian abbeys, like Sénanque, and the architecture of the lives that played out - and in some cases, still play out - within their cool stone walls. Christopher Alexander, Thomas Merton - we read their reflections, and then John in his careful and practiced voice would read excerpts aloud as we sat in the shade of the arcades that bordered an inner courtyard, or in a room just off the arcade, where the monks might meet.

We learned that the days of the monks were internally varied, but each day had the same basic construction - rising before dawn for this office or that, eating, working in the fields, resting, another office, another task, another meal, vespers, and so on. Imagine all your days laid before you, stretching from the present moment to beyond your reckoning. As a child I would have rejected such a notion out of hand; as an adult, caught up in the endless decision-making of modern life, I see the appeal.

The monks experienced God, at least in part, through routine and repetition. This is a crude paraphrasing of the texts we read in preparation for our visit to Sénanque - but as I remember it, the basic idea was that by engaging oneself - body, mind, and soul - entirely in the present, one might glimpse eternity. The daily routine serves this purpose by providing a scaffolding - some measure of certainty, such that one need not anticipate the future, but experience it as it unfolds.

Hiking and camping allow for that same privilege - freedom from the multitude of choices we are presented with in everyday life. From conversations with my parents and older friends, this seems to be a relatively new phenomenon. In fact, when I ask my parents for advice these days, they tend to sigh, remarking that the lives of young people nowadays are far more complicated than theirs ever were. Having heard stories of their many and complicated emigrations, that remark struck me as strange - until my dad told me the story of his arrival in India, to illustrate his point.

My dad grew up in Malaysia and then emigrated to India to attend medical school. I asked him how he arranged this move, in the pre-Internet dark ages, given that he knew no one in Chandigarh. Having struggled myself to find a place to live when moving from Austin to Los Angeles, I was curious how he had managed without online services like Craigslist or AirBNB. He told me that the decision for him to attend medical school in India was one he had made in consultation with his family, my grandparents. Word spread in their community, and my Takurmah (grandmother) got to chatting with the grocer one day. The grocer had heard about Dad’s impending move and happened to have family in Chandigarh, a brother and sister-in-law. The grocer’s brother and his wife were childless, and made up for it by taking in strays, students who had come to Chandigarh to study and needed a place to call home.

My dad arranged to stay with the grocer’s brother by letter, and when the time came, made his way to Chandigarh. He ended up at the bus station on a rainy night, waiting for the grocer’s brother to collect him. In a moment of true millennial foolishness, I asked why he hadn’t just called the grocer’s brother. My dad pointed out that these were pre-cell-phone days. I asked what he would have done had the grocer not shown up. He replied that he had their address written on a piece of paper, and that he would have made his way there on foot. I couldn’t believe that this was all he had to go on - a piece of paper with an address. What kind of security could something so fragile provide?

The grocer’s brother did turn up at the bus station that night. He, his wife, and my dad became like family. So much so that the grocer’s brother interfered quite significantly in my dad’s life. My dad had been accepted to two medical schools, but the grocer’s brother only told him of the one acceptance, to a nearby (and quite prestigious) medical school. He figured my dad would do better staying in the area, near family. It was at that medical school that my dad met my mum, over a cadaver. Not quite a meet cute, but cute enough that I ended up here, writing to you.

My dad’s point was that he didn’t, in fact, have many choices along the way. He worked hard, took help from well-meaning people as it was offered, made the most of the opportunities that came his way, and life worked out. Meanwhile, my friends and I talk about decision paralysis with the same casualness as we discuss weekend plans. It has become common parlance rather than esoteric jargon; articles on how to beat it abound on the web.

In my experience, the problems of decision making are compounded by our need to have the best of everything - the finest coffee, the optimal notebook, the perfect gear. Every interaction is an opportunity for an experience, and every experience presents an opportunity for an improvement, for a “hack”. Brand experience and user experience design are well-defined jobs. Moreover, we’re told these days to brand ourselves as individuals - that we should have a clear mission statement or elevator pitch, that we should build our digital presence, that we should build a foundation upon which we can ascend to the elite ranks of “thought leaders”.

To be clear, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with seeking better products, better design, or better experiences. Case in point: I’m currently sitting at a highly aesthetically refined coffee shop where the drip coffee costs four dollars a cup, despite my lack of the kind of palate that can distinguish between good coffee and bad. But this particular coffee shop has the sort of ambiance I’m drawn to. You’re unlikely to catch me sitting and writing in a Starbucks. And that’s a conscious decision I’ve made - to seek out particular café experiences.

But seeking ever-better experiences can quickly become a recipe for discontent. Whenever I think about this particular conundrum, I’m reminded of my high school French class. My classmates and I were assigned a list of French idioms to learn by heart. (My teacher was somewhat old school in her methods, which I now appreciate. I’ve always admired my older friends’ capacity to recall quotes verbatim, and I realize now that this capacity was likely a result of differing educational standards, ones that valued repetition and memorization.) Of that list, a few have stuck, among them - le mieux est l’ennemi du bien. Or, perfect is the enemy of good.

Setting up camp at Sky Camp, Point Reyes National Seashore. Image by Gitanjali Bhattacharjee.

This can, of course, happen with camping and hiking. There are websites dedicated to rating camping gear for different purposes, which I frequented when I decided to invest in my own one-person tent. After copious research, I got fed up, decided I didn’t in fact need the lightest, most technologically advanced tent, and bought one that I’ve found suits me just fine. There’s the effort put into finding a great campsite. In California, that problem tends to sort itself out, as there are never more than a few sites - if any are available at all - to choose from.

But I find it personally difficult to be discontent once the details of a trip have been sorted. Once I’ve set off into the woods, or up the mountain, or across the beach, I have only myself and the kindness of strangers to rely upon. There are no hacks or shortcuts, no better or worse experiences to have - just the trail ahead, and the gear in my pack, and the roar of the ocean I can’t yet see.