On Saturday, I will take a leave of absence to walk in the footsteps — at least metaphorically — of Beethoven and commune with nature, hoping to decipher her secrets and find inspiration. It's a long walk — hence the required leave, rather than a vacation — to navigate the Te Araroa, New Zealand's version of the Appalachian Trail. "Te Araroa" in Maori means "long pathway," and at over 1800 miles, that is a bit of an understatement. It will take me an estimated five months to finish.
I lead a double life of two intense joys: as a classical music host at American Public Media/Minnesota Public Radio and as a long-distance backpacker. Walking has always been my passion, my solace and my truest love. These two come together regularly, like in my earliest memory of singing while looking down at my feet carrying me along a sidewalk. Likewise, when we moved from the New York suburbs to the New Hampshire countryside and having just learned to whistle, I was often lost for hours — and late for dinner — exploring the woods and fields. But it wasn't until my dad took me to Yosemite when I was 13 and I played my flute on top of Half Dome that I realized just how far my feet could take me.
I have hiked trails long and short, and have found my love growing only deeper over the years. A couple of my thru-hikes include the John Muir and Colorado Trails; La Grande Traversee des Alpes, France; El Circuito de Torres del Paine, Chile; the Baltoro Glacier to K2, Pakistan; and the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Traverse, South Africa. And every day, rain or shine, heat wave or blizzard, I walk the 2 miles from Summit Hill down to the office studio and back home.
Walking is good for you — and for the creative mind, as so many composers were fully aware. J.S. Bach walked 250 miles to hear the greatest organist of his day, Dieterich Buxtehude, give a concert. Richard Wagner wandered onto trails in the Alps and orchestrated his walks most famously in Forest Murmurs from his opera Siegfried. Peter Tchaikovsky became so obsessed with his daily constitutional that he superstitiously timed his walks precisely for two hours each day, believing if he returned even a few minutes early, great misfortune would befall him. But we forgive his obsession upon hearing the carefree Serenade for Strings that feels like one of those perfect walking days, a mix of sunshine and a light, caressing breeze.
Morton Feldman, Benjamin Britten, Edward Elgar and Mahler were all morning people, composing early and after lunch walking for several hours with notebook at hand. I feel deep kinship with the first movement of Mahler's Symphony No. 1, filled with bird calls. He tells the performers to play "like a sound of nature." The melody, which seems to emanate right from the trees and grasses themselves, is one he used as a song to words that describe so many walker's transcendent experience:
I walked across the fields this morning,
Dew still hung on the grass,
The merry finch said to me:
'You there, hey —
Good morning! Hey, you there!
Isn't it a lovely world?
Tweet! Tweet! Bright and sweet!
O how I love the world!'
Perhaps the most famous walker in all of music was Eric Satie. He lived 6 miles from Paris' Montmartre district, where he set up his "office" in the local cafes and communed with the leading artists of the day. He would purposely stay out so late that he would miss the last train home and be forced to walk all those miles. But he never rushed, and was said to take in whatever appeared before him with deep interest. I imagine Satie and the great naturalist John Muir would have made good friends, as Muir wrote that he despised the term "hike."
"I don't like either the word or the thing," he said. "People ought to saunter in the mountains — not 'hike'!"
You can hear in Satie's unusual wandering beat and tempo that he was a saunterer of the highest order and happy to be so!
While on my long, sauntering walk, I will, of course, be blogging and posting videos and photos on social media, but I am delighted to be involved in a project that has used all my skills, creating 4-minute "audio narratives." An audio narrative documents impressions and experiences for an immersive experience, almost like a conversation. Consequently, the listener becomes a participant in the act of discovery, the decision-making and the myriad emotions activated by long-distance walking.
I invite you to follow me at my website, Blissful Hiker.
Alison Young will continue to be heard as the host of SymphonyCast during her leave.
Alison Young's hiking playlist
Click the player above to hear Alison Young's classical playlist for a cross-country hike, which includes these works:
Gareth Farr: The Horizon from Owhiro Bay
Henry Wong Doe, piano
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral)
New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein
Morton Feldman: Voices and Cello
San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, directed by Stephen L. Mosko
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Marin Alsop
Eric Satie: Gymnopedie No. 1
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano
Richard Wagner: Forest Murmurs
Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by George Szell
Peter Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings
St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Slatkin
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