Seated at the back of our family car when I was a child, my eyes would always wander off to the mountains around us, beginning with Mt. Makiling in my hometown of Los Baños and Mt. Banahaw the highest peak in our region, and the mighty summits of the Cordilleras during those summer trips to Baguio. I wanted to know what lay within and beyond those giants of the earth, with various shapes and shades of blue.
And so the mountains, from a young age, instilled in me a sense of wonder. I promised myself that I would climb mountains when I grow older – at least as soon as my parents allowed me.
My father, an environmental scientist, himself accompanied in my first hikes, and so did my mother. Forestry graduates both, they taught me valuable lessons about the value of the environment, and the importance of being responsible in the outdoors. Hiking became a bonding activity for us. For example, my mom and I would always remember the giant cobra we saw crossing the trail in Mt. Makiling. My family went up Mt. Kinabalu in Christmas 2008, and it remains one of my happiest hiking experiences.
When I was older, I joined groups and individuals in their hiking trips. Many of them became good friends, and even now, what’s excites me about hiking is the different people you get to meet along the trail, each with their own perspectives and stories to share. Just recently, a Batak tribesman, Tatay Leonardo, guided us through the majestic Cleopatra’s Needle in Palawan and we learned a lot from him about their way of life: navigating through the jungle, looking for forest fruits, gathering honey from the wild bees, and even catching fish in the rivers.
There are many other encounters – from the rebels and soldiers I met in Mindanao to the highland farmers and healers in the Cordilleras. Hiking, if you come to think of it, takes you not just to mountains but also to cities, towns, villages: every mountaineer is necessarily a traveler. And with traveling comes education: we learn about our country beyond the cities that we’ve grown familiar with, and we get to know the people, their joys and miseries, their struggles and their dreams. In this way, hiking provides a sense of connectedness to the world around me: to my family, to my friends, to my country, and to distant lands. From mere places on a map, they become part of our lives.
Technology has allowed virtual forms of staying connected, and to the incredulity of many, I can now upload a video of what I’m seeing from the peak while I’m on the peak! However, this ‘hyperconnectivity’notwithstanding, what hiking offers us is a respite from our everyday lives. I think we all need this kind of break, once in a while. When was the last time that you actually looked at the moon and contemplated its beauty? Eclipses happen rarely, but oftentimes, we allow man-made things and circumstances to eclipse nature and the wisdom it can give us.
On the other hand, when I am on the mountain, I am far away from the comforts of modernity, from the noise and the traffic, from the news and the all the distractions. Amid the playlist of birds and the glow of fireflies, I learn to appreciate small things like being dry inside your tent or feeling the gust of wind on a dry and cloudless day. More importantly, this kind of austerity makes me focus on the things that really matter. Walking in the shadow of century-old trees, one realises how petty our anxieties are, while the sheer grandeur of the mountain itself can humble us. By providing a sanctuary for the spirit and by providing metaphors for life, the mountains give us a sense of peace.
A sense of wonder, a sense of connectedness, and a sense of peace: these are just a few of the things that the mountains have given me. There are certainly others: I can go on and talk about hiking as a form of exercise, how they have helped me live a healthy life, and how they have given me confidence, knowing that with dedication and perseverance, we can reach the summits and goals of our lives. Sharing my passion for the mountains – through my website, through social media, and to the people around me – is my way of paying it forward: I want people to discover the mountains because of the good that it can give them. But I also want people to discover the mountains for the mountains’own good, believing that appreciation is the best way to nurture a concern for the environment. Indeed, if only people get to see more of our natural heritage, the world will be a much better place.
What we make of life would depend on our outlook. Think negative and the dark side of life will fill your thoughts but dwell in the beautiful and the good and you will be filled with nostalgia for the past, joy in the present, and hope for the future.
The same is true with the mountains. The pictures may conjure an image of paradise, but the mountains are not always a comfortable place. Insects and leeches will bite you. The heat and the cold, as well as the distance and the altitude, will test your body and spirit. It can be lonely out there, too, and certainly there were many times when I longed for home. But when you learn to find happiness in the deep forests, in the blue mountains, on high peak and endless trail; when your heart learns to sing through the snow and the rain, the smile that comes to you when you see the mountain will follow you to the peak, and it will never leave you, even after the hike is done.
And you will keep coming back.