text and photography by Dr. Norris Frederick
“The great point is that the possibilities are really here. The issue is decided nowhere else than here and now. That is what gives the palpitating reality to our moral life and makes it tingle with so strange and elaborate an excitement.” — William James
It is a picture-perfect mid-October morning in the North Carolina mountains, with a cloudless blue sky. It’s chilly enough for an anorak over my flannel shirt. My friend Ike and I have planned this trip for months, so we’re happy and excited about our day hike.
I’m driving us down a dirt road nicknamed by the locals the “Kistler Memorial Highway.” Every time I hit a pothole, we bounce up toward the car roof and shout “damn!” and then laugh. We pass by the turnoff to Linville Falls, and then ride another mile or so to the parking area for the Bynum Bluff Trail, which will take us down into the Linville Gorge, where at the bottom we’ll find the Linville River.
We’ve chosen this trail partly because it’s lightly traveled, so I’m surprised and a bit disappointed when we pull off in the parking area and see several people standing around pickup trucks. Not what I expected.
We are greeted by a smiling young guy who is wearing an orange vest and cap. “Howdy!”
Ike asks him, “What’s your group doing this morning?”
The young man mumbles. One word that comes through clearly to me is “bar.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t get that,” says Ike.
Again the young man mumbles, and we hear “bar.”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t live around here,” Ike says to the young man, “and I’m having trouble understanding what you’re saying.” Ike, like me was born in Charlotte. He’s been living in the Washington, DC, area for 35 years.
I say to Ike, “He’s saying that they are running the dogs through the woods, hunting bars. Bears.”
“Oh,” Ike says, “I didn’t get that.”
The young guy laughs, and when we tell him we’re going to hike the trail, he says, “Watch out for snakes down by the river.”
Beginning the Hike
As we start down the trail, Ike asks, “How did you understand what he was saying?”
“The key was the word ‘bars.’ I knew he meant ‘bears,’ but you’ve been away too long from the regional dialect. Once I had that part of the sentence, I had an expectation about the other words he was saying, and it all fell into place.”
The trail is level and we are the only hikers, as we are for the entire hike. Almost all the trees are hardwoods, with beautiful red and yellow leaves. Our spirits lift as the experience begins to match our ideas of the trail and the day, what we’d hoped for and expected.
We stop a couple of times to take photos. I want to remember what this looks like, and I want to send photos to friends, and maybe use them in a blog post.
We walk, we look, we talk, we laugh. Ike and I have been best friends since we were ten years old, and our conversations range from ideas about a good life to the joking and poking-fun conversations of the 14-year-old boys we still are at some level.
We are happy.
After this easy walk of about 30 minutes, there is a sudden change. We come to what appears to be a fork in the trail. To our right a path takes a precipitous drop over a series of large rocks, some lower than others, that ultimately lead lower to what may be a trail. Hard to tell for sure.
The other fork has an even sharper drop. Surely that can’t be the trail? We pause and talk for a few minutes, and then decide to go down the right fork. At each step, we look for some earth where we can plant our hiking poles, then take a long step to a foothold on the next rock, trying to keep our weight on the higher and back foot until the balance is right. Tumbling forward is the last thing we want to do.
Not what I expected.
We make it through the first steep drop, breathe a sigh of relief, and then we can walk a bit on the sharply descending trail. Soon we find another steep drop with its own set of rocks to descend. This occurs again and again. We are descending into the gorge, and we see the mountain walls rising higher on the other side of the gorge.
Going through my mind is the question many real hikers — like the ones who hiked the entire Appalachian Trail straight-through — have been asked:
“What were you thinking about as you hiked?”
Their answer: “The next step.”
It’s not very inspiring, but it’s important to think about the next step. Whenever I start to think about “being in the present” on this descent, that’s when I don’t pay attention and miss placing a sure step on a rock and stumble forward perilously. “Thinking about being in the present” is not the same thing as “being in the present.”
At a couple of points we say, “This can’t be the trail,” and we stand and talk before deciding to continue. Unlike the Appalachian Trail, there are no blaze marks on trees to let hikers know the way. We feel the anxiety of uncertainty as well as the anxiety of not wanting to fall. This is physically and emotionally exhausting. If we were 30 years old it would be one thing, but we’re in our early 70s (early, early 70s).
This trail is not matching our expectations, our mental pictures, of what the hike would be like. AllTrails.com had at one point rated this trail “easy,” which boggles the imagination, and in the last few months AllTrails changed it to “moderate.” Still, not what I’d expect for moderate.
We descend in this manner for about an hour, and then through the trees we suddenly glimpse the Linville River!
We still have a way to go, but we’re getting close to the bottom of the gorge. Our spirits lift. After another few minutes we begin to hear the river and some falls, and then we climb down to the flat, rocky bottom surrounding the river. We walk about one hundred yards and take in the falls, which you can see here:
We drink some water, take photos, rest for about 20 minutes — keeping an eye out for snakes, and then we begin back up the way we came down. Although we are tired and climbing up is hard work, it’s much easier this time. There’s less risk of falling, and we are very happy to have the hiking poles that provide leverage as we take the huge steps necessary to go over the rocks. And this time we are sure we are on the right trail. It’s what we expected for the return trip.
By the time we ascend to the ridge again, we are very glad we took on this challenge, glad we did not give up. It was a meaningful hike.
Hiking, Life, and Philosophy: William James
As it happens, the philosopher and psychologist William James (1842-1910) was also an avid hiker who loved the outdoors. He even hiked in North Carolina! He owned a farm with a view of Mount Chocorua, in the White Mountains of New Hampshire (AllTrails.com says of the Mount Chocorua loop, “only recommended for very experienced adventurers”). Several key ideas of James’ philosophy are helpful to me in understanding our hike, and I hope you will find them a helpful philosophy for living today.
1. Ideas are tools that guide our experience of reality. Reality often outruns our expectations. Be open to that reality.
James writes, “True ideas are states of mind that provide “a leading [back to experience] that is worthwhile.” Ideas are inspired by experiences, and true ideas are those that guide us back into the “particulars of experience again and make advantageous connection with them.”
On the hike I had numerous expectations – beliefs about the future – that turned out to be false: they did not lead back well to experience. Some were the results of my lazy research. Not until after the hike did I read a guide that rated Bynum Bluff Trail as “moderate in parts; strenuous in other parts.” I read more of the comments on AllTrails and saw many hikers who commented on the difficulty of the trail. And after the hike, I also learned that bear hunting season had begun the day before our hike, hence the hunters.
And – duh – we were descending the Linville Gorge, so of course the trail is going to be steep!
An unconscious expectation I had is that an experience that meets all my expectations is the best experience. Not so in this case! I’m very glad that I didn’t know in advance everything we’d experience on this hike. The unexpected challenges, as well as the beauty in unexpected places, are part of what made this hike so very worthwhile.
I would say the same thing about my life.
2. Choices, and the result of those choices, are real.
When our beliefs become challenged sufficiently – like our belief that we were on the trail – doubt arises. Doubt is an unpleasant state. But from that doubt emerges a choice about a new way to proceed, and if that new way works well, then a new or reinforced belief emerges. James was a physiologist and psychologist as well as a philosopher, and he knew well of the many pre-existing causes of our choices and behavior, but in his essay “The Dilemma of Determinism” he argued that human freedom is real. The choices we make are, at least sometimes, real choices and lead to new beliefs.
3. A meaningful life requires some risk-taking.
Doing something new involves some risk, but it adds to the zest of life. William James traveled from his Boston home to hike in the North Carolina mountains in 1891. The trip gave him the change that he needed after two years of close work on a book, as evidenced by his comment in a letter after hiking up Mount Mitchell, which he described as “the most beautiful forest walk (only five hours) I ever made.”
Risk-taking disrupts the comfortable habits we’ve fallen into. Those habits can be highly advantageous in some ways for connecting with experiences, but those habits can also wall us all from other experiences which may be far more meaningful. Don’t get me wrong: Netflix and a warm fire on a cold night are fine things. But there is much more to life. Taking some risks – whether physical, psychological, or social — can help us find a more meaningful life.
“The great point is that the possibilities are really here. The issue is decided nowhere else than here and now. That is what gives the palpitating reality to our moral life and makes it tingle with so strange and elaborate an excitement.” — William James 
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 James, “The Dilemma of Determinism,” in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), p 140. I have abridged this quotation. You can read at https://www.uky.edu/~eushe2/Pajares/JamesDilemmaOfDeterminism.html .
 James, Pragmatism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 1975, p. 98, and at https://www.uky.edu/~eushe2/Pajares/james.html#pragmatism
 James, Pragmatism, p. 99.
 Robert Richardson, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006), p. 310.
 James, “The Dilemma of Determinism,” p.140. I have abridged this quotation. You can also find the essay at https://www.uky.edu/~eushe2/Pajares/JamesDilemmaOfDeterminism.html .