Our Provider who has given all
from the appearing way – East,
from the cold way – North.
from the disappearing way – West,
from the warm way – South
You Have Spoken
Medicine that you have gotten ready
You have given us
Air, water, fire, soil of the world
Come cleanse us
Our bodies, our mind, our hearts, our accumulative wisdom
Shall be washed thoroughly
~ translation of Cherokee Going to Water ritual
Jane was totally lost. We met her at a trail intersection in Grayson Highlands State Park in southwest Virginia. She’d lost the trail and had been wandering around alone for an hour and a half. We compared maps, realized we were hiking back to the same parking lot and offered to walk the rest of the way with her.
Jane, it turns out, is a High Pointer. It is her goal to reach the highest point in each state (or 41 of them, anyway, since nine exceed her technical abilities). She’s done about 30 and she’d just checked Virginia’s highest point off her list by hiking to Mount Rogers. She was in pretty good spirits given the way her day was going but I think she found the Virginia endeavor unsatisfying, what with no view at the summit and then the whole 90-minutes lost debacle.
We had also climbed up Mount Rogers that day on the recommendation of a friend. We loved the dark boreal forest at the peak (unusual so far south). The sweet-smelling spruce trees, moss-covered boulders and deep green quiet was so surprising, we half expected a wood nymph to lead us to the summit. No view, it’s true, but potential fairies!
Jane’s goal motivates her to keep hiking and I appreciate that, but I will never be a High Pointer. I love a view as much as anybody, but while a sweeping vista can be breath-taking and perspective-offering, climbing to a peak will never be my first choice for a hike. I’ll always choose water over a summit.
If given the choice, I hike along rivers, streams and creeks. I have walked for hours to see a single waterfall and on one glorious trail in Pennsylvania saw 21 strung together along a single glen (read that story and see the pictures here). There is something restorative about walking near water; something grounding that connects me to the music and movement of life. Hiking along a river offers a flowing stream of sound and images to admire along the way rather than the single goal of reaching a single high point. A moving river reminds me of life’s illusion of permanence. The river may seem to be the same, but it is always moving and changing. No man can ever, as Heraclitus reminds us, step in the same river twice.
People in the Cherokee tribe practiced the ritual of “going to water” most days. They stood waist deep in the water and prayed to be washed clean of whatever bad feelings distanced them from God, their friends and family. This is a practice that makes total sense to me.
After a hike or bike ride, there is nothing I love more than to spend time in moving water. It washes away the sweat, but much more than that. Even when not near a stream or river, I use water to literally and symbolically clear away any accumulated gunk in my system. A shower, a splash on wrists and face, a tall glass drunk deep: water approached with intention is my own version of the Cherokee ritual.
While I admire the fitness and determination it takes to reach a high point and the view a summit (sometimes) offers, I will always choose to go to water.