Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, April 2, 2018

Hiking vs. Sauntering vs. Moseying

Calliope Hummingbird by Kati Fleming for Wikimedia
In his book *The Mountain Trail and Its Message,* Albert W. Palmer remembers John Muir talking about the word hiking. Muir said:  
I don't like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains - not hike! Do you know the origin of that word 'saunter?' It's a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, 'A la sainte terre,' 'To the Holy Land.' And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not 'hike' through them.  
I love that sense of the word saunter, but I do not consider myself a saunterer: that seems far more focused on a destination, even if it is a Holy Land, than I like to be. When I head to my favorite birding spots, I focus on whatever I encounter as I wander aimlessly. Even when I go to a spot after hearing about a particularly interesting bird that might be there, I’m not goal oriented—I enjoy whatever it is I encounter. I wouldn’t call myself a casual birder—I’m more lackadaisical, in the sense of being the opposite of ambitious or enterprising, not in the sense of being enervated, vacuous, languid, or spiritless. 

I like being aimless and unambitious, which is why I’ve always considered myself a moseyer. But I just looked up mosey in Merriam Webster and discovered that the word’s first known use, in 1829, meant "to hurry away," as synonymous with scram, vamoose, and skedaddle, all very much the opposite of what I do. My moseying style conforms more to Merriam-Webster’s second definition, “to move in a leisurely, shuffling, or aimless manner,” with amble as a synonym, or especially “to move slowly while observing or inspecting,” which is pretty much exactly my birding style. 

All this of course led me to look up amble, a word that does indeed conjure my poky style of walking. The first definition given is: “to walk or move in an easygoing or leisurely manner.” The synonyms given do not include mosey, but rather hike, perambulate, ramble, saunter, stroll, tramp, and tromp. To me, perambulate is a waste of two syllables when amble works just as well, stroll sounds more elegant and old-fashioned than what I do, as if I’d need a parasol, and tramp and tromp sound more heavy-footed, like I’d need to wear heavy-duty boots. 

English has a great many good words for important things like walking, but I like choosing my words with some precision. Mosey may historically involve more hurrying than I like to do, but mosey and now amble are the words that describe my walking and birding style best. 

When Russ and I went on vacations with the kids, we often took family hikes. Well, Russ and the kids did—I remember when we were at Yellowstone once, they were at least a thousand feet ahead of me on a trail that ran alongside a lovely mountain stream. Suddenly I came upon a Calliope Hummingbird doing his amazing sky-dance, a U-shaped flight display just above the sparkling water. It was one of the most spectacular sights I’ve ever seen, but Russ and the kids were too far ahead of me to hear me calling to them. They thoroughly enjoyed their brisk hike, and saw plenty of wildlife and interesting sights, too; our experiences that morning were different, but provided equal pleasure. When you think about it, even when we’re walking side by side with someone at exactly the same speed, we take in the world in our own unique ways. 

The one thing I know for certain is that a walk in the woods in early spring, whether one is hiking, sauntering, moseying, ambling, tramping, or anything else, is a walk worth taking.