I remember camping and hiking with some of my Sinfonian Brothers years ago. I chose the site, led the hike and other activities. After all, I was the Province Governor. They began calling me Ranger Rory after I contracted one of the most severe cases of poison ivy in existence… on this planet or any other! I think they found it amusing that a Professor of Piano at Louisiana Tech University liked to go out in the wild, away from the comfort of his piano and his studio domain. The juxtaposition of what they saw when they viewed me, and the Rory before them, canoeing, hiking and tent camping, was too much for them. And of course, they didn’t contract poison ivy. I led in that aspect as well.
My wife and I just returned from one of our annual and ritual sojourns to the north shore of Lake Superior. We camp up there every summer at least one time. We sleep in tents. We live with the mosquitoes and bugs, and the threat of rain, because the reward is greater than the sacrifice. The scenery and the hiking trails are something to behold. This year we chose Cascade River State Park. It might very well be our favorite. It was our first north shore experience, and the combination of Lake Superior and the wild river is wondrous.
The trails at Cascade River State Park, near Grand Marais, Minnesota, are not beginner trails, and not for the faint-of-heart. They are rough-hewn, with many exposed roots, downed trees, and glacial rocks strewing the way. A three hour hike after breakfast can easily burn the calories from those eggs and Canadian bacon, and even in the cool air along Lake Superior, you should plan on drinking at least two 20 oz. bottles of fluid to replace the sweat that burns your eyes and floods your mouth.
Along the trails there are always options. You can take the higher trail, or the one along the river. I usually opt for the river trail, as the water sound is so like music to me. When I’m lucky the trail is low, and I can even get out on the lava rocks in the middle of the river. Cascade River is interesting because there is so much kinetic motion. The rocks create the cascades and whitewater. In other places the river is placid, and almost halted, like two contrasting themes in a Beethoven Sonata. At other times the trail is perched high above the river. Down below are steep cliffs and across the way you can see “potholes,” and “kettles” in the river bed, and even little caves in the side of the bluffs. The textures of the river are interesting and compelling. They seem like the fabric of a Debussy tone poem, with subtle changes and yet a continuity that makes the mind wander.
Yes, the natural beauty, to me, is like varied pieces of music I have known and loved. I hear through my eyes when I experience these awesome sights. But, I feel there is more to my attraction for hiking than the enjoyment of nature. It occurred to me as I was hiking a couple of days ago that the challenge of a strenuous hike is so much like the challenge of practicing on a challenging piece. I think back to the “exposed roots” and “jutting rocks” in the Liszt Sonata in B Minor. Along the trail of that piece I could easily have tripped if I had not focused totally. Like taking a wrong turn on an ambiguously marked hiking trail, many times I had to turn back to meet the challenges of Franz Liszt. But therein lies the beauty. A paved trail … a simply mastered piece of music … neither one holds much attraction for me.
On the trail, you put one foot in front, incessantly. You work to find your balance. You alter your rate of motion to match the terrain. Liszt demands the same. When you learn to respond to the immediate demands before you, you begin to see the beauty of your endeavor.