The Hills Are Alive

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When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe. – John Muir

A couple of weeks ago, I engaged in a Twitter conversation shared by one of my outdoorsy contacts. The basic question posed was about iPods on the trail: Are they okay or do they defeat the purpose of being in nature?

Now, let me start off by stating that I have never used my iPod out on the trail. I always hike with someone, typically with Jason, so it is a social as well as nature experience. However, I always listen to music en route to the trail and post-hike. I had been contemplating popping in the earbuds on our now defunct High Sierra Loop Trip. I didn’t intend to wear my iPod the whole time, but I did hope to find some moments of musical solitude.

So stupid me, I shared that music enhances my experience with nature. This was promptly met with a questioning, dismissive response from the question poser. Par for the course, I’m finding, with the outdoors crowd on social media  😐

Music has played an integral role in my life from a very early age. When other kids were enjoying tee-ball, I could barely wait to start playing the flute. While I’m sure other parents would have frowned upon it, my mom let me watch MTV with her (you know, when they actually played music). As I entered adolescence in a cloud of depression, music was my salvation, my only real friend. I was a band geek – and proud of it. My weekly lessons with a private instructor and other performance-related activities were my main extra-curricular.

But nowhere has music influenced me more than my memory. Songs, sometimes the most random of them, have become inextricably tied to experiences and moments in my life. And just hearing a particular song can fling me back – my thoughts, my emotions – to that exact point in time…

…Summer of 1989. Church camp. Love and Rockets So Alive. Probably the most random song to connect to church camp. Due to it’s popularity, it was constantly on the radio that summer and, without fail, it seemed to be on almost daily when I was in the arts & crafts cabin. I grin every time I hear it.

Church Camp
Me – Front row, left

…Summer of 2000. Working as a Guide for UW-Madison’s SOAR program. Barry White You’re the First, the Last, My Everything. For our retreat at the beginning of the summer, we were each asked to bring a song that meant something to us. One of my fellow guides brought this song. A mix CD was made of all our songs, and we would play this particular song all the time to pump us up before (and during) an orientation session. It was the best summer of my life, so the memories are beyond precious.

SOAR 2000
Me – Front row, center

…Summer of 2010. (Apparently, summer is a big season for me). Yosemite National Park. Cutting Crew Life in a Dangerous Time. Have you ever seen the movie White Water Summer? Kevin Bacon. Sean Astin. It’s excellent – If you haven’t seen it, you should. The song plays during a key moment in the movie, which you can watch (and listen to) here. I had the song on repeat during our drive up to the High Country. It had a slight impact on me.


And even though I didn’t have my iPod on me, I didn’t need it. The song was playing in my head the whole hike up to Nevada Fall.

Getting Closer...

The last few evenings, I have been reminded of how music enhances the experience of nature. Jason and I have been watching The National Parks: America’s Best Idea and it is set to the most amazing soundtrack (which I own, of course  😉 ). When the images combined with the sound brings me to tears in my living room, I think the importance of music in the outdoors speaks for itself.

As I said in at the beginning of this post, I have never used my iPod out on the trail. But I would. Just as nature can be spiritual for people, so can music. Combine the two and incredible things can happen.


iPods on the trail: Nature’s friend or foe?

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6 thoughts on “The Hills Are Alive

  1. Chris Marks

    There is a considerable amount of snobbery in the outdoor community from the purists who balk at the idea of any electronic device on the trail to ultralight crowd who are only okay with ipods as long as the ipod has a MYOG cuben fiber case.

    I can’t see why a reasonable person would have a problem with listening to music in the outdoors on headphones. However I’ve run into hikers here and there who carry speakers with them into the outdoors so they can crank the volume and force their choices on everyone else – that bothers me.

    Personally one of the things I enjoy most about heading out to places like the High Sierra is getting away from the clutter of the world and the constant stimulation that my brain seems to crave and just giving myself a chance to relax and walk. And with that said of course I’m always listening to music on the drive two and from the trailhead.

    1. Laura Post author

      Oh, I would hate to run into people with speakers cranking their music! First, I’m picky about my music choices, so I probably wouldn’t like what they were playing ;). Second, I agree that it should be someones choice to listen to music out on the trail. It’s not right to have that choice essentially taken away.

  2. Ingunn

    I’ve used my Zune on a couple of training hikes where the only goal of the day was to get up Mount Si as quickly as possible with a 40lb pack. It’s a pretty boring trail and full of people, so it was nice to have for motivation (and you don’t get much of a wilderness experience on that trail anyway).

    I wouldn’t use it on less crowded trails though – not out of snobbery, but because I wouldn’t want to surprise a bear because I wasn’t paying attention! :o)

    I always bring my Zune backpacking in case I can’t sleep, and sometimes I’ve used it when I’ve been sitting by a lake, enjoying the sunset. In those cases I think it actually *adds* to my wilderness experience – I’ll never hear Sort Of by Ingrid Michaelson without instantly being transported back to the beautiful Tanks Lakes.

  3. tom

    My problem is that I never seem to get any time available to listen to music at my preferred volume (blasting) so there will be times on training hikes/walks where I’ll plug in my iPhone and rock out.

    But every time I’m out in nature w/full use of my ears I think about all the sounds I’d miss if my earphones were on full-blast.

    Listening to music when you’re out in nature kinda does a disservice to both, because both deserve (and reward) full attention.

    If you truly love music it should be more than background sounds to get you through the boring parts; and if you truly love nature you owe all five senses to it.

    But I also agree that many of the purists are very annoying on these points.


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