Reciting Poetry on the Trail

You don’t need to be an English major to make poetry part of your next hike.
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You don’t need to be an English major to make poetry part of your next hike.
reading by lake

Photo by Christopher Cotrell

Two roads diverged in an emerald wood. But unlike Robert Frost, I knew where I stood and had traveled both. One path meandered east, deeper into northern New Mexico’s Pecos Wilderness. The other veered steeply south to Nambe Lake, walled in the granitic shadow of 12,409-foot Lake Peak. The choice was easy. With Frost as my companion, I had come to hike the latter, the trail less traveled.

I admit I felt foolish at first, speaking rhymes out loud to no one. When I passed another hiker, I’d pause or mumble with mild embarrassment and an acknowledging nod. Just another crazy guy in the woods talking to himself. But then, in different contexts, we do this all the time, orating into our phones on sidewalks and in supermarkets.

But this is about being unplugged. No phone, no tinny earbuds, nothing to soundtrack my hikes but metered, hundred-year-old verse pacing out my footfalls. Pair the right poem with the right landscape and you layer another dimension of meaning onto familiar paths.

I figured this out some years ago when a friend challenged me to a poetry slam at our next Rio Chama camping trip. I chose Poe’s “The Raven,” which I’d learned in high school (and then mostly forgot), to follow his recitation of Robert Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee.”

Such poetry, spoken in the firelight and woven with the rippling river and yips of coyotes, felt primal and ancient. We’d tapped into that timeworn, disused tradition of oral storytelling surrounded by the stars and scrublands. We were hooked. And over time, the poetry spread out from the fireside to the trail itself, a way to pass the time in motion.

But how to remember enough lines for a three-hour hike? Turns out being in the wilderness is a powerful memorization tool. Being in nature, studies show, enhances memory because it doesn’t divide our attention in the same way as urban distractions like car horns and oncoming traffic. All I needed was to choose any hike and transform it into a “memory palace” by mentally pairing lines and verses with vivid spots along the way. I didn’t even need to be on the path to make this memorization technique work—as long as I’d hiked it before, I could recall the scenery. Through visualization, I’d set the action of a given line in one of those memorable spots. Imagery locked in, poem and hike became one.

For my Pecos jaunt I’ve got a dozen or so poems playing out like a reel in my head. Reciting them out loud forces a slower pace because I move with the rhythm of the words, and the imagery makes me more observant. As I stroll through a meadow along the trickling Rio Nambe, I ease from Frost to Yeats, whose nature images sync with those before me. A dusting of white and yellow wildflowers affirms how pleasant the mountains are when summer gluts the golden bees.

When I reach the lake, the breeze kicks up. This one summons another line of Yeats, and suddenly the leaves aflutter round me, the [pine trees] old. I pay attention. The poet tells me there’s more to nature than the elements that form it, some deeper, beneath-the-surface beauty to tune into. I feel connected to that breeze, like I’m part of a story.

As I near trail’s end a few miles on, the trees look the same as when I started, and yet not the same at all. Frost had it right: that has made all the difference.