Curiosity In Action: A Hiking Season Primer

Image for post
Image for post
City Creek Canyon, Utah. Photo taken by author

“Curiosity in action.” That’s how extreme sports journalist Jim Clash described the behavior of extreme sports athletes on a recent episode of Star Talk. The show was dedicated to the psychology behind the men and women who feel the need for speed, heights, and other risky undertakings that don’t involve a net to catch them when they fall.

Hiking up City Creek Canyon in the northeastern corner of the Salt Lake Valley can hardly be described as an extreme sport. Indeed, for most the way it’s more like a walk. Though the road is closed to all traffic other than the occasional service vehicle on its way to a Salt Lake City water treatment plant located a little over half way up, I was still walking on pavement for the first few miles. Outhouses were frequent features in the canyon to prevent visitors from polluting the water supply, while picnic tables were even more common. Though largely a natural setting, I was hardly bushwhacking my way through a remote wilderness.

But “curiosity in action” can take many forms. In spite of living in Salt Lake City for years, I had never bothered to venture up this particular ravine in the Wasatch Mountains. Perhaps word that most of the canyon was paved had caused me to dismiss it. Or maybe the fact that it’s located on the northern end of the valley where the mountains tend to be lower and less rugged made it seem rather uninteresting.

On this particular day, however, the lack of altitude was part of the area’s appeal — that and convenience. The canyon was relatively close, so my nephew was able to drop me off behind the state capitol building on his way to work in the city. From below most of the recent mild winter’s snow appeared to have already melted, making the lower peaks just north and east of Salt Lake City seem doable. City Creek Canyon looked like the perfect place for the first full day of hiking of the 2018 season.

Fostering creativity means letting the mind wander from time-to-time. Perhaps the best way for that to happen is to take the body for a walk — or a hike, as the case may be — and just let the brain come along for the ride, free to jump around randomly while the legs do most of the work for a change.

Charles Darwin was among science’s great walkers. He called the path near Down House that he trod each day his “thinking path.” Many other famous writers, artists, and scientists are known to have taken advantage of regular walks to stimulate their imagination as well.

Scientists speak of “transient hypofrontality”: a state-of-mind promoted by pursuits that require physical exertion but little thought or concentration. The parts of the brain that coordinate general concepts and rules are turned down, while the motor and sensory parts are turned up. In this state, ideas and impressions mingle more freely. Unusual and unexpected thoughts arise. ~ Psychology Today

Image for post
Image for post
Darwin’s “Thinking Path”. Image from Wikimedia

Hiking is generally more strenuous and a bit riskier than a walk down a park path. However, unless there’s some serious rock climbing on the agenda, a hike can serve as a safe and more interesting alternative. Because the scenery is more varied on a hike a traveller might even enjoy a little more mental stimulation than Darwin benefited from on his daily strolls. Of course, after spending almost five years circumnavigating the globe I think we can give old Charles a break for settling into a far more predictable routine after his return.

Still, Darwin’s daily strolls remind us that even an hour or two spent walking along a gravel path every afternoon is a kind of curiosity in action. The mind as well as the legs are being stretched with each step.

That said, where we walk still matters a great deal. In 2008 three University of Michigan psychologists conducted two experiments to determine the impact of both nature and walking upon memory. In the first experiment they tested the memory of one group of subjects following a walk in the park, then another after a walk in downtown Ann Arbor. In the second the memory test was done after simply showing subjects pictures of either natural or urban scenes.

The researchers found that “In the first experiment, performance on the memory and attention task greatly improved following the walk in the park, but did not improve for volunteers who walked downtown.” However, it wasn’t just being outside that had an impact, because even just seeing images of nature had a favorable impact upon memory when compared to those shown city scenes in the second experiment.

It seems fitting that the mental benefits of curiosity in action might be strongly linked with adaptations arising in response to our shift to uprightness. There’s a kind of symmetry in the notion that walking through natural settings and thinking may be connected, both evolutionarily speaking and in our day-to-day lives, to the emergence of bipedalism on the African savannah.

Image for post
Image for post
Taung surrounded by a juvenile chimp skull and human skull, the latter having a fontanelle and metopic suture. The metopic suture is visible on the frontal lobe of Taung’s endocast. Image credit: CT-based images by M. Ponce de Léon and Ch. Zollikofer, University of Zurich

Anthropologist Dean Falk suggests that our capacity to grow larger brains than other primates is facilitated by a “persistent metopic suture”, which remains unfused in the human skull until about the age of two. This allows the human brain to continue growing rapidly for much longer than it does in all of our other primate cousins. In their case the metopic suture fuses fairly quickly after birth, denying the skull the elasticity required for the development of larger frontal lobes.

The reason the skull requires such elasticity in the first place has nothing to do with larger frontal lobes, however. It’s an adaptation to the emergence of bipedalism in hominins. Bipedalism narrows the birth canal, requiring an infant’s skull to be more pliable in order to safely survive delivery. And so, Falk et al. reveal through their research that walking on two legs and thinking are connected in more ways than one.

Exploring a canyon personally for the first time may not offer much hope of discovering something new to the rest of humanity, but it does provide fresh opportunities to expand one’s own knowledge of the world. With virtually every phone coming with a camera and apps that readily allow for a little quick note taking, there’s really no excuse not to photograph anything that strikes our fancy and follow up later with a little research to learn more.

Image for post
Image for post
A species of swallowtail butterfly found in abundance along the side of the road. City Creek Canyon, Utah. Photo by author

For example, I know more about swallowtail butterflies than I did before heading up City Creek Canyon. Apparently the yellow and black variety I found swarming in the early morning sun near a seep located along the side of the road is one of about 550 species living on this planet. Most reside in the tropics, but some do exist in more temperate climates. Only Antarctica lacks any species of swallowtail at all.

The swallowtails and I nearly got run over by a bicyclist, though of the two of us the butterflies were much better equipped to get out of the way quickly. Pedestrians are supposed to remain on the creekside of the road, while the rest of the pavement is reserved for the many riders taking advantage of the several miles of automobile free pavement winding its way up the canyon. However, the butterflies were all on the side of the road furthest from the creek, so it was necessary to join them there if I was to have any chance of getting a better look at them.

I have nothing against bikes, though I must say I prefer travelling on foot. These days life comes with more than enough speed already. Walking is certainly far less efficient, but it does offer a great deal more opportunity for careful observation. In his book On Trails: An Exploration, Robert Moor describes well the disadvantages of not using our feet as evolution intended:

From trains to automobiles to airplanes, each time the speed of connection quickens, travellers have expressed a sense of growing alienation from the land blurring past our windows. In the same vein, many people currently worry that digital technology is making us less connected to the people and things in our immediate environment. It is easy to dismiss these responses as overreactions, the curmudgeonly groans of the progress-averse. Yet in all of these cases, a faster connection palpably diminishes our ability to experience the richness of the physical world: A person texting with her friends or riding on a bullet train is connecting very quickly to her ends, but in doing so, she skips over the immensely complex terrain that lies between those two points.

Our devices need not be alienating if we actually slow down before pulling them out of our pocket. It’s worth remembering that airplane mode doesn’t just work when we’re actually in an airplane. I’ve found my own personal digital device serves as a wonderful means of recording what I find in nature while also adding considerably less weight to my backpack than a traditional camera. I’m the first to admit that I occasionally use it to augment my wanderings with a soundtrack as well. Still, Moor’s point is well taken.

Eventually the trail did turn to dirt, at which point even mountain bikes were prohibited. About a half mile past the gate that marked the end of the asphalt a Forest Service sign appeared reading Smugglers Gap Trail. At last I had found a route up the steep slopes toward a ridge. From there I was sure I could make my way to the top of a mountain: the first summit of 2018.

It was not to be. A mild winter had left the snowpack’s retreat a good four or five weeks ahead of schedule, but it was still an obstacle. Not an insurmountable one. Where the snow covered the trail shoe shaped depressions signalled at least one person had already attempted to follow this trail to the top this spring. Those depressions were still present when I decided I could no longer go on.

Image for post
Image for post
My leg sinks into the snow up to the knee while crossing an avalanche chute. It wasn’t long afterward that I decided to call it a day.

Turning around wasn’t exactly a disappointment. I generally hike without a map. Whenever possible I like to use my own navigational skills, such as they are, to get to the top of a mountain or find a lake I know is in the vicinity. This keeps the opportunity for surprise open while also providing a reason to return should I fail to reach the target on the first attempt. With each new try my own mental map of the area grows stronger, creating a more intimate relationship with the landscape than develops when the hike is all about the destination instead of the journey.

So I’ll be going back in a few days, after the stiffness in my legs has worn off and the snow has receded a little further. There will be more flowers, butterflies and bees next time too, I’m sure. No two trips are ever the same, especially in spring time. When I do make it to the summit, I’ll be looking west to the Deep Creek Mountains on the Nevada border and south toward Moab, thinking about what may be in store for me there in the weeks ahead.

Image for post
Image for post
Looking west toward the Great Salt Lake from the final stopping place of the season’s first major hike.

Follow Craig on Twitter or read him on

Other articles by Craig Axford that you may enjoy:

Written by

US citizen residing in British Columbia, Canada. Degrees include anthropology and environmental studies. Activism, politics, science, nature.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store