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Walk It Out

Elizabeth Austen

Hiking and Writing 
with Washington’s 
Poet Laureate

Washington wilderness has long nurtured modern writers in search of inspiration. In the early 1950s, Gary Snyder was stationed at the forest-fire lookout atop Sourdough Peak, one of the first lookouts built in the American West and one of North Cascade National Park’s hardest-to-reach destinations. A few years later and a few dozen miles north, Snyder’s friend Jack Kerouac spent a summer manning the lookout at Desolation Peak. Both Snyder and Kerouac went on to write at length about the invigorating isolation they found in Washington’s high, remote locales.

With her Hike and Write series, which pairs guided walks with writing time, Washington’s poet laureate Elizabeth Austen taps into that legacy, even if for more practical purposes.

“To be honest with you, [legacy] is less the motivation than walking being a significant part in how I get poems written,” Austen says. “Hike and Write came out of a desire to do poet laureate-related events and not always be stuck inside.”

Austen launched Hike and Write last summer, keeping a low profile with her first venture but attracting 20 hiker-writers to her second, a meander around Deception Pass on Whidbey Island. She carries on the program this year, beginning with a Memorial Day weekend hike and extending this month to a July 18 hike in Olympic National Park.

“In May we had 15 people, which was perfect,” Austen says. “We hiked about four miles so we had time to observe where we were hiking and then hear first drafts of people’s poems. I’m not offering feedback to people but it’s a chance to hear what they’ve written out loud.” Austen says that among last year’s  group members were a woman in her 90s and at least two mother-daughter pairs. She generally gets a mix of seasoned writers and hikers and people looking to try something new.

At the beginning of each hike, Austen reads a few poems aloud—her own and others’—“to get poetry in people’s heads,” she says. She suggests hikers consider a personal question or dilemma before starting; as they’re walking and taking notes about what they see, that dilemma becomes the filter through which they look at the world, which allows people to go into the experience feeling “emotionally full.”

“The poem isn’t just a report of what people are seeing,” Austen says. “Most of us write out of a need to understand the world around us or to understand ourselves. Focusing on what we’re seeing in the outside world helps us metabolize our internal experience.”

Austen arrived at poetry relatively late, after spending her teens and 20s acting for theatre. At 31, a rough breakup and dead-end job drove her to sell her car and buy a one-way ticket to South America, where she traveled through the Andes in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. She did volunteer work and studied Spanish but mostly walked. “It was about being instead of doing,” she says. After six months, she came to what she describes as a “bizarre understanding”—despite having written fewer than two-dozen poems, she was meant to be a poet. “Writing is how I make sense of what it is to be human,” she says.

Back in Seattle, she was immersed in hiking by a couple of boyfriends who taught her safety and self-sufficiency in the outdoors. She soon recognized the latent epiphany of time spent in the wilderness: “There’s this radical reframing that can happen.”

One of Austen’s better-known poems is “The Girl Who Goes Alone.” Among other things, it’s about Austen heading into the wilderness by herself.

“I’ve talked to so many other women who need what being alone in the wilderness gives them,” she says. “This is a form of service that I’m doing in my role as state poet laureate, but it’s partly because of what I’ve been given by people who were kind enough to take me into the woods. And also I need what being in the woods gives me and what writing gives me and I want people to have those kinds of experiences.”

Register for the July 18 Hike and Write 
at nols.org/events.

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