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I’m not a fan of bragging, especially about so-called accomplishments in the outdoors. Smashing records, claiming titles, putting my name down in the books for posterity, all this strikes me as utterly ridiculous. Just this once, though, I feel compelled to toot the badass horn, trumpet the awesomeness of where I’ve been and what I’ve done. You see, yesterday I finished a project—a bold, visionary, paradigm-shifting expedition—on Camel’s Hump, a 4,083-foot peak in my home state of Vermont. A small but mighty landform, her bald summit rising proud from the central ridge of the Green Mountains, she’s my own personal Chomolungma, Goddess Mother of the World.
I first climbed the Hump at age four, partially riding on my father’s shoulders, partially scrambling on my own pale, pudgy legs. We followed the Burrows Trail: 2.4 miles, with an elevation gain of 2,200 feet. That early encounter with braided roots, black mud, lichen-splotched schist, and a dizzying 360-degree view was impactful, formative. Since then I’ve returned there in all seasons and conditions to explore, experience, engage. I’ve jogged amid October’s swirling rainbow leaves and bivvied in January’s blizzards. I’ve sledded powdery troughs and strung hammocks between hardwoods. I’ve tiptoed barefoot and tiptoed in crampons. Basically, I’ve exhausted myself by approaching the inexhaustible Hump from a thousand angles.
But yesterday’s outing, damn, it broke new ground on this old familiar peak. Sixteen hours, twenty-three minutes, nine seconds: yours truly set the slowest known time!
It wasn’t easy. My body wanted to fly up the miserable hill, to spread its wings and soar, while my blathering mind, accustomed to caffeine abuse and rapid-fire internet stimulation, fought nonstop, undermining my confidence, attacking my resolve with insults and ultimatums: You idiot, who cares, this is boring… I’m gonna crack like an egg and land you in the psych ward… drop the hammer or else. By the tenth hour, I’d sat on enough rocks and gazed at enough mottled birch bark to last a lifetime. Ditto listening with closed eyes to birdsong. Ditto chewing twigs and caressing ferns. Day slipped into night. Fingers went cold, ankles hurt. Tree line proved elusive. The Hump—the itsy-bitsy Hump, the knock-it-off-after-work Hump—morphed beneath my boots, expanding in every direction, stretching to fill the universe. Chomolungma indeed.
In Contrast to the FKT
The above paragraphs were written in response to an increasingly popular outdoor hobby (or is it a sport, a practice, a philosophy, a value system, a recreation cult, a mass Kool-Aid binge?) referred to by the acronym FKT, short for fastest known time. If you haven’t heard of FKT, well, presumably the cave you reside in is a comfortable, happy domicile. Very simply: Self-propelled endurance freaks—primarily runners, though also cyclists and ski-mountaineering devotees and gonzo alpinists—push themselves on established routes, racing against the clock, the terrain, previous FKT holders, future FKT aspirants, and their own impending meltdowns. According to the guidelines page on the site Fastest Known Time, the official FKT clearinghouse, archive, and stoke repository launched as a web forum in the mid-2000s, a route has to be notable, distinct, and repeatable to merit inclusion. [Editor’s note: Outside Inc., the parent company of Outside magazine, purchased Fastest Known Time in early 2022.] Examples include the 2,189-mile Appalachian Trail, or Japan’s 272-mile Shiga Round Trail, or South Africa’s 24-mile Otter Trail. A lady named Catherine Weiner apparently dashed to the summit of Camel’s Hump via the Burrows Trail in 49 minutes and 36 seconds, a staggering 15 and a half hours quicker than my slo-mo ascent. We can’t all be champions.
Folks have likely chased speed for countless millennia (the joyous agonizing Cro-Magnon rush) and John Muir was hardly the first fuddy-duddy to criticize the speedy folks when he said, with contempt in his voice, “People ought to saunter in the mountains—not hike!” It’s a hoary refrain, cast many ways: Stop and smell the roses. How gross to reduce nature to your ego’s Indy 500. This behavior is symptomatic of a sickness at the heart of our species, a sickness exacerbated by mechanized industrial society’s infatuation with efficiency, busyness, competition, linear measurement, Fitbits, Twitter, blah, blah, blah. I wish to avoid that entire rat’s nest, er, debate and limit my comments to the genuine challenge and delight of going slime-mold slow, tectonic-plate slow, drowsy-manatee slow. Pace is a key chain with dozens of unique keys, each of which opens a secret door in the land. Pedal to the metal? Dragging ass? Who could ever choose one over the other?
My recent trip up Camel’s Hump wasn’t fiction. I really did spend 16-plus hours covering fewer than three miles, and it really did bring me to the physical-mental edge, and I really am pleased with myself. The fundamental elements of classic burly wilderness adventure were present: The SKT demanded a bunch of energy and effort and calories. It was a test of my fortitude, my wherewithal. The outcome wasn’t a foregone conclusion, i.e., failing to summit remained a possibility to the end. Style mattered, both ethic and aesthetic. And most important, primal shivering contact with the environment was mandatory. Key in lock—click—the door swung open, revealing raptors, fungi, an emptiness of blue sky, a knife cut of starlight, frigid gusts, sudden stillness. Sensory overload.
A lady named Catherine Weiner apparently dashed to the summit of Camel’s Hump via the Burrows Trail in 49 minutes and 36 seconds, a staggering 15 and a half hours quicker than my slo-mo ascent. We can’t all be champions.
Camel’s Hump isn’t the only place where the key has clicked. From Atlantic beaches to southwestern deserts—from the Cascades to the Tetons to the Adirondacks—I’ve experimented with extreme slowness, notching SKTs along the way. My Rim-to-Rim at the Grand Canyon was molasses. My Grays-Torreys traverse in Colorado was honey oozing from the jar. Don’t even ask for the story of my trek in the Olympic Peninsula’s Hoh Valley—it would take forever to tell.
I can’t recall when exactly this quirky pastime began—after fifth grade, definitely, as my childhood was all sugar and bouncy balls and Mach-5 exuberance—but a Saturday afternoon in San Francisco, back in my twenties, marks the moment when the concept crystalized and I clearly grasped the magic of slowness. I was living at the center of the city (a dirtbag nature boy will do strange, torturous things for the love of a good urban woman) and the claustrophobia of concrete heaped upon concrete was threatening to suffocate me. Dreaming of the Sierra Nevada and the Lost Coast, of the getaway car I didn’t possess, I bolted for the Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve, an 80-acre grove of eucalyptus tucked behind a hospital complex, three miles from my apartment and smack-dab in the middle of the city. Green scent, green light, green mood, green freedom… ahhh.
Nope. The relief was ephemeral, because within an hour I’d strolled out of the eucalyptus and into yet another neighborhood of wailing ambulance sirens and latte-sipping yuppies. Instinctively, I spun on my heels and reentered the grove, without a plan but determined to somehow extend the green.
Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale.
Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale.
How’s the expression go? Scorn for latte-sipping yuppies is the mother of invention? Five breaths at a time, I moved up the path. Five breaths at a time, the 52 delicate bones in my feet absorbed the micro topography. Five breaths at a time, my spine tingled with electric signals that seemed to emanate from the soil. Five breaths at a time, I adjusted to a radically unhurried rhythm and a thrillingly fresh awareness.
A snail dropped me to all fours. I zoomed in. A fog-dragon rattled branches in the canopy. I zoomed out.
I stayed in the grove until dusk, going nowhere, traveling far.
The Sloth Community
A tingly spine and altered awareness are common responses to the shock of meticulous slowness—so I’ve unscientifically noticed while teaching playful workshops for arts organizations and alternative field schools. Always held outdoors, in a municipal park, a backyard, a forest or meadow, these workshops are purportedly concerned with writing, but really they’re investigations of perception, designed to prick participants’ senses to the infinite prospects embedded in the everyday, ho-hum, local environment. We bend at the waist and watch clouds from an inverted position. We crawl on hands and knees. We sniff flowers while blindfolded. We pretend to be Bradypus variegatus, the brown-throated three-toed sloth.
“Select a destination a hundred yards out,” I say. “Found it? Fantastic. Let’s take 15 minutes getting there. Let’s be sloths, except not hanging from vines or wherever. Let’s be, like, tai chi sloths. Let’s be deliberate.”
Both hyperactive kids and arthritic octogenarians react enthusiastically to this prompt. They smile. They giggle. They later report that the exercise was difficult—distraction, restlessness, balance issues, fatigue, a pesky mosquito the stupid slothy paw couldn’t catch—but that, after breaking through the initial resistance, whoa, it was mesmerizing, entrancing, addictive. “Holy crap, I’m high as a kite,” a teen with a pink mullet and a septum ring told me on one occasion. Everybody in the group concurred. And then everybody in the group scribbled madly in their notebooks.
Given what I’ve observed in these workshops—given the consistency with which slowness acts as a trip-inducing drug—I figured that a Google search would yield tons of SKT-related stuff. Impossible that I’m the sole dawdler, right? To my surprise and disappointment, the pickings were slim. Approximately 15.1 million results popped up in 0.58 seconds, but the majority of these (I surveyed them all, of course) were off base, referring to the ubiquitous FKT phenomenon. I did manage to locate three relevant hits, however.
An article in Trail Runner [Editor’s note: Outside Inc. has owned Trail Runner since 2020] titled “Why SKTs—Slowest Known Times—Are Good for the Soul” appeared promising. I thought, The acronym has been coined, yay! Alas, the author, Brian Metzler, lauded slowness less as an end in itself than as a means to snatching R&R between full-steam-ahead efforts, sort of like: We don’t have to be leading the pack every single jog, do we? His endorsement was earnest, but it smacked of utilitarianism and didn’t hint at an eco-spiritual portal to the mysteries of place.
Did a monkish introvert refuse to document her end to end of the Arizona Trail? Did a shabby vagabond, rambling for private reasons, for a glory that vanishes the instant it is shared, circumambulate the Swiss Alps sans a GPS tracking device? How many slugs are slogging out SKTs right now?
Next was a Fastest Known Time press release—“New SKT Website Announced”—written by none other than Buzz Burrell, a cofounder of the site and a former holder of FKTs on the Colorado Trail, John Muir Trail, etc. For 0.58 seconds, he had me: Hell yes, I thought, this is precisely what I was hoping to discover, a humongous welcoming cyber tent for the passionately pokey to congregate, swap beta, compare to-do lists, celebrate lagging behind. Targeting boomers, the prank text’s humor hinged on the assumption that aging athletes incapable of warp speed are an untapped market, a veritable gold mine. Burrell himself is a baby boomer, not to mention a creative individual who has been pursuing weird backcountry projects for decades—groveling in snow, fording desert rivers via an inflatable air mattress, leaving home on foot with only a raincoat, credit card, and soda straw (for slurping puddles). I appreciated the joke, and I suspected that he’d be open to the legitimacy of SKT as an inspired recreational activity, but still.
Finally, losing faith, I stumbled onto the FKT ProBoards forum from the mid-2000s, a minimalist precursor to the current spiffy, high-traffic site that features maps, podcasts, news updates, bells and whistles galore. A member using the handle bill3 posted the following: “I am attempting to be come [sic] the slowest person to ever complete the AT (obviously in sections). I am actually serious. I did my first section in 1979. I am 62 and have about 1200 miles of AT to complete. I want to do my last section in 2029 so I can gain the coveted Half Century Award. Does anyone know of anyone slower. The ATC is not aware of anyone who has ‘out glaciered’ me. Thanks (again I am 100% serious).”
Here was my man, bill3. If the forum wasn’t defunct, I’d have gotten in touch with him. Perhaps he’d be willing to guest-speak at a workshop?
I am actually serious.
Me too, bill3, me too.
Picture it with me: this gestating future, this culture waiting patiently to be born. “Loafer” is a compliment. “Slowpoke” is a brand of technical outerwear. The North Face’s elite team dangles from El Cap for 15 months, and the anti-race across Antarctica’s blank white wastes remains neck and neck. SKTs fall constantly under innumerable plodding feet: Germany’s Burgensteig Bergstrasse, Malaysia’s Penang Island circumnavigation, Ireland’s Twelve Bens of Connemara. Databases are swamped. Servers are crashing. So many people are traveling so slowly on so many routes that keeping tabs is pointless.
And thus we swerve away from pace (the S) to epistemology (the K). Slowest known time. Uncertainty is baked into the enterprise, the phrase a nod to anonymous heroes toiling in obscurity. Did a monkish introvert refuse to document her end to end of the Arizona Trail? Did a shabby vagabond, rambling for private reasons, for a glory that vanishes the instant it is shared, circumambulate the Swiss Alps sans a GPS tracking device? How many slugs are slogging out SKTs right now?
Black mud, braided roots, lichen-splotched schist, and a dizzying 360-degree view: I return in my imagination to the Burrows Trail. A ponytailed adolescent—in spandex pants and chunky sneakers, with a CamelBak slung over her shoulder and earbuds looping an album of humpback whale songs—nears the summit, tired and calm and dazed by the beauty of the scene. Thirty-nine hours deep, she’s almost there. Within spitting distance. So close, so close, so close. So far.
This driven, dedicated, super-fit, super-composed youth shatters my record on the Hump and raises the bar higher, opening invisible doors with the key of her slowness around New England, the Midwest, the Rockies, the Yukon. Channeling her idol, the Buddhist master Xuyun, who in the 1880s made a 3,000-mile pilgrimage in China, prostrating himself after each third step, she circles the globe, taking her time, her sweet time, this time separating cradle and grave. The ponytail grows. The ponytail grays. The route—her life—reaches to the horizon and beyond, notable and distinct, but unrepeatable. It’s random, idiosyncratic, an absurd quest, a whispered conversation between the balls of her toes and the 4.54-billion-year-old earth.
“The feet,” Olga Tokarczuk writes in her novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, “those are our plugs into the socket.”
She’s plugged in. She’s glowing. She’s friggin’ neon—inching forward, inching forward, inching forward.