Life Changing Hikes: James Miller

I met James at a café in Puebla, Mexico. Outside the window, a parade trundled past. Priests wearing black cloaks with large, coned hats strode by as locals watched a floating Jesus bob down the packed streets. It was Viernes Santo (Holy Friday) of Semana Santa – a public holiday widely celebrated across the orthodox Catholic population in Central Mexico.

James was hunched in a corner scowling into his laptop, taking no notice of the Easter festival taking place right outside. He was making notes as I walked over to him, deep in thought. He was dressed in well-worn outdoor apparel and looked travel-weary, which was understandable given the 7-month hiking trip he had just completed in North America.

I interrupted the TEFL course he was doing to chat with him about his travels. He slid his laptop to the side and immediately burst into life when discussing the adventure thus far. “I like to see the positives in life,” he tells me – which seems to apply even when things don’t go to plan.

Originally, he studied Fine Art at Central Saint Martins – University of the Arts London. He then spent years working in hospitality, all the way up the ladder, from kitchen porter to supervisor and even as a chef. Despite this, his main goal was to travel sustainably for the next decade, while exploring the natural world. He plans to fund himself by teaching English as a foreign language whenever he gets low on money.

“Hiking is my backbone. I wish I could do it every single day and live like a nomad.” There’s a devilish gleam in his eyes when he says this. Clearly, the sedentary 9-5 lifestyle isn’t the way James wants to live. The combination of hiking and travel offers him all the fulfilment he needs.

Hiking as a Lifestyle

The more we talk, the more I get the sense that James considers hiking to be more than mere recreation. It’s a lifestyle, a commitment, and above all, a way of embracing his wild side. “As millennials, we are part of this digital age, but my grandparents and parents have been adamant I live an outdoor life.”

After leaving university, James found it difficult to get into team sports. Hiking provided an opportunity for exercise and a chance to stay active. “It’s about separating myself away from screens, from social media.”

There’s a rugged facet to James’ personality that makes this easy to believe. He doesn’t come across as a hippy, per se, but he certainly rejects the traditional work-life model.

He has an old laptop smeared with paint, a cracked iPhone in a filthy case, and a backpack that might be an antique from the 70s. He doesn’t seem to be interested in the allure of modern technology and consumerism. It’s refreshing to meet someone so clear on their vision of existing outside the contemporary lifestyle.

I ask him about what hiking means to him, and his answer only reaffirms this view. “I love the idea that you can take a knife, maybe a lighter and a tent, and you can live almost like a caveman would have thousands of years ago.”

James claims not to be an expert in backpacking or bushcraft, but goes on to namedrop some serious adventures without a second’s thought. Whiteouts in the Arctic, avalanches in the Canadian Rockies, wild camping on the rugged Welsh coast, and night hikes in flooded woodlands all come and go as if they’re barely worth mentioning.

Reflecting on Life – Good & Bad

“We were trudging through rivers in pitch black with no battery on our phones and effectively no head torch!” James is animated, telling me a story about a hike on Vancouver Island, Canada. It sounds like a disaster, a hiking trip where everything went wrong. Yet he puts an entertaining spin on the story and almost makes it sound like an experience one should wish to endure.

Vancouver Island, Canada Hike

He appears modest in his endeavours. Hiking seems to be less about showing off and more of an internal pilgrimage for him. It’s a time for James to be alone to reflect on his thoughts. However, he insists he prefers hiking with others. “I always recommend going with friends to share experiences.” But even then, he says it’s a time to look inward and to zone out. To embrace emotions both good and bad.

“Thinking whilst moving makes you feel physically productive and helps to clear your head,” he says. Although he does stress that hiking is mostly about exercise for him, clearly there’s more at work here. In many ways, hiking is his therapy.

Living for Adventure

James has a frantic energy that bursts out of him as we speak. He continuously fidgets with the pen he’s holding, spinning it round and round. He lifts his Patagonia hat up and down and often glances to the side.

At times, he asks if he can scratch his answer and try again. Yet, when he gets locked onto a hiking story or relives a thought, his account is steady and his passion for the topic shines through. He strikes me as a man whose clarity in life comes from the simplicity of being outdoors. He seems to believe that when all the mayhem of modernity is stripped away, the barebones of worthwhile experiences lie in the humble act of walking.

I question him on why hiking and not another sport. “Hiking is the core of outdoor sports. It’s accessible,” he tells me. The fact that it goes back thousands of years is interesting to him, and it allows a person to cover more of the world than a regular sport.

It’s here I see the puzzle of his life fit together. Hiking creates harmony with travel for James. He can explore the world through natural places, whilst keeping his experiences honest by maintaining the primal gait of placing one foot in front of the other.

Desert hike is in Joshua Tree National Park, California

As he explains it to me, I’m impressed by his dedication to the sport. He approaches the hobby with a depth of philosophy as though it is a pillar of his existence. “If you’re bored and feel awake, go for a hike,” he laughs, “it makes the most of time, it really does.”

There were times working in hospitality when he’d finish working at one or two AM. He could head home and collapse in front of the TV, but he would feel the need to walk and explore. To make the most of life. Night walks became a private time for him, a space to clear his head after a busy day at work.

The Allure of Adventure

With so many good things to say about hiking, I can’t help but wonder if he’s ever had any bad experiences. “Switchback trails, and hairpin roads up a mountain,” he responds without hesitation. In terms of dangerous experiences, he swerves the question and puts a positive spin on it, claiming it’s all part of the adventure.

After years of hiking, I’m interested to find out what trails he recommends to others. “Angel’s Landing,” he answers. “Zion National Park, Utah. I did it in January, scaled it with chains and crampons. It’s not too long. People die. The views are excellent.” We both laugh at this. His recommendation for a dangerous and sometimes lethal trail says a lot about James’ mindset. The allure of risk and adventure is clear even in his suggestions to others.

Which is why it comes as no surprise when I ask about his future goals and he says, “of course, the pinnacle is Everest.” Although he does dial back from this and says he also wants to visit Machu Pichu in Peru and Patagonia – when he’s a better hiker.

It’s this aspect of James’ personality that’s endearing. He’s jovial and full of amusing anecdotes, but he is surprisingly self-deprecating. In fact, he tells me he feels like he’s in no position to advise on anything and tries to avoid impressing on me his experiences in the hiking world.

He even claims not to be a go-getter. Yet I get a different impression. He may have struggled at finding a path in the art world and post-university life, but he appears to have found a niche that means a great deal to him.

A Future of Hiking

As our interview wraps up, I get the sense that James is a man who cherishes the simple things in life. Hiking isn’t necessarily for health or adventure or companionship. It can be all those things, but fundamentally it’s simply about being in nature. Having the agency to put his feet to the earth, head and heart entwined with the wild.

In our parting words, I ask him if he has any advice to give. As expected, he’s reluctant. But perhaps that’s why he’s the perfect person to ask. Hiking isn’t about rankings and hierarchies. It’s as simple as stepping outside the door. Which is why his final words hit the mark so perfectly. They’re straight to the point. Highlighting the very things, we love about this sport: “expand your wings and explore.”