The Santa Barbara backcountry from East Camino Cielo.
The Santa Barbara backcountry from East Camino Cielo. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

As a Cub Scout hiking in Angeles Crest Forest in 1959, I vividly recall singing the old trekking song that begins:

I am a happy wanderer,
Along the mountain track,
And as I go, I love to sing,
My knapsack on my back.

Yet, alongside the romantic joys found in roaming nature’s wonders, I always felt a looming sorrow as well: All this bright reality is time-bound and shall end.

Many have wondered why the brilliant and famous ancient Greeks invented the genre called “tragic drama: with its wretched misfortunes and sadness, murders, regrets, matricide, incest and brutal violence?

Yet today, that same painful “tragic” state of mind endures and persists like a lingering backache or the moment before disaster strikes hard.

This isn’t about “horror” films or fiction, but brutal series like “Game of Thrones” and more movies about human suffering such as depicted in “Pulp Fiction,” “No Country for Old Men,” “Oppenheimer” and even “Barbie.”

We can find a comparison between Stephen King’s horror fiction, Sophocles’ insistence on a fatal character flaw, and the manic types today who morph into MAGA … and then scuttle down this or that conspiracy-rimmed rabbit hole.

Anti-vax, anti-Antifa, anti-Hamas, anti-Putin, anti-Israel, anti-Chinese — everyone scared to death, grabbing for their favorite relaxing vice (booze, THC, pills, therapy, exercise) yet never eluding the tragic figures and catastrophic narratives.  

It’s the usual: fear of their own mortality. 

Add potent anxieties about losing an analog/20th century way of life, or always feeling left behind in the tribalistic culture wars.

Yeah, exactly, bad stuff happens to humans all the time, especially when they forget to share their humanity and to sing together in ritual and ceremony. In periods when rabid tribalism and hysterical nationalism disembowel democracy, people allow community-building festivals to die off.  

Along with the human wreckage from our endless wars, we can now add the weighty guilt that we’re also ruining the planet Herself.  

The matrix for most of these thoughts came together while roaming out into Santa Barbara’s remote backcountry humming and singing tunes like “The Happy Wanderer” or any Bob Dylan song. The singing on my lips indicates a vibration somewhere in the organic brain* while on the banks of Manzana Creek, the Sespe or the Sisquoc River.

I recently have heard almost constant “music of the spheres” while hiking on the steep slopes of Mount Iwihinmu (Mount Pinos), hallowed ground sacred to the Chumash and other Indigenous peoples.  

My philosophical guru Friedrich Nietzsche roamed around the stark Alpine landscape and high meadows in his day — he discovered that only through music and poetry, melody and story (lyrics), could he endure the sickening bourgeois boredom of 1870s imperial Germany. In his “Letters,” Nietzsche wrote:

For recreation I turn to three things … my Schopenauer,
Schumann’s music, and finally solitary walks.

He wrote 150 years ago as an anti-democracy elitist white male, yet his path to health led through music and hiking and reading. Eureka!  

At 76, while out on the trail, I learn more about myself through these increasing physical limitations: The body teaches an unruly mind how to truly hear and see the three-dimensional reality.

The hike to and past 8,800-foot Mount Iwihinmu was completely different when I did it in early 2020, only three years ago.

Thus, we learn that “Mind” (not to be confused with the organic brain) is often too wild itself, and Body is simply honest, so then Spirit mediates between them and presses Mind to accept what’s given — and NOT to automatically demand MORE.

Life progresses and regresses; all is Flux [παντα  ’ρει] as Heraklitus intoned; there may be LESS ahead, and Buddha reliably predicts some suffering.

Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out more than 50 years ago that rampant materialism ruins our civilization and degrades our humanity.

We could focus on the term science as in “scientific materialism” being the culprit, but Nietzsche’s word Wissenschaft works better, and includes “Science” but expands it to include the systematic pursuit of learning, knowledge, and accumulated scholarship.

He connected the birth of “tragedy” with the rise of Wissenschaft and Apollonian reason. He writes that “the problem of Wissenschaft [Science] cannot be recognized within the territory of science” (“Birth of Tragedy,” 1886 Preface, p. 5).

While himself wandering in the stark beauty of Switzerland’s glorious Engadin Valley in the higher Alps, the lonely philosopher figured out that only through music and poetry, melody and story (lyrics), could he long endure boring bourgeois Germany.

Hiking around above 6,000 feet (and his lodgings at Sils Maria), Nietzsche believed a soul-less theoretical man type had taken over Europe and “Western Civilization.” He called this sort “the Alexandrian Man” and a very scientific (theoretical) fellow.

He stated that the Alexandrian Man “in his discontent no longer dares to entrust himself to the terrible, icy stream of existence” (“Birth of Tragedy,” p. 88).

While his early hero had been Richard Wagner and his epic operas, Nietzsche later reveled in the Romantic compositions of Robert Schumann (e.g. “Liederkreis, Opus 39”) and came to love German folk music. (Nietzsche composed music, but Wagner rejected it haughtily.)

Out of the solitary walking experiences, a roaming Nietzsche felt the cosmic melodies soaring within, and accepted the pangs of tragic sorrow borne out of this spirit of music.

As an alert member of our out-of-control species, I want to show the science-lovers they tend to resemble those 12-year-old students I taught back in 2007 — suddenly these kids had iPhones and struggled with what to do with this potent tool.

It would be similar to handing a Ferrari’s keys over to a 12-year-old boy who already loves Grand Theft Auto … and off he roars into tragedy and sorrow.

I have enormous respect for science, and also gratitude. As a published archaeologist, I can see that science (Wissenschaft) is incapable of examining itself, and the scientific method cannot create moral values.

Look how confused Oppenheimer was about deploying his killer new weapons: He wanted to use them on the German Nazis who had enacted the Holocaust on his people, but he wasn’t happy about the eventual use of the two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Albert Einstein, a dedicated violinist, refused to work with Oppenheimer on the Manhattan Project because as a philosopher and musician as well as a Nobel Prize-winning physicist he understood more about the world and power. Like Nietzsche roving the Alps, with music in his head and heart, Einstein knew the “men of power” (politicians) couldn’t be trusted.  

While walking above the “Clouds of Sils Maria,” Nietzsche hummed Schumann’s songs while out on a mountain track pondering those sorrowful feelings that inevitably arose. (“Clouds of Sils Maria” is a 2014 film starring Kristen Stewart; see 4.1.1.) For Nietzsche, the birth of hiking arose out of the spirit of beauty and of tragedy. The first song mentioned here ends with a salute to roaming and to mortality: 

Oh, may I go a-wandering
Until the day I die!


“The Happy Wanderer” song was first written in German by Florenz Sigismund, and while it sounds like an older German folk song (Lieder), it was a mid-19th century composition; a famous version of this song won Trinidad’s 1955 Road March title with a calypso version. Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music,” edd. Geuss and Speirs, tr. Ronald Spiers (Cambridge U. Press 1999); “Clouds of Sils Maria,” directed by Olivier Assayas, stars Juliette Binoche as well as Stewart. Try viewing it here.

Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity and has written extensively about the local backcountry. His latest book, Autobiography in the Anthropocene, is available at He serves as an archaeological site steward for the U.S. Forest Service in Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at The opinions expressed are his own.