It’s sunrise somewhere on the Appalachian Trail. Ruth Boden is sitting on top of a mountain, playing her cello as she gazes out at a sea of trees. A hiker approaches. “So that’s what I’ve been hearing for the past six miles!” he calls out to her, grinning from ear to ear.
Boden is the cello professor at Washington State University and the founder of Music Outside Four Walls. She is challenging the received wisdom that classical music is played in tuxedos in concert halls with whisper-quiet audiences who’ve paid big bucks for a seat. So she backpacks, with cello, and gives impromptu concerts at campsites and on mountaintops. If there are people around, great. If not, that’s fine, too. What matters is the music, and giving back to the muse.
Boden got her doctorate in Alabama, and then taught in Pensacola while navigating a heavy performance schedule throughout the Southeast. “I wanted to spend time on the Appalachian Trail but I knew I couldn’t take six months off from playing and still hope to be competitive when I got back. So my first thought was, I wonder if I can bring one with me?”
Tall and slim, Boden says she’s been about the height she is now since she was nine. “Compared to every other fourth grader in the world, who is going to squander a violin on a big, tall kid when you probably need a cellist in your group anyway?” It was love at first vibration.
“It sounded like me,” she says—indeed, the cello is noted for its human vocal-like timbre, and Boden points out that the instrument covers the entire range of human singing, from bass to soprano. “You wrap yourself around it, it becomes an extension of you. And I just couldn’t let it go!” That first day, she played until her parents—both musicians themselves—told her she had to put it away for the night.
But she was back at it the next day. And every day since has been filled with music. That hasn’t changed, but what did change was the Spokane native’s physique. “I was a big, fat, sedentary kid!” she says. Then, when she was 15, she climbed her first mountain while at a summer music camp in Colorado. She was hooked. A few years later, she went away to college at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and dropped 70 pounds during her freshman year.
“I started hiking and getting outdoors. I adjusted my diet. I found there was a really attractive side to physical discomfort from really pushing yourself to do something you didn’t think you could do.” Backpacking with a cello, she says, is a tangible metaphor for being a musician. “You try to explain to people about the art of practicing, and the disappointments and the struggles that we go through—and finally, there’s a way to show people. It is no different than having to drag your instrument to the top of a mountain. And you’ve got to want to do it, and you’ve got to push through it when it gets hard and you’re tired. You’ve got to remember that the outcome is that you get to sit on the top of a mountain and play! And I love that—
I can’t put it into words. But that physical push is like the emotional push of practicing.”
Actually, she can put it in to words. She says, “There’s something out there far beyond me,” a numinous sensation that is familiar to many, but especially athletes, backpackers, musicians, and mystics. “We’re conduits” for the music and, especially with improvisation, which she loves, it’s about letting go and releasing the emotion. And, on the mountaintop, “there is a feeling of infinity in terms of where that sound is going. You can almost imagine it raining down into the valleys, tiny particles of music.”
She still plays that first cello she got when she was a kid. It’s been worked on, sure, to make it more professional but, she says, “I know it inside out.” In college, there was always the expectation that she’d move up to a “better” cello, but the price tag is daunting: $25,000 or more. “And I like this instrument for teaching, too, because then my students can’t so easily say, ‘Oh, it’s my instrument…’ And I ask, ‘Is it really your instrument, or is it something else that is keeping you from making your instrument really sing?’”
She laughs, as this reminds her of the gear discussions on the Trail. “Somebody’d say, ‘What kind of tent did you bring?’ and I’d answer, ‘I don’t know—I think it’s from Walmart.’” “Wow,” would come the incredulous reply, “How can you stand the extra weight?’” And she’d look at that guy and say, “You did notice I brought a cello? I’m clearly not that concerned about lightweight backpacking.”
Not that the cello she hikes with is all that heavy. It’s a carbon fiber instrument, made by Luis and Clark in Massachusetts, and weighs about 15 pounds. “About the same as my wooden cello.” But she regularly packs around 72 pounds. “I’m ridiculously slow, glacial epoch slow,” she says, and so has to pack extra water and food.
Boden’s mission is to bring music—especially classical music, which has a reputation for being stuffy and inaccessible—to people who might not otherwise bother with it. She’d hit camp as others were cooking, and ask if anyone minded if she played for a bit. “That’d be great!” was the usual response. “Inevitably, someone would start humming ‘Ode to Joy’ from Beethoven’s Ninth, and say, ‘I don’t know what this song is called, but can you play that?’ So people do know classical music! They just don’t know that they do or they don’t know that they really like it.”
We hiked Kamiak Butte to do a photoshoot for this story. As she started to play—a lovely, lively tune called “Julie-O” by former Turtle Island String Quartet cellist Mark Summers—you see the spirit play across her face. A couple fellow hikers drift by, and stand some distance away, rapt. The air is fine and still, and the sonorous voice of the cello tingles the spine. And when she plays a trill, the air fills with birds. It’s an inexplicable, unforgettable, goose-bump moment, a gift from the muse.
Video: Andante — Ruth Boden hiking and playing in the Wallowa Mountains of Oregon in Gavin Carter’s extraordinary short film, Andante. “Andante” is a tempo indication used in classical music; it means “at walking speed.”