reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker
Walking with Ghosts
28 May, 1968–28 May, 2017
Henry David Thoreau wrote the first modern treatise on the philosophy of walking— On Walking —arguing that one of wandering’s primary values the possibility of genuine solitude, something he prized perhaps more than most. Walking is not only a way to be alone. In fact, it might teach us about the impossibility of solitude, or at least make us attentive to its complexity. In the “Solitude” chapter of Walden he notes, “However intense my experience, I am conscious of the presence and criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but spectator, sharing no experience, but taking note of it, and that is no more I than it is you.”
Walking—real walking—means walking with ghosts. It is easy to celebrate the idea that after breaking out of quotidian space and industrial time you will somehow be one with the trail, but, as Thoreau makes clear, that singularity is multiple. Nietzsche, another great walking philosopher, has Zarathustra exclaim in frustration, “There is always one too many about me…Always once one–that maketh in the long run two.” The Nietzschean “two” is not a mind magically hovering over a lump of flesh, but instead is a plenitude generated by the walk—the path, the wander, and the wanderer. (Another lesson of Zarathustra and the trail is the poverty of the mind/body dualism.)
Nietzsche’s “two” is a prompt to follow out the vectors of the multiple, the play of the ghosts. Still suffering from a torn muscle in my knee, my walk today was short—not one that offered sufficient distance or time for genuine thinking—but it was haunted. On this day 49 years ago my mother died. I was only eleven at the time and recovering clear memories of her remains difficult. Still, she haunts my life, nudging me at surprising moments, occupying my thoughts even when I’m not thinking—which is perhaps the definition of haunting.
Without doubt wandering brings cues that call to presence something or someone long absent. As William Carlos Williams, in the middle of a section of a poem where he is taking a long walk, says:
Memory is a kind
a sort of renewal
an initiation, since the spaces it opens are new places
inhabited by hordes
I remember with great clarity standing beside my mother pushing a roller dipped in a muted orange masonry paint up the concrete walls of a bathroom in the basement of the Woodstock Presbyterian Church. I hear her on Wednesday night in that same building rehearsing with Ruth Rhodes, the organist, and Marion French, the other soloist, for Sunday’s service. But I also remember with more clarity than I want Leo Snarr, my father’s best friend, collecting me from the Woodstock Elementary School’s lunchroom just after I had bought an ice-cream bar (probably a Fudgesicle or a Refresho—6 ¢). I sat in the back of his car, he in the passenger seat, his wife Mary Sue drove. He turned, put his hand on my knee and told me my mother had died (she was only 44, an age I have long since passed). At that moment I was double—in shock, I held my ice-cream loosely until Leo took it, but I was also thinking about how should I respond. I lived what Thoreau describes—“part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but spectator.”
I often recur to that moment. Obviously an intense experience, but also one of real insight into the multiplicity of being. Walking is an act of presencing. To be crossing a loose scree field above cliffs demands an intensity of presence often not experienced in daily life. Learning of the death of a parent is another form of intensity, but even there, Being is not concentrated into a single luminous point, but rather continues moving as part of “hordes heretofore unrealized.” We always walk with ghosts.
T. Hugh Crawford
August 10 Botnar to Pórsmörk (17 km)
The Laugavegur Trek officially ends at Pórsmörk, but I had planned another 25 km to Skogár. On waking and inventorying my health, I decided discretion was the better part of valor and took my Georgia Tech friends (including Paul Kohn who was with this particular group) up on their offer of a ride back to Reykjavik. It meant an extra day in a hostel but the free ride made that almost a financial wash (buses are expensive). The day’s hike was different from the others as it was almost all an easy downhill grade on firm black gravel (with an occasional soft sand stretch that made my calves ache). As I was moving downstream, the rivers began to run deeper and faster. They were also starting to braid the way they do on the South Island in New Zealand. In this area most crossings were bridged, though there were a few fords. The last one was only three kilometers from the end, so in honor of my Te Araroa tramp, I crossed with my regular footwear, squished my way to the end. Yesterday there were several fords, one a little deep, wide, and very cold (I could see the melting glacier just up the valley). The cramps in my arches made me think of the summer of 1973 when my friends Jerry and Gregg and I painted an old farmhouse with a spring house out back. At lunch we would sit there in the cool, seeing how long we could stand in the freezing water. Like Nietzsche’s eternal return, I found myself standing in both the Grashagavist and an old spring house at the same time. Soon I arrived at Pórsmörk and settled in to wait for the Georgia Tech crew who arrived later that afternoon. Soon we had loaded up the three jacked-up white Land Rover Defenders, jump started the one with the dead battery, and set off driving on rough gravel roads regularly crossing rivers with water up to the floorboards. After an hour of fording we got to hard pavement and soon the rain that had threatened all afternoon came on, confirming my decision to get off the trail that day (the rain and the wind howled all night long but I was snug in a hostel bunk house, happy not to be in a summer tent and instead getting soft in a semi-soft bed). The students stopped for a few hours to explore a cave, so I was late getting to my hostel. Still grateful for a ride, I did regret not getting any supper, consoling myself with a fine nutritious pale ale before sleep. Thus ended the last trek on my year-long around the world walkabout.
T. Hugh Crawford
August 9 Hrafntinnusker to Botnar (28 km)
Bright early morning sun woke me, though I lounged in sleeping bag luxury for a while, trying to determine how sick I really was (pretty bad actually). Of course there was little choice, I had to hike out somewhere, so I continued on my path. Stopping at the hut to get water and eat a granola bar, I spoke with one of the expedition guides who remarked about how early I was leaving–it was seven o’clock, those hut folks are the ones luxuriating. Leaving first was a lagniappe as I had the tundra all to myself most of the morning. The walk was across a broad cinder plain rutted by deep cuts formed by glacier streams. For much of the year, those cuts are filled with snow, so walking is fairly level, but in August most the ice is gone, so there is a lot of up and down. In many places there remains some snow, but the guidebooks all warn about the fragility of those ice bridges which are hollowed from below and can give way under the weight of a hiker crossing. As it was still very cold that morning and there were no trekkers following behind me as yet, I crossed many an ice bridge gingerly. Still, the morning solitude was magnificent, the world was vast, bare, and empty. By mid-morning I arrived at the campground at Lake Álftavatn, stopping for second breakfast. I had gotten an email from David Knobbe, my old friend at the Georgia Tech outdoor adventure department, detailing the itinerary of a group of students from my school who were hiking at nearly the same time. At this point I was supposed to be two days behind and so I didn’t expect to see them, but on sitting down for late morning granola, I was greeted by David, his friend Chaffee and a group of GT students. Their itinerary had been adjusted a bit, so half of them were now on the same schedule as me. After exchanging pleasantries, I continued on to the next campground, Botnar, where I was advised to claim a tent site quickly as the place would soon be overwhelmed by campers, led by the dozens of British hikers I had passed who were walking to raise money for breast cancer research. One carried on her back a large rubber breast with the url copafeel.org. Following the same pattern as yesterday, I set up my tent, ate an early dinner, and dozed away the late afternoon. I was pleased with my hiking distance, but was still feeling ill, so early sleep was on my schedule.
T. Hugh Crawford
August 8 Reykjavik to Landmannalauger by bus, to Hrafntinnusker on foot (12 km)
Up early for walk to the bus station and a four hour ride to the trail head of the Laugatvegur Trek. The landscape was unsurprisingly similar to parts of New Zealand’s North Island, both the product of recent volcanic activity. The American and Eurasian plates are tearing the island apart at a rate of 5 centimeters per year, so there are many earthquakes, hot springs in everyone’s back yards (it is how they heat), and regular eruptions blanketing the landscape with lava rocks and fine dark sand. In the uplands the primary plants are mosses. Trees are small and scarce. Arrival at Landmannalauger quickly disabused me of the notion this would be like hiking New Zealand unless it were the Tongariro crossing where the crowds tend to overwhelm the experience. Landmannalauger was a tent city full of trekkers preparing for the trail or relaxing in the hot volcanic pools after completion. As it was already noon and I had at least 12 km over Mount Brennisteinalda before camping, I headed straight out. Still suffering from the effects of illness, I hoped to leave the circus behind. The path was full of Laugavegur trampers but also day hikers and families up to see Brennisteinalda, the island’s most colorful mountain. It was jaw-dropping, on one flank were slides of different colored gravels forming a rainbow pattern. I had purchased a low-resolution topo map at the information center which I completely misread and, like a rookie trekker, after summiting I followed a path off the back side of the mountain to the valley floor only to discover I was heading in exactly the wrong direction, so I had to climb it again–a really rusty long-distance hiker. It is hard to write of the landscape as it was unlike any I’ve ever seen–color, texture, pattern–and luckily the light was perfect. Some fields were covered with broken rocks that looked like obsidian, black glass shining in the Arctic sun. After my initial mistake, the trail was easy to follow, packed as it was like the Camino de Santiago. Before long I found myself at Hrafntinnusker, a campsite the trekkers call the windy place. The tent sites were surrounded by low stacked stone circles to help cut the wind. There are huts with tent sites every 12-15 km along the trail where expedition companies do a thriving business ferrying luggage and cooking food for wealthy slack-packers. Life down in the tent sites was a little more spartan. Since it was a fairly short trek and you cannot fly with fuel and since I had shipped my Jetboil home, I opted for cold food– trail mix, chorizo, and crackers. By late afternoon my tent was up, half a chorizo was eaten, and I found myself napping in my sleeping bag out of the cold wind. Soon the circles filled up and, lucky me, I found myself next to some loud Americans. I still don’t understand the need for so much volume, often seems like children begging for attention. There was no waiting for dark as it stays light very late (and gets light very early), so I soon drifted off, listening to the light ticking of minute raindrops on my tent. Lying there I was reminded how much I enjoyed the simple pleasure good equipment offers. A good Zpack tent and a great sleeping bag were the definition of real comfort putting in stark contrast the last six weeks in an apartment with a big bed, bathroom, kitchen, etc. It is amazing how soft you can get in such a short time living like that.
T. Hugh Crawford
Flew out of London heading to the in-between–the inter-esse–that is Iceland. Definitely European but distinct in climate, manner and custom. I guess it is appropriate for my last stop in a year-long walkabout to be both novel and familiar. Like many smaller airports, Keflavik has a pre 9-11 feel, reminding me how pleasant and inviting airports can be when the stress-level is reduced. On boarding the bus to the terminal there was the unmistakable smell of manure drifting across the blank landscape. There are more horses than people on the island, all descended from the first horses brought many centuries ago. In the terminal arrivals and departees mingle in the common area before passing the passport station manned by a welcoming and polite agent. Those simple gestures made my entry–however transitory– memorable. A long bus ride brought me to the Oddsson Hostel, and a short wander to the old city center brought seafood soup– a staple in a maritime country. I continue to suffer from an upper respiratory infection and sore throat, so two bowls of fish soup and an early bedtime were on the menu.
T. Hugh Crawford
Thoreau’s Cosmopolitical Proposal
Henry David Thoreau casts a long shadow over my thoughts about and practice of walking, particularly his essay “On Walking” which opens with “I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil,–to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of nature, rather than a member of society.” In a stroke, he introduces what becomes an elemental concept–the wild–and frames his understanding of the human away from society in the big outside actively participating in the making of that outside. But his initial phrasing also opens the question of who is authorized to speak for another, particularly an other without language. Although the essay is full of many strongly (if ironically) stated sentiments about who is qualified to walk–“If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again,–if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settle all of your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk.”–speaking a word for nature is, from the first instant, made in a tentative voice. He might speak a word for Nature, but he cannot speak for Nature. “On Walking” is an essay on being “part and parcel of nature,” of acknowledging its “subtle magnetism,” and the “capabilities of the landscape.” The Nature he speaks for is full of agencies known and unknown.
The Belgian philosopher Isabelle Stengers also wants to question those who speak “a word” for Nature, to understand what authorizes certain people (usually scientists) to speak for nature, and to what extent their words are final. Her “Cosmopolitical Proposal” advocates listening to multiple voices speaking for or with multiple constituencies, articulating alliances, and arriving at an often brief consensus. She opens with a question–“How can I present a proposal intended not to say what is, or what ought to be, but to provoke thought; one that requires no other verification than the way in which it is able to ‘slow down’ reasoning and create an opportunity to arouse a slightly different awareness of the problems and situations mobilizing us?” Her friend and mentor Gilles Deleuze once characterized Nietzsche’s philosophy as a “series of darts” –provocations to thinking– rather than a system or method. Alfred North Whitehead, Stenger’s other, more distant mentor, spoke of philosophy as “lures for thinking.” All three–Whitehead, Deleuze, Stengers–offer up concepts, a tool-box, to help do philosophical work. They give no absolute position from which to speak absolutely, but they do point out a branching path where thinkers can, in Thoreau’s word, saunter.
The beginning of “On Walking” is a critique of an overly sedentary existence promoted by the business economy, but it is also a description (sometimes prescription) of proper walking attitudes. In the latter part he echoes his mentor Emerson’s plea in the “Divinity School Address” for a unique American literature and philosophy, one partaking of and maybe even articulating the wild land they now occupy. This notion of “the wild” is a fraught concept, one subject to many different appropriations, most notably to support eco-political movements advocating for setting aside wilderness areas. His line “in wildness is the preservation of the world” is often misquoted as “in wilderness…” Without doubt, one could find elements of a Thoreavian wild in a vast wilderness, but it also is to be found in the “civilized” world: in swamps or low spots on farms, at the edges of fields, in the margins of cultivation (agricultural and social). Thoreau himself, as Walden demonstrates, seeks out the wild and lives it on those very margins. He notes in “On Walking,” “For my part, I feel that with regard to Nature, I live a sort of border life….” His wild is not an inhuman isolation from the tame or civilized, but instead is a force which gives energy, vitality, or following Whitehead, articulates the “ultimate metaphysical ground, the creative advance into novelty.” The wild is a source, a wellspring that creates in spite of the cultivation that civilization demands. It is the tang of the wild apple or the wilding potato growing on the edge of a cultivated Peruvian field ready to bring new taste and characteristics to the dinner table. A place to locate this is in one of his seemingly offhand rants near the end of the essay where, as a counter to an American obsession with the practical (or as a proleptic critique of the neo-liberal University), he calls for a “Society for the Diffusion of Useful Ignorance.” He immediately renames ignorance “beautiful knowledge” to distinguish it from the practical, but it could just as easily be called “the wild” as he follows his proposal with a Whitmanesque image of cattle who find vitality in the new spring grass after a winter of hay.
Ignorance can take many forms, and usually not particularly positive ones, but Thoreau’s is a plea for thought freed from the cultivation of a rigidified civilization, of one that only listens to narrowly defined expert voices speaking an officially sanctioned discourse. Useful ignorance is a form of naïveté, a voice that can produce insights that, because unrecognized, are not available to the expert witnesses. The central figure in Stenger’s “Cosmopolitical Proposal” is the idiot, a conceptual persona she takes from Deleuze (who appropriated it from Dostoevsky). In Stenger’s hands, the idiot is the tentative, unauthorized voice who asks non-sensical or useless questions. Idiotic questioning is a way to strip bare the categories of sense and use. She does not deny knowledge but does want a fuller understanding of the ground on which it stands: “We know, knowledge there is, but the idiot demands that we slow down, that we don’t consider ourselves authorized to believe we possess the meaning of what we know.” Stenger’s idiot is a practitioner of Thoreau’s useful ignorance, or perhaps is Thoreau himself–someone willing to ask naively the obvious question, who slows down a railroaded consensus. Thoreau is the consummate railroad philosopher. Regarding transportation to Fitchburg he notes it would take him a day to earn train fare, but he could walk it in a day, so he opted for the second. A form of willful perversity perhaps, maybe a refusal to participate in an unnecessary economy, from most perspectives the action of an idiot, but definitely a way to slow down. In her plea for slow science, Stengers quotes Whitehead’s critique of a narrow professionalism: “minds in a groove. Each profession makes progress, but it is progress in its own groove. (…) The groove prevents straying across country, and the abstraction abstracts from something to which no further attention is given.” Inherent in this position is the desire to move transversally, as Thoreau advocates, to set out across the fields instead of following established roads, and as a consequence to slow down enough to pay due attention– not just to the world encountered but also to the thinking produced by that practice. Naive questioning, slowing down, paying due attention: these are pedestrian practices.
In “On Walking” Thoreau notes, “My desire for knowledge is intermittent, but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant.” This is contrasted to Emerson’s more famous transparent eyeball, “I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part of God.” Thoreau is not after knowledge (at least none of the officially authorized kind), nor does he attain airy transcendence. Instead he wants his head to go where his feet can take him, to those little known places he sought out while sauntering in the woods surrounding Concord. He opens “On Walking” tracing an etymology of saunter, first claiming it describes someone going to Sainte Terre, to the Holy land. Then he sets out the possibility it comes from sans terre, to be without land, which “will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere.” Ultimately Thoreau prefers the former, but I like the latter because of the double logic it proposes. To be without ground is to acknowledge that the position from which you think and speak is solid but transient. To saunter intellectually is not to be arrogant but instead tentative. You can venture to “speak a word for Nature,” but you cannot utter the definitive term. You cannot close off the conversation. The second half of the logic is that such groundless can still provide a home, that we don’t have to root ourselves in the village, condemned to repeat the same formulae, nor do we have to run on the grooved rails of the train. Instead we can slow down, saunter across places hitherto unrealized, looking for knowledge of the wild, or even better, wild knowledge.
T. Hugh Crawford
Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” is a poem about walking and memory, one that celebrates the poet’s ability to call to mind an intense encounter with a specific rural landscape even years later while living and working in a city:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet. . .
That possibility sustains the poet along with the entire recreational industry, promising as it does memories “to last a lifetime.” Hiking trails and national parks are usually crowded with scenic overlooks which provide perfectly framed landscapes suitable for your personal memory theatre as well as offering a place to take selfies. Wordsworth, a man who crossed France on his way to the Swiss Alps walking at a rate of 30 miles a day, was well aware of the powerful connection between the physical difficulty of attaining a particular viewpoint and the impress of its beauty. He did not passively consume a picturesque landscape through the windows of a train or the confines of a museum. He got there through sometimes arduous labor (see Brutal Beauty). What caught my attention on rereading this poem is his repetition of the word “unremembered,” a word I would guess almost no one has ever uttered unless reading the poem aloud:
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
A poem about memory repeats in a positive light a word about the failure of memory. Of course there are many ways of framing this usage. Because of the phrase “feeling too” he may be relegating pleasure to a secondary status below the memory that was,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind…
but that ignores the importance of idea of memory in the poem. What exactly would unremembered pleasure or acts be? Again there are many possibilities. As I am a walker and not a scholar of Romantic poetry, I would just note that to walk strenuously over distance involves a wavering between seeing, feeling, and thinking about being in a particular landscape, picturing oneself as an actor in a specific ecology. At times one calls up representations or memories of that moment even while occupying other domains, but just as often walkers are simply in tune with the world walked, thinking but not having thoughts, experiencing without representing. Of course there are those who would argue that we can only experience the world through our historically constituted representational schema, that we cannot encounter the world naked but instead only tricked out in the clothes language and culture provide. I think most walkers would disagree and would take a different approach, one that attempts to move outside what Whitehead called the “bifurcation of nature.” There are other modes of existence (many have been charted in Bruno Latour’s An Inquiry into Modes of Existence), and I think “unremembered pleasure” is one.
T. Hugh Crawford
The first part of MacFarlane’s The Old Ways describes some fairly traditional (if sometimes dangerous) walks, while the second takes to the seas, noting the similarities between navigating the old sea ways and walking old paths, but that part also includes a chapter on crossing Lewis island on a path through peat and rock, navigating by sighting cairns. In other words, much of Part 2 is about paths that you cannot see simply by looking at your feet. What hovers over this section is the very real possibility of getting lost, either at sea or in a peat bog. If walking is, as I believe, a particular form of knowing, it is important to understand the variables that contribute to the practice. One often but not always present pressure remains the possibility of getting lost. Walking brings risk, and risk (as Hubert Dreyfus is fond of noting) creates a complex relationship between self, world, knowledge, and understanding. In a very real sense, the same pleasure centers are activated when one comprehends a difficult philosophical point and when one successfully navigates a risky path. To me the important part is not navigation (or understanding) on a macro scale–successfully traversing a complete trail–but instead the micro risks–the moment when, on gaining a cairn marker, the next one snaps into view. The small leap from anxiety to momentary comfort characterizes work in a risky world, an experienced enriched and enhanced by that very risk.
T. Hugh Crawford
Once again, I must take a break (see Hiatus) from long-distance trekking, this time to teach in the Georgia Tech Oxford program a course on the literature of walking. Instead of stopping WalkingHome completely, I will try to write up some thoughts on the material we are reading and, where possible, connect to any short walks I can squeeze in. Introducing others to the complexity of what seems a simple act of walking can be difficult, but I have found Robert MacFarlane’s The Old Ways does a fine job. Layering precise description with personal narrative and with cultural and literary history, MacFarlane prods his readers to think closely about what seems the mundane. Regarding literature, his gambit is simple but profound: one can understand literature (along with history and culture) by walking the landscapes that produced it. Edward Thomas’s poetry is known differently after walking the chalk downs and the Ichnield way, and of course, one comes to a different sense of self and indeed a different sense of “knowing” through such embodied experiences. This is an argument I have long been sympathetic to. I once taught a class on Thoreau’s Walden where we framed up his house using only the tools he could have used: axes, broad axes, adzes, mallets, chisels. The Walden we read (and the one I continue to read) is simply a different book because of that experience. Of course re-reading is always a transformation, but I now feel Thoreau’s words through the vibrations of an axe-blow up my arm.
T. Hugh Crawford