Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

In Patagonia Day 35

March 24th, 2018

In Patagonia Day 35
Valdivia—Niebla—Valdivia

Today I was re-reading Eduardo Kohn’s book on forests and anthropology, and came to a section on anxiety I had forgotten. He uses a personal story about risk while traveling to unpack Pierce’s semiotics and begin to work out his idea of forest thinking and an anthropology “beyond the human.” I had taken a bus to the village of Niebla, site of a complex of forts designed to defend the entrance of the waterway to Valdivia. Niebla was flattened by the 1960 earthquake, but the castle, which was cut from the solid rock cliffs above Corral Bay, survived (more or less) and now is a well-designed park/museum. After wandering around a bit, I found myself sitting in the town plaza on an old bench with peeling paint, waiting for the Cafe Motometa to open. I got to thinking about Kohn’s description of travel anxiety, and reflected on my own. The very beginning of this trip was a little unsettling as I experienced anxiety at a level I rarely if ever have. Just two years ago I rolled through a round-the-world walkabout with barely a care in the world, so my early stress on this trip was disconcerting. What I was sure of today was that sitting there in that square, listening to a man talk rapidly in a barely recognizable Spanish while a bird that seemed a small tame raptor pecked at the sidewalk, brought a feeling of simple peace.

One form of anxiety travel produces is the fear of missing out. Everyone compares lists of walks, climbs, or boat trips that are not to be missed. When long-distance trekking, that stress is relieved as what you are supposed to see is the path, day in and day out, but hopping from place to place brings an obligation to see the sights. Thankfully for me, Chatwin is a better guidebook. He sought out scenes, but his wandering was true wandering. He understood that something like sunrise on Fitz Roy should not be missed, but also that a walk down an empty country road, past a farm or orchard can also bring a full sense of being. He walked long and hard, exposed himself to the elements, but also spent days lounging about reading a book. No fear of missing out there.

Kohn’s anxiety was brought on by being on a bus caught in a landslide area, and was relieved by some bird watching (it was much more complicated than that). The psychic movement was from the uncertainty of an imagined “what if” to the grounding of seeing a striking (but familiar) bird in a place both wild (the jungle at the edge of town) and grounded (near the pavement of the road). His grounding wasn’t a sense of complete familiarity— what you live when you are “at home”—but instead the grounding you feel when you feel the ground (that is, when it is not sliding or quaking). I think when I started out on this trek, I was anxious about some simple physical abilities—recent eye surgery and a knee that severely limits activity—and also I was leaving behind that sense of being “at home,” that clearly defined material space that includes a soft bed, a son, and a really great hound dog. It took some walking to regain my sense of a walking home, of being grounded by being on the ground, or in this case, on a bench with a book in the plaza of a tiny village in Chile.

T. Hugh Crawford

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