Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

Thoreau’s “Cosmopolitical Proposal”

July 13th, 2016

Thoreau’s Cosmopolitical Proposal

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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

June 30

July 1st, 2016

June 30

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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:

feelings too
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

June 29

July 1st, 2016

June 29

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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

June 28

July 1st, 2016

June 28

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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

Walking Christo’s Floating Piers

June 25th, 2016

Christo’s “Floating Piers”: Learning to Walk

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Finding myself in Milan after nearly a year of long-distance trekking, I couldn’t pass up the chance to walk on water. Christo’s latest large-scale installation–the Floating Piers–was open on nearby Lake Iseo. Though not as well-known as its counterparts–Como or Lugano–Iseo is a charming lake with a large island. Instead of the usual ferry, the Floating Piers provides travelers with a bridge from the mainland town of Sulzano across to the island. The lake is in a quiet wine district, and Christo’s installation threatens to overwhelm the region’s infrastructure. Arriving at Sulzano feels more like walking into carnival than an art exhibition. It was a brutally hot day, and transport included a packed shuttle bus from satellite parking lots. Given the difficulty of travel and temperature, the visitors were in remarkably good humor, each showing a quiet expectation or maybe just plain curiosity about what they were about to experience. Christo’s installations tend to be visual–the many draped buildings, his wrapped islands, and the canyon curtain–so The Floating Piers is a divergence. It is participatory, a set of bridges that are meant to be crossed by walkers, pilgrims of all types learning to walk on a strange cloth-covered contraption.

The installation was first conceived in 1970 by Christo and his collaborator Jeanne-Claude. A three kilometer set of bridges, it links Sulzano with the island town of Peschiera Maráglio and the tiny Isola di San Paolo. Open from June 18 until July 3, Floating Piers is 220,000 high density polyethylene cubes covered by 100,000 square meters of fabric and held in place by 200 anchors. With a color that approaches school-bus yellow, the bridges float just above the water’s surface with edges tapering to a zero point where the water laps and, on a hot day, invites. The site and surrounding towns have been overrun with walkers. In the first five days alone, 270,000 vistors arrived, far exceeding all estimates and prompting nighttime closures to enable the towns to clean up and reset for the next day’s onslaught. Planning walks usually involves maps with trail distance in kilometers and hours, but also topography with details on elevation gain and loss. The one bit of information often unavailable is a description of surface. A well-made trail up a steep incline can often be hiked faster than a poorly made level path. The Floating Piers has no elevation change. It is a two-dimensional plane perfectly level with the surface of the water, its colors forming an abstract diagram to be seen from above. Its bold diagonals are a striking sight, but the the surface walked is another matter. It is hard to describe the sensation of crossing. It is a flexing, forgiving surface that enables walking in any footwear (or with none at all) and the map provided does not so much guide as it abstracts.

Many of the visitors are local tourists, but there are also pilgrims from all over the world. Walking there is to hear a cacophony of languages and experience a cacophony of walking styles. Seasoned trekkers tend to move rapidly and directly, always aware of where they are on a trail and when in high traffic areas paying close attention to the movement of others. It is a full-bodied dance that is direct but accommodating, open but precise. In contrast, The Floating Piers is walked by a variety of people, each struggling to find their pace in relation to a crowd which moves to different rhythms or does not move at all (Selfie sticks have replaced trekking poles on this trail). The paths on the islands vary in width, but the floating bridges themselves are a uniform 16 meters wide. Covered in what they describe as a “simmering yellow” fabric, the walkway provides only one sense of directionality–across the lake and back. The surface itself is unmarked, giving no indication of where to walk. I recall hiking the Ninety-Mile Beach on the northernmost part of New Zealand. In that wide expanse of sand, I found myself unconsciously following any track that appeared–human footprints, tire marks, even the seaweed of the tide line–if only to find a sense of where and how to walk. Christo’s walkers are given a blank space. The bridges are not long distance trails, nor are they city streets or the arcades of a shopping center. They have a direction, but give their walkers no directions.

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What is most striking about the project surface is that, like water, it is not a rigid plane. The piers flex, float, and move according to their own complicated pattern, one that is influenced by the movement of the lake surface, the wake of boats, and the wind, but also by the footsteps of the many walkers. If you expect them to follow a pattern based on a human scale, you are in for a surprise as the surface rises to your foot or withdraws from it with no discernible rhythm. Consequently, the crowds moving in either direction (in or out) have to navigate the unpredictability of their fellow walkers and the chaotic flexing on the surface on which they stride. Perhaps it is the school-bus yellow, maybe the sharp and bold abstraction of its lines, or just the sheer child-like playfulness of the entire project, there is something about the Floating Piers that turns its users into children. It is a playful concept, but more fundamentally its users, like toddlers, must learn to negotiate the surface where they walk and the people with whom they share that surface.

The day I walked the Floating Piers, I got to tiny Isola di San Paola (the most playful section of the project) to find a pontoon workboat floating just off the yellow fabric coast. Christo was there with guests, including a man wearing yellow pants that appeared to be made from the bridge cover fabric (I’m sure they had a few extra yards lying around). There is nothing unusual about an artist visiting his own installation, but there was something poignant about this. Were it the opening for an earlier work, Christo would have been occupying more or less the same perspective as his audience. Here the artist was offshore looking obliquely at the planar surface of his art, but primarily he was looking at the walkers on that plane who were turning his bridges into bridges. The floating piers are just beautiful abstract surfaces on the lake surface until the walkers arrive. Then the paths become paths, the toddlers learn to walk, and a new, albeit temporary, community is formed. Footpaths are humanity’s first writing, producing marks on the land that tell others where to go, and they, by going, create community. Paths exist through use. Christo’s are temporary and the community of walkers formed is transient, but the lesson remains. Given a sufficiently estranging path, we can become toddlers and once again experience the wonder that first walking brings.

June 14-19

June 19th, 2016

June 14-19 Milano

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The interval at the end of a long-distance trek can be a curious time in several senses. It is curious or peculiar because it is the time of not-walking following a long time of walking. Daily rhythms and concerns require new calibrating, infinite adjustment. It is also a time that requires curiosity, a questioning of what has just taken place. Of course many people finish a trek and find themselves immediately thrust back into quotidian, non-walking life without the opportunity for reflection, for necessary curiosity. Instead there is a quick and often intense celebration (think of drunken revels in Millinocket after the Appalachian Trail). After each of my recent treks, I’ve been fortunate to have time– actually I’ve aggressively claimed it so as not to waste the moment of the end–to prolong it so it thickens and stabilizes. I had a week on Stewart Island after my nearly 4 month, 3000 km walk of New Zealand’s Te Araroa, necessary to rest and heal physically but also to think. After the Annapurna circuit I had several days in Pokhara, just wandering the city. On reaching Santiago on the Camino, I then found time and nourishment in A Coruna and Muxia. The second half of the Trans-Swiss trail makes a straight line toward Milan, so that visit had a sense of inevitability. The interval is a place to breathe, to catch up on neglected obligations (writing and revising, composing letters and emails), and experience something like boredom. I use that term deliberately, not to signal ennui or laziness, but instead the necessity to avoid sightseeing, to step out of obligatory tourism and make a space for the thinking of non-walking. Of course I have visited the Duomo, seen Da Vinci’s Last Supper, toured the castle (and perhaps should make the pilgrimage to San Siro), but also have taken the time to do nothing — to celebrate the thinking that such indolence provides and produces. Many of the essays in this blog have been contemplations of time, usually walking time, but other intervals, other hiatuses, are something to treasure. Walkers find themselves in the middle of spaces, the in-between that is inter-esse (interesting), but those same treks create gaps in time which are equally important as they too make viewpoints as well as continuous ever expanding moments. Rather than boisterous celebration, endings need careful assimilation, quiet prolonging.

T. Hugh Crawford

Air

June 15th, 2016

Air (an essay to complete the four elements, see also “water,” “surface,” and “vital heat“)

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They were burning the fields in Helambu, mountains terraced like a 3-d model of a topo map but nearly as old as human history. First they burn the chaff and straw, then cultivate with short-handled heavy-headed hoes, a design older than the millennium. In the larger fields, a wooden plow is pulled by a yoke of yak, writing simple lines in the soil with a metal tip tapering to a plain point. The plows are carved from a small tree-trunk with a heavy root angled by the winds, water, and rocks where it grew. A handle is mortised at the butt to give the plowboy control over depth and direction. The ashes from the burn are turned into the soil, but only after the fire has filled the sky with a choking smoke. In the villages they heat and cook with wood, often in rooms without chimneys. Instead a hole up in the eaves helps draw some of the smoke from the kitchen. The paths that wind between villages and farms are littered with empty coughdrop blister-packs, an attempt to sooth the irritation of indoor and outdoor smoke. The latter was completely unexpected as I climbed the trail, finally gaining 3690 meters of altitude. Higher than I had ever been but still not above tree line. The forest remained primarily pine and juniper, though becoming more scrub-like as the afternoon progressed. Ahead was a peak the path would go around, but I could see a recent rockslide had sheared off most of its face and the trail rerouted at that point. The foot stones were fresh and there were small cairns signaling the way, but as it turned out, in order to get past the slip, the path went almost to the peak. My altitude sensitive lungs went on full alert. Until this point, the hour estimates printed on my map had been spot on, but the walk from Mangengoth to Thadepati Bhanjyand was listed as one hour and took two and a half. Not sure what the kilometers were, but at this altitude they are of little consequence. The only thing that mattered was the air.

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It is not surprising that Buddhist meditation practices focus so intently on breath. Spiritus is elusive at altitude. Just moving about in the Himalayas is an exercise in breathing, a palpable factor in all activity. Visiting the gompa at Bhraga required not just a long walk up the Annapurna Circuit but also slow acclimation. The general rule of thumb is not to gain more than 1000 meters altitude per day, and I was by no means pushing myself on arrival at the village. On learning I could see the inside of the monastery which was perched high on a cliff above the village, I had to hustle to get up to it in time. Almost immediately, oxygen debt crushed my stamina. I slowed and methodically made my way to the entrance where I was met by an ancient Nepali doorkeeper who instructed me to remove my shoes and compose my breathing, then led me into an exuberance of Buddhist statuary, imagery, and manuscripts. I wandered in a daze, enthralled at the spectacle and the history it contained (I’m sure lack of oxygen contributed to that daze). On leaving, she tied a thin, blue-green string around my neck (which remains to this day), and I breathed one last time the smell of incense and ancient learning before descending some meters to the village and its relatively richer oxygen world.

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Bhraga is on the Annapurna circuit in Nepal. As a child I was a voracious reader in a house with a decent but limited library. I remember Maurice Herzog’s account of the ascent (and more important, descent) of Annapurna in the first expedition to summit what was then the highest mountain yet climbed by Western mountaineers. That story remained tucked in my psyche, resurfacing when I read about the circuit. I’ve been trekking long enough to have chucked the “bucket list” mentality over the edge many years ago. My idea was to walk around the Annapurna massif as a sort of pilgrimage, like the Buddhist circumambulation of Mt. Kailash. In my pilgrimage, I would see the villages, people, and countryside but also the places Herzog’s expedition passed, and I would see the mountain that bulked so large in my childhood imagination. Except for ice gear, I carry the equipment necessary to meet most challenges on a trail. The description of the Annapurna Circuit was quick to point out that people of moderate fitness were capable of finishing, so I didn’t worry much about the specifics. My first days out were uneventful, walking without a guide on a well-marked, well-travelled path. As the days passed, I encountered many of the same trekkers, listening to their conversations which almost never mentioned the walk itself. Instead, like a mantra, they repeated the words “Thorung La,” a pass that, at 17,769 ft., was the highest point on the circuit. It soon became clear most of my hiking colleagues were focused almost exclusively on the challenge of that pass. Along with the 1000 meter rule, everyone hydrated relentlessly and many ate lots of garlic, a folk remedy I was most happy to follow. Morning eggs in the guest houses were usually covered in garlic. Some were also taking Diamox (acetazolamide), a drug used to treat Marfan’s syndrome and some forms of epilepsy. It is a diuretic which tends to acidify the blood, causing deep breathing and increasing the blood’s oxygen supply, so it supposedly works as prophylaxis for mountain sickness. For these people, a pilgrimage around and through a remarkable landscape had been reduced to hemoglobin, to blood and oxygen.

My passage over Thorung La was uneventful. A beautiful but bitter cold day, a long steady climb followed by a hasty descent to Kagbeni, it was satisfying and, by walking at a judicious pace, my blood remained well-oxygenated. A few weeks later, on another continent I came to understand thin air. I began the final ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro at midnight, but not before asking the guides about the rationale for such a strategy. We had already spent days acclimating, and it seemed unwise to disrupt diurnal patterns just at the moment we were readying for the big push. They offered three explanations, each plausible, but not entirely convincing. The hike up from Kibo huts to Uhuru peak is less than six km with a little more than 1000m altitude gain. The summit is 5895m (19,341′). For comparison, Everest is 29,029′, and the highest peak in North America is Denali coming in at 20,310′. So the first answer had some merit– seeing the sunrise from the crater rim is an incredible experience. People walk up Poon Hill in Nepal starting at 4:00 am to see the sun rise over the Annapurna massif and Daulighiri, but that is a well-marked and fairly short track. Another reason: it was the wet season and the rains tend to start mid-morning, so they wanted to get up and then off the mountain early. The last, which seemed both patronizing and nonsensical, was actually the best. Hikers cannot see what they are climbing in the dark. It might only be six kilometers and only 1000 meters elevation gain, but it is straight up the highest mountain in Africa. At 11:00, we had coffee and biscuits and by the stroke of midnight were walking out of camp, each wearing a headlamp directed at our feet. We soon discovered that rain the day before was snow up high, and within the hour we were in ankle-deep powder, each of us following single file, seeing only the terrain illuminated by our headlamps and concentrating on the footprints directly in front of us. This went on for six hours. Initially, I treated it the way I do all long treks. Walking is an opportunity to think, but walking and thinking at high altitude is a curious and subtle experience. I found while I did the Kili shuffle–placing one foot directly in front of the other, heel to toe with no space between (very much Pink Floyd’s The Wall walk)–I could maintain a train of thought, but soon the lack of oxygen took effect, and I could only focus on the feet stepping in front of me, step after step, hour after hour. Climbing in snow is physically taxing, and as the air thinned, every misstep or slip interrupted carefully patterned breathing which in turn made me stop to pant, trying to get oxygen balance back. The new snow slowed our pace, so we arrived at Gilman’s point on the crater rim much later than expected. Kilimanjaro is a dormant volcano– a singular peak rising out of the Rift Valley that characterizes the geology of East Africa. We rested briefly, and for the first time could see beyond the halos of our headlamps. The sun washed across the landscape, making shadows of unbelievable intensity and finally breaking the monochrome of our night walk. By now I was really feeling the altitude. I had crossed Thorung La with little distress, but given the exertion of climbing in snow, I was gasping for air and feeling many of the symptoms of altitude sickness. Nevertheless I continued the last bit of the climb around the crater rim to Uhuru point. There were congratulations all around, but what stunned us all was the sheer magnificence of a clear, rainless morning looking out over the glaciers surrounding a breathtaking crater (and I mean breathtaking in its most literal sense). We soon turned back– lingering at the peak invites many problems including body-temperature drops and perhaps more time sliding down the incline in the rain. We made our long return to Kibo huts, and each step brought more oxygen. After a glorious hour resting, we geared back up and made the descent to Horombo, had supper and slept the sleep of the dead. Emily Dickinson once wrote that “the brain is wider than the sky.” On Kilimanjaro, I learned that a tired, physically stressed, and oxygen-starved brain is no wider than the faint outline of a headlamp illuminating footsteps in the snow.

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Air signals its presence in other ways, perhaps most directly by moving. In Nepal climbing to Tilicho Lake, I watched the snow on a mountainside break off, sliding into a ravine a couple of kilometers from where I walked. There was no danger the avalanche could reach the trail, but in a few moments the clear sunny day was filled with airborne ice crystals moving east fast and wet. About 20 minutes later, the same ricocheting wave recrossed the path, this time moving west, once again covering me completely in ice. The Tongiriro Crossing on New Zealand’s North Island involves altitude change though nothing like Kilimanjaro. The edge of the Red Crater is a little over 1800 meters and when I was to cross during my hike of the Te Araroa Trail there was still snow, a lot of it. Tongariro is one of those hikes that swiftly changing weather can make dangerous. My morning started out cold (down at low elevation) and wet, though there were glimpses of sun, and the cloud cover did not look significantly different from a typical New Zealand morning in late Spring. My plan was to first hike to the Ketatahi Hut which was about 18 km, so I hoped to get there mid-morning and would then have a sense of how the weather would play out. Early on the hike went well, a long road walk followed by well-designed and maintained paths. When I emerged from the bush and started hiking the alpine tundra the temperature started to drop, and the wind picked up. Still, I was well dressed in wind/rain gear, ready for what I thought would come, but the rain intensified and the wind was soon gale force. At times it actually pushed me off the trail. The last kilometer or two were otherworldly– horizontal rain, freight-train wind, and no clear end in sight. Then the hut appeared (not a moment too soon). The first thing I saw when I got to the door was a sign redesignating the hut as a temporary shelter. It was not an overnight site any longer because of a recent eruption which had dropped rocks through the roof and disrupted the foundation. I went inside, stripped off wet clothes, and with shivering hands made an early lunch. As I did not get appreciably warmer–the wind by now was bashing the sides of the cabin– I spread out my sleeping bag on the table and crawled in, which soon got my body temperature to a better range. Before long some Department of Conservation people showed up to work on the hut, surprised to find anyone there in such weather and relieved that I had decided to return down the way I had come. I packed up, headed back into the maelstrom, and could feel the temperature creep up as the altitude decreased. While hiking back down the mountain, I thought about Thoreau in The Maine Woods where he climbed Katahdin, though he did not achieve the summit. His description of the mountain is some of his best writing, and I was thinking about how to him Katahdin was a cloud machine, making its own weather. He did not end up posing at the top for pictures the way Appalachian Trail thru-hikers do today, but he experienced the mountain in all its weather fury. From that perspective, his was a successful climb, as was mine that day on Tongariro.

Another of Thoreau’s mountains is New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, a place where the air asserts itself insistently. It is a mountain with a constant flow of tourists. I remember one day climbing it through the Tuckerman Ravine with one of my sons. Like Katahdin, Washington is also a cloud factory, so on nearing the summit the mist came in. Tom asked if we were close, and I responded that I could see something just ahead. As it turned out, that something was the bumper of a car. We summited through a parking lot, then stood next to tourists in street clothes waiting our turn to snap a picture by the sign at the peak. Flat and exposed, Washington is situated at a point where major storm systems from the south and the west converge. It can have temperatures as low as -35 and, at 231 mph, the highest wind speed ever directly recorded by humans. It is no wonder that in the past 150 years, almost the same number of people have died on its slopes. Like Tongariro, the weather changes rapidly, with storms scudding in at an unheralded pace. Standing at the peak, ignoring the cog-railway and full parking lot, watching the clouds mark the wind direction and speed, is to experience air as air.

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Today when people speak of a medium they might be thinking of a trafficker in the spiritual realms but more likely are referring to a communication medium. I currently teach in the newly re-named School of Literature, Media, and Communication, where media finds itself squarely in the middle, sandwiched between an elderly media form and the study of how to get the message through as clearly as possible. At least since McLuhan (actually since Plato), people concerned with effective communication focus not just on the message but also on its medium since, obviously, its specific affordances configure the messages that pass. Idealists desire transparency, the mythic state where the medium recedes to such an extent that the message stands clear for all to see and understand. In Remediation, my old friend and colleague Richard Grusin makes the distinction between immediacy and hypermediacy, where the first characterizes the push for transparency while the second calls attention to both the limitations and the affordances of the medium itself. Similar to Heidegger’s tools “ready-to-hand” and “present-to-hand,” immediacy and hypermediacy are engaged in a constant dance. One leads for a moment, then the other, as the message is passed and its medium registered. In the last half-century, we have come to think of information moving through a medium as fundamental to the maintenance of society and vital for continuing life through our very genetic structure.

In a climate-controlled environment (at least in the West), air rarely shows itself as hypermediacy. Instead it seems textbook immediacy. Indeed, except for startling instances of dense air pollution (or to a trekker on the Helambu circuit during spring field preparation), the primary characteristic of air is its transparency. Something invisible, beneath notice, surely does not carry a message of consequence, but of course it does. We respond somatically to changes in air pressure. We feel deep in our souls the freshness of a clear cool morning. We feel the oppressive weight of water on a humid day, and a stiffening breeze signals a change in the weather. The down on our cheek trembles in the slightest current of air or shift in temperature, but what makes air so clearly a medium is its very transparency. To experience the big outside on an exceptionally clear day is to be enthralled by its clarity, by exactly that which you cannot see. As William Carlos Williams says in the first poem of Spring and All:

under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast—a cold wind.

* * *

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf

One by one objects are defined —
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

The transparency of the air there does not withdraw in the face of the immediacy of the object–it produces it, enables it, and mediates it. Air is our first medium.

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T. Hugh Crawford

June 13

June 13th, 2016

Brusino  to Chiasso 22 km

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The last day on a long-distance trek is obviously one of mixed emotions. The trail has been home for a month or more, you are in a particular rhythm that is comfortable, and the non-walking life never holds much appeal. Nevertheless, there usually is some need for rest and refueling (I’m 10-15 lbs. (or 7 kg) below my normal weight), and of course there is the sense of accomplishment that comes with completion. So it is a day you want to be over while you try to savor every moment. Like yesterday, this one started with a long, hot, steep climb up from Brusino. I almost never stop, even to rest, on an ascent, always trying to keep up the momentum, but today about halfway up, I just sat on a rock and looked out over the lake below and listening to music. I was glad a hiker came down and roused me from my reverie, or I might not have finished. After the peak, there was a long fairly smooth track into Mendrisio. A large, undistinguished industrial town and, at least according to one guide, the actual end of the T-ST (the #2 signposts seem to have stopped there). I rested there briefly, then pushed on to Chiasso, a town right on the Italian border. There in the city square they had a huge outdoor TV screen set up with row upon row of chairs, showing the Eurocup games. My hotel room window looks directly out onto the square and the screen, so my end-of-the-trail celebration will mingle with the celebration of fans watching the Italy-Belgium game. I doubt I will sleep early tonight.

494 kilometers– FINIS!

T. Hugh Crawford

June 12

June 13th, 2016

June 12
Lugano to Morcote 12km

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Sometimes on American long trails, people arrange transportation support so they can hike a stretch without a full pack. It’s called slack-packing, something I try to avoid as carrying the pack is very much part of walking. Today however, I had a short but very steep leg of the Trans-Swiss Trail, starting in Lugano and ending at Morcote, a tiny village at the tip of a peninsula. Continuing on requires a boat ride across the lake to Brusino. The same boat returns to Lugano, so I decided to leave my pack at the hotel and return by boat in the evening. G–, a Camino peregrino who lives in Milan, took the morning train up for a day hike, and what a hike it was. The day started cloudy, but soon the sun burned through. The temperature and humidity climbed. In this past year of backpacking, I’ve been mostly walking in springtime, but it is now summer in Ticino. The first part of the trail went up the steps alongside a cable-car–for a very long time. By the time it veered off to switchback through the woods, I was completely drenched with sweat. I thought of those many days of soaking wet hiking on the Appalachian Trail in mid-summer. It took several hours to reach to peak above Lugano only to see dozens of tourists looking fairly cool and fresh, wandering the platform by the mountaintop restaurant. Of course they had ridden the cable-car. I’m just glad it did not pass us on the way up as I might have had to resort to the Mount Washington tradition of mooning of the steam-train passengers on their way up. From the peak, the trail followed the ridge for about 8 km, occasionally passing through beautiful mountain villages, until later in the afternoon when it became steps down–steps that seemed an eternity. On the ridge just above Morcote is a magnificent church tower and chapel. As it was Sunday, the doors were open so the path went straight through, coming out by the cemetery before descending to the lake-level town, where we had just enough time for cold drinks and a snack before catching the boat back to Lugano. It was the most beautiful day I have had on the Trans-Swiss trail.

T. Hugh Crawford

June 11

June 11th, 2016

June 11
Isone to Lugano 23 km

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A word about the Restaurante Vedeggio in Isone. I have met so many friendly accommodating people on my walkabout, but Daniela and her staff were amazing. The restaurant was full of Isone soldiers (there is a base there) and some locals, but they made every effort to make me comfortable. They kept bringing meatballs on toothpicks, bread with cheese, ham, sardines. They made a special main meal of pasta, pesto, cheese and vegetables. Very plain but delicious. They asked if I wanted dessert and when I said no, she brought out a local cake– sort of a light brownie with peanuts– the cook had just made. It was all repeated at breakfast–just one of those times when the place was just a good place to be. It even made the morning walk out in the rain positive. Sorry to say that mood only lasted until the trail decided to cut up through an unmowed (hip high) soaking wet pasture. Not the best way to start a trek. After a pretty squishy hour or so, I found myself up on a ridge in a beech forest looking down on the clouds in the valley. I stopped cussing the trail builders when they settled into transverse path– the kind Bennett and I call “Shenandoah.” It was most of the way up the ridge and ran level horizontally. Like in the Virginia Shenadoahs, it would follow the ridge into the gorges where the freshets, full from last night’s rain, crossed the path filling it with rushing water. A little dance across the stones and once again, the path circumscribed a long level loop to the next water. Late morning those loops brought me closer to the gunshots I heard earlier in the day. My initial assumption was there were hunters nearby. It was Saturday and the sportsmen were out. As the shots intensified, I thought perhaps there were some military maneuvers going on, which prompted me to get out the ugly hat. When I started New Zealand’s Te Araroa, I bought a kiwi bush hat. Oilskin, broad brimmed, perfect for the rain I experienced daily. When I didn’t need to wear it (it was hot), I would hook it to a carabiner on my backpack. One day while descending through some dense gorse, it was stripped off. I only missed it later in the day, too late to try to retrieve it. The next day I found myself in a town with a sport store and bought a running hat– very light, cool, and dried fast. It was the perfect hat, so the very next day, while crossing a farm I was not supposed to be on, I climbed a ridge and was hit full force with some of that New Zealand wind. I tucked my new perfect hat into my belt and hastily descended to get out of the wind and away from the trespass I was committing. On arriving in town, I discovered that new hat was now gone–not even 24 hours use out of it. The town had a sports store, actually a hunting store, which sold ugly hats. They are well-made and functional. The fabric is light and breathes, and the bill is split symmetrically so it easily folds and fits into a back pocket. The problem is that it is a bright blue camo pattern. Without doubt the ugliest hat I’ve ever seen (unless you are a fan of “Duck Dynasty”). The owner pushed a bit, noting that I was entering into a hunting district and needed high visibility (I did encounter many hunters on both islands). I bought it, probably on the assumption that I would soon lose it like all the others. Well, today (7 months later) I could still pull out the ugly hat, placing it squarely on my head so the trigger happy gun owners just down the ridge would, I hope, see me. Before long, the American in the blue camo hat passed the shooting club where dozens of breached shotguns lay on tables while the members opened boxes of more shells. In another 100 yards, the hat returned to my pocket. As the day progressed the path moved inexorably closer to Lugano. The ridges soon had what were clearly weekend homes, but the trail also worked its way through some amazing birch forests. It is not just the bark and shape of the trunks. The leaves of birch trees change the light of the forest in an indescribable way. Before long though, the path became sidewalk and the suburbs of the city. On gaining the main square I found some sort of rural, traditional dress/dance/sing/eat thing going on. Lots of very large people roaming the streets in almost incomprehensible clothing. The dancing and the singing were fascinating, but as the afternoon wore on, so did the beer. Nothing like a drunken 18th century cosplay crowd. Of course everyone’s good humor was also stoked by Switzerland winning their first round of the Euro cup. Lugano, the city is how I remember from visiting many years ago. Now to plot out the end of the Trans-Swiss Trail.

T. Hugh Crawford

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