People often announce that they are taking their blog on hiatus, which is what I am doing just now. The Te Araroa phase of my walkabout is complete, and I’ll be teaching in Wellington in the new year–Moby-Dick, “he tasks me; he heaps me”–so I am taking a break from daily blogging, but first I want to think about the idea of hiatus, of the interval, particularly as it relates to walking; hence, another pointless essay.
It’s hard to think the idea of a beginning without an end, but the in-between, the inter esse is where everything interesting is to be found. The nomads in Deleuze and Guattari do not travel from point to point but instead occupy the middle, a milieu. The Nomadology is an attempt to understand what that means (and is the subject for what should be another pointless essay). Completing the Te Araroa–arriving at Bluff–invites a meditation on ending in the way that commencing from Reinga prompts a reverie on beginning. It has been cause for congratulations, requests for stories, explanation of motivation, but the rhetoric of accomplishment tends toward a sense of victory or triumph– getting the t-shirt or the merit badge–which wholly misses the experience of the walk which is always in the gap, a space never empty but instead occupied by varied and often inarticulate ways of being. To be in-between is to perpetually deny the end as absolute because the moment is always opening out onto a horizon of possibility and not directed toward a finish line. Indeed the very notion of a finish line can only exist in a constrained framework, one rarely experienced (e.g., most thru-hikers don’t make it to Katadhin or Stirling Point). My days since finishing the Te Araroa have seemed empty as I’ve rested. My hiatus from daily walking many kilometers and writing about that experience appears empty but of course I have been differently occupied–with thinking, healing, and wrestling with the idea of the in-between. As John Cage teaches about sound, there is no empty even in silence, and we never simply occupy a beginning or end point–are never present in some pure plenitude– but instead are always on the way which is the very being of desire. The real question is how we live that desire– as lack or as inter esse.
Hiatus is repetition. To take a hiatus from an activity requires a break in what had been a repetitive action, and it is in repetition that difference can be articulated/discerned from one stabilized moment to another. A daily blog reveals shifting mood in 24 hour increments, manifested by reflection and mediated by language. Repetition produces difference and, at the same time, the illusion of continuous variation, but it cannot capture the experience of the milieu–the space and time where everything happens but nothing is reported. It is there that we live–in-between, anxiously minding the gap and never occupying a beginning or ending except perhaps as a brief moment of joy or anguish. Long-distance tramping brings this insight into sharp relief on many scales. A trek is a hiatus from quotidian life (or, more precisely, is a different dailiness). It breaks calendar time–I recall when hiking the Appalachian Trail thinking that it must be a weekend because of the distant roar of motorcycles in the mountains. Trekking produces a hiatus of information (there is no internet in the bush), but by definition, it is a movement from one point to another. Hiking days begin and end with strong awareness of changing position in space and time. Minding the gap is particularly evident in times of navigational difficulty. On the Te Araroa, particularly on the South Island in broad open spaces where the trail proceeds not as a footpath but instead by striking out across open uneven terrain, you hike toward marker poles set in the distance and capped by orange plastic cylinders. When new (or at least not weathered), the orange stands out at some distance, providing reassurance that there is indeed an articulated direction and that you are still on it. Given the vagaries of terrain, unseen needs to detour, or just the simple extension of an interval beyond a sight line, pole-spotting can be difficult and consequently stressful. Generally, confident competent trampers have little trouble following pole markers (unless weather interferes), but the gap still produces an interval of uncertainty that echoes the interval between poles. Constantly wavering between confidence — oh, there it is!–and panic–oh, where the hell is it?–trampers find such days physically and psychologically taxing.
Even on well-formed, blazed, and documented trails, the experience of the interval can be psychologically difficult. Often trail signs define time rather than distance–time spans that almost never calibrate with actual trekking time as fitness, walking speed, and trail conditions are highly variable. On the Te Araroa sometimes the listed times are realized, but more often they are wildly inaccurate. Anxiety comes with the possibility that for once the sign may actually be correct, throwing off anticipated day’s attainments. Sometimes time and distance inexplicably move to the front of consciousness, often prompted by devices that provide fine-grained measurements. Watches and GPS compute movement from one waypoint to another, filling the interval with thin slices of space/time, a calculus that creates the illusion of flow through minuteness of interval. These moments prompt calibration of body, space, and temporality. Many hikers — including me–try to resist constant monitoring, but inevitably there are days (often when a town is the end-point) where calibration is obsessive–perhaps every hour (or even half hour). The point in time is anxiously awaited, and the point in space–the jump of a pulsing blue dot on a GPS device–is a moment of marvel or disappointment.
But to walk without such constructs, to be in the walk is, at least for me, the true goal. William James gives a way to think the experience of the temporal middle with his notion of the “specious present.” Lasting less than a minute, it is experienced as now: “In short, the practically cognized present is no knife-edge, but a saddle-back, with a certain breadth of its own on which we sit perched, and from which we look in two directions into time.” For James, the specious present is never empty though it can be experientially poor (as in stretches of boredom). Because of its temporal extension, the specious present–the gap we live as coherent nowness–enables the possibility of anxiety (searching for the marker pole) and joy (finding it). It creates the very possibility of expectation, something that would be impossible were time a series of discontinuous moments. Later in the chapter, James discusses the physiological and neurological bases for the experience of the specious present (speculations later supported by Francisco Varela through a review of recent work timing interactions between various neural cellular assemblages). After going through the philosophical argument establishing the idea as phenomenon, he shows how it is part of a cerebral process. He speculates about what it would be like to have a different specious present (e.g., that of a gnat), then uses example of the fine-grained perceptions of hashish intoxication which stretch out the normal perception so that, in his example, the beginning of the sentence fades before reaching the end. Then in a note discussing the work of Hugo Munsterberg, he adds muscle groups linked to directing perception tensing and untensing as part of the embodied constitution of the specious present.
What is clear in James’s discussion is that the experience of the now is the result of both neural and physical experience. I would add that there are times when our awareness of the specious present is heightened, and trekking often produces that sense. The now can be experienced negatively–anxiously measuring progress toward (and away from) spatial-temporal goals–but also positively as the now, moments as close to pure awareness of being is possible. When walking, you use your entire body as a perceptual apparatus–head to toe–promoting awareness of self and now, both of which are forms of consistency in the midst of flux: “Meanwhile, the specious present, the intuited duration, stands permanent, like the rainbow on the waterfall, with its own quality unchanged by the events that stream through.” This is the double lesson of time and walking– the specious present is a saddle of present (if not presence) where the immediate past slips off the edge as the new now is experienced. A body walking mimics this motion through both space and time. The hiatus is the now.
T. Hugh Crawford