Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

August 10

August 11th, 2016

August 10 Botnar to Pórsmörk (17 km)

 

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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

August 11th, 2016

August 9 Hrafntinnusker to Botnar (28 km)

 

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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

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 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

June 9

June 9th, 2016

June 9 Lavorgo to Biasca 25 km

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This morning I witnessed something I had never seen. In Nepal, I often encountered woodcutters who not only chopped the trees down with short, curved-bladed axes; they also cut the boards by hand in pit-saws. This morning I watched a helicopter fly back and forth bringing entire cut birch trees suspended on cables to a lumber yard. I have no idea how much an operation like that costs, but the economic differences between alpine Switzerland and Himalayan Nepal are staggering. Hiking in Ticino is different than I expected– not that I am sure what I expected. I guess I thought the Alps would level down after Gotthardo pass into Lugano and perhaps they will, but the past two days have been difficult. The trail usually climbs up on a ridge to pass through those villages I described yesterday, but it also keeps shifting from a narrow paved road to a farm track to a faint line across a pasture, to a steep, uneven rocky path that is difficult to follow. Even reading the finger post signs carefully and consulting th several GPS app/maps on my phone, I made several wrong decisions and had to backtrack. Still, lately the hikes have felt a little too scripted, so this morning as I was climbing a long and deeply switchbacked road up to the Strada Alta, I checked the map and decided it was time for an adventure. Climbing off the southernmost tip of a long road switchback, I struck out into the wild. It was clear as long as I kept heading south and climbing, I would eventually strike the road and the upper town, cutting off a kilometer or two, even if I added time. Early on I found a path, though it was more a game trail than something humans made. At one point a large animal scurried away downhill– no idea what it was, but I kept seeing the symbol on the Bern flag in my mind. I scrambled across rocks, slipped on soft tussocks of dirt, had my share of things slide beneath me, but occasionally found traces of a path, and a quick GPS check showed I was not far from the road in either direction. There were tense moments where a slip would have meant a considerable fall, but I usually found a tree or shrub to grab, and was just glad to be pushing things a little bit instead of following blindly some pre-determined path. After one check of the map, I turned due east, climbing straight up the bank at its most steep, slipping and sliding, but before long came upon a human-made trail which led to the road and the village of Anzonico where I would commence the day’s hike on the Trans-Swiss Trail to Biasca. Apart from a missed turn or two, the rest of the day was a magnificent trek wending its way back to the valley floor through old-growth beech forests which, as readers of this blog well know, is my favorite tree to hike under. Yesterday I was complaining about itching nettles, but today it was all bloody scratches from thorns and rocks, marks of a good risky climb.

T. Hugh Crawford

June 8

June 8th, 2016

June 8

Airolo to Lavorgo 29 km

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The unstated rules of trail designers are keeping trekkers off of paved roads as much as possible, generally avoiding large towns (unless the trek is a religious pilgrimage), and maximize opportunity for amazing views. Following those rules closely can produce uneven success. Avoiding pavement can at time lead to unnecessary detours up badly made paths while a perfectly good road remains in sight. Sometimes avoiding towns requires long climbing detours to uninteresting places. Today’s walk was a little of that, but also, in parts, the classic example of why those rules apply. The climb out of Airolo was steep but quick, and I soon found myself on Strada Alta which, when it didn’t dwindle into a narrow path and then a field of nettles, was the perfect path for the day. I found myself walking 3/4s of the way up a ridge, looking down onto the narrow river valley, and across to snow capped alps. The treat though was not the spectacular views but instead the little villages gathered around that high road. Their access was a road no wider than a compact car, as were their main streets, but each had magnificent beamed houses, some in stone, the obligatory water trough with constantly flowing water, a bar/cafe, and a church. Every three km, another would appear. The economy here is less certain. There are farms, but it seems clear that many of the people living in these towns are not farmers. Almost as evidence for this observation, for once I saw as much wildlife as if did domestic. Along with the cows and sheep, I almost stepped on a five foot snake– looked like a black snake but held it head up while moving. Later I scared up a chamois who looked at me for a moment before diving into the bushes. Perhaps the village houses could be vacation homes, or even places for commuters. All very puzzling but beautiful nonetheless. In the town square of one, a young girl sat blowing bubbles that drifted across the trail. I stopped at 1:00 for a pint in a restaurant in one. At first it seemed closed, but on entering I was greeted by a table of locals, already hoisting their day’s second pints and speaking in Italian, a language I love to hear. The bartender had a baby in his arms, and served me a pint of Gottardo, an excellent local lager. Everyone was so happy. I wish my afternoon had been as happy, but as often happens on the trail, a combination of small but significant problems makes for a difficult time. My interlude with the nettles, coupled with some wrong turns– some my fault, others because of the quick change in trail surface (road to overgrown field)– and a long final descent on a sharp rock trail made for a frustrating end of the day. Something remedied by an excellent plate of gnocchi for supper.

T. Hugh Crawford

A [Walking] Life

March 15th, 2016

A [Walking] LIFE

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What if the transcendental field were actually a field? Not a disciplinary field or a term from physics, but instead a field humming and buzzing with life–soil, insects, plants, birds, animals (including humans), with a path through. Gilles Deleuze returns to fields, to immanence, in his last essay, “Pure Immanence: A Life.” It is a work of old age. Nearing death, A Life deserves to be thought. I have recurred to this essay many times over the years but have only recently arrived at an age where I feel its richness, something I am still incapable of expressing even as it moves me. So instead I just want to make a tentative claim. Deleuze’s last essay can be read by walkers as their A Life. In those few pages (it is a remarkably compact piece), he does not mention walking, but does describe with uncanny precision the experience of non-self, the actual life that both appears and is performed by serious walkers. Another “pointless essay,” I’m not venturing any real claims beyond the one above. Instead I want to proceed in the manner of my friend Isabelle Stengers and try to think with Deleuze (a strategy that requires many quotations, but it is the only way I know how to proceed).

His opening sentences are by themselves a complete essay and a summary of A Life: “What is a transcendental field? It can be distinguished from experience in that it doesn’t refer to an object or belong to a subject (empirical representation). It appears therefore as a pure stream of a-subjective consciousness, a pre-reflexive impersonal consciousness, a qualitative duration of consciousness without a self.” Perhaps feeling old, Deleuze is making himself an ancient philosopher–a pre-Socratic–voicing a philosophy of immanence, a philosophy lost because of subjects set over against objects, lost because of the transcendence of the idea of self. As he says in the Nietzsche essay included in Pure Immanence, “The degeneration of philosophy clearly begins with Socrates.” So what would an a-subjective consciousness be? Practically it seems an impossibility as, at least to me, consciousness has always been the province of the self, but Deleuze want to speak of a transcendental field (and later pure immanence, the two of which veer together). So the question is whether it is possible to experience that field prior to or in spite of the fall into a subject-object existence. Clearly A Life is some sort of process of recovery.

Sitting in a library reading Deleuze can twist the mind. We fall, we grope, yet a-subjective consciousness remains elusive. But the field begins to answer, the field crossed on foot in a long ramble where, as all long-distance walkers know, the subject-object dualism is nonsensical. Minds are in bodies, bodies are in clothes and gear, which in turn are in the world. By that I don’t mean the World writ philosophically large, but rather the physical world being occupied and traversed: this path, this air, these sounds which do not appear to the senses as an outside, an object to be surmounted, but instead are the blurred zone of the becoming of field. Not being, not self– field! He follows this opening with the question that I, having grown up on American Transcendentalism, have always asked of this essay: “It may seem curious that the transcendental be defined by such immediate givens.” Although the Transcendental he struggles against is Kantian, let’s instead walk a bit with Emerson, because I don’t think Deleuze is terribly far from him here (though their paths soon diverge). The ecstatic moment of American Transcendentalism occurs in Nature: “In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life,–no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground,–my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,–all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” Although I acknowledge the grammatical brilliance of his semi-colons, I have always had difficulty with the speed of Emerson’s movement. In a few short sentences, he goes from the woods to the “currents of universal being.” As an inveterate walker himself, Emerson knows crossing such distance takes time. The speed of walking is the speed of thought — something much slower than the rapid transcendence Emerson executes here. Of course he has a philosophical point to make, one not to be found in the field but instead is enabled by the field. Emerson’s transcendence is a movement out of the “givens” of the path he actually walks, so even though his loss of “mean egotism” seems much like Deleuze’s a-subjective consciousness, in the process it loses its immanence.

So it is here that Emerson’s way diverges from Deleuze’s, but let’s follow it for just a moment to see how it aligns with, instead of moving away from Kant’s. Still from Nature: “The first effort of thought tends to relax this despotism of the senses, which binds us to nature as if we were a part of it, and shows us nature aloof, and, as it were, afloat. Until this higher agency intervened, the animal eye sees, with wonderful accuracy, sharp outlines and colored surfaces. When the eye of Reason opens, to outline and surface are at once added, grace and expression. These proceed from imagination and affection, and abate somewhat of the angular distinctness of objects.” This in some ways accounts for his rapid transcendence. As is clear from his transparent eyeball and fear of losing his sight, Emerson wants to celebrate what the mind brings to perception of nature which is, from the outset, considered as spectatorial other. Emersonian objects are refined by Emersonian subjects. Very much in a Kantian tradition, he wants to celebrate what the mind brings to those objects, the “imagination” and “affection” that temper the angularity of the material world. The other path, the one followed by Deleuze is through the “animal eye” along with all the other senses (including proprioception) that perform the crossing of the transcendental field. Given Emerson’s spatio-visual metaphors, his transcendence is a move up, a change in perspective that provides an intellectualized understanding, a bird’s eye view of the field. Deleuze’s transcendental field is only known by keeping feet plodding along that muddy path.

A serious walker–one who is tramping long enough for the daily world to vanish and to also move beyond an aesthetic appreciation of “taking a walk”–can recover the transcendental field that pre-exists the subject-object distinction with a different form of empiricism, one Deleuze calls transcendental: “We will speak of a transcendental empiricism in contrast with everything that makes up the world of the subject and the object. There is something wild and powerful in this transcendental empiricism that is of course not the element of simple sensation (simple empiricism), for sensation is only a break within the flow of absolute consciousness.” Wild and powerful–a good way to describe what he opens up in this passage. Walking presses the question of consciousness (simple or absolute) and sensation, both of which push the boundaries of A Life in the world. Where to begin? Maybe back in the field where we started. Without doubt, a general walk across that meadow, that field buzzing with life, is full of sensations perceived by all the aggregate entities found there equipped some sensorium (all the way to light sensitive minerals). Deleuze’s absolute consciousness senses this but does not articulate a sensation as that pitches the absolute consciousness into an opposition–sense/mind/subject vs. world/object. To have a sensation is to break from the field where all participate, interact, flow. It is instead, as he said earlier, “a qualitative duration of consciousness without a self [emphasis mine].”

He continues: “Must we then define the transcendental field by a pure immediate consciousness with neither object or consciousness with neither object nor self, as a movement that neither begins nor ends.” Here it seems he is using the term consciousness as a placeholder, a concept, to describe this movement or becoming within the transcendental field. “Consciousness becomes a fact only when a subject is produced at the same time as its object.” The world of becoming he wants to describe happens before that fall into subject/object. In terms of human experience, such events come in waves. We walk across that field, the low-growing shrubs crowd in the path. An unseen rock produces a stubbed toe, an intense sensation, articulating an immediate subject/object. No transparent eyeball or part or particle of God there. Just you, your foot, and that damn rock. But what was happening before the unfortunate incident? Was the walker–bathed in light and heat, surrounded by sound–a subject living in an objective world? In Kant’s transcendental philosophy, yes. In Deleuze’s wild and powerful transcendental empiricism, no.

We seem to be in some philosophical rare air here, but those out trekking for a long time, who move from the awareness that they are taking a walk into walking, find themselves living an act that is automatic, but not unconscious. This is why Deleuze’s idea is so wild and powerful. The walker is conscious, aware, but only occasionally finds herself as a subject set up against an object. An example: walking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal which is considered by many to be one of the best long distance treks in the world. Because of the spacing of villages with accommodations, people usually circle the massif counterclockwise. A constant topic of conversation amongst trekkers is the Thorung La, a pass 17,769 ft. high which requires careful acclimatization to prevent altitude sickness. A walker can approach a trek like the Annapurna Circuit as a circumambulation of a mountain, a way to pay respect to it and the path followed, a path “as a pure stream of a-subjective consciousness.” Or, because Thorung La is an obstacle, it becomes something to be conquered, a goal, something on a bucket list. There is perhaps no stronger subject/object distinction than man vs. mountain. That sense of self is a youthful philosophy, one of challenges, finely hammered arguments, or treks with rigidly determined itineraries and carefully marked scenic overlooks. The older, pre-Socratic Deleuzian circumambulator passes landmarks, marvels at the eagles overhead, shrinks from high swinging bridges, and of course occasionally takes bearings, but most often feels the path, the air, and light. That experience is by no means a construction of self or a movement into a different world. Rather it is the experience of pure immanence.

So what then is A [Walking] Life?: “We will say of pure immanence that it is A Life, and nothing else.” The experience of pure immanence is what he was sketching out earlier with the transcendental field. It is pre-subject/object and simply lived (not lived simply). The experience of pure immanence is in the walk in the field not leading to higher consciousness but instead to A Life: “The transcendental field is defined by a plane of immanence and the plane of immanence by a life.” Here is the payoff: Deleuze executes an ethical turn, wanting to embrace A Life not as a primitive experience prior to the celebrated constitution of the human mind, but rather as one I would call profoundly ecological. Such a life “is a haecceity [intensity] no longer of individuation but of singularization: a life of pure immanence, neutral, beyond good and evil, for it was only the subject that incarnated it in the midst of things that made it good or bad.” To experience the ethical not as a form of judgment but rather as a form of becoming both outside the trivially ethical good/bad and inside a transcendental field of fully engaged life, one experienced by many people in many places, but without doubt regularly lived by walkers. It is a life of traverse, of being always in-between: “This indefinite life does not itself have moments, close as they may be one to another, but only between-times, between moments….” Walking is always between. To stop at a scenic overlook, to marvel at the [Emersonian] spectatorial, is to stop. To be in a moment, not between. As he says in the essay on Nietzsche published in the same volume: “Modes of life inspire ways of thinking; modes of thinking create ways of living. Life activates thought, and thought in turn affirms life.”
A Life is not continuously lived, but when it occurs, it is performed: “A Life contains only virtuals. It is made up of virtualities, events, singularities. What we call virtual is not something that lacks reality but something that is engaged in the process of actualization following the plane that gives it its particular reality.” A day may begin with a plan and proceed by a map (the product of ichnographic vision), and by the end might have traced out that (usually digital blue) line, a plane that Deleuze and Guattari would call “territorialization” (in A Thousand Plateaus), but the passage is purely virtual. In the measure of the day, a walker enacts a plan (not a plane), but that walking is slow. Its measure is on the level of the between-moment. This virtuality is a-conscious because “Consciousness becomes produced as a fact only when a subject is produced at the same time as its object…” Consciousness, subject, object are retrospectively produced in the performance of immanence. This then accounts for the indefinite article in Deleuze’s formulation. We are never in the presence of THE LIFE. That would be Being, a definition that pinpoints life in the way GPS and a map captures position but loses everything else. The map does not include the eagles circling overhead, the smell of cherry blossoms, the squeak of dry snow, the slip of mud, a midday snack of a Snickers bar, and that sense of rhythmic totality walking brings. It is indefinite because such becoming always evades capture, even as it is beyond articulation– which is why Deleuze’s last essay is so damn difficult. So is walking.

T. Hugh Crawford

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