Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

March 11

March 11th, 2016

March 11 Day 11 Muktinath to Kagbeni

image

Even with an altitude drop from 5416m down to 3800m, I still found myself waking up in the middle of the night panting, almost as if I had just run a race. Slept in then spent a pleasant morning drinking coffee and talking with two Aussies and two Italians. Said goodbye to Kyle and Will, my recent hiking companions who are pressing on further, then set off for Kagbeni, a town I was looking forward to seeing as it is in the Mustang province and one of the few towns in that area you can visit without an expensive permit. Mustang is a region close to Tibet and one of the few places open today where you can get a sense of what old Tibet must have been like. I am also curious about the name and whether it relates to the horses we have in the US. This is definitely horse country. They are used for transportation and cartage. Kumar from the Base Camp Hotel rides them up and over the Thorung Pass, and I regularly encountered riders on the trails in Mustang as well as passing many grazing up in the pastures. It is planting time here so the first half of my walk to Kagbeni was accompanied by the strange mixture of yelling and singing that goes will plowing the fields by a yoke of small oxen and a wooden plow. I wish I could capture the sound– a sharp yell followed by a strange song and the team pulls away. Along with annual crops, this area is also full of fruit trees– primarily apple. The older ones have twisted trunks and remind me of the orchards where I grew up in the Shenandoah valley of Virginia. Here they paint the tree trunks light blue, I assume to ward off some pests, though there may be another explanation. The area has beech trees, and the older ones are pollarded (a practice that seems to be continued today). From that, the farmers can get thin branches for weaving and larger ones for what amounts to round dimensional lumber or firewood. Passing through Khinghar, I met a woman selling woolen scarfs who had set up her loom at the edge of the road beside her display. A basket full of brightly dyed yak wool and a very simple but beautiful loom. She wove away masterfully. The last bit of the walk took me across a high plateau and into the powerful winds this area is famous for–the prayers were pouring out of the flags. Dust and desolation accompanied me into Kagbeni, a town with an old gompa I hope to visit tomorrow, some high buildings, winding streets, and a hotel called YakDonalds complete with bright red and yellow decor– how could I resist?

 

T. Hugh Crawford

March 10

March 11th, 2016

March 10 Day 10 High Camp to Muktinath

image

A long cold night — the beds had huge blankets stuffed with something lumpy, heavy and hard like kapok, though they were absolutely necessary as it had to be around 15 degrees Fahrenheit in the room. Obviously I didn’t sleep well because of the temperature but also because it is difficult to sleep well at high altitude. We were all up at 5:30 to start the trek over Thorung La which at 17769′ is higher than any peak in the USA’s lower 48. Slow and steady was what was required and as we got higher the steps were almost a shuffle, like the figures in Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I did not have proper gloves, coat, or hat, so I was very cold until the sun got up high. My sense of the Annapurna Circuit is as a circumambulation of the massif, but most the the crowd I find myself among see this particular pass as something to be conquered, more of that bucket list stupidity. It was rigorous, both up and down, and I was pleased to cross, but was more pleased to arrive at a warmer place where the conversation could shift to the rest of the trek. As we crossed in the morning, the wind had not yet picked up, so the only sound was the squeaking of the dry, crystalline snow beneath feet, and a strange creaking that came as the trekking poles shifted position during a stride. It was an eerie yet rhythmic sound that carried me up the steep. A quick moment at the top posing for pictures as if it were Katahdin and I was standing on a sign instead of in front of a huge mass of prayer flags, then a long descent to Muktinath for a warm shower that turned out to be cold, and an afternoon sitting on a warm deck in the sun relaxing and feeling grateful that part of the circuit was now behind me. The streets of Muktinath are lined with people selling woolen hats, slippers, and scarves. The man in the booth just across the street from my decktop perch was praying softly all afternoon: om mani padme hum. High above on a steep hill were three white horses playing games. That evening we went to the famous Bob Marley cafe for an incredible yak steak and “Himalayan Sunrise” cocktails (vodka and local juices). There we saw Kris and her porter (wonderful man who always laughs and embraces me when we meet) along with an Israeli couple we met at Lake Tilicho, and Marty, a Los Angeles native we have encountered most of the trip. A number of us sat by a large open fire talking quietly as the evening descended.

T. Hugh Crawford

Feb 19

February 23rd, 2016

Feb 19

image

The combination of a upper respiratory infection, being out of shape, and altitude changes made for a short hiking day. I took a car from the center of Kathmandu to Sunjarijal, a small town out on the edge of the big city’s sprawl. It was a national holiday, and the traffic was bumper to bumper the whole way out, my driver zigging in and out of his lane. Actually “bumper to bumper” sounds much more orderly than it was. There were lines at the gas pumps, hundreds of motorcycles filling the street looking like the start of a long distance race. There was garbage being burned in the gutters, and even a dead cow on the side of the road along with a number of live ones lying in the gutters on top the garbage–quite the scene. The Helambu Trek is in the northeastern part of the Kathmandu Valley, an area hit very hard by last year’s earthquake. I was grateful to be outside the city finally, though it does go on for miles. The trail today was up through the Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park starting out around 1200 meters and topping out at 2430 before descending down into Chisipani (that is 7972 feet which is a good bit higher than all the East Coast mountains). The path was not so much a nature trail as it was the path that people living in these mountains use to get around. It passes through a number of settlements which are primarily subsistence farming, growing winter wheat and then corn on terraced hillsides. Many goats and some cows are tethered by the buildings, most now eating corn stalks or forage cut from beech trees. After the first long set of steps, I was stopped at a military installation to buy the permit to hike an Eco center. It was a little intimidating at first since the soldiers carried automatic weapons and frowned the way you would expect them to. I talked to several and all were surprised I was hiking without a guide. They asked if I had children (a very common question) and soon one young man wanted to come along. We all laughed a bit stumbling through language. After the ticket agent finished his mid-morning meal, I got my pass which was immediately checked by the military man I had just finished talking to. The nature preserve is supposed to have leopards, monkeys, Ghoral, Himalayan Black Bear, and wild boar. Listening intently and watching carefully, the only thing I heard was a large animal moving through the jungle at a pace more closely resembling a domestic farm animal. On my way out of the park I did see a cow in the woods chewing beech leaves. The forest included oak and rhododendron, so parts resembled the “green tunnel” of the Appalachian Trail. In Mulkharka, a small village, I sat for a while at a “tea room” front porch. It was a stone building with a lot of packaged drinks in the window and some plastic chairs out under the porch. Across the way a woman was boiling water in a huge kettle over an open fire to wash clothes. The proprietor of the tea room, who only spoke Nepalese, was cooking over an open fire in the front yard. Her cousin, who lives in the city, was visiting for the holiday, and we talked about the many dialects spoken across the country. A handsome young man whose phone would go off occasionally but still he seemed right at home in this distant place. Like the others, he asked why I walked alone. I told him I liked the solitude, and he said “solitude makes for thinking.” By noon, after climbing what my phone said were 250 floors, I was unusually exhausted and found myself taking breaks every couple kilometers. The last two into Chisipani were downhill, but I was still feeling it. The town has several large masonry hotels but the earthquake hit hard, completely destroying several of them. Two were still intact, but had moved off their foundations and were sitting crooked in a field.

image

I went to the Hotel Annapurna Mountain View–Annapurna was nowhere to be seen given the smoke and haze. The proprietor, a nice 22 year old man with a beautiful 2 year old daughter named Sima, showed me to my room which was bare concrete with a few very hard beds– exactly what I expected. I got out my sleeping bag, put my sleeping mat down and immediately fell asleep from mid-afternoon until six. They called me for dinner — Dal Bhat (Nepalese lentil curry)– and brought many extra helpings. After a quiet meal I went straight back to bed. This altitude is kicking my ass.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

Why I Walk

December 10th, 2015

Why I Walk

The first answer to the question “why walk?” is because I can, a claim I don’t make lightly. I turned 59 just before starting this particular trek–the Te Araroa in New Zealand–and I am constantly reminded of the need for good health and strength in order to backpack long miles day after day. Some years ago, my orthopedist told me to stop running, but when asked about backpacking he said “no problem,” so I immediately started hiking the Appalachian Trail which is how I got my trail name–Tinman. During that first stretch, I kept having to go back to Atlanta to get injections in my surgically repaired knee, creaking and moaning like my counterpart from Oz. In the years since I have completed the Appalachian Trail, the English Pennine Way, part of the Pacific Crest, and been trekking in the Dolomites and Croatia. To me, walking has never really been about completing tracks. I’m not interested in bragging about hiking the triple crown as if it were a merit badge. Rather walking is a form of living that brings insight, gratitude for certain abilities, all enabled by a resolutely simple encounter with the big outside.

image

Long-distance hiking is an experiment in bare life. The echo of Georgio Agamben (Homo Sacer, 1995) here is intentional though, to be clear, my use of “bare” does not signify a legal “state of exception” but instead life outside–outside of society and outside in the world. The need to pack light demands simplification and a constant interrogation about what is necessary. I am carrying things that I have not yet used though I have nearly completed this particular trek–things I probably should have abandoned months ago, but there are also those fundamental bits of equipment that enable living (see pointless essay “Care”). At the same time, being out a long time simplifies your relationship to the natural world. Life becomes bare and elemental: the extraordinary taste of water, palpable morning light, the surface of the earth through your bootsoles, breathing on a mountaintop.

The philosopher Michel Serres noted that the French word for time (temps) is the same as the word for the weather. Walking is fundamentally about temps. Backpackers experience the weather in most of its forms. I rarely check the forecast unless I am going into a particularly treacherous area since I will be out in it whether it is sunny or a storm. On rainy days, I just gear up and start walking. The big outside brings all the subtle shifts of the day, the wind changes, there is a little patch of blue in the sky, or a layering of clouds that signals the breakup of a downpour. In the United States, people speak of climate-controlled environments. They aren’t talking about fixing global warming; they simply mean staying in a heated/air conditioned space completely unaware of weather. Clearly there is nothing particularly virtuous about standing out in a storm. On the Te Araroa I have run from lightning bolts across lowland dykes, fought hypothermia on the edge of the Tongiriro crater, and shivered in knee deep, ice cold stream water on an early morning trek. Rather, being in the weather is part of bare life, of being in the world, and it brings a nuanced sense of what a (your) body can do, and how the world responds.

image

Of course weather is not just a daily experience–it is also seasonal which is where time clearly comes into play. Earl Shaffer, the first Appalachian Trail thru hiker, described his experience in a book called Walking with Spring, the title signaling the seasonal nature of his hike (and the time-frame most AT hikers continue to follow). My Te Araroa blog is called “South with Spring” in acknowledgement of Shaffer and to mark the same seasonal tactic in the Southern Hemisphere. The time of hiking–daily, monthly, seasonally– is the heart of walking. With long-distance hiking, your body gets into a particular rhythm, generally waking at the same time, getting hungry at specific points in the day, and exhausted at the end. Then there is just the pure walking itself which takes on its own temporality governed not by a clock but by the pendulums that are your legs, marching out a pace, a time, a day, a season. I started the Te Araroa in early spring when the days were short. A good hiking day generally requires more than 12 hours of daylight, so I would find myself waking in the dark and packing up waiting for first light, learning that greeting the dawn is an exquisite element of the big outside. Walking across the seasons is a subtle experience. Unlike home-dwellers who often express surprise at the seemingly sudden appearance of spring or fall, walkers have been noting fine-grained temporal variations daily, the slow budding of plants, feeling days begin to stretch out, watching the sun linger longer on the horizon.

image

Walking with a backpack, day in and day out, also brings a different relationship to your body. We are accustomed to thinking of our bodies as close, as fundamental to daily life, but actually our experience of corporality can be quite distant. By staying out of the weather and living within industrial time, bodies become objects to be observed in the mirrors on the gym wall rather than occupied as our first-form materiality. Backpacking brings with it a constant inventorying of your body, monitoring hot spots on feet, nutrition needs, and tight muscles. It also brings transformation. Out in the bush, it is virtually impossible to consume as many calories as you are burning (the good news is that long-distance hikers can eat all the ice cream they want). Although the time varies, most people experience significant late afternoon energy drops after tramping a few weeks, the result of having burned off most stored body fat. Initially it is a phenomenon hard to recognize, but after several long treks, the symptoms are familiar, and the only choice is to eat more food (which means carrying a heavier pack). Clothes fit differently as general body shape changes, and transformed vascularization brings out veins that once were hidden. But true nearness to your body comes from experiencing what it can do, how walking in the big outside involves a constantly shifting surface bringing rapid micro-adjustments to stride and foot placement. These are cognitively complex gestures that, on consideration, can only be marveled at. We have a tendency to regard thought as some “higher order” cognition while walking is a simple internalized gesture, but that is to forget the amount of time it took for each of us to learn to walk. It is a neuronally intensive process at least on a par with learning mathematics or composing a poem.

The link between walking and thinking runs deep. Evolutionarily our sensorium is optimized for a 3 kph pace which is one reason it is so easy today to be thrilled through technologically induced acceleration. But there is something about a walking pace, particularly in solitude over long hours, days, weeks and months, that enables careful observation and clears a space for thought. While walking, the sensory stream rarely overwhelms. Instead it offers a different, simpler engagement with the material world and our sense of self (which actually cannot be disentangled). The curve of a hill brings back memories of hills climbed in childhood. Unidentifiable smells, or quality of air shifts (heat and humidity variation), or changes in the light are all lures for thought, a thinking uncoupled from distraction (by distraction I mean that which derails a particular line of thought before it has a chance to fully form). Walking is flow, but a flow at some distance from that of television, the Internet or other media forms. The pacing is its own time and quality: the pace of human bodies and human thought which makes me want to recast Descartes’s formula as “I walk, therefore I think.”

image

Addendum: In my blog walkinghome.lmc.gatech.edu there is a category called “Pointless Essays.” I’ve been taken to task about that term, but with it I am trying to signal a practice that is only tangentially related to traditional economies. They in some way resemble academic essays but would have no home in an academic journal. They are part of a blog economy, but my readership is precious and few, so their place in any larger economic system is provisional if not pointless. But there is a relationship between pointlessness and walking–particularly long-distance hiking–which is perhaps quintessentially pointless in a capitalist economy. Now I’m not so naive as to believe that there isn’t a huge industry surrounding walking practices, including outdoor equipment providers, hostellers, national parks, and the media (which of course participates in the manufacture of the very idea of Nature), but the personal act of walking in itself is deliberately non-productive in most economic senses. Long-distance hikers are often marginal participants in traditional economies (see my earlier pointless essay “Just a Bindlestiff”). Perhaps a way to phrase it is to appropriate a term from Kant’s Critique of Judgment: walking is “purposive without purpose.” It is motivated but not rewarded (in a monetary sense). Its world is perhaps best articulated by my favorite economist, Henry David Thoreau, who claimed: “It is true, I never assisted the sun materially in his rising, but, doubt not, it was of the last importance only to be present at it.” I’m present at that rising. I walk because I cannot stop.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

Seo wordpress plugin by www.seowizard.org.