Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

Walking with Ghosts

May 28th, 2017

Walking with Ghosts
28 May, 1968–28 May, 2017

Henry David Thoreau wrote the first modern treatise on the philosophy of walking— On Walking —arguing that one of wandering’s primary values the possibility of genuine solitude, something he prized perhaps more than most. Walking is not only a way to be alone. In fact, it might teach us about the impossibility of solitude, or at least make us attentive to its complexity. In the “Solitude” chapter of Walden he notes, “However intense my experience, I am conscious of the presence and criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but spectator, sharing no experience, but taking note of it, and that is no more I than it is you.”

Walking—real walking—means walking with ghosts. It is easy to celebrate the idea that after breaking out of quotidian space and industrial time you will somehow be one with the trail, but, as Thoreau makes clear, that singularity is multiple. Nietzsche, another great walking philosopher, has Zarathustra exclaim in frustration, “There is always one too many about me…Always once one–that maketh in the long run two.” The Nietzschean “two” is not a mind magically hovering over a lump of flesh, but instead is a plenitude generated by the walk—the path, the wander, and the wanderer. (Another lesson of Zarathustra and the trail is the poverty of the mind/body dualism.)

Nietzsche’s “two” is a prompt to follow out the vectors of the multiple, the play of the ghosts. Still suffering from a torn muscle in my knee, my walk today was short—not one that offered sufficient distance or time for genuine thinking—but it was haunted. On this day 49 years ago my mother died. I was only eleven at the time and recovering clear memories of her remains difficult. Still, she haunts my life, nudging me at surprising moments, occupying my thoughts even when I’m not thinking—which is perhaps the definition of haunting.

Without doubt wandering brings cues that call to presence something or someone long absent. As William Carlos Williams, in the middle of a section of a poem where he is taking a long walk, says:

Memory is a kind
of accomplishment
a sort of renewal
even
an initiation, since the spaces it opens are new places
inhabited by hordes
heretofore unrealized

I remember with great clarity standing beside my mother pushing a roller dipped in a muted orange masonry paint up the concrete walls of a bathroom in the basement of the Woodstock Presbyterian Church. I hear her on Wednesday night in that same building rehearsing with Ruth Rhodes, the organist, and Marion French, the other soloist, for Sunday’s service. But I also remember with more clarity than I want Leo Snarr, my father’s best friend, collecting me from the Woodstock Elementary School’s lunchroom just after I had bought an ice-cream bar (probably a Fudgesicle or a Refresho—6 ¢). I sat in the back of his car, he in the passenger seat, his wife Mary Sue drove. He turned, put his hand on my knee and told me my mother had died (she was only 44, an age I have long since passed). At that moment I was double—in shock, I held my ice-cream loosely until Leo took it, but I was also thinking about how should I respond. I lived what Thoreau describes—“part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but spectator.”

I often recur to that moment. Obviously an intense experience, but also one of real insight into the multiplicity of being. Walking is an act of presencing. To be crossing a loose scree field above cliffs demands an intensity of presence often not experienced in daily life. Learning of the death of a parent is another form of intensity, but even there, Being is not concentrated into a single luminous point, but rather continues moving as part of “hordes heretofore unrealized.” We always walk with ghosts.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

April 17

April 17th, 2016

April 17

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Puente la Reina to Estella. Still getting a feeling for this trail, getting at its history. In the USA we tend to build trails out in the wilds, but here, the pilgrim trail has been walked for millennia, so the towns have grown up around it, as have the primary roads. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that a long distance walk is often within sight or hearing of a main highway. Today’s walk, which had many beautiful parts and great villages brought that lesson home. I often felt I was walking on the median strip of a highway. Still, there was great beauty even there. On the way out of town, I walked a bit with “John” the Italian, who I had passed a couple of days before. As often happens, we stumbled back and forth between Italian and English, having a great if limited conversation. A native of Milan, it is John’s third Camino, his second on the Frances. I always like to guess nationalities based on backpacks, usually with good success, but Osprey has been making inroads in Europe, so many Scandinavians now carry them instead of Deuter. John had a beat-up old osprey, clearly the companion of many miles, and his pace, humor, and genuine good spirits made for a wonderful first part of the trail. We crossed fields of dormant grape vines, and he celebrated the wine that would one day come from them, noting it had an Italian heritage as they had been brought by the Romans, something evinced by the very road we traversed which was cobbles and looked (and felt) like a traditional Roman road. The midpoint of the day was in the village of Lorca, where I stopped for coffee con leche and a chorizo baguette. It was mid-morning on a Sunday and they were blasting Puccini opera on the sound system– made me wish I had arrived with John who I expect would have provided the bass line. It was a day of small things, not big sights. Each town had a small church, so old they seemed to almost be growing from the rock that made them. What I found most arresting though was a tiny flower, the only one of its type I saw all day, a grape hyacinth. Such an inconsequential plant, much like the Acony Bell that Gillian Welch sings so poignantly about. I grew up on Summit Avenue in Woodstock Virginia, with four other houses in a row near mine. The rest of the landscape was orchard– peach and apple. Across the street was a mature, mixed apple orchard with trees of great variety (few were the same and the apples were like nothing of the cheap sweetness you can buy today). It was a meticulously maintained orchard planted with lush but coarse orchard grass that was bush-hogged or sickle-barred regularly. At some point, someone must have sown or planted grape hyacinth throughout, because in the early spring, that green orchard grass floor turned blue with those insignificant flowers. Being a kid, I got to experience them at eye-level, with a detail and intimacy that is denied adults. A blue that for me has defined the color ever since; those flowers are mine.

April 13

April 13th, 2016

April 13

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The first day of the Camino is supposed to be the most difficult– 26 km up and over the Pyrenees from St. Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles. The high trail was closed because of late snow, so I made my way up the valley along the river near the highway (along with many other pilgrims). Parts were soon familiar– a hawk circled above, periwinkle was blooming on the banks, and the cherry trees were starting to bud. In many ways I have been in perpetual spring, having trekked from September through December in the Southern Hemisphere, then traveling to Nepal in late February, and, after a brief interlude on the equator in Tanzania, hiking here in April. I am constantly surrounded by new growth, an unintended but welcome consequence of my chaotic calendar. Another plus was how strong I felt on today’s walk. Granted, it was only 26 km over a 1050m pass, but I felt good the whole way, so this should be a good trek. The one disappointment was how much was on pavement. Not sure how my knees will take 780 km of paved roads. The scenery though has been first rate. Not spectacular like Nepal, more rural like parts of New Zealand. Much of today’s walk was through farms– sheep not yet shorn and dairy cattle. A tractor passed hauling a wagon with ensilage, the smell was overpowering and evocative. Suddenly I was standing in my front yard back in Woodstock Virginia watching Tyrone Epard come by on a tractor. He was standing while driving, a shock of white-blonde hair in the wind, hauling a turd-hearse on his way to one of the many fields on what was then the Epard farm. Smells are the key to long-lost memories. What set today’s walk apart from many is that I’m on a pilgrimage route. Many of the people I walk with are here for a profoundly spiritual journey, stopping to pray briefly at crosses on the wayside. It was also a border trek today, starting out in France, crossing into Spain and back along the border for much of the day, before finally crossing the pass at Roland’s monument and heading into Spain for the duration. I kept thinking of Walter Benjamin who crossed the Pyrenees in 1940, only to be threatened to be sent back to Vichy France and chose instead suicide. National boundaries can have disastrous implications. Today the borders are not policed, and I made the descent into Roncesvalles early afternoon, settled into the pub with the other pilgrims enjoying the end of a first day’s trek.

T. Hugh Crawford

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