Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

In Patagonia Day 22-23

March 16th, 2018

In Patagonia Days 22-3
Puerto Natalas

Puerto Natales, a town with a cemetery where the mausoleums have aluminum storm doors, and the people (living) even in late summer bundle in winter coats, all wandering about looking like puffy hand-grenades. I spent the first 18 years of my life in Woodstock, Virginia, with a population then of somewhere around 2000. I only recall three major changes occurring to the town in those years—the integration and consolidation of the schools (around 1966), the building of a “shopping center” (what is now called a strip mall) on the northern end of town, and the opening of Interstate 81 in the late 60s. Each of these changes affected how people moved through and around the town. The integration of the schools primarily affected people already living in the town, but consolidation closed small schools in St. Luke, Zepp, and some others, bringing students from out in the county to the Woodstock schools. The shopping center, like most such “innovations” threatened to (but ultimately didn’t) destabilize the central commercial district. The interstate’s effects were, as in so many communities, profound. Traffic downtown was reduced but so were the businesses that catered to travelers on the valley turnpike—Rt. 11—which runs from Louisiana to Maine. All up and down the valley, small restaurants, diners, motels, and motor courts closed while gas stations and chain hotels opened out on the highway. I-81 also made it possible for families to move further from the “City” (Washington DC), some even settling in Woodstock. As a kid though, the town remained what it had always been, a place where an intrepid walker or bike rider could explore every street, alley, and backlot. Small town life meant knowing intimately the entire space where people lived, worked, and played.

I had nearly forgotten that sense of place as, on leaving Woodstock, I also left my childhood, living over the years in a number of different cities, but only knowing them superficially. These last weeks have not given me intimate knowledge of any specific place, but my lingering in El Chaltén and Puerto Natales with, because of logistics, plenty of time to wander aimlessly, renewed my sense of that same childhood wonder: new houses being built (so lots to explore), old houses decaying (so lots to explore), paths through back lots, that sense that you could walk over most of the town in a day, and just the pure hum and buzz of the local inhabitants (including dogs) occupying a small town. It was a time machine, and occasioned many smiles and sometimes laugh-out-loud pleasure.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

In Patagonia Day 7

February 24th, 2018

In Patagonia Day 7
Puerto Natales

For the category of odd but helpful coincidences: in part to help wrap my head around the vastness of Patagonia and to further an understanding of solitude (which I seem to write about incessantly), I was reading Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces, which describes her time on Wyoming sheep farms. In one essay she describes the shepherds who stay long months away from any human contact, living in sheep wagons. Over morning coffee, I tried to picture such a wagon, then, on crossing the street, I passed a place selling traditional Patagonian products, particularly wool, and they had a Chilean version of a shepherd’s wagon parked out front. It was as I had imagined, though I’ve not yet been able to imagine that sort of solitude. It was a Saturday, with some early signs of festivities—I passed a group of musicians in traditional clothes—but the town in places was a lonely as a shepherd’s wagon. In a desultory stroll, I performed the necessary tasks—equipment for the trek, finalizing transportation, buying food. There is a large UniMarc supermarket which is apparently where everyone was. For some reason I couldn’t face that, so I ambled on to a smaller local shop that didn’t really have all that I needed, but moved at the right pace. Again today I was reminded of my small-town childhood. Even though this is a tourist town and one would assume weekends are busy times, many of the businesses, including restaurants, were not open or they closed at noon. I remember in Woodstock, many if not all the businesses closed at noon on Saturday, remained closed (by blue laws) on Sunday and usually closed on Wednesday afternoons. Given the possibility today to order anything on Amazon at 3:00 am, such a pace of commerce seems as slow as the Moreno Glacier. It was a time when we didn’t define ourselves by what or how we consumed. Some of that perhaps still lives here. One place that was open was Mesita Grande, a pizza restaurant just off the train engine square. It was a large table, lined with generally happy people, watching the servers smile, laugh, and occasionally dance across the space. Although not a Patagonian version of a Cracker Barrel, it had probably once been dry goods store and a lot of the furnishings remained, including old enameled metal signs for Lustre Nubian and Señorita Brasso. Nubian polish….. I’ll just leave that without comment.

The pizza was interesting as it had all the different ingredients you would find anywhere in the world, but in different proportions. My ham, cheese, and onion included a few bits of ham, some cheese, and was piled high with thin sliced onions. All was washed down by a Cerveza Natale, another local brew—unfiltered, slightly sweet, hoppy but pretty much unrecognizable, and to be truthful difficult to drink a whole pint. It is an ale they describe as a “hybrid … a blend of Belgian aesthetics, British aromatic presence and pleasant bitter taste, emulating the Czech styles.” I guess they are trying to mimic the languages spoken around the mesita grande. Much of the day was cold and overcast, so a good one to run errands. Late afternoon on a long walk by the gulf which, unlike in the US, is lined by gas stations, warehouses and the like, I discovered a cafe with big, old-fashioned mullioned windows looking out over the water sparkling in the late afternoon sun toward Torres Del Paine. A writer next to me had piles of papers and journals in front of him, scribbling madly, while the sound system played disco/electronica versions of sixties hits (including “California Dreaming” and “The Sounds of Silence”). Patagonia, definitely a place to visit.

T. Hugh Crawford

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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