Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker


September 4th, 2015



Cape Reinga, the northernmost point in New Zealand, is the Springer Mountain of the Te Araroa trail, the place of commencement. There is no public transport there, so you have to rely on hitchhiking, book private transportation, or get a ride on one of the tour buses that take tourists to various sites (Kauri tree emporia, gumdigger museums) on the way up to the cape. They then take their passengers sand surfing and finish with a fast, long drive on the sand down 90 mile beach. The cape itself is on Maori sacred land, a place to visit but not for lunch or other recreation. At the lighthouse, you can see clearly the meeting point of two seas–the Tasman and the Pacific–whose battling currents form a line pointing directly toward where you stand.

Beginning and ends are marked literally or symbolically, but are lived differently. Hiking the Appalachian Trail, most people commence from Springer, but after a mile or two, all thoughts turn to the end: Katadhin, that cloud machine in the middle of Maine that Thoreau attempted to climb so many years ago and which now is the site of thru-hiker jubilation. The first is passed and nearly forgotten, and the second becomes obsession.

On finishing school, people both commence and graduate. Graduation is a marking off, but has a sense of finality, of reaching a specific point, while commencing is an opening out. Days are commenced with anticipation, sometimes even joy, but soon are governed by ends, reduce to the tasks that need accomplishing or the miles that need walking. Many thinkers celebrate the ideal of the in-between, cautioning disciples to not focus on the goal, but instead the journey. What then becomes of the commencement?

Living for beginnings can produce nostalgia, a yearning for an irretrievable moment of of pure plenitude. It degrades the present by its shining ephemerality, and is rightly criticized as reactionary if not absurdly mythical. Raymond Williams coined the term “the nostalgia escalator” to describe the infinite regress nostalgia produces, the constant pushing back in time of that moment when the world was not part of a degraded present.

But perhaps nostalgia not the only way to think commencement. Embracing the journey has the virtue of evading teleological totalization, but holding onto the moment of commencement– just a bit longer– is a way to reframe the triad, to turn back non-nostalgically to a different plenitude, to a moment of pure possibility. Surely a time worth re-living even as it is irrevocable.

T. Hugh Crawford