Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker


November 15th, 2015



Perhaps the most frequent but often unvoiced question that walking gives rise to is “how far?” or “am I near?” Walking is primordially an engagement with near/far. But near and far are relational terms. A far person can be many miles from another, whereas a chess piece can be far from another on a board. Or the baker’s tansformation, where a point on rolled then folded dough moves from far to near in an instant. Hiking near and far can be measured in feet. Today I took quite a tumble because I was looking ten feet ahead instead of six. For humans, near and far are experiential phenomena which become known through the possibility of movement or communication. Once again, a comment from Thoreau is a point of entry to question the experience of proximity: “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” This could be seen as Thoreau at his Luddite best, criticizing the major technological innovations of his era– railroad and telegraph– as just pretty toys which distract us from true thought and meaningful action. One need only recall his playful imaginary journey to Fitchburg where his one self buys a ticket and rides the train while the other walks. By computing the labor-time involved in earning money for the ticket, walking Thoreau comes out ahead, granting the assumption that time spent walking is better than time spent working for wages. Still it is hard to imagine the railroad trains which run daily past Walden Pond as pretty toys (any more than, with Emily Dickinson, we can imagine them as horses). The train in this framework is not just about temporality, it is about proximity. The train transforms the notion of near and far. Or, to be more precise, the train calls us to question the functional category near/far.

Much of Walden is a meditation on just that question and a celebration of the near which has brought Thoreau much critique (including a recent New Yorker article). His intense focus on the local seems to be at the expense of global awareness and can seem overwhelmingly parochial. This is even more evident in the second technology of the above quotation– the telegraph. At least the train has the virtue of a heavy and obvious embodiment. It is, in the words of Whitman, “ponderous.” The telegraph does have wires, but the messages move by imponderous electrons. Thoreau’s questioning of this fancy toy is more pointed as he questions the value of rapid communication. Does Maine really have anything to say to Texas? and would anyone in Maine be the slightest bit interested in what someone from Texas had to say (questions that remain vital today). Regarding Thoreau, we must always recognize the hyperbole that accompanies any claim like this one. Widely read in intellectual traditions that extended beyond the USA and Europe, he was anything but a parochial intellectual. Clearly he is questioning what he saw in his townsfolk as an overweening interest in the news of the world and a concomitant failure to know or understand their locality.


Near and far, maps, communication technologies, and touching the local ground are staples of life on the trail. As much as you may want to always be in the moment of any given walk, you are always turning to the future. Walking opens out to a place you are not, a constant negotiation of the near and the far. The interesting question then is how those negotiations manifest. Every evening in anticipation of the next day’s walk, guidebooks and maps are consulted, ideal distance computed and plans made. But even prior to that, there are abstract computations. My Te Araroa hike is framed by necessary calendar time. Starting before September was discouraged as the weather would have been even worse than it actually was. Hiking in the rain and the mud was brutal; were the temperatures even lower it would have been impossible. And my finish date is fixed by my teaching schedule. My simple rule of thumb has been to average 25 km per day. Existentially, that is often easy to accomplish. Any given day, getting an early enough start and walking long enough usually suffices to get more than 25 km, though there are days up on alpine crossings where such distance is impossible because of surface and terrain or when weather interferes (or when both come together as happened to me on both the Tararua and Richmond ranges).

But near and far is never simply a function of distance walked, even while walking. The physically near or far are not necessarily experienced as walking near/far. Experientially many other factors come into play. Perhaps most important is the actual hiking surface– clearly an experience of nearness as your feet/shoes (and sometimes hands) are in actual contact, but also an experience of far as surfaces enable distance. There is a hiking adage, “take what the trail gives you,” which can be translated to “hike hard and fast when the path is easy.” There the surface is a function of far as well as near. Distance hiked–far–also can become almost obsessive, particularly when telecommunication technologies come into play (Thoreau was right in this way). Checking GPS position turns the experience of the near or the local into one of nearly complete futurity, always seeing not so much where you are as how far you are from an imagined destination. Then there is the landscape photograph which is always one of distance that only implies presence because you took the picture and so stood in that singular vantage point. Such mediation is very much part of navigating your way through the day, but transforms the nearness of the walk into a distance to be seen, then covered.

Walking is a way to see a landscape: stand on this spot to observe that mountain, here is a perfect place to take a picture. That is to experience landscape as far but still proximate, , but walking is also to be in the landscape. It is a way to break through the specular and be part of the viewed which is very different than regarding it. It is near not just in terms of physical proximity, but also as a way to signal that being is always being-in-the-world. The spectatorial far, particularly as it is technologically mediated, belies the simple truth that a landscape is never simply viewed from afar, but also is very much part of a near that your presence in makes manifest.

One form of far (the one Thoreau was criticizing) is the product of a static viewpoint. The world viewed is often an invitation to see it as separate, as over there. The world walked is a world where near/far are constantly switching, moving rapidly from that place over there to that place where I now move. Then near/far is experienced no so much as distance as pace, mood, fatigue or lightheartedness, pack weight, foot pain, hunger (a rumbling stomach is a clear measure of distance traveled), or anxiety about time/distance. They are also functionally related to repetition, the experience of the familiar and the unfamiliar. I began the South Island by hiking the Queen Charlotte Track, a walk I have taken twice before. Not only could I anticipate possible distances traveled, but my very familiarity with the track make the far quite near. There was much anticipation and surprise–oh, I am already here!– compared to my recent time on the Richmond Range where having to climb 900 meters in about 5 kilometeres made the near quite far. It was very much the experience as a child who constantly asks “are we there yet?”

In phenomenology, bodies in the world are experienced initially as front/back, left/right, and up/down. The next move, to be in the world as near/far, is the first to create a disjunction between self and world. The objects of that world are either felt as a clear part–near–or as more or less unrelated and disconnected–far. This I think is what Thoreau might be driving at in his criticism of some technologies. The initial experience of far is the first disjunction. The first time being is not in-the-world. (Freud’s fort/da is a version of this, but the da is absence–non-being–while the far is present but not phenomenally connected to being). Letting that version of far stand can create an attitude of a world that is not over-there, but instead is disconnected, separated, unlived. The telegraph’s solution is ironically increased separation because of unrelation. Technologically mediated forms of communication bring with them different protocols of presence, and specific bandwidths of communication. For Thoreau, they are creating an illusion of near while reinforcing a disjunctive far.

The near he is promoting is not a simple physical near. Rather, an insistence that near and far always pertain to bodies-in-the-world. His privileging of walking is by no means the only route into this insight, but it is one where the near and the far are in constant commerce, are continuously interchanging, refusing to settle into unbridgeable distance. The far is not separate from the near, it’s just a little farther away.


T. Hugh Crawford