Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

On Boredom

July 31st, 2022

On Boredom

A scene from Gus Van Sant’s film Gerry is a three and a half minute tracking shot of the profiles of the two main characters, both named Gerry, in tight focus as they trudge across a vast and empty desert. While the audience might marvel at the technical virtuosity, they also feel and partially experience the utter boredom of the walk. In filming the tale of two young men lost in the desert for several days, Van Sant stages the pure boredom of wandering in large, seemingly empty landscapes. Similar to Sergio Leone, that other desert auteur, he serves up huge, painterly spaces, and, at the same time, stretches time to a point where it feels as if it must break. The experience of the characters (and the audience) is both intense and empty, concentrated and vast. In a word, boring. Long-distance trekking is both physically and mentally challenging, and one of those challenges is boredom. Hikers face day after day, week after week, waking, packing up, and walking nine, ten or more hours sometimes in spectacular environments but more often in tedious sameness. Appalachian Trail hikers often disparagingly call the path “the green tunnel.” In a sense, boredom is the mental ground of walking.

The literature of walking as well as actual walking must ultimately contend with the fundamental boredom of the practice. A frequent element of everyday life, the actual experience of boredom seems to be something humans want to push off, to eliminate completely if possible (hence the very notion of entertainment), so it is puzzling that a segment of the population—trekkers—seem to put themselves willingly in boring situations. Looking to philosophy for some guidance, we can turn to Martin Heidegger‘s Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics. It’s a strange book, as it seems to be two separate paths. The first is a long discussion of boredom as the fundamental attunement of the 20th century, and second half contains his famous but problematic assertion that the stone is worldless, the animal poor-in-world, while the human worlds. The second half of the book has long been a fundamental text for people working in animal studies and in 21st-century environmental studies in general, but first half has remained, at least for me, a puzzle. 

On returning to it to gain a perspective on the question of walking and boredom, I was struck that in the first chapters, he develops a fairly sophisticated form of affect theory avant la lettre. First he sets out his notion of attunement, noting that there can be both individual and collective forms. Individual’s have moods, but so do groups. We speak of a happy room or a pessimistic population. Staying consistent with his ongoing philosophical project of understanding Dasein as throwness into the world, he claims (and I am generalizing here) that we notice the exceptional moments— happiness, anger, basic well-being, etc.— but, as we are always already in an attunement (throwness in the world), the fundamental attunement(s) go unnoticed. He goes on to claim that there is no universal attunement. Instead he sees it as historical or epochal and that the fundamental attunement in the 20th century is boredom.

Most of the boredom section maintains a level of abstraction familiar to readers of Heidegger, but he does offer a few material examples, including the scene of waiting four hours for a train in an empty railway station. He details a number of strategies to drive off boredom that are familiar, including idly drawing in the sand or walking back and forth on the road in front of the station, all the while regularly checking his watch. Given his rather querulous relation to modern technology, it is perhaps not surprising that he sees boredom as the fundamental 20th century attunement. His railway example is telling, as would, I think his inclusion of a range of entertainment technologies that occupy the herd, serving as a temporary and probably unsatisfactory way to stave off boredom. (From that perspective, I suspect that such boredom remains foundational in this century, given the efflorescence of media forms whose primary purpose in to drive off boredom. In that sense, the current generation of smartphone users is perhaps the first in human history to have never actually experienced fundamental boredom.) Predictably, across the book he makes many fine-grained distinctions which are a little arcane for this essay, but his distinction between superficial  and profound boredom can provide some insight. The first we try to eliminate rapidly through a range of distractions (detailed in his railway station example). But the other he suggests we should let approach us: “not to resist straightaway but to let resonate.” This latter notion can be read productively through the lens of walking. Rather than seeing profound boredom as something to be “driven away,” I want to claim that not only should it be sought out by preparing the ground for it, but it should also be embraced as a significant form of being. 

Heidegger sees attunement as a hybrid figure, emerging from—becoming unconcealed—personal or collective interaction with the material world. A book as thing cannot be boring because that can only emerge from human interaction with it. So profound boredom as fundamental attunement is necessarily a dense and complex set of interactions with people, history, ideas, and things. Trekking boredom is just such a hybrid attunement:  I wake in a forest—not a forest, more a large copse—where I’ve wild camped near the English Ridgeway (“the oldest footpath in England”). Nothing boring about getting up early to avoid detection by a landowner or gamekeeper. Dressing and packing quickly, I soon gain the path and safety from the charge of trespass. I soon meet another early riser, an old man walking his dog who tells me his version of the many historical tales that layer over any time spent on this literally storied path. Then I’m off for a long day crossing the midpoint of the trail— an anticipated 20+ miles walk to a campground and a legal night’s sleep. The southern half of the Ridgeway is almost all up on a ridgetop, not usually the best place for a path, but on the rolling chalk downs of Wiltshire it is perfect. In the second half of my day, the path descends to the river and follows the Thames through small riverside villages almost to Wallingford (an extra mile off the trail to get there).

The Ridgeway is perhaps not the best choice for a trail to discuss the notion of profound boredom (see Walking England’s Oldest Path). Coming in at 87 miles, it is not really a long-distance path. Its length does not prompt the attenuation of calendar time that characterizes hiking boredom. I choose it because it is the most recent path I have walked so the details and sensations remain fresh, and it was where I thought through this essay (and therefore is a partial exemplification of walking-thinking). In addition, like the Appalachian Trail (which it in no other way resembles), the Ridgeway is unusually well-marked, so its walkers rarely experience the navigational anxiety provoked by such topologically and cartographically challenging trails as the South Island of the Te Araroa, or my recently completed Cape Wrath in the Scottish Highlands. Days on the Ridgeway are punctuated by occasional encounters with other walkers, beautiful agrarian landscapes, and remarking the deep history of the region: barrows, Bronze Age forts, and both ancient and modern white chalk land art. The path surface is well maintained, the hills are not steep, and walking the rolling downs is at times soporific. The lack of distraction helps reveal a foundational, perhaps even primordial boredom. 

While walking we may seek to drive off superficial boredom through distraction. There are technological distractions. Heidegger constantly checks his watch in the railway station, and 21st century trekkers constantly monitor GPS via a range of devices (I usually carry several, though for this walk in a tame countryside I left behind my emergency beacon). Calibrating time and distance are some responses to facing a day where for many hours there will be little that one could call distraction. This is not to say walking is not an exhilarating experience as, on some level, the days are full, but, as long-distance trekkers know, there is that moment about an hour into the day where you have settled into a rhythm. You have inventoried your body, adjusted for various aches and pains, consulted your navigation aids, and perhaps eaten a breakfast bar. Then it hits that you will be doing what you are doing with minimal difference for the rest of the day.

This is where profound boredom diverges from the commonly felt superficial version. Long distance trekkers enter willingly such an attunement, seek it out not as something to drive away through experiencing the spectacular but rather to be embraced. For trekkers, profound boredom as fundamental attunement is a ground for Being. Heidegger is correct that attunements are hybrid, composed of multiple materialities and affects. The path, the walk, and the walker enter into an attunement that enables different thinking. It comes in stealthily, in a sense unbidden unless one remembers that the whole process is a bid to experience differently. It goes something like this: over the first hour the logistics of the day recede. Then the immediacy of thought connected to the quotidian— recalled snippets of conversations from colleagues, a task that remains undone, a recent encounter recalled happily or with anguish—also recedes. The sheer physicality of the walk itself, while staying on with some level of awareness, is dampened, as is any navigational anxiety. And, at least on the Ridgeway, anxiety regarding dangerous wildlife is absent. Then the path itself enables thoughts, not fully formed but rather stray bits, affects of the space, odd juxtapositions, a chaotic flow. In a word, walking-thinking commences. As Walt Whitman says in his “Song of the Open Road”: “Allons! the road is before us!”

Profound boredom empties out the quotidian but the walker does not then become empty. Heidegger sometimes characterizes boredom as emptiness, but after all, we are always already in an attunement, so instead through boredom we are differently filled. Walking-thinking is enabled by this foundational attunement but is not directed by it. The empty is an absence of guideposts or blazes—both literal and figurative. It is thinking that does not strain toward truth, understanding, absolutes, or mastery, but instead marvels at and revels in its own aimlessness, obscurity, and creativity. To invoke the thought of another early 20th century philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead in Process and Reality articulates the occasional need for vagueness in thinking in images familiar to walkers: “in the vagueness of the low hum of insects in an August woodland, the inflow into ourselves of feelings from enveloping nature overwhelms us; in the dim consciousness of half-sleep, the presentations of sense fade away, and we are left with the vague feeling of influences from vague things around us.” These are the affects, the attunements, of experience where there is thinking, not completed thought. This directly parallels the experience of walking across a day which, at either end, is goal directed and therefore structured by external exigencies, but the middle is in the milieu (in Gilles Deleuze’s sense— see my Pointless Essay Hiatus for a discussion of milieu and William James’s “specious present”). It is a vague middle embraced rather than driven away. In can be interrupted by the spectacular or the technological but is just as easily recovered because of the vastness of space and time that makes up a long day’s trek. 

Returning to the preparatory remarks in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics where he develops an analysis of boredom as the foundational attunement of the 20th century, Heidegger historicizes (or makes epochal) four thinkers (Spengler, Klages, Scheler, Ziegler) who explore the spirit/soul binary. Heidegger then attributes the structure of those arguments to Nietzsche’s Dionysian/Appolonian opposition. I find it interesting that in this section on possible foundational attunement, Heidegger reads The Will to Power as articulating the Dionysian is the ground on which the Greek Appolonian impulse was built. In other words, he doesn’t offer up a simple dialectic but instead uses the Dionysian as the ground that must be revealed. He quotes Nietzsche’s notes: “Dionysos: sensuousness and cruelty. Transitoriness could be interpreted as enjoyment of productive and destructive energy, as constant creation.” So we are led to ask if this triad—sensuous/violence/(productive/destructive) creativity (plus time: transitoriness) —is somehow foundational to boredom, is the ground of a fundamental attunement.

Throughout the book, Heidegger is at pains to avoid causal explanations for any attunements, particularly boredom, so we should resist the overly simplistic idea that the Dionysian impulse springs from and is in some way an antidote to boredom. Seeking excitement would of course be a distraction in the superficial sense, but how would the Dionysian participate in, be foundational for, profound boredom? Rather than looking toward the orgiastic, we can seek an answer in walking. Of course “answer” is the wrong term. Rather walking can provide a glimpse into the Dionysian elements of profound boredom. As Heidegger’s scene at the railway station makes clear, boredom is both about time and a way to think time, and it seems clear that anything that claims to be a fundamental attunement must have a temporal structure. The Dionysian as  attunement is fundamentally about time, bringing an understanding of different experiences of time. Dionysian revelry, the world turned upside down, is a revealing of just such multiplicity—orgiastic vs. industrial time. In a way quite similar to the profound boredom of long-distance walking, the Dionysian puts in stark relief the quotidian, which can only be thought by literally stepping outside it, into a different attunement. As Heidegger makes clear from the outset of his discussion, attunement experienced as mood (individual or collective) is something clearly perceptible and lived, but if we are always already in attunement, the foundational attunement is rarely experienced as such. The temporality of profound boredom can come into view through a different experience of time— the Dionysian time and walking-time are of a piece in effecting that unconcealing. 

The first two terms in the Nietzschean Dionysian are sensuousness and violence. In other words, it is a profoundly embodied experience. The Dionysian demands a body capable of feeling— feeling intensely— as well as one capable of both being violent and having violence inflicted on it. One immediately thinks of various versions of Sadomasochism as example, and indeed that line of understanding and experience is likely the most fruitful approach, but it is important not to diminish other experiences of embodiment, violence, and pain. To put it bluntly, outside of sexual experiences, there are few activities as sensuous (and as painful) as long distance trekking. As mentioned earlier, every day begins with a bodily inventory— an inventory is  ongoing if at times repressed. Trekkers are constantly questioning what a body can do, what it’s affordances are, and experiencing both the exaltation of accomplishment and the profound pain of failure. The latter is a common experience as trekking is ultimately a world of pain. Trekking is a productive/destructive violence we do to ourselves (a point made poignant in the violent ending of Van Sant’s film).

 

And finally, creativity—the third term in Nietzsche’s formulation and one that I hope the above discussion of hiking-thinking begins to open up. That would by no means be a naive celebration of the so-called “creative class” in 21st century economic discourse, nor an alignment with the supposed “creative destruction” of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who might superficially be viewed as crude Nietzscheans but who are on the most fundamental level celebrants of neoliberal economics, something subverted by profound boredom and wandering/thinking without product. (Walking is not immune to neoliberal commodification as is demonstrated by all the walk-for-a-cause crowdsource funded treks flogged on social media). The Dionysian creativity can be better linked to the notion of the “Wild” developed by Thoreau in his short book on walking, a book that highlights walking-thinking: “you must walk like a camel, which is said to be the only beast which ruminates when walking.” Unlike the views of many of his readers, Thoreau’s “wild” does not refer to wilderness— a world empty of humans— but instead to the efflorescence of life around the edges of civilization. The wild proliferates in swamps full of marginalized wildlife, or at the edges of gardens where plants hybridize promiscuously. The wild is the fox I saw on the Cape Wrath Trail, but also the pair who tore into the garbage on the street outside my apartment in Oxford. A Dionysian wild is set up against the tyranny of industrial time, and against any limitations on the possibilities of what a body can do, including a rejection of simple notions separating pleasure from pain. Wild thinking is equally undisciplined, also always taking place in the margins or the middle and never concerned with completion or closure. The wild thinker—walking-thinking— never gets to the point, never concludes, and instead keeps on trudging: to be on a footpath is never to arrive (see Footpaths).  To unapologetically express this whole essay in a tautology: Boredom as fundamental attunement is the ground of wild thinking, embodied sometimes painful but patient walking/waiting for complex, obscure, chaotic novelty to emerge, and that practice is, in itself, profound boredom. 

T. Hugh Crawford

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 35, June 14, 2022

June 15th, 2022

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 35, June 14, 2022

The ends of long trails usually have a certain drama, none perhaps more than the obligatory Katahdin sign pose at the end of the Appalachian Trail.

The Te Araroa begins with a lighthouse at Cape Reinga but ends at a less impressive signpost at Bluff.

The Camino de Santiago ends in the embrace of St. James, or, even more moving for me, at the waves crashing on the rocks at Muxia.

The Scottish National Trail, in its last days following the Cape Wrath Trail, ends at a lighthouse above crashing waves at the most extreme northwestern point of Scotland. And given you have to cross a Ministry of Defense live firing range (which included climbing a couple of barbed wire fences, which definitely reminded me of my childhood), the drama is even more elevated.

The guidebook I have been following took me first to Sandwood Bay — a remarkable inviting beach— with the end scheduled for the following day, but that same guidebook has been throwing 29-30 km days at me for a week, so when the weather remained ugly, I opted to push on to the end—grateful I did as I avoided a logistical problem I’ll detail presently. I had slept at the Old Schoolhouse Hotel the night before, a comfortable place a mile or two above Rhiconish, so the morning hike already had me ahead of the game. It was an interesting walk—unlike most I’ve had before— as the road wound up through the peninsula and rather than shift to empty pasture land, I continued to pass cottages set out in the landscape facing the ocean that appeared at every turn. An inviting place in the summer.

After a few miles, the path to Sandwood Beach appeared and was also well-graded, so I covered the entire first section by late morning. As it was the last day, I did marvel at the landscape— less imposing as the hills are much lower, but still ripped by the constant winds, and today some rain mixed in. The run-in to Sandwood included some ruins which are now beyond connection by roads and so just deteriorate, but I could imagine life in one crumbling house which was at most a quarter mile from the huge beach. And of course, there were sheep grazing all the way to the ocean. Pressing on the (I thought) last 7.5 miles, the walk changed completely. The landscape was not challenging except a lot of bogs, but the path disappeared for almost all of the section, so navigation was all via GPS. Part of me appreciated that final bit of navigational difficulty before hitting the road and walking the last mile or more to the lighthouse and the Ozone Cafe.

Ends of trails often present logistical difficulties. On the Appalachian Trail, after summiting Katahdin, you have to find transportation to Millinocket (Luckily for me and Bennett, my son Tom came up from Boston, climbed Katahdin with us, and drove back to civilization). I remember I had to hole up for a day on the Tasmanian Overland Track to wait for transport. Cape Wrath is served by a minibus service— the only people who can drive into the area—and I had arranged for transport on the 15th.

https://www.visitcapewrath.com/about-us/

Arriving a day early I expected to have to stay over in the bunkhouse, but soon learned that the ferry would not run on the 15th. One reason I try not to plan too far out is that it is easy in the bush to lose a day for some odd reason, but, because of the train strike, I had made a series of reservations that a two day delay would ruin.

Already waiting in the cafe were three trekkers. One, a man from Switzerland, had just finished the Scottish National Trail, the only person the entire trek I met who was hiking it. The bus arrived almost full of tourists, and they had three empty seats—I was #4. I begged the driver, Stuart, for transport, but he could not accommodate me on a full bus (regulations). Then, what on the Appalachian Trail you would call “trail magic,” he exhibited that amazing Scottish hospitality I have encountered since Kirk Yetholm. The ferry was 22 km away, and he had an hour before he had to bring his load of passengers back, so he drove me out 30 minutes, dropped me. I walked hard and fast toward ferry while he returned to pick up his load. Some time later he passed me, dropped his crew at the ferry, then returned, picked me up and, after our ferry crossing, drove me to Durness from the pier (it was raining hard so that was much appreciated).

I remain dumbfounded by his kindness. In some way, that is the fitting end to my journey. Not some celebration of perseverance and fortitude, or another notch on a trekking pole, but instead a deep appreciation of a people and a culture who for the last 5 weeks have repeatedly astounded me by their kindness, generosity, and just plain human compassion. I will miss Scotland.

T. Hugh Crawford

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 34 June 13, 2022

June 15th, 2022

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 34 June 13, 2022

Weather remained dismal so I met my fishermen friends for breakfast in Kylesku and later went with them to Rhiconish. In our conversation it became clear they had a deep understanding of the history of the area derived from their on-the-ground (or in-the-river) experiences of place. As a result, they knew the breeding habits of fish, the botany of riverine environments, a lot of geology and hydrology, the human history of land occupation (and de-occupation), and the current class-related sociopolitical circumstances of the strange economy that is the Northwestern Highlands today. I got a similar lesson from the crew back in the bothy near Laggan as one was government policy advisor, another a forester, and another a gamekeeper. All good friends but often on different places in the conversation. In my rather desultory preparation for this journey— I had originally planned this trek for 2020 before Covid intervened— I devoured contemporary Scottish nature writers and dug into early 20th and late 19th century books as well. It’s a hard history to learn, as the various traumas are often alluded to without specific context.

The history of the lands where American trails lead is often actively suppressed as those trails try to offer a “truly wild” experience without the taint of human presence— strangely chimeric attitude. I wrote a bit about that in a longer essay on a different topic regarding the lands where the Benton Mackaye and Appalachian Trail overlap:

Careering on the Lakeshore Trail in the Smokies, I encountered, of all things, cars—slowly rusting hulks of 1920’s vehicles, one with an old tree growing up through it. Not the sort of sight you expect in the so-called empty American wilderness, but also not surprising given the path I had been following was once a fairly well-made road. Heading north not far past the cars other evidence of Appalachian settlers emerges— old sheet metal, beams, axles, the remains of an old mill race and stone mill, and then the Calhoun House, the last standing structure of the Proctor community. In the late 19th century Proctor was an agrarian village. In the first decade of the 20th, a railroad was pushed there, and Proctor became a lumber boomtown, swelling to over 1000 inhabitants until the timber was exhausted. During World War II, the Alcoa aluminum plant needed smelting power, so the Fontana Dam was built, with the lake submerging parts of the town. A promised road to Proctor was never finished, though the “tunnel to nowhere” some miles to the east is now a tourist destination. The remaining town dwindled and then disappeared, with most structures disappearing into the regenerating forest. I would guess that disappearance was also hastened by the National Park service— a whole nother story of displacement. The whole essay is here:

https://walkinghome.lmc.gatech.edu/pointless-essays/career/

In part because of the sheer depth of the time of human occupation in the Highlands landscape, the persistence of the past here is not so much suppressed as it is, for naive eyes at least, made puzzling. (I don’t mean to imply the lands of, for example, the Appalachian Trail don’t have a comparable history of human occupation, just that the more obvious marks one encounters when walking there are, at least for me, almost impossible to discern). I’ve spent days here struggling slowly up watersheds to some high bealach— out in the raw wilds of brute nature— only to encounter unmistakable signs of human occupation and industry. The position in the landscape seems to indicate subsistence farming as probable primary occupation, but, for me, those signs— stone walls, dwelling foundations, etc.— always prompted a halt to just look around and try to imagine what day to day life in such circumstances and seeming isolation would have been like. And of course the follow-on question of what became of the people who lived there.

These landscapes have gone through radical transformations— deforestation, subsistence agriculture, the clearances coupled with introduction of sheep and game production, to today’s parcelling up of huge tracts of land amongst incredibly wealthy landowners (often multinationals) and various activist environmental agencies (within and outside government). For all its deep time sensibilities, these spaces seem to be a constantly shifting, fluid occupation. Like the bogs I keep trekking through, getting a sense of history, of some foundation of the land, keeps sliding under foot.

T. Hugh Crawford

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 26, June 5, 2022

June 6th, 2022

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day  26, June 5, 2022

Long distance walking always brings new sights, but after many years, usually not any real novelty about how to walk. Today taught a lesson. Having grown up in the  mountains of Virginia, I was early acquainted with wilderness paths, while at the same time, I became comfortable walking off path—bush whacking—in generally familiar regions. On leaving the Shenandoah Valley for long-distance tracks in different regions and faraway lands, I became more path dependent. The Appalachian Trail is perhaps the best marked path in the world, with white blazes nearly everywhere. The Camino de Santiago has its scallop shaped directional signs and the ubiquitous yellow arrows spray painted on sidewalks everywhere. Even the New Zealand’s Te Araroa, while often pathless, almost always has its orange plastic triangles or cylinders on fence posts which can be seen at a distance. This morning I walked out of the Bendronaig bothy with a well graded forest road for some miles up a glen. As usual, the higher the track rose, the more it diminished.  When at last it plunged into the bog, I assumed before too long it would re-appear. After deploying two gps programs which confirmed my general direction but refused to lead me to a path, I finally realized that the absolutely straight line one was showing simply meant walk in that direction and eventually (at least an hour or more) a path would magically appear. Of course I was walking up a glen with the burn to my left, so all I needed to do was continue slogging, but it took a good while to shake the idea that somewhere parallel to me a clear and somewhat firm path existed.

It was a strange relief to let go of the security of the path, trusting simply to legs and an obvious direction to follow. Paths are the material manifestation of democracy— formed and maintained by many feet over many years, defining direction and possibility (see https://walkinghome.lmc.gatech.edu/pointless-essays/footpaths/). Unlike many places, here it is not as if the paths had not yet been formed, or that over long periods of time out of disuse they disappeared (which is very much the case across Scotland). In this area, the bogs just swallow up paths— the democracy of paths is obliterated by a riot of growth.

After a struggle, followed by resignation, I crested Bealach Bhearnais, finding myself once again in the company of ancient and recent feet trodding smooth a place an direction. Those feet were soon accompanied by voices. High up the  peak I could hear, then see a couple of Munro baggers coaching each other across a treacherous part of their climb. I soon met their companions, two people from Edinburgh, hiking up to join them for the next two peaks. Then later I had to check my calendar. It was not June 21–the official “Hike Naked” day—but sure enough, an older man wearing only a backpack and a great gray beard was dressed as if it were. We exchanged greetings, and I passed down the mountain to Craig, the crossroads where I had initially planned to stay.

My revised plan had been to put in another hour or two, making the following day’s walk into Kinlochewe easier, but after a steep and difficult climb out of Craig on “the old pony track,” I found myself on a well-made (machine constructed) forestry road that would take me, more or less downhill, all the way to town, so I decided 33 km in a day that had a campground with a shower at the end was worth it, even in the blistering heat (unusual for this place for sure). Footsore, but showered and tented, I stopped for a moment to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee with a glass of champagne provided by Sharon, the caravan park host, then made my way to The Stag for an excellent meal (and solitary celebration of a personal holiday), followed by a good night’s sleep, knowing all the while I do not have to walk any paths, marked or wild, tomorrow.

T. Hugh Crawford

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 25, June 4, 2022

June 5th, 2022

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 25, June 4, 2022

I stopped briefly at a bothy this afternoon and had a conversation with Simon, a man walking part of the Cape Wrath Trail. He had settled in for the day while I was planning to push ahead to the next bothy about 8 km further on. A hot day tempted me to stay, but I want to get used to much longer days as the last week will be full of them. We talked about stopping in towns, and he took the familiar line used by most trekkers— a certain contempt for “civilization” as trekking takes you out in the wild and keeps you there.

That narrative thread is strong in most of the Cape Wrath Trail discourse— its draw is the wild. Of course I’m all for the wild— I relish the solitude of wandering in what seem to be empty spaces (one of the reasons I almost always trek alone see https://walkinghome.lmc.gatech.edu/pointless-essays/solitude/). And, for example, today I saw almost no one except Simon over a 30 km walk which took me via very steep and narrow paths down the side of one of the tallest waterfall in UK, Falls of Glomach measuring in at 113 meters. I walked around lochs, slogged through more bogs, and crossed several high ridges. In other words, I got the full wild experience.

But I also want to say a word for towns. I’ve had to coordinate maps, websites and guidebooks to see just how close the SNT comes to various towns— many it deliberately misses— in order to have the chance to visit them. For me, towns (crossroads, villages, hamlets— the maps have the full gamut of place names) can be every bit as interesting as an isolated mountaintop.

The Appalachian trail only passes directly through a few towns along its 2000 mile + corridor. Resupply usually involves hitchhiking down off the ridge to towns at some distance. Towards the end of my trek, I realized how much I enjoyed staying in decrepit motels near the trail. Mattresses lumpy, television often limited, the rooms had no real appeal except there was always an old lawn chair on the walk in front of the room, facing the parking lot, where in the evening you could sit, read, and talk to the people arriving. Hardly “exciting” but a real pleasure nevertheless. Since then I’ve hiked many trails, most with a similarly fraught relationship to towns. Of course there are exceptions— the Camino de Santiago winds its way through the main street of every town it approaches (primarily to afford pilgrims the chance to pray in each of the churches on the way). But by and large on most long trails, towns are viewed as infrastructure— a place to support the wilderness seekers— and not as another sight to be seen. Just a word for towns— they can bring such pleasure.

Today no town for me. I’m sleeping in the Bendronaig Lodge bothy— a comfortable estate bothy with a flushing toilet! (Of course you have to bring buckets of water from the spring). And tomorrow I will wild camp somewhere past Craig, a crossroads I should pass mid day.  But the following day brings the village of Kinlochewe, and another place to explore—a town.

T. Hugh Crawford

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 2 May 12, 2022

May 13th, 2022

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 2 May 12, 2022

When hiking the Appalachian trail, I tended to obsess over wet feet (an unfortunate obsession to have, particularly in Vermont). The trail is so brutal, it beats your feet to death, so factors like wet feet can exacerbate an already fragile constitution. On New Zealand’s Te Araroa, I quickly learned that wet feet were a requirement. On the North Island, many sections of the great path are actually routed down the middle of a stream. I remember on the South Island crossing Waiau Pass, running down a melting glacier to find a place to tent in a wild woods. There I built a fire (something I rarely do) and dutifully dried my shoes and socks. The next morning, on hiking out all of 20 yards, I had to ford a waist deep icy stream. So much for dry feet. (https://walkinghome.lmc.gatech.edu/te-araroa-walking-south-with-the-spring/day-78/).


While not nearly as dramatic as running down a glacier from the highest point on the Te Araroa, I did find myself reliving the old wet-feet anxiety when, on heading out from the Lillardsedge campground after a fairly heavy midnight rain, I had to find a way to cross a field to regain the trail. A tree line which was probably the remnants of an old hedgerow provided a guide and a path, but of course it was completely overgrown with coarse grass and within seconds my feet were sloshing in my shoes. My Appalachian trail spirit screamed “turn around” in one ear, and my Te Araroa sprit just said “sweet as.”

I crossed the field without much incident beyond moisture and found a first-rate trail winding through a lane of old beech (with the highway humming in the background). It turned quickly into a pleasant wander through fields, hedgerows, small towns with beautiful old chapels, and of course Welly-shod dog walkers— just the experience I expected. There were parts of that woods walk that reminded me of the eastern mountains of the US, except the dominant trees were beech rather than oak or poplar. You have to love a good beech forest.

The afternoon was spent following the River Tweed, with swans, fly fishermen, and carpets of wildflowers (dominated by Ramsons). Late afternoon took me through the Eildons, three peaks made famous in Scott’s “Lay of the Last Minstral.” The path went up through the saddle, so I was tempted to summit, but as per the last few days, mid-afternoon brings mist and rain, so I opted for the descent into Melrose, a beautiful town with a ruined Abbey.

I checked into the Station Hotel, late lunched on a haggis burger, visited the abbey (which is where Robert the Bruce’s heart is buried),  wandered the town, finally boarding The Ship—another classic pub, this time filled with football fans waiting for the game to commence. Still adjusting to time, weather, and pure physical exhaustion, I found myself returning to the Station Hotel early for some luxurious sleep on a real bed (no tent and thin sleeping pad for me): a day well spent.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

Career

June 20th, 2021

Career

The northern parts of Benton Mackaye Trail prior to entering the Great Smoky Mountain National Park generally consist of thin, overgrown paths—steep, rutted, rooted, wet, rocky, and usually devoid of other humans (plenty of nonhumans though). Solitude in those circumstances is not contemplative. Instead each step must be taken with care and precision, a mentally and physically taxing process. All trekking involves paying close attention to surface as that, often more than distance or altitude gain and loss, determines the mood of the day. On entering the Smokies, that surface mood shifts. It is a region long inhabited by the Cherokee people and later by Appalachian settlers. Their occupation is most evident by the trails and roads that remain today as current ways or ghostly presence. Doubtless, the road with the most powerful resonance in this part of the world is the Trail of Tears. The settlers who displaced the Cherokee built on their local paths. Today walkers encounter remnants of game trails, washed out logging roads, as well as other roads more carefully built (some still maintained by the Forest Service for access). Ralph Waldo Emerson, in the “Language” chapter of Nature notes, “Every word which is used to express a moral or intellectual fact, if traced to its root, is found to be borrowed from some material appearance.” I’ve long found it curious that the etymology of “career” is in part a headlong race, but also refers to a well-built track or road. Traversing well-laid and some not-so-well-laid roads on this part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I decided to think with Emerson a bit, trying to understand career as “material appearance.”

Rummaging around my memories, the only place I could recall the word career used in its earlier sense was The Wind in the Willows where, as I remember, Mr. Toad’s wild ride involved a car careering at high speed (I could be mistaken, but if Grahame didn’t use the word, he should have). It is hard to imagine how the contemporary sense of having a career would relate to a headlong dash like Mr. Toad’s recklessness, but the idea of a well-laid road resonates with my sense of career. Careering on the Lakeshore Trail in the Smokies, I encountered, of all things, cars—slowly rusting hulks of 1920’s vehicles, one with an old tree growing up through it. Not the sort of sight you expect in the so-called empty American wilderness, but also not surprising given the path I had been following was once a fairly well-made road. Heading north not far past the cars other evidence of Appalachian settlers emerges— old sheet metal, beams, axles, the remains of an old mill race and stone mill, and then the Calhoun House, the last standing structure of the Proctor community. In the late 19th century Proctor was an agrarian village. In the first decade of the 20th, a railroad was pushed there, and Proctor became a lumber boomtown, swelling to over 1000 inhabitants until the timber was exhausted. During World War II, the Alcoa aluminum plant needed smelting power, so the Fontana Dam was built, with the lake submerging parts of the town. A promised road to Proctor was never finished, though the “tunnel to nowhere” some miles to the east is now a tourist destination. The remaining town dwindled and then disappeared, with most structures disappearing into the regenerating forest. I would guess that disappearance was also hastened by the National Park service— a whole nother story of displacement.


Emerson opens
Nature with “Our age is retrospective.” Without doubt, the roads around Proctor invite retrospection, thinking about lost human communities—violently displaced Native American people and the later scattering of the settlers who followed. Now it’s only trekkers who transiently occupy that space.

Standing on the bridge over Hazel Creek, it is hard to imagine a town of any size occupying this space, let alone an industrial sawmill or fields large enough to support food production, but at one time the narrow dirt roads and those abandoned cars enabled the transportation of goods— corn or, for greater ease of transport, corn liquor. Present day stock car racing has its origins in these hills, with cars modified for speed and strengthened to carry gallons of moonshine to the flatlands below.  (I grew up with a 50 gallon copper still in my backyard). The railroad was built to haul out the timber, but in those years it likely also carried a commodity nearly as valuable as shine— chestnuts. Another important inhabitant now gone from this area—the American Chestnut—was lost in the early 20th century to the blight. Once the dominant tree species of the southern Appalachians, the chestnut was fundamental to the life of most inhabitants. For humans, the leaves provided medicine, the wood was nearly perfect—plentiful, strong, rot resistant, easy to work (many of those traditional log cabins in old pictures are chestnut). But most important were the nuts. Plentiful in mast years, chestnuts were a key source of nutrition for humans, were used as forage for hogs (another human food source), and, with the coming of the small gauge railroads up into the coves and the opening of markets in the US northeast, a source of income. A generally unrecognized cause of community loss and present-day Appalachian impoverishment is the environmental devastation brought on by the chestnut blight. The loss of the trains parallel the loss of forest, the chestnut, and the life of many small communities.

Thinking about the idea of one’s career as either headlong dash (Mr. Toad) or a retrospective pondering of lost patterns of living (Proctor) does not seem particularly helpful. Generally people’s careers are not sprints, but they do open out onto a future, not to look back to a distant past. There are only two modern careers I’m qualified (somewhat) to use as examples: medicine and academia. My father was a small-town surgeon and ER physician, and later a public health director. In those years I observed him (including observing operations gowned-up at the OR table) and read the many histories of medicine in our home library. Later, for my dissertation I studied the history of medical education in America. That led me to the other career I have some understanding of—though it is a world I find increasingly strange—professing the humanities in a university. (N.B. I entered the academy in the 1980s when it was generally possible to find a university tenure track job. The neoliberal takeover of the American university system has made that path a chimera today, radically transforming any notion of career).

A career regarded as a well-laid road is at best banal, but perhaps thinking about or with the material experience of roads, paths, and trails could bring some insight. Standing on the Hazel Creek bridge looking across at what is now a riot of trees and undergrowth, then turning to walk for a short stretch on the still level abandoned railroad line, doesn’t so much produce nostalgia (deforestation is hardly something to sentimentalize), as it frames the moment in a dense and complex historical context. Modern roads—e.g. Interstates—appear to erase their history through sheer speed (though attention to what is abandoned by such a-historicism can be compelling). Maybe that is a way into the notion career. As those familiar with the current state of the university in America know well, we are currently being transformed into a “knowledge economy,” which defines knowledge as that which can be measured by standardized metrics, emphasizes rapid production and context-free digital dissemination. In addition, the very idea an academic career has been aggressively undermined, shifting much of the professoriate to precarious, adjunct labor where the time necessary to pursue knowledge is compressed or eliminated. However, harking back to some illusory “good old days,” in academic life is a fool’s errand. The professoriate I entered in the 1980s was overwhelmingly white, male, and academically elitist. A naive celebration of that time as a point of pure intellectual plenitude would be profoundly misguided. Nevertheless, as the road(s) to Proctor teach, it is still important to pause at ghostly presences and listen to what they might tell. That site of rapacious deforestation was also a place of human community—one that maintains a fragile continuity as the descendants of Proctor continue to visit the cemeteries annually to connect with their ancestors and with the still-living descendants of those families. In our corporate universities, the knowledge economy commodifies the parts of academic life that submit to metrics and generally ignores those which cannot. Put bluntly, wisdom—the traditional (idealistic) goal of the humanities—no longer has a place or is at best a ghost.

Perhaps a way to contextualize this trend in academia is as a transition from the idea of career traditionally construed—a road well-laid and followed by careful study and understanding over time—to one defined by readily signaled and celebrated waypoints. The Appalachian Trail is often called “the green tunnel” because it (like the Benton Mackaye) rarely offers those celebrated panoramic views. Days are spent in a long trudge, seeing feet, rocks, toads, snakes, and flowers, even as those same hikers tend to represent their walk with selfies on cliffs and peaks. Today’s humanistic academic careers are forms of branding defined by similar selfie moments. Academic brand development uses every tool in the social media arsenal to not just commodify knowledge, but also the supposed bearer of that knowledge.

This essay springs from my hiking the Benton Mackaye Trail, a path starting at Springer Mountain, Georgia (the same point of commencement as the Appalachian Trail which, by the way, was originally conceptualized by Benton Mackaye). It winds northwest through the Georgia Appalachians, crosses into Tennessee, follows the Tennessee/North Carolina border for a long stretch, ending by crossing the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, climbing Mt. Sterling and descending to the end point in a parking lot—all told about 286 miles of difficult trekking in nearly complete isolation. A bad foot forced me off just before the Mt. Sterling climb. In the career-as-brand world that would be a complete failure as I cannot take the selfie and check off the box for reaching the end point. I can’t wave trekking poles, posing for a social media moment, and then tweet about it (incidentally and ironically, cell service is rare on the trail, so social mediation is always delayed). But, to state the obvious, knowledge and understanding comes in the middle of that long green-tunnel trek, what Gilles Deleuze calls the milieu, and that is precisely what is most often left out of brand development. Proctor is learned by a long road(ish) walk in, through, and back out, not through a Google search or captured by a perfect tweet. So what emerges by thinking career via Emerson are these two versions: one of narrowly defined goals, a series of discrete way-points easily plotted on a roadmap, multiplying products (content) rapidly across media platforms, and constructing a recognizable brand (scholarship as hype-house). The other is career as becoming (a Deleuzian Nomadology), the result of engagement with an unfolding process. The latter recalls the Scottish writer Nan Shepherd, whose Living Mountain I discussed in a previous Pointless Essay. On setting out to walk a Cairngorms path, she says, “Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.” I suspect a brand-oriented academic would hesitate putting that in an annual report.

The dark side of all this is a definition of academic productivity borrowed from the corporate world that simply does not fit the job of nurturing wisdom. Not just confined to the humanities in the university, these tick-box, rapid production pressures are felt across most disciplines including the sciences, a point made clear in Isabelle Stengers’s Another Science is Possible. In what I recall as a recent interview, Donna Haraway voices her preference for the term “engender” over “reproduction” or “production.” She is making a different set of observations than I am, so her reasoning follows a different path, but it is a helpful distinction. Put simply, to live and work, to have a career, in a (re)productionist model requires the fabrication of products— closed, packaged things, a list of intellectual entities on a form. Engendering is a practice of bringing into being possibilities latent in the context. A self-reflective example: what you are reading just now is in my walkinghome blog under the category “Pointless Essays.” To me, the title is a redundancy. While most young scholars in freshman composition are harangued about the need for their essays to have a point, the very notion of an essay is actually its pointlessness. An essay is an attempt, a trying out, weighing (assaying) possibilities, exploring a set of ideas or concepts. An essay does not measure out in already established metrics some narrowly definable idea; instead “the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination.” To essay, in its purest form, is to explore, initially with a certain aimless tentativeness, to see what can perhaps be engendered. My initial walk along the Lakeshore Trail was not simply to tick off the 12 miles from Fontana Shelter to Proctor Fields campsite. Instead, the path, the different surfaces, the stray artifacts, but also the temperature, humidity, the angle of light, bugs, snakes, flowers engendered a form of thinking on careers.

Obviously there are plenty of activities in any career that can be captured by metrics, and, at least the way I was brought up, the very notion of having a career means making a positive contribution to society in whatever way one is capable. What the road/career connection helps uncover is that travel— moving through the world on historically constituted paths—will always include some metrics: beginnings, waypoints, measured distances, ends. But no thinking person sees those marks as constituting a career. They leave out everything in the middle which of course is where thinking is engendered.  As readers can easily infer, I’ve never celebrated digital media as a form of liberation, but I’ve found blogging an interesting way to resist the corporatization of knowledge. The conceit of the Pointless Essays section is that the general idea and/or mood of each resulted from material encounters on the trail, chewed over during that day’s walk. This particular essay was engendered June 16, the day after crossing Proctor Field, as I walked from Chambers Creek to Pole Road Campsite, 22.5 miles in the Smokies (also a day I had a disturbingly close encounter with an exceptionally large timber rattler which perhaps will become another essay). My audience, as best as I can infer, is made up of a few colleagues who read the same philosophers. Thoreau, Emerson, Nan Shepherd, Gilles Deleuze, Isabelle Stengers, William James tend to appear often since my questions are not drawn from reading but instead are posed by my sometimes vague recollection of their work while walking. By far the vast majority of my readers are other trekkers scouring the internet for accounts of different trails (see About Walking Home for a list of trails walked). And then there are some shadow web sites selling essays to undergraduates on nature writing who have appropriated some of mine (end of semester times usually show an odd spike in essays mentioning Thoreau).

What I find compelling about blogging is as an opportunity to treat the essay form as an experiment outside the academy. It engenders serious thinking without submitting it to banal metrics. As a form of intellectual work, it brings me no annual performance review credit. Just like the actual walking, both are practices very much on the margins of productivity or commodification. Sure, some people commodify trekking, creating their own brand and gaining access to equipment and sponsorship. In similar fashion, others find ways to commodify blogs. But neither approach is necessary, and when avoided, both the walking and the thinking take on a different tone, a tone I value. Their ends are not ends, but instead are an ongoing opening out onto novel and seemingly unending possibility. I find that a better sense of what a career should be.

T. Hugh Crawford

Walkers Have Never Been Modern

May 26th, 2016

Walkers Have Never Been Modern

for Bruno Latour

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Robert MacFarlane along with Stanley Donwood and Dan Richards wrote a beautiful little book called Holloway. A holloway is “a sunken path, a deep & shady lane. A route that centuries of foot-fall, hoof-hit, wheel-roll, & rain-run have harrowed into the land.” In other words, a holloway embodies and records a human history of acting in and with the non-human world, a world made of earth, stone, water, but also animals, wheels, wagons, and tools. I recently finished the Camino Frances path of the Camino de Santiago, crossing the Pyrenees near St. Jean-Pied-de-Porte and walking through Pamplona, Burgos, and León to Santiago de Compostela, and then beyond to the Costa de Morte, to Muxia and Finisterre (900 kilometers). Though its paths are not usually as deep as the holloways MacFarlane explores in England, they record a deep history, one of pilgrimages to Finisterre that even predate the Christian Era. While parts today must be re-routed to newer paths to avoid trekking on what have become major highways, the Camino breaths a complex history, passing by every church in its path, but also circling natural formations, avoiding rugged climbs, reflecting the wisdom of the choices made by centuries of walkers. With each step, the modern peregrino is constantly aware of those years of wear, an overwhelming sense of human and nonhuman history.

Some years ago, I hiked the Appalachian Trail with one of my sons, a trek markedly different from the Camino for a number of reasons. Over 2000 miles, the AT winds its way up the east coast ridge of the United States, from Georgia to Maine, never very far from large population centers but on land that is largely depopulated, giving little sign of its ever having been occupied. There are of course moments when hikers feel history. Passing through northwestern Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland is a lesson on significant battles of the American Civil War, but often the sense of hikers, one reinforced by the designers and maintainers of the trail, is that they are walking in wilderness, a place devoid of human history. This mood is even stronger for those hiking the other two major US long-distance trails–the Pacific Crest and the Continental Divide–both of which indulge walkers in the fantasy that they are walking where no one has walked before. Unlike the intensely historical nature of the Camino, the trope of American long-distance trails is uninhabited wilderness. Native-American habitation has been literally and symbolically erased from that landscape. American hikers, particularly those from the west, tend to fetishize this blankness, using human absence as a form of valuation, what is called the “fallacy of the wilderness.” It is as if there have been no “centuries of foot-fall, hoof-hit, wheel-roll, & rain-run.”

It may seem odd to turn to a French philosopher of science and technology to talk about attitudes toward the wilderness and human history, but Bruno Latour, in his early book We Have Never Been Modern and the recent An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence gives a vocabulary to help frame these observations. At the risk of oversimplification (which is inevitable given the length of this essay), We Have Never Been Modern is a critique closely related to Alfred North Whitehead’s notion of the “bifurcation of nature” which initially was a criticism of the philosophical distinction between an object’s primary and secondary qualities but eventually becomes a tool to dismantle the subject/object distinction that has dominated modern philosophy at least since Kant which is the avowed purpose of An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence. In Latour’s timeline, Modernism began (or did not actually begin) when Western philosophy accepted and enforced a rigorous distinction between the subject and the object. An accomplished modernity would be one that could rigorously control the boundary between knowledge of the natural world and of human society. Latour’s insight is that while that wall might be tall and seemingly impregnable, it (like all geopolitical walls real or imagined) cannot stop subject/object hybrids (what he calls “quasi-objects” and “quasi-subjects”) from proliferating. No matter how hard the modern knowledge police work, the subject/object distinction cannot be maintained for long.

A nature untrammeled by human contact and history, one seen only from a scenic overlook or walked on paths that were never built for transportation or human labor, is the wilderness ideal. From that perspective, American long-distance trails mimic the modernity Latour decries, one that erases the history of the material world and the imprint of human thought and action on the landscape. They are a celebration of Nature purged of all humans except the limited few with the strength, stamina, time, and financial wherewithal to make the trek. The holloway is an example of the sort of hybrid Latour invokes to destabilize the notion of an accomplished modernity. The holloway is objective, made of what we would call natural objects–dirt, stones, trees, roots, plants–and is subject to natural forces–rain, wind, drought, frost heave. But it is also social as it was made and is maintained by human activity, serving as a conduit for labor, play, transportation, and human contact. To walk a path is to live its history and trip over its ruts, at the same time!

The modernity Latour critiques is one without history, and many ways it is one without thought. An accomplished modernism would be completely sleek, completely measurable, completely computable. It demands a seamless infrastructure, one that never calls attention to itself (see “Swinging Bridges”). In many ways, it is the neo-liberal dream. Walking a holloway track– the Camino de Santiago or Nepal’s Helambu circuit–is to feel a sedimented history, but also much more. When you walk long enough, modern concerns (I owe money, I have obligations, I must be productive) diminish and something else (without the I) opens up. A range of forces come to bear–gravity, oxygen levels, a fine-grained sense of the weather, attention to flora, fauna, the impress of human activity, and memory. These and other factors constitute a mood that can open to reflection and ultimately open onto the possibility of thinking instead of having thoughts which, like ideas, become tokens to move about in some discourse to be measured and validated by a calculus of intellectual activity. The latter–thoughts–are prized by the neo-liberal academy as they can be converted into statements that circulate as a proxy for thinking and an emblem of intellectual activity, but are actually a faint shadow of the non-modern experience of thinking. In that light, the academia’s long slide from celebrating wisdom to knowledge (18th century) to information (20th century) to data (21st century) is to the neo-liberal university, a place of constant self-assessment, periodic review, and impact analysis, a machine designed to halt thinking in its tracks. The optimism of Latour’s book is his claim that we have never been modern, that such a state can never be accomplished because the boundary between subject and object, self and world, is a chimera. Purification gestures may create power relations and try to reduce thinking to having thoughts, but the hybrid I am calling thinking proliferates outside those boundaries, in a world that never was modern.

On morning I woke in a Kathmandu hotel with no electricity which is of course a regular occurrence in most of the world. Technological differences tend to be what we first notice when visiting other places. Heading out of the city deeper into the mountains is a move toward fewer conveniences and what seems a simpler life. Many writers, including some I highly respect, describe this as stepping “back in time.” I understand what they mean. In isolated rural areas, the daily practices of the people living there are often quite similar to those of their ancestors. Farmers tilling narrow terraced fields with short-handled heavy hoes or metal-tipped wooden plows with a yoke of oxen is a scene repeated for centuries if not millennia, so for visitors, it is of an antique simplicity. However the “back in time” attitude is the result of a parochial sense of modernity. Yes, without doubt, the people living in, say, Melamchigaon are not working in sanitized, hermetically-sealed, climate-controlled environments staring at computer screens all day, but they live in the 21st century, surrounded by artifacts of that era including the ubiquitous steel and aluminum sheathing, cell phones, polyester jackets, airplanes and helicopters circling, soldiers patrolling with automatic weapons. While they may not be in a high-tech envelope, they, like the vast majority of the world’s population, are in the larger 21st century world. The place where they live and work is a hybrid of high tech and traditional practices that a narrow, hyper-modern view overlooks. What the “back in time” trope brings is a sense of distance from and a concomitant blindness to the hybrid nature of all our lives. Silicon Valley daily life is also full of activities long practiced by humans but overlooked in pursuit of a digital totality. Ezra Pound’s plea to “make it new” starts with an “it” that is modernized, but the “it” and all its deep history is sedimented in that “new.” Stepping into Melamchigaon is not a temporal disjunction. It is spatial. It is stepping into a different modernity or, to use Latour’s terminology, into the non-modern world where we have been all along.

T. Hugh Crawford

A Walker of Rivers

April 13th, 2016

A Walker of Rivers

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Water–you’d have thought I’d had enough of it. Starting the Te Araroa on September 1st (against the advice of everyone consulted), I sloshed my way through the Herekino and Rataea forests, splashed up the Mangapukahukanu, climbed any number of peaks to admire the fog, and even tried (unsuccessfully) to wade across the mouth of the Okura just north of Auckland. The better part of my first two months on the Te Araroa was in a damp mist if not outright downpour. But as spring gave way to summer, that fog lifted and water took on a new and surprising quality–indescribable beauty. When hiking the Appalachian Trail in the United States, I crossed many rivers–from the white water of the Nantahala in North Carolina to the broad slow tidal waters of the Hudson just above New York City, or the Kennebec in Maine where a paid staffer ferries thru-hikers across in a canoe. The Te Araroa has more than its share of tough river crossings, particularly on the South Island–the Rakaia, Rangitata, and my personal nemesis, the Ahuriri–but along with crossings, the TA also brings opportunities to hike a river’s length, to become a walker of rivers. Each has its own attractions and devotees, but for me, nothing compares to the trek from St. Arnaud along Lake Rotoiti then up the Travers River to its high mountain source.

I woke early at the backpacker hostel in the Nelson Lakes Motel–one of those places cherished by hikers both for its amenities and the information passed between staff and fellow trekkers. Triple Hands Dave, a mountain guide who had also hiked the Appalachian Trail, was already cooking breakfast for his crew. I made coffee while we talked about the differences between the AT and the TA. Little did I know, I was about to start a day’s hike that would bring into stark relief those very differences. I soon packed up and headed out, but not to the trail just yet. One of my Te Araroa resolutions was to never eat food from my pack when there was a restaurant nearby, so I wandered down to the St. Arnaud Cafe for the “big breakfast.” Hiking the Appalachian Trail brought few opportunities for a cafe breakfast. It was almost always an early morning meal of cold poptarts or granola bars before plunging back in the wilderness, so lingering in a cafe was quite the luxury. The morning was cold as I sat at the picnic tables waiting for the cafe to open, using some free wifi to catch up on the news and staving off obligations back in the States. Soon I was tucking into a hearty breakfast followed by ice cream (on both the AT and the TA, thru-hikers can eat as much as they want, a habit hard to break after returning to a more sedentary life). Soon the trail beckoned, and I started the thirty kilometer hike to Upper Travers Hut.

The best beginning of a day, one that limbers up old arthritic joints, is an easy flat walk. Along the shore of Lake Rotoiti, one of the Nelson Lakes that give water a good name, the manicured path at times veers out onto gravel beaches giving a chance to linger and study the water’s color, texture, and the lake bottom which, regardless of depth, always seems just inches from the surface. By the time I got to the top of the lake, my legs felt young and the sun was shining brightly. There was a clear sense of adventure in the air, and the water was in the lake, streams and river, not coming down on me from the sky. The valley opened up as the trail crossed old pastures and followed the winding of the Travers, occasionally crossing by those swinging bridges that still give me pause. Walking those lower parts close to the river, I became increasingly aware of the water’s clarity, marveling at its almost unimaginable color. In the United States before the advent of brown ceramic insulators, rural electrical lines were strung on blue-green glass knobs. Today those knobs are collectibles (they make great paper weights). The one siting on my desk at home echoes the color of the Travers River, but it is a only a feeble echo.

The hike took me from the lake to the headwaters, so the river’s life unfolded across the day, going from the staid maturity at the mouth to the rollicking turbulence of youth (yes, the water really does rollick over rocks). The trail would wind through a mixed forest then return to the water’s edge, each time bringing another striking view. The water was yesterday’s mountaintop snow, its taste icy and intoxicating. I stopped once to look into what must have been a deep pool, though it was difficult to judge the depth of something so transparent. As I stared at the bottom– perfect, round blue-gray stones– a trout caught my eye. Large, brown, at least 20 inches long and initially invisible, the fish was holding steady in the current. I’m not a fisherman though at that moment I wish I were. Instead I found myself thinking of Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Big Two-Hearted River” where Nick Adams, the protagonist, is recovering from the mental anguish of fighting in World War I. He goes fishing in northern Michigan, and early in the narrative leans over a bridge rail to watch big trout in the current. Nick has travelled to this river hoping to find a way to steady himself. Similar to most long-distance hikers, his actions are studied–precise, almost ritualized. Taking care is a way for him to control his situation and dampen down the uncertainty that wartime trauma has brought. Standing there watching that particular trout, I began to better understand Hemingway’s story. The Travers plunges down the mountain to the lake below, waterfall after waterfall. Even slack water is anything but slack. That fish motionless in the pool was swimming fast. Holding steady is hard work.

Although smaller streams had been joining the river all day, toward late afternoon, they came rushing in louder. I could see the mountain looming after passing Hopeless Creek (one of many vaguely ominous place-names along the Te Araroa). In contrast to the valley, the trail became steeper and more hazardous. The surrounding mountains cast dark shadows, and the trail itself made that familiar move–climbing above the stream then striking out level along an edge both narrow and slippery. I walked with care, staring at the path to keep steady, occasionally stopping to see where it led–a narrow chasm cut by slips, slides, and tumbling brooks. Then I saw, dropping straight off a mountain top, a waterfall with fully half of the water making up the Travers river at that point. It was as if someone had just taken up half the river and leaned it against a mountain, then let it fall, that blue-green water rushing vertically for what looked to be hundreds of meters. There are no words.

The day was winding down as I finally made my way to the hut which, to my surprise, had smoke coming from the chimney. Hiking the Te Araroa early in the season had been a solitary experience, so I wasn’t expecting company up near the top of Mt. Travers. With the hut in sight, I decided to cut across a meadow in what seemed a more direct route only to discover the way I had chosen was more water than land, so I managed to soak shoes and socks within yards of my destination. On entering I was met by a party–two Kiwi guides from Picton and four trekkers from Australia. They had crossed the lake by boat and spent the previous night at John Tait Hut, clearly hiking a more civilized pace than I was, something evident by their buoyant good humor. Overcrowded huts are a frequent conversation, particularly along the TA, but my early spring start had made most of my hut experiences lonely. I well remember two nights and one very long day at Waiopehu in the Tararuas where I found myself wet, cold, and alone staring at windows made opaque by driving rain, wondering what was out there. The morning it cleared brought a clear view of Levin, the town I had hiked out of two days earlier, looking entirely too close for all my hiking efforts. The Waiopehu and Upper Travers huts are fairly new, spacious, clean and inviting with the Upper Travers made even more so by the fire in the wood stove and a group of enthusiastic hikers. I hung my wet clothes by the fire and instead of a solitary evening, I was treated with extra food, some wine, and lively conversation.

The next morning, I woke to the expedition leader rekindling the fire, and soon the rest were rustling about. I packed, made breakfast with steaming coffee and even had a second cup, but that day my goal was Waiau Forks which required a climb over Travers Saddle and then, later in the afternoon, Waiau Pass. I said my farewells and walked out into one of those days where the very air is like glass, imparting a sheen on everything within sight. The path soon climbed above the bush and spread out below was the entire river valley. Even though I couldn’t, it seemed as if I could see all the way back to Lake Rotitiri, so for a moment it felt as though I was looking at an illustration in a topography book, one that explained the parts of a river valley, and I had the view from the top. All around were peaks, jagged rocks, some softened by the remaining snow– the snow that melted and fed the Travers. I lingered for a while at that point where the river began, then turned to start the long descent to the Sabine Valley, heading off for another day of walking rivers.

T. Hugh Crawford

Brutal Beauty

February 6th, 2016

Brutal Beauty
The Appalachian Trail is often called the “green tunnel,” an acknowledgement of the dense forest canopy that surrounds the footpath. Couple that with uneven terrain that demands downcast eyes and you have an experience that by and large is devoid of the spectatorial beauty used to advertise and celebrate the trail. Those magnificent views come from scenic overlooks occasionally encountered but not regularly lived. Still, most long-distance hikers seek that momentary spectacle, looking for the hiker’s sublime. They seem to understand pleasure, definitely know pain, and without doubt experience more than their share of natural beauty. I cannot even begin to explain what motivates long-distance hikers. Many want to test their resolve in the face of deprivation over long stretches of space and time, others simply enjoy the simplicity the hiker’s life brings, but all, on some level, acknowledge the desire to experience isolated mountaintops, silent forests, cascading waters.

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Although over time its fortunes have risen and fallen in aesthetic theory, the concept of the sublime maintains a special place for walkers–the experience of awe that is awful, a beauty that overwhelms, something that arrests as well as upends. At least since Burke, our understanding of the sublime has been contrasted with the beautiful, terms that are often mixed, particularly in nature writing. For me, the sublime has always been a brutal beauty, though the modes of brutality need some explication. As an aesthetic category, the sublime can be encountered in language (Longinus), nature (Kant), or the visual arts (Lyotard), but it always remains within a discourse of power, specifically of being overpowered. However in most accounts, it–similar to beauty–is either spectatorial or is passively experienced through speech or reading. It is a moment of arrest–a hiatus–producing awe, terror, and a pleasure somehow derived from pain; it belittles and makes anxious. We are puny in the face of its “irresistible force” (Longinus).

Not far from the Appalachian Trail is Virginia’s “Natural Bridge,” a limestone formation once owned and surveyed by Thomas Jefferson who, in Notes on Virginia calls it “the most sublime of Nature’s works.” When regarded from below, it is quite a sight, but, as Jefferson further notes, visitors who venture to the top fear creeping to its edge: “Looking down from this height about a minute, gave me a violent head ache.” He acknowledges the sublimity of the view below, but “the view from the top [is] painful and intolerable.” Jefferson hung in Monticello a painting of Natural Bridge by William Roberts, a work that participates in the spectatorial sublime, as does viewing the bridge from the stream bed. However Jefferson’s embodied experience on the precipice is different, resembling trekking in the big outside with its uncertainty, anxiety, pain, and sometimes fear.

For Burke, terror is the sublime’s “ruling principle.” It is lived in an instant though it is the product of a slowly building situation. Terror in the sense of breathless fear is not a common experience of the hiker, but a low-grade anxiety about health, safety and loss, an anxiety not regularly experienced by people in familiar surroundings, is part of what could be called the ambulatory sublime. Beautiful scenes–the ubiquitous “scenic overlooks”– are staged by an enframing that brings them into foveal vision, into a comfortable spectacle. Evolution linked adrenaline and the flight response to peripheral vision, the fear that is invoked by movement on the edges of perception. Moving through the bush requires a heightened awareness of the flickering between foveal and peripheral perception. There the micro-sublime is lived at the edges of perception, where uncertainty and danger lurk. On the Te Araroa, hikers often have to follow poles topped by orange cylinders marking the pathless trail. Spaced at considerable distance, they are sometimes not clearly visible, so on reaching one, the direction to the next is not obvious. The orange chosen for marking stands out from the rest of the landscape, but it is most easily distinguished by peripheral vision, that part of sight best equipped to notice the anomalous in the field. Hikers searching for the next marker saccade across the scene, using low-level anxiety to find their way across what feels a vast and inhuman landscape. Such moments are obviously not the sublime in any traditional sense, but they structure a hiker’s form of attention.

Like vision flickering from foveal to peripheral, walking is both spectatorial and immersive, a double move described by the inveterate walkers Wordsworth and Thoreau. Hikers stop for the spectacular, are arrested by those moments, but then continue on, feeling both the loss of the scene and the possibility of an even better one at the next turn. They are moving bodies immersed in a moving nature. Hall of Fame hiker William Wordsworth is reputed to have walked 180,000 miles in his lifetime. Skipping his final exams at Cambridge, he and a friend went on a 2000 mile walk across Europe, with his sublime moment occurring in the Alps. Definitions of the sublime usually focus on a moment, that awful singularity, but such moments pass and walkers continue their journey. For them, the sublime opens out over time and is experienced as anticipation, arrest, loss, and continuation. Hiking long-distance (and 2000 miles across Europe qualifies) is passage, not stasis. Hikers may creep out onto the edge of the precipice, but they also will spend most of the day trudging step by step in less heart-pounding circumstances.

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Despite his anticipation, Wordsworth’s actual crossing of the Alps, as detailed in The Prelude, was a belly-drop. Like most long-distance hikers, he and his friend become momentarily disoriented (moment of low-level anxiety). Finding someone to ask the way, they discover they have already passed what they most anticipated:

To our inquires, in their sense and substance
Translated by the feelings which we had,
Ended in this–that we had crossed the Alps.

Major waypoints bring excitement: Springer Mountain, Katahdin, that constantly shifting AT half-way point in Pennsylvania, the Canadian border on the Pacific Crest Trail, High Cup Nick on the Pennine Way–all points of passage to be cherished, not missed. For Wordsworth, crossing the Alps did not bring a sublime view, but it was a temporally sublime moment, part of the ambulatory sublime experienced not through the eyes but instead through his bootsoles, a quickened pulse and a sense of loss–failure to capture, contain, or comprehend an always already passing world. Wordsworth follows that momentary disappointment with an image of timeless sublimity:
Downwards we hurried fast,
And, with the half-shaped road which we had missed,
Entered a narrow chasm. The brook and road
Were fellow-travellers in this gloomy strait,
And with them did we journey several hours
At a slow pace. The immeasurable height
Of woods decaying, never to be decayed,
The stationary blasts of waterfalls,
And in the narrow rent at every turn
Winds thwarting winds, bewildered and forlorn,
The torrents shooting from the clear blue sky,
The rocks that muttered close upon our ears,
Black drizzling crags that spake by the way-side
As if a voice were in them, the sick sight
And giddy prospect of the raving stream,
The unfettered clouds and region of the Heavens,
Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light—
Were all like workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree;
Characters of the great Apocalypse,
The types and symbols of Eternity

Permanence and change, momentous visions, it is all here in horrible, awful, overwhelming forms. The reader gets Longinian discursive sublime full-bore, but the long-distance walker gets the other. Theirs is a stationary blast passed by. The pain is not nausea or terror, but footsore pain/pleasure at seeing that which is nominally and normally unavailable to all but the most intrepid. The beauty is brutal, and the experience is brutalizing. Wordsworth missed marking his crossing of the divide, but as he well knows, walking is always about loss. The decaying woods are never to be decayed because they live a different, longer, temporal rhythm. At the same time, walkers are acutely aware of their temporal rhythms, the need to mark out the day’s trek, to not get lost, and to live the way intensely.

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Long before hordes of Appalachian Trail hikers began to arrive at Baxter State Park to climb Mount Katadhin marking the end of their 2000 mile journey, Thoreau attempted an ascent which he documented in The Maine Woods. Although a part of the massif now bears his name, Thoreau’s climb was unsuccessful (if you define success as attaining the summit). He set out from his group’s encampment just below tree line early one morning filled with hope only to be stymied by the notoriously difficult weather near the peak. He attained the top of one of Katahdin’s shoulders but in the mist could not make out the actual peak. Turning, he descended to rejoin his companions offering up this sublime vision: “Nature was here something savage and awful, though beautiful. I looked with awe at the ground I trod on, to see what the Powers had made there, the form and fashion and material of their work.” Then, “Here was no man’s garden, but the unhandselled globe. It was not lawn, nor pasture, nor mead, nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, nor waste‐land. . . Man was not to be associated with it. It was Matter, vast, terrific, ‐‐ not his Mother Earth that we have heard of, not for him to tread on, or be buried in….” Thoreau is firmly in the rhetoric of the literary sublime, offering up a vision of the inhuman which permeates such scenes, but his experience of that climb is another sublimity. His passage, his inability to comprehend the misty, craggy, inscrutable world he was passing through, was filled with amazement and anxiety. Retracing his steps down a pathless scree in hopes of clearer weather or a sign that he was on the proper way, Thoreau as walker lives the ambulatory sublime and experiences its brutality.

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Back in November, I woke in Upper Travers Hut hearing Grant, an expedition leader, stoking the fire in the wood stove, and before too long his hiking crew started rustling about. I packed, made oatmeal and coffee, then had a second cup while talking with the crew when I really should have been hiking. Ideally I wanted to get to Waiau Forks to camp that night, but that required an early morning climb over Travers saddle which is 1700 + meters and then, late in the day, Waiau Pass which, at 1800+ meters, is the highest point on the South island part of the Te Araroa and also the most dangerous. Regretfully I said my farewells and started out. It was a sunny clear day as I climbed up above the bush line. All around were snow-capped peaks, and I made it to the top within an hour, lingering for a moment before starting the long descent to the Sabine River Valley. The winter snows, avalanches, and rock slides had pretty well taken out all the poles marking the lower part of the decent, so I followed rock cairns helpfully but haphazardly piled to show the way. By late morning I found the trail through the woods where I crossed the river and made my way up toward Blue Lake. Like the Travers, the Sabine is clear and fast running. At its headwaters is Blue Lake, the place where the body of the first hiker to die on the Te Aroroa was found. I arrived by midday and decided there was enough daylight to make the trek over Waiau. The trail took me past Lake Constance which rivals Blue in color and beauty though getting around it required some hard climbing and narrow ledge hiking. The last bit was on a gravel beach at the water’s edge. The waters coming into it came across a wide flat plain that the trail followed. It gradually narrowed to a canyon surrounded by snow-capped mountains with nothing that looked like a pass in evidence. Then trail markers made a sharp turn and went straight up the side of one of the mountains which might have had a little bit of a dip in altitude compared to the others, but hardly deserves the name “pass.” The initial climb was on loose gravel, so each step slid back almost as much as it went forward. After an hour or so, I got the the first leveling off to rest. In mid-winter this is a high avalanche risk area, and I was uncertain what conditions reduce that risk in the spring. Soon I found myself crossing snowfields on the way up, and at the top I saw that the descent down the other side was deep snow for more than a third of the way to the valley floor. Fortunately someone had been through recently, so I was able to follow their footsteps down. I’m not sure how deep the snow was, but only the tops of the markers were visible and I would sink to about mid-calf with each step. Sweating from exertion but with freezing feet, I finally got below snow line, followed the western branch of the Waiau River to where it met the eastern half. After eleven hours of hard hiking, I pitched my tent in a beech forest beside the river, built a small fire to dry out my shoes and warm my feet, then gratefully crawled into my tent ready for a hard night’s sleep.

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That day was not part of a discursive or artistic sublime. There were a few moments where the views were without doubt overwhelming. The Travers and Waiau Passes afforded scenes that surpass capture, and a Sabine tributary that runs through a deep roofless cave crossed by a narrow wooden bridge would surely have given Jefferson another head ache, but it was a day of the ambulatory sublime. A walk where pain was mixed with pleasure, confidence was shaken by uncertainty, and fear was promoted by both low-level anxiety and the real possibility of bodily harm–an intensity not captured by traditional aesthetic categories. It was temporal, embodied, and immersive, but above all, it was brutal.

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T. Hugh Crawford