Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

Learning to Walk Again

January 28th, 2020

Learning to Walk Again 

A few years ago some French trekking friends asked me to write an essay for their blog. I gave them this: Why I Walk. There, my opening point was that the reason I do long-distance trekking is because I can. That is, I am acutely aware of the privilege reasonable health and socio-economic status confers. In the years since that essay, I have taught a number of seminars on the literature and philosophy of walking, and every time my students teach me more about that privilege. But now I want to explore what is has been like for me to learn to walk again.

The syllabus for those seminars often opens with this line: “As most parents know well, walking is the first major step an infant takes in that whole complicated process of growing up, yet after those first tentative steps are transformed into a confident stride, people spend little time reflecting on just how walking functions (or does not function) in our culture:” I’m now interested in the part about tentative steps to confident stride, the remarkably complicated neuromuscular dance that many people simply take for granted. Long-distance hikers usually don’t fall into that category. Trekking demands a careful and detailed understanding of your body moving in the world—trekkers are necessary phenomenologists.

I remember some years ago talking to a man who was almost finished with the Appalachian Trail (2165 miles). His evaluation: “no one told me I’d spend five months staring at my feet.” Try to visualize the neural activity of walking at a brisk pace on an undulating path randomly covered with different sized rocks and protruding roots. Your eyes flicker from a space immediately before your feet to a spot about 6 – 10 feet ahead. You barely notice this constant flicker, nor your registration of the obstacles to avoid or the strategies for how to deal with them. Then consider the many small muscles in your hips, knees and feet, making the slightest variations in order to move evenly in that uneven world. The computation involved in those gestures far exceeds the computers and smart phones we consider so powerful. Walking on a homogenous surface—a sidewalk or building floor—can be smoothly accomplished by able walkers and imitated by machines. Trekking in the world of tangled roots and rock scree is more of a dance— a full bodied experience flickering between control and abandon, twist, duck, release, lunge, halt (briefly), then plow ahead, all without apparent thought. What a marvel!

Days of excessive mud, elevation change, blisters, hunger, or overall fatigue bring to mind just how complicated those seemingly autonomous gestures are to effect. Time also plays a fundamental role— the slow degradation of bodily function across a long hiking day, a long hiking season, or a lifetime of wear and tear. On the Appalachian Trail, hikers are given trail names. You cannot name yourself but instead are nominated by a trail colleague. Mine was “Tin Man” because a month before I started hiking I’d had surgery to clean up (that felicitous term debride) one of my knees. The surgeon recommended I return every two weeks for a shot, and since the first weeks of the AT are still fairly close to my hometown, Atlanta, I was, with the help of friends and family, able to get back from the trail for a lube job— hence my sobriquet. As the years and many other long distance trails passed, my bow legs stressed my knees and the arthritis increased. This time a tuneup and lube job were not possible, so I went in for total knee replacement— first one, then 4 months later the other (thanks #MicroPortOrtho #MicroPortMedEd #EmorySportsMed #EmoryOrthopedics #EmoryHealthCare). A year of rehab which for me meant miles of city walking, and I was ready to test the modifications.

Many teenagers spend time thinking about how they walk, defining a particular look in the process of forming what will be their adult identity. I think after those years, after most of us have internalized a stride, we pay little attention to the role that walking plays in a basic sense of personal identity. One effect of my knee replacement surgery was increased height. I’d claimed to be 6’1” though always was a shade under that metric. When my surgery straightened my legs I found I now topped 6’1” by that same measure, but with that came a new look, and a fraught sense of identity.  Once I was able to walk “normally,” I saw my reflection in the window of a distant building, and did not recognize myself. People tend to focus on faces—think Deleuze and Guattari’s “faciality” and today, facial recognition software—as the site of personal identity, once again forgetting the fundamental role walking can play. A moment’s reflection brings the awareness that we usually recognize people at a distance not by their faces but by their walk. What eludes is the self-awareness one’s own stride brings, its role forming a sense of being—being in the world.

My prosthetic stress-test involved jumping into the deep end, or in this case, getting dumped into the bush in nearly complete isolation with a 100 miles of muddy, boggy, often poorly marked trail ahead and only one point midway where I was sure to encounter other people—the Melaleuca airstrip in the World Heritage section of southwest Tasmania (an airstrip without a road). To get there you either fly or take a boat up a narrow creek, or do what I did—walk in from Scott’s Peak on the faintly traced seldom used Port Davey Track. That particular path is supposed to be a true Tassie hiking experience (boggy and disorienting) and was originally laid out in the 19th century as a way for sailors marooned in the Port Davey region to find their way to Hobart. I’ve many difficult treks in my past, but in a very real sense I was starting over. I’d learned to walk city streets, vaguely recognize myself as possessing the body I was walking in, but in Port Davey, I had to learn to trek all over again— something I’ve not yet accomplished.

Moving in a muddy, overgrown wilderness has to be a dance and not a trudge. Exhaustion brings a simplified stride guaranteed to inflict pain and produce mistakes. Even plowing straight through ankle-deep mud demands finesse, a constant data stream and response to the slightest variation in surface or intrusion of vegetation. I found my strength was generally good, but because of my leg straightening, my balance was off. The major muscles were there, but the small ones in my joints did not respond to terrain variation on the way I used  to, so I fell more often, usually from simple surface variation. We think of higher-level cerebration usually in terms of symbolic systems— math, poetry, philosophy— because we have forgotten the effort demanded by that first great neurological hurdle: learning to walk. Those hundred miles required not just simple muscular stamina; they demanded a neurological engagement every bit a intense and complex as writing a sonnet sequence or the Mathematica Principia (or Milles Plateaux).


I took a rest day at Melaleuca, then followed the South Coast Track back in the direction of Hobart. There were people on this part and unlike Port Davey, I didn’t lose the path. The obstacles ahead were more clearly presented. Still, on the day we (I ended up in the last days hiking with 4 people who had been out as long as I) staggered out to Cockle Creek and transport back to the city, there was a collective groan of exhaustion, pleasure, and relief. Clearly I’ve not yet learned to walk again. Perhaps age and general wear and tear will keep such a skillful practice just beyond my ken, but the lesson of the Tasmanian bush is clear. Personal identity is directly tied to a sense of self framed by past activities and an ability to perform through a body in a place. Any number of factors can undermine, disrupt, or devastate that embodied self-identity. My going off after knee replacement to find my old self through long-distance trekking was quixotic at best. We never stop walking/thinking/being in an unfolding new self. It’s when disturbances manifest that we become aware of those processes (c.f., Martin Heidegger’s “broken tool”). William Carlos Williams, in the poem Paterson, presses directly the question of knowing with and through a body in motion:

We know nothing and can know nothing


the dance, to dance to a measure


                                  Satyrically, the tragic foot.


He’s referring to the Greek satyr plays, but could just as easily be calling out the tragic foot as the lame one, the one that both enables and disables the dance or in its new variations creates a new one. We never stop learning to walk.

T. Hugh Crawford

Thoreau’s “Cosmopolitical Proposal”

July 13th, 2016

Thoreau’s Cosmopolitical Proposal


Henry David Thoreau casts a long shadow over my thoughts about and practice of walking, particularly his essay “On Walking” which opens with “I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil,–to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of nature, rather than a member of society.” In a stroke, he introduces what becomes an elemental concept–the wild–and frames his understanding of the human away from society in the big outside actively participating in the making of that outside. But his initial phrasing also opens the question of who is authorized to speak for another, particularly an other without language. Although the essay is full of many strongly (if ironically) stated sentiments about who is qualified to walk–“If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again,–if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settle all of your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk.”–speaking a word for nature is, from the first instant, made in a tentative voice. He might speak a word for Nature, but he cannot speak for Nature. “On Walking” is an essay on being “part and parcel of nature,” of acknowledging its “subtle magnetism,” and the “capabilities of the landscape.” The Nature he speaks for is full of agencies known and unknown.

The Belgian philosopher Isabelle Stengers also wants to question those who speak “a word” for Nature, to understand what authorizes certain people (usually scientists) to speak for nature, and to what extent their words are final. Her “Cosmopolitical Proposal” advocates listening to multiple voices speaking for or with multiple constituencies, articulating alliances, and arriving at an often brief consensus. She opens with a question–“How can I present a proposal intended not to say what is, or what ought to be, but to provoke thought; one that requires no other verification than the way in which it is able to ‘slow down’ reasoning and create an opportunity to arouse a slightly different awareness of the problems and situations mobilizing us?” Her friend and mentor Gilles Deleuze once characterized Nietzsche’s philosophy as a “series of darts” –provocations to thinking– rather than a system or method. Alfred North Whitehead, Stenger’s other, more distant mentor, spoke of philosophy as “lures for thinking.” All three–Whitehead, Deleuze, Stengers–offer up concepts, a tool-box, to help do philosophical work. They give no absolute position from which to speak absolutely, but they do point out a branching path where thinkers can, in Thoreau’s word, saunter.

The beginning of “On Walking” is a critique of an overly sedentary existence promoted by the business economy, but it is also a description (sometimes prescription) of proper walking attitudes. In the latter part he echoes his mentor Emerson’s plea in the “Divinity School Address” for a unique American literature and philosophy, one partaking of and maybe even articulating the wild land they now occupy. This notion of “the wild” is a fraught concept, one subject to many different appropriations, most notably to support eco-political movements advocating for setting aside wilderness areas. His line “in wildness is the preservation of the world” is often misquoted as “in wilderness…” Without doubt, one could find elements of a Thoreavian wild in a vast wilderness, but it also is to be found in the “civilized” world: in swamps or low spots on farms, at the edges of fields, in the margins of cultivation (agricultural and social). Thoreau himself, as Walden demonstrates, seeks out the wild and lives it on those very margins. He notes in “On Walking,” “For my part, I feel that with regard to Nature, I live a sort of border life….” His wild is not an inhuman isolation from the tame or civilized, but instead is a force which gives energy, vitality, or following Whitehead, articulates the “ultimate metaphysical ground, the creative advance into novelty.” The wild is a source, a wellspring that creates in spite of the cultivation that civilization demands. It is the tang of the wild apple or the wilding potato growing on the edge of a cultivated Peruvian field ready to bring new taste and characteristics to the dinner table. A place to locate this is in one of his seemingly offhand rants near the end of the essay where, as a counter to an American obsession with the practical (or as a proleptic critique of the neo-liberal University), he calls for a “Society for the Diffusion of Useful Ignorance.” He immediately renames ignorance “beautiful knowledge” to distinguish it from the practical, but it could just as easily be called “the wild” as he follows his proposal with a Whitmanesque image of cattle who find vitality in the new spring grass after a winter of hay.

Ignorance can take many forms, and usually not particularly positive ones, but Thoreau’s is a plea for thought freed from the cultivation of a rigidified civilization, of one that only listens to narrowly defined expert voices speaking an officially sanctioned discourse. Useful ignorance is a form of naïveté, a voice that can produce insights that, because unrecognized, are not available to the expert witnesses. The central figure in Stenger’s “Cosmopolitical Proposal” is the idiot, a conceptual persona she takes from Deleuze (who appropriated it from Dostoevsky). In Stenger’s hands, the idiot is the tentative, unauthorized voice who asks non-sensical or useless questions. Idiotic questioning is a way to strip bare the categories of sense and use. She does not deny knowledge but does want a fuller understanding of the ground on which it stands: “We know, knowledge there is, but the idiot demands that we slow down, that we don’t consider ourselves authorized to believe we possess the meaning of what we know.” Stenger’s idiot is a practitioner of Thoreau’s useful ignorance, or perhaps is Thoreau himself–someone willing to ask naively the obvious question, who slows down a railroaded consensus. Thoreau is the consummate railroad philosopher. Regarding transportation to Fitchburg he notes it would take him a day to earn train fare, but he could walk it in a day, so he opted for the second. A form of willful perversity perhaps, maybe a refusal to participate in an unnecessary economy, from most perspectives the action of an idiot, but definitely a way to slow down. In her plea for slow science, Stengers quotes Whitehead’s critique of a narrow professionalism: “minds in a groove. Each profession makes progress, but it is progress in its own groove. (…) The groove prevents straying across country, and the abstraction abstracts from something to which no further attention is given.” Inherent in this position is the desire to move transversally, as Thoreau advocates, to set out across the fields instead of following established roads, and as a consequence to slow down enough to pay due attention– not just to the world encountered but also to the thinking produced by that practice. Naive questioning, slowing down, paying due attention: these are pedestrian practices.

In “On Walking” Thoreau notes, “My desire for knowledge is intermittent, but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant.” This is contrasted to Emerson’s more famous transparent eyeball, “I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part of God.” Thoreau is not after knowledge (at least none of the officially authorized kind), nor does he attain airy transcendence. Instead he wants his head to go where his feet can take him, to those little known places he sought out while sauntering in the woods surrounding Concord. He opens “On Walking” tracing an etymology of saunter, first claiming it describes someone going to Sainte Terre, to the Holy land. Then he sets out the possibility it comes from sans terre, to be without land, which “will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere.” Ultimately Thoreau prefers the former, but I like the latter because of the double logic it proposes. To be without ground is to acknowledge that the position from which you think and speak is solid but transient. To saunter intellectually is not to be arrogant but instead tentative. You can venture to “speak a word for Nature,” but you cannot utter the definitive term. You cannot close off the conversation. The second half of the logic is that such groundless can still provide a home, that we don’t have to root ourselves in the village, condemned to repeat the same formulae, nor do we have to run on the grooved rails of the train. Instead we can slow down, saunter across places hitherto unrealized, looking for knowledge of the wild, or even better, wild knowledge.

T. Hugh Crawford


May 22nd, 2016



Early on in Walden, Thoreau says, “It is true, I never assisted the sun materially in his rising, but, doubt not, it was of the last importance only to be present at it.” Presence at first light, ever elusive but somehow fundamental. The labors of many people require they rise before the sun, but being up early does not necessarily put one in the presence of the sunrise as an event, the first of the new day. Long-distance walkers are a privileged few as they, like Thoreau, are up and about, doing their daily labor before the sun, and most days find themselves lingering on some path watching the unfolding of yet another rosy-fingered dawn.

In El Gamso on the Camino de Santiago, Gloria, my trekking partner suggested we get up early enough to see the sunrise from the peak at Cruz de Ferro. Walkers are game for most things, but this was a pre-dawn trek of 15 km including a long steep climb. At 4:00 am, we were up and in a few minutes hiking fast and hard down the path, headlamps dimly lighting the way. It was smooth but still there was the occasional stumble. An advantage of the early time was a sky awash with stars, the Milky Way streaming through the middle, punctuated by the occasional meteorite, but we had to ignore the sight most of the time, focusing instead on our feet. There was less than 3 hours time to cover the distance. Before long a crescent moon rose at our backs, partly showing the way. That time of morning brings new sensations. Birds often unheard call out. Different temperature gradients cross the skin. The earth and plants exhale unique odors. Setting a brisk pace, we made the the next town in good time but then had to climb a ridge in mud and flowing water, all as the horizon began to lighten ominously. Soon anticipation gave way to near despair. Pushing on through the just-waking village of Foncebadon, we crested the main ridge, still short of Cruz de Ferre but finding an ideal place to see the morning in. Sunrises happen every day but they are never the same. This day some low clouds ran interference as the orange intensified along the horizon, then a brilliant flash of yellow light turned our retinas purple. Soon the sun’s rays touched all around and, though we had not materially assisted in its rising, we had contributed our mite and received everything in return. It’s a strange feeling to have been up and toiling long and hard only to recognize that a new day has just commenced. We got up, stretched, and made our way to the Cruz de Ferre, an iron cross atop a tall wooden pole surrounded by a huge pile of rocks brought by peregrinos from all over the world. I found a rock by the path and pitched it over my head onto the pile, while Gloria retrieved the one she had carried from some far away place. Anticipation frames a moment, but the moment always exceeds it.

That morning while watching the sunrise, I could not help but recall Hölderlin’s hymn, “The Ister,” and Heidegger’s commentary in a book of the same name. I kept repeating the opening lines:

Now come, fire!
Eager are we
To see the day.

Command, presence, inevitability, anticipation, anxiety. Sunrise is but one in 24 hours of moments, but it is a singularity, an edge, a precise point. It predates industrial time and is measured not in seconds or minutes but in duration–a taunt, stretched now that extends from the first bit of pure light to the emergence of the sun as full body. Heidegger, ever the interrogator, questions Hölderlin’s opening line: “Yet if “the fire” comes of its own accord, then why is it called? The call does not effect the coming.” He is pursuing a broader philosophical point, but his questioning uncovers the walker’s dilemma, one phrased by Thoreau differently but essentially asking the same thing: what calls for presence at a sunrise? Eager to see the day, we pause watching colors, the false dawn, then the moment of pure light. Our eagerness calls on the sun to come, but it was the sun all along that brought us to this ridge. Presence at sunrise questions Being in ways few other quotidian actions can. The most temporal of events calls the caller out of measured time into dureé. It is time as a thread stretched to absolute thinness. Clocks do not tick at sunrise; time expands, filling the horizon.

But fire can bring destruction, and to think the now is to think its end. Not far from the Cruz de Ferro is the Galician Atlantic coast and Finisterre, the end of the earth in the Medieval world, the place where the sun goes to die. On the Costa de Morte there once was the altar of Ara Solis dedicated to that daily dying sun, something pilgrims witness with each sunset. Sunrise is both inevitable and not, prompting questions of the end rather than the beginning. Ben Schneider (of the band Lord Huron) asks, “what if the world dies with the sunrise?” Not an anxiety strongly felt by those called to witness the beginning of the day, but a thought that lurks in the background. To anticipate an event is to entertain the possibility of it not happening. Heidegger also calls the now the “time of poets.” The sun calls the poets to write. It calls walkers differently, not to give words but more fundamentally to mark the surface of the earth, to write paths with bootsoles. To be present at the sun’s rising, the way is trod, the ridge is climbed. To participate in the now of that moment is to be part of a longstanding community with feet maintaining the way and naming the history of the land’s dwellers, sometimes going back millennia. The pause on the ridge gives the sunrise a silent voice. An event made reverent by the act of stopping to pay attention, to attend. Deleuze asks of Leibniz and Whitehead “What is an Event?” He then produces a multiplicity of answers, or, to put it the same way, his answer is a multiplicity with some convergence. An event is a gathering to an intensity, a set of forces singled out and directing attention. It is, in Whitehead’s terms, a concresence of elements, the active creation of the new and, I would add, the now which is always novel.

Sunrise calls out a particular now for our attention, showing by implication the production, the concresence, of all nows, however unremarkable others may be. Sitting there on that hill in that moment was an event. We did not materially assist the sun in its rising, did not wake the birds’ songs or paint the full palette of colors on the sky or cause the mist to rise from the plowed earth or bring both light and shadow to play across the land. But we were there attending and anticipating. Already wide-awake from a long, hard hike, we were there to begin the new day.

T. Hugh Crawford


November 4th, 2015

Traversing Space:

Homage to Deleuze and Guattari


When I began hiking the main Tararua Range, the weather was mild– the kind of day that makes you want to walk. Past the gate, the first stretch was up through a cattle pasture, fields that appear simple solid green grass until you try to cross them, then it’s tussock to tussock, cow flops to meadows that are actually bogs. A herd of young steers ran out in front of me, making a muted thundering when they all hit their stride. The stile at the end, one of those inflection points that is always a brown muddy soup, marked the entrance to the range itself, and the path rose fast when I left the pasture behind. As I gained elevation, the temperature dropped, the rain thickened, and the wind began to push me around. This section of the Tararua Range has five Department of Conservation huts (each a different style, age, and comfort level) every eight kilometers or so. My plan was to get to the second one — Te Matawai– that first day, but by 2:30 the rain was intense and the winds pushed even harder, so when I got to Waiopehu, the first hut, I called it a day. The next morning brought no relief. The rain continued so the trail was a stream, and the wind rattled the windows of this well-built but unheated shelter. I spent most of the day reading while seated at the table looking out a bank of windows at an opaque white wall. I was fairly certain below me was the flatland I had hiked out of the day before, but for all I knew, it was the moon or the Arctic. I was inert and immobile, a walker without a path.


In his essay “Walking,” Thoreau describes going to see two panoramas (the Imax of the 19th century). The first was of the Rhine River; its castles and ruins were the sites of stories that had stirred him in his youth. Then he saw the Mississippi panorama, depicting stories yet untold. In pairing these, he gestured toward what he considered the heroic age of young America which was building out from Eastern shores to become a transcontinent. Using the idea of the West to signal openness and freedom typifies the rhetoric of his essay, but the way he describes his experience of the paintings also is telling. On the Rhine, he “floated along under the spell of enchantment, as if [he] had been transported to an heroic age.” On the Mississippi he “worked [his] way up,” “gazed,” and “looked” into rivers and an emerging history, an heroic age in the making. Although one is passive, the other active, both are experiences of space as point-line. Thoreau was already inclined to such a narrative as it was the mode of his early book, A Week on the Concord and the Merrimack, which describes a trip with his brother in an unwieldy boat, seeing his familiar Concord and environs from an unfamiliar perspective. Although a river unfolds like a ribbon, bending back on itself, forming within its banks differential currents and lateral complexities, it remains a line, with the boat a point. Perhaps unwittingly, Thoreau’s digression regarding the river panoramas recapitulates the phenomenology of the essay’s subject– walking –which in the frame he initially articulates is a point following a line.

I spent four days paddling the Whanganui river from Whakahoro Landing to the city of Wanganui (spellings alternate between “w” and “wh”). It was locomotion through a combination of river current, piloting, and arm strength (my tramping legs got a rest). The landscape unrolled slowly, with a perspective more distantly specular than the hiking trail because of the openness of the water as opposed to the confinement of the deep dark woods. Piloting the canoe engages the senses in ways at least superficially different from walking. A distant roar could be wind, a waterfall, tributary stream, or rapids that demand alert and instantaneous actions. You hear and feel changes in the current, even as you see stories both old and new unreeling down the line. But this is not to dismiss walking as less sensory intensive. There your ears hear subtle transformation of landscapes (shifting wind on ridge tops) as well as register altitude gradations concomitantly felt in feet and legs. In both, the information is navigational–the ribbon of the water or the worn path of the trail unwind in a line that commands a following.


On the river, following the point-line is staying within a laminar flow. Drifting off the line even for a moment takes you into the slack of a backwater or head-on into a turbulent flow from which only chance will extricate you. Walking, particularly footpaths, tends to minimize such vortical or non-linear disturbances. Paths are usually there to lead you through. Long-distance hiking is the willing subjection to the tyranny of the point-line, though at times, like on the water, there are counter-currents. All hikers resist, complaining about track lay-out where designers inevitably and for seemingly no reason swing through difficult terrain or arbitrarily go over every hilltop no matter how difficult the climb or unappealing the vista. In addition, pathways themselves can produce turbulence or resistance, something Christopher Alexander’s landscape design tries to exploit. In laying out walkways, particularly for college campuses, Alexander tries to build in the possibility of an eddy forming in the flow of students, a place where the path compresses and releases in such a way that some of those following it are ejected into a calm space, one for chance encounters and possibly quiet conversation outside the restricted choreography of academic intercourse. Alexander’s point-line becomes vector, a way out of simple directedness.

Ideally, the point-line form of being is one of constant orientation. Hiking the Appalachian Trail can be almost completely a point-line affair. In good weather, the trail itself is worn and usually obvious. That line is supplemented by the white rectangular blazes appearing with regularity throughout. Junctions might have supplemental signage or just a clear white blaze indicating the proper choice. The Te Araroa aspires to such a state and often succeeds by a visible track and strategically placed orange triangles. Because it is a trail fairly recently cobbled together via a number of already existing trails, such signage can be inconsistent or even absent. This is compounded by what seems a general reluctance to nail the plastic triangles to tree ferns, small bush, or on any pines in a tree plantation (nails in stump timber completely devalues the lumber). Consequently, navigation is more complicated. I find I rely heavily on PDF maps supplied by the Te Araroa Trust and a New Zealand topo/GPS smartphone app. As a result, my experience of point-line becomes point-line/plane. I position myself as a pulsing blue dot on a screen at the same moment that I stand firmly (or slip uncertainly) on a terrestrial path. The representational plane supplements the point-line function; however, at that navigational moment, it is only tangentially planar. On the screen, the topography surrounding the line is inconsequential. The only information of significance is confirmation that I am indeed standing where I am supposed to be, moving along the line I need to follow. The plane becomes significant when the line is misread or unreadable.


As is well-documented, Thoreau sometimes made his living as a surveyor, rendering the landholdings of his neighbors onto gridded paper, representing through points and lines a plane or a plat. There cairns, spikes, or blazed trees don’t mark a way through but instead are the metes and bounds of properly surveyed land. Representing space as planar, perhaps a map laid out on a table or the ichnographic vision of GPS or google maps, is a form of mastery, a Cartesian leverage. Conversely, seeing the world from a point-line is phenomenologically distinct and at least in part embraces uncertainty. It is according to Ezra Pound “Periplum” which he characterizes in this way: “not as land looks on a map/ but as sea bord seen by men sailing.” A point-line makes a way, a point-line/plane makes a difference. This is not to say that the experience of space is a simple duality–point-line or plane–only to note those are dominant modes that can help us understand how it is that we come to walk in the world, or how it is that we world when we walk.

The 42 Traverse is a section of the Te Araroa that follows a mountain-bike path from the beautiful village of Owhango over a small mountain range into the Tongiriro Reserve. The area was extensively logged in the 20th century and now is a protected reserve, regenerating as wild bush. The trail itself is a wide, well-benched gravel surface. The Te Araroa hiking directions describe the point where the trail splits off from the Traverse to descend into the Tongiriro area at a point further north than the end of the Traverse. I started this part of the tramp one afternoon after lunch at the cafe in Owhango, planning to get about half-way and pitch my tent for the evening. The traverse is the epitome of point-line tramping. Near the end of the day, I found a grassy spot next to a small stream to camp. The next morning I resumed my trek, and, not paying careful attention, missed the Te Araroa turnoff. This did not initially trouble me because the guidebook had warned that portion of the trail was poorly marked and it was reasonable to just follow the 42 Traverse to the end. However, when I pulled up the full planar view on my phone, I saw that I would connect with the highway at a very great distance from my destination point which happened to be the only camping accommodation any where near my path. The planar view offered a number of other possible lines to follow, lines that, if navigated properly, would save me many kilometers even if they didn’t make up for my negligence in missing a turn. Now I was in full planar navigation though my map did not have the resolution necessary to make good judgments nor to have confidence in the lines I hoped to follow. The area had once been criss-crossed with logging roads, many of which remain open for ATV travel while others are overgrown and impassable. I spent the afternoon tracking old tracks, some there, some not, following a faint line to its end, backtracking to another, never quite certain where or how I would find my way out. After a good 30+ kilometer day, I found myself trespassing through a school property and finally out onto the highway, only to discover I had another 7 km to the campsite. Of course it then started to rain–not a pleasant day. Clearly I occupied space that day differently from a normal tramping day. The shift from point-line to point-line/plane produced a space fraught with tensions and decisions, stress and anxiety, even as I remained within the confines of the planar striations (not that I wasn’t tempted to strike out through the gorse in hopes of finding another way out). But the addition of the plane view did finally make a difference. What I experienced on the ground was not exactly what was represented on the map, but the combination resulted in (relatively) successful navigation. The doubling of view– sea bord and bird’s eye–worked.

As a tramper, my occupation of space almost always follows the point-line/plane model, but clearly there are other forms of walking being. As mentioned earlier, on that same traverse I pitched my tent on a perfect moss bed just off the trail. It was a cool evening, and I had walked a long way, so, as is my wont, I crawled into my tent early, got warm in my sleeping bag and read for a long while. You can imagine my surprise when, in the middle of John McPhee’s travels in Alaska, a gun cracked a short distance from my tent. The sound came from downhill, off the trail. I looked out, straining my ears for other noises, and hearing none, returned to my book though now on alert. Some time later another, louder report echoed around my site, and this time I could hear a rustle in the bush. Soon a middle-aged man in green and camo carrying what looked like a 30-30 bolt action rifle appeared. We spoke a while. He had shot a deer with a silencer on his rifle, then later fired an unsilenced shot to signal his hunting partner. It was then that I saw the man’s hands, both covered with blood to the wrists. Clearly he had brought down his prey. Bidding good evening, he headed down the trail in the direction I had passed earlier that day. Before long I heard the roar of an ATV engine, off down the hill away from the trail. As dusk set in and I grew sleepy, voices came from the other direction (tomorrow’s destination) and soon there appeared my hunting friend with a younger man who appeared to be wearing a backpack. Only as they passed did I realize the straps were the deer’s front legs as he was carrying the gutted animal, still bleeding out. Soon after I heard the ATV start up and drive away, the engine noise fading with the day’s light.


I lay there that night thinking about how those two men and I differently occupied the same space. I was, quite literally, on a linear traverse, but they were following a series of vectors enabled first by their familiarity with the actual plane of the land and their reason for occupying. Long-distance hikers move in an open, free space relative to the places they likely occupy in the workaday world. My job which to varying degrees dictates my position in space and time seems much more structured than my trek down the Te Aroara, but my position on the 42 Traverse was completely linear compared to the hunters (and their prey) as they moved not via point-line but instead plane-vector. The hunters deployed machines (guns, ATVS), positioning sounds (engine noise, shots), topographic features (hills, streams, dense bush), and their own historically constituted understanding of the New Zealand terrain coupled with their time in this particular place. They knew its affordances including the possible vectors of human and animal movement. Their senses were differently tuned to sounds and motions that I could safely ignore or probably didn’t even notice.

The terrain we were all traversing also had vectors formed since the volcanic eruptions laid down its soils. Pre-human New Zealand was a land with no mammals (except a particular species of bat), so birds of bewildering variety evolved to occupy various ecological niches. As waves of humans arrived, so did their animals and plants. Rats, opossums, deer, wild pigs, stoats, rabbits, all flourished in an environment with few or no enemies. Introduced plants also flourished, transforming the landscape. There is a lot of finger pointing regarding responsibility for the more invasive varieties. A Kiwi farmer I met blamed the Irish for the introduction of gorse. The Irish tend to get blamed for much in New Zealand it seems, but regardless of who brought it, gorse was a bad idea. This reserve was nearly completely logged off– first of native large trees, then of planted pines (another introduced species). In the last decades the government has set out to restore the area as native bush, a strategy that on the surface is laudable, but raises the question regarding what point in history one chooses to restore. One thing is clear, the gorse is here to stay. The mammals seem to be the primary targets and are aggressively pursued with traps, poisons, and hunters, so the hunters here include both human and chemical (one has to wonder about the cyanide legacy of attempted species eradication). What is important to recognize is that point-lines are drawn, established, and maintained, actions that require effort, diligence, take place in time, but also follow fairly predictable patterns. Plane-vectors unfold dynamically in time through unexpected and unpredictable paths. Gorse might be attractive, sweet smelling and generally docile in Ireland, but it becomes an aggressive, dominant plant on disturbed land in New Zealand. It, like the animals the program seeks to eradicate, thrives on edgelands, places of possibility, quickly occupied by the opportunistic.

I watched a pastoral version of the vectoral play out one day tramping down a road on a ridge not far from Manunui. It had on its right (as I walked south) a narrow verge with, as is common in New Zealand, fencing up to the edge of the road enclosing a pasture. What was striking to me was the narrow shelf of turf just inside the fence before the land dropped off precipitously many meters before leveling off in a field where I could just see in the distance a farmer next to his truck. (The pastures are so steep in New Zealand they fertilize them from airplanes.) A little further down the road, the narrow shelf broadened out to form a plateau of perhaps an acre where about thirty steers were grazing quietly. As I walked toward them I heard the sharp whistle of the farmer and saw two border collies racing up the vertical pasture wall toward the cattle. Alarmed, the cattle began to move about. A number followed along the fence line onto the narrow strip where I stood. The dogs separated and, responding to different whistles, proceeded to draw the group back together. I stood transfixed, not wanting to disturb the operation and fascinated by what was unfolding. The cattle came near me, spooked, split off, some heading back, others trotted down the fence line. Those outlaws were soon headed by one of the dogs, and as the herd regrouped at the apex of the narrow strip and the wider pasture, one steer–spooked, slipped, pushed, had the ground give out beneath him–turned and ran downhill. Then a cascade of cattle descended the declivity, while dogs circled up the remaining few who joined the herd in a rapid descent to the main pasture. Not a profound event, just a morning on the farm for farmer, dog, cow, and turf, but it was a marvelous moment, showing the spontaneity of vectoral traverse.

That brings me back to Thoreau because I have not fairly represented him. His essay “Walking” is a classic celebration of the vectoral. His ideal walking is never on a road, or even crossing roads (though that is something that remains unavoidable for anyone who walks distance). He seeks out huckleberries and wild apples–the denizens of the margins–and celebrates swamps, edgelands, and the aimlessness of wandering. It was in “Walking” that he wrote the often (mis)quoted line: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” There is much that can (and has) been said about what he means by “wild,” but I would add to it the notion of vectoral walking. Following out a line of flight through a point of intensity, a bifurcation, a moment of possibility, is a form of the wild. Like the tree grown from an apple dropped somewhere by man or beast, it is a wilding. Traversing space through point-line, or positioning and navigating carefully through a planar representation or through sheer familiarity with the space is a form of traverse but also a form of discipline and even subjection. Thoreau’s ideal is a purer resistance. His sauntering follows out unacknowledged internal impulses, a “subtle magnetism” coupled with the “capabilities of the landscape,” the affordances it provides and the dialog it produces to cross the line, escape the plane and follow the vector. It is a traverse without goal, except to express and even live the possibilities of the space, the open, the wild.


T. Hugh Crawford