Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

An Australian Interlude (non-trekking)

April 1st, 2023

An Australian Interlude

This spring brought no trekking (a disappointment), just some time teaching Moby-Dick in Australia. Here are some disjointed observations about that time.

My Trip to the Zoo

My pilgrimage to the Australian Zoo, shrine of Saint Steve Irwin, actually began the night before. In the Brisbane hotel riding the elevator up with a colleague discussing my upcoming trip, I noted that I wasn’t all that interested in crocodiles. A voice from the corner said “you will be.” The man— short, dark, wirey and profusely tattooed—smiled showing a set of broken teeth. He said he lived amongst them, and I would learn that same love. We both laughed as I exited at my floor. I took it as yet another life-lesson: love your crocodile neighbor as you would love yourself.

I was up early, as usual, spending my normal hour and half in the gym, then was off to Fortitude Valley Station to catch the train—recognizing I’d need fortitude to get through the day. The train system out of Brisbane is wonderful as long as you know exactly where you are going (not Australian Zoo but instead Beerwah station). On alighting the platform at Beerwah, I met the stationmaster who, though a bit of a mumbler, arranged to have the zoo shuttle come pick me up and handed over a complete train schedule to plan my return trip. Jackson, the shuttle driver—a good kid originally from Melbourne—moved to the Sunshine Coast because of Covid and never left. He was familiar with the US (and had even visited Savannah as he had worked at Disney during college). Like the stationmaster, he went out of his way to make sure I had my day’s transportation lined up.

The zoo is much like many zoos I have visited regarding habitat and animals, but the Irwin family casts a long shadow. Along with Steve, who is celebrated at every turn, the children— Robert, Bindi—and Terri, his wife, have clothing lines and a range of merchandise, as well as parts of the park in their names. The zoo itself is well-designed and well-run. Standing in line waiting for the gates to open, I wondered if I should have rented a baby and a stroller—it seems a requirement for admission. After a quick duck through the gift shop for the souvenirs I was under threat of sanctions to produce, I wandered past tortoises that would have been right at home on one of the Encantadas Melville described in such detail. Then in quick succession I saw American alligators, a Tasmanian Devil (it looked nothing like the Warner Brothers cartoon), and couple of Cassowarries (along with myriad smaller creatures). Soon the path opened to the center: the crocodile showcase—ponds, a stadium, even a fashion emporium. I stopped for coffee in a second-floor shop that overlooked the main crocodile pools. From where I sat, I could monitor the activities of Bosco, Agro, and Acco, each of whom showed an early morning sluggishness usually reserved for humans on the weekends. I’m pretty sure that after some judicious chewing, I would fit easily in their bellies.

A turn took me past the habitat of a few more crocs, several advertised as couples, and then led to the obligatory reptile house full of big snakes under glass. Then it was out to some wild bird habitats, a pet-the-kangaroo space, and of course a bunch of cute koalas in trees with stands for people to take selfies with them—the zoo does try to accommodate modern media desire. After passing some long-legged fishing birds and a couple big-ass Emus, I encountered the tiger, who really was arresting—such magnificence. The zoo prides itself on the elephants but are in process of rebuilding the habitat, so missing the pachyderms, I pressed on to “Africa” — giraffes, zebra, and three Rhinos (who, like the tiger, were equally arresting).

Finding myself at the end— the tip of “Africa”— I discovered I had to backtrack some distance to get back to the gate, but happily, as fate would have it, after re-passing the rhino/giraffe compound, I saw a shuttle bus stop, and who was just then pulling in but Jackson! I caught a ride back to the main gate; then he circled around for his trip to pickup folks from the train station, letting me hop on for my return.

I had an hour before the next train and so explored Beerwah, a small but lovely town, originally a center of lumber and pineapple production. The train line from the city was built out here in the 1890s, so the the area is not isolated, though it’s not close enough for commuters. Like so many rural towns in Australia (and New Zealand), Beerwah is primarily a long line of shops fronting the main road (just across from the railroad tracks). It’s a prosperous place, full of elderly (probably retired) folks with quick smiles and warm greetings (guess I fit right in!). Stopped at Vianta for coffee. It seems the notion of iced coffee has yet to arrive here, so in my overheated condition, I “enjoyed” a hot flat white (they advertised air conditioning on the door, but the thermostat must have been faulty). The manager asked if I was Canadian. When I replied American, he noted that is was safer to guess Canadian first—these commonwealth folks try to stick together.

The train back was uneventful and, after my obligatory swim, I’m now going to bed early— exhausted but pleased.

Heron Island

Heron is a spot of sand out on the Great Barrier Reef reached by ferry. The trip out takes you past Erskine and Masthead islands, both sources of peace in the lee when the crossing is on a choppy day. That phenomenon sets you to thinking about cycles of peace and disruption that being on Heron entails. Home to a resort, a marine research station, and innumerable birds, visitors of the island are never out of the sound of squawks or the smell of birdshit. The resort, trying to cater to an upscale clientele, contends with rails, walls, and footpaths glistening white with guano. The research station is much the same, but given the spartan accommodations, expectations of well-scrubbed conditions are lower. Indeed, the birds are among its reason for being, so there is something of a celebration of shit and squawk there.

The ferry approaches the pier, passing within yards of a rusting wreck which now serves as channel marker, reef-life support, and a memento mori guarding the entrance to the island and announcing that you have just passed out of human linear time and stepped into a celebration of cycles—life, death, decay. The most insistent celebrants are the Black Noddies who are currently nesting and brooding. They dominate certain trees, leering at passersby daring any slackening of pace, threatening some general but unclear retribution for any interruption of their reproductive cycle.

The arrogance of the Noddies is balanced by the timidity of the sea turtles— emblem of Heron Island and heartwarming underdogs to every extinction minded eco-warrior. From the half-track flipper print trails of the mothers crawling from the water to the vegetation’s edge, laying the eggs she hopes won’t be disturbed by rapacious mammals or curious humans, to the baby turtles who, feeling a slight temperature shift signaling dawn or dusk, scramble across on impossibly wide beach, dodging those same curious humans, but more important, the mob of seagulls descending for dinner— those yearly cycles cycle.

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The island’s more or less circular nature invites human cycling as well, wandering tempered by tide and temperature. Starting from the pier, would-be circumambulators must first negotiate the resort paths, popping out on the beach just past the swimming pool, then to wander down usually broad sand to the eastern tip, circling to the south where the rocks proliferate, the sand heaps, and the water presses, slowing progress to a trudge. Soon the wreck comes into view, the way stabilizes and the circle completes.

As island life is lived by sun, moon, and tides, the daily cycle demands presence at first and last light. From the research station, a short path crosses the island to the north side where morning devotees join the beach’s parade to the east, pacing usually in pairs and gathering at the point, near each other but respecting the reverence of the moment. The ambient light fills the sky while each awaits the sun, or as Hölderlin put it:

Now come, fire!

Eager are we

To see the day.

Cameras click, coffee is sipped, and silently people arise to wander into the new day, one that after any and many obeisances to the sun, turns late. Now, on the western point in the lengthening shadow of the wreck, comes the end of that diurnal cycle


A day without adventure

Townsville— people always grin, sneer, or frown when you tell them it’s your destination.  A harbor linked to some mines (they seem to be hauling all of Australia to China by the shipload). Arrived at the Quest on Eyre long-stay hotel late (missed the sunset, broke my streak), slept late, discovered a less-than-optimal exercise room (good weight machine, inoperable cardio devices). Even though I’d had a massive Greek salad last night at airport (actually not Greek salad, just a couple of pounds of cucumber with the occasional black olive), I was ravenous. First stop, the local chemist to replenish sunscreen, took me into the back of the Cole’s grocery where— true confession #1—at 9:00 am I bought roasted half-chicken which I then destroyed while sitting on a park bench at the water’s edge, an act witnessed by morning runners, strolling retirees, and wandering homeless folks. 

The rest of morning/early afternoon included lots of instant coffee, a lecture on the Great Barrier Reef Conservancy, a brief FaceTime conversation with the woman I love, teaching class, conducting office hours, posting a new test, and then: good boy, outside! I broke out of the Georgia Tech kennel and wandered, sniffing out those places I’d marked in 2020, the last time my wandering brought me here. Also, I wanted to get to the bottom of all the sneers directed toward this town. The reef is a ways offshore but the tourist/environmentalist industries are clearly big as is the mining. The town lines the edge of the bay and its estuary, pushing up against some steep red-rock mountains. My memory was a long boulevard running along the shore lined with restaurants and hotels, fancy and shabby, with a wide greenway park on water’s side. To get to the main part of the town I would walk up over a ridge (along a highway) dropping down to a few square blocks of typical stores— Woolworths, op-shops, law offices and a brewery in the old post office. 

As close as I got to adventure today was starting out at the shoreline boulevard walking in the direction of the river and discovering that by following a bend, the old town is accessible (no ridge climb, no highway walk). That route passes through a very interesting old government area, including a war memorial park, the Tobruck Memorial Baths (which memorializes a WWII battle),

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 a classic brick customs house (comparable to the ones at Wellington or Hobart)

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and some great late 19th century hotels.

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The road was also lined with restaurants and nightclubs, many advertising Friday and Saturday night late, loud music. Clearly it’s Townsville’s social center. 

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Returning to the shoreline road, I passed a fish and chips stand that offers most of their seafood (different kinds of fish and calamari) grilled and substitutes salad for chips. In other words, it’s not a fish and chips joint, but one I will return to next week. At the water’s edge, signs warn away all swimmers— saltwater crocodiles (shades of Val Plumwood)—but the sidewalks swell with citizens. The town promenades late afternoon, something that brings a smile. Following along, I watched as people hopped out of the parade, turning into the bars and bistros, settling into seats by sidewalk tables ordering up big mugs of beer— prompting yet another smile. 

A long loop to the end of the strip brought me back to the road that leads past the grocery store to the hotel. On the corner is the 1929 Hotel Sea-View—site of my other sin.

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In my week on Heron I ate a lot of salad, but most of the main courses were dominated by rice or pasta which I was not eating at the time. Today I realized (and this is just a rationalization) that I was really hungry for protein. A seemingly unrelated but crucial component to my sinful life is that, on landing in Brisbane the day I first arrived, I got 100$ Australian out of the ATM. Those two 50s have been in my wallet ever since, long enough to not actually count as real money any more. So at the Sea-View, I dropped part of one of them on this:

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And it sure was good.

A minor outing

Every morning for my walk I find the strand lined with runners, new-mothers pushing strollers, and sun-withered impossibly thin old Aussie women (I mean old) striding rapidly past all us youngsters. Reluctant to abandon my new-found carb-less hardness, I nevertheless relented after afternoon class and sought out beer— real ale, the anti-keto elixir. Townsville is peculiar in that a number of establishments follow old colonial hours, opening briefly during lunch, closing, then reopening in the “after work” hours. The brewery was closed today, so I found myself wandering out of class, visiting an art gallery, then hitting the Hotel Sea-View, a strand bar frequented by both tourists and a sweaty working class (the latter apparently get off work around 3:00). As the downtown pubs would not be open until 5, I settled into a place in the beer garden where I could check the scores of the rugby league games, read a book, watch an old couple play pool, and monitor a crew whose captain wore a Stranger Things T-shirt and bought a new pitcher about every 5 minutes. 

I’d been hesitant to hit the Australian pubs as in my memory the beer as I remembered it was the equivalent of Natty Light, but I . I was surprised by the Sea-View taps, so much so that, at 4:30 I had to force myself to walk away (only had some eggs for lunch so the beer hit hard). Following the loop toward downtown, I still hit pub row too early for admission. Wandering on, I found a central business district emptying out fast except for an alley with a nice but expensive pub lightly populated by folks who seemed desperate to seal that last deal before sundown. An amazing beer but a bit too corporate for comfort. The way back home— high-traffic streets, sidewalk beside a four-lane— was necessary but disheartening, so, even though only a block from corporate beer heaven, I stopped at the Hotel Herbert. Not promising, the large beer garden was empty, but the bar!  An extended U projecting into a room full of people with that refrigerator repairman pants sag sitting on the arc drinking Great Northern (think Budweiser). The bathroom had the classic urine trough full of lemonade hockey pucks and the bartender was a real tough old broad who knew everybody. She made me feel right at home and made the whole cycle worthwhile.

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 as 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 its 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

The Ridgeway, July 17 Day 5, 16 miles

July 18th, 2022

The Ridgeway, July 17 Day 5, 16 miles

Last days on a path tend to be less about accomplishment and more about just getting there. This one was no exception. Apart the last couple of miles, it was just like the day before, a beautiful wander through a shady forest with occasional field crossings. The experience was marred by a mountain bike event— 100 mile ride being undertaken by hundreds of riders.  Often the path is narrow which requires I step off when they approach, which after a while becomes tedious. Still everyone was happy and courteous, always saying cheers or some other greeting.

 

The final approach to Ivinghoe Beacon is across open ground and was very hot. I ran out of water with about a mile to go and was spitting dust in the top. Still not sure what Ivinghoe Beacon is a beacon to, as the commemorative plaque next to the trig point was blank. Still, a satisfying end to an excellent walk.

The buses in the local village don’t run on sundays, so I made my way off the beacon and trekked the mile into Ivinghoe where I had a pint of Ridgeway Ale at the Rose and Crown. A man in the crowd at the bar (it was a busy Sunday afternoon) asked if I had just finished— I’m guessing I had that bedraggled hiker-trash look on. No bus, so I got a cab to the Tring train station where, instead of heading toward Oxford (which is not all that far away), I had to go into London Euston, tube to Paddington and train back out to Oxford. So I exchanged England’s oldest path for a fast Great Western Rail line— seemed somehow fitting.

T. Hugh Crawford

The Ridgeway, July 16 Day 4, 21 miles

July 18th, 2022

The Ridgeway, July 16 Day 4, 21 miles

The early morning walk out of Wallingford was one of the best I’ve ever taken. No longer on the ridge, the path simply winds its way between wheat fields and pastures, but it is shaded by huge old beech trees. In places it drops down into old holloways (like those described so beautifully by Robert MacFarlane in his book of the same name). As  the heat wave continues and temperatures were rising across the day, I worried a bit that the path would break out of the woods and cross fields or even get back up on the ridge, but apart from a few scattered exposed sections, it largely remained in the shade.

Crossing a farm not that far from Chequers (the Prime Minister’s country residence— supposedly Boris was there), I heard yelling, barking, and bleating. Before long I got to a gate where a man with a pickup truck and a border collie was moving a flock from one field to the next. We stopped and talked for a moment while I helped him secure the gates and then watched his dog turn the flock, round up some stragglers, and send them down a lane, with the man only saying a few words of direction. Proud of his dog, he noted she had been working for 10 years and was showing no sign of slowing down.

The distances and my too soft feet were starting to take a toll, and I had booked accommodations at the 21st mile marker. On arriving at Princes Risborough, I took the opportunity to get some refreshment and prop my feet at the Bird in Hand pub. Then I pressed on to The Plough at Cadsden which had very fine (and reasonable) accommodation as well as a fascinating regular clientele who obviously spent much time together arguing amicably. Today’s distance puts the end point at Ivinghoe Beacon within 16 miles, so tomorrow should be less intense (if even hotter).

T. Hugh Crawford

The Ridgeway, July 15 Day 3, 18 miles

July 18th, 2022

The Ridgeway, July 15 Day 3, 18 miles

Early mornings of wild camping are always a mix of exultation— hearing all the fauna around the tent while slowly waking with the sun (and birds) is magical—and anxiety as the sun reveals presence to landowners. I was up and out long before a gamekeeper could accost me, walking into the morning sun up high on the ridge. I was no means the only wanderer out that hour, meeting almost immediately a man walking his dog— another of the Ridgeway characters with their history to tell. Just ahead was yet another barrow which he noted was both the grave of an ancient leader and the site of a market town. Although villages here tend to be down off the ridge where water is available, this site was at the crossroads of various drove roads and so was an early livestock center—at least according to my interlocutor.

 

Today was also the day I crossed the halfway point and learned just how different the second half of this trail is. In the morning I continued on the ridge past many of the same fields I’d been in. As I was leaving Wiltshire and heading into the Chilterns, I was treated with a spectacle uncommon some decades ago. At least a dozen red kites were circling overhead. A raptor that was nearing extinction and only living in Wales, has recovered and been reintroduced in this area. They were circling a field where presumably some game was about. The angle of the sun was such