“I used to not know where I was going, but I knew I would arrive.”
It’s worth arguing that Ireland probably enjoys the greatest walking culture, present and past, out of other nation. Look to literature and you’ll find a wealth of anecdotes detailing how this or that writer was inspired from his or her stroll around the island. Joyce, who walked around Dublin for a couple hours on his first date with future wife Nora Barnacle, probably enjoys the cutest reputation, as he would later memorialize the date (June 16, 1904) as the setting for the events of “Ulysses”, but there are others.
Colm Toíbín’s “Bad Blood” is a report on the author’s walk along the northern Irish border in 1987 following the turbulence of the Anglo-Irish treaty. Beckett’s grueling trilogy Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable all feature characters in various stages of meandering. And who could forget the travels of lovable Gulliver, romping about with Houyhnhnms and Yahoos following his unfortunate shipwreck?
A walk along the north Galway bay.
There are others. One of the most tragic scenes of the historical fiction film “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” starring Cillian Murphy follows an extended hike through the stone-shod streets of the southwest part of the island. Take a listen at the music and you’ll even find that when the bards aren’t narrating some drunken misadventure or bewailing a lost, redheaded sweetheart, their next bet is the walking song: “I’ve been a wild rover for many a year”, “on the rocky road to Dublin”, and suchlike.
I won’t go so far as to say that the Irish invented the walking culture. Kerouac and Crusoe put to shame even the wildest rovers, and the maxim that every good writer is also a good walker owes no little truth to examples set by Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Balzac, Thoreau, and on for as long as the list (pardon the bad joke) can run.
There’s a link between slow, albeit long exercise and genius: time enjoyed in the development of one’s thoughts, rather than time ran in the pursuit of rigorous exercise and a sweaty tank top. Though it says nothing new to affirm that walking is a more pastoral exercise pastime, we seldom take into account how much we lose when we don’t indulge it. The answer, of course, is absolutely nothing.
By which I mean that walking is the cheapest activity you can do. It is, ironically enough, even cheaper than doing nothing, which usually requires a venue in addition to a significant investment of boredom, which is itself a kind of commodity. (i.e. because doing nothing bores us, one must be first ably bored in order to do nothing)
Forget the semantics. Walking is far too simple an activity to be bogged down by my useless digressions. And yet I cannot praise the activity enough. In my travels, I have often looked at my enjoyment at walking as a sort of three-in-one, equal parts practical, enjoyable, and spiritual.
It is a universal truth that one never walks alone. Joyce, perhaps unintentionally, stumbled upon the trueness of this in “Ulysses”, where the simple act of walking births a multitude of thoughts, which become distinct voices, which become separate characters, all filtered back through the original thinker of the thoughts. Such is the spiritual essence of walking: the creation of other beings; the breathing of life into mature thoughts that, without the instigator of walking, would never exist. I am making this sound more complicated than it really is. Permit me to illustrate with this bit of Joyce:
“Stephen closed his eyes to hear his boots crush crackling wrack and shells. You are walking through it howsomever. I am, a stride at a time. A very short space of time through very short times of space. Five, six: the nacheinander. Exactly: and that is the ineluctable modality of the audible…My ash sword hangs at my side. Tap with it: they do. My two boots in his boots are at the end of his legs, nebeneinander. Sounds solid: made by the mallet of Los Demiurgos. Am I walking into eternity along Sandymount strand?”
Few literary resources demonstrate the miracle of walking better than this one of the precocious, troubled Stephen Dedalus walking along a Dublin beach. His thoughts are haywire: they badminton Aristotle against Plato, throw in a dash of Spanish opera, and hint at his nagging feelings that he has had to borrow his roommate’s boots. But we can forgive him for this rambling outpouring thought: he’s young, over-educated, and over-qualified for his position as a (lousy) schoolteacher. And who among us, trying to show off some newly acquired smarts, has never inserted the occasional fun fact where it wasn’t really called for?
But perhaps I feel a particular affinity to the young walker. Stephen walks, lost in his thoughts. I walk, lost. And I don’t write this cheekily.
Amusement parks, malls, bookstores; neighborhoods, backyards, and even cars: such were the places where I practiced the art of losing myself. As I grew older, my skills improved: when I was fifteen I spent an hour looking for a community service project ten minutes away; at sixteen I trumped myself by spending two hours on a service road looking for an iHop five minutes away from home. I’ve spent hours looking for a hotel in New York; half a night looking for my host family’s house in Austria; and all of the last three weeks looking for my classes. I’ve gone over more pavement than a steamroller, and I have no doubt in my mind that I’m the better for it.
Getting lost has taught me the folly of order. It has shown me that one can never be sure of his surroundings, that the universe can wear the street-sign garments of regiment and direction, but that these are never the signs of where we actually want to go.
Here is a generalization: the world is a fork in the road with two signs pointing in two opposite directions; both of them marked the same. How do we know which road to follow? We can’t. We take a road with the knowledge, in our heart of hearts, that what we have taken is and will be the only proper way. So be it if we wander. Our wanderings are just the inversions in the road that make the destination worth arriving at. Food tastes better after a hike: pancakes taste better after two hours on the road. But more importantly, these inversions, mistakes if you like, are what stick to memory, because they are the requisites to improvement.
I don’t remember my states and capitals because I studied a sheet of paper: I remember them because they were terrified into my brain after I got caught cheating on the test. I can sound out an adequate Chopin on the piano only because I know how to play very ugly Chopin, very well. I know my way around town like a guide dog, but only because I’ve fumbled my way through it blind.
Making my way to the Galway lighthouse, the last bit of their homeland that famine emigrants would see.
Tolkien’s said “not all who wander are lost.” It’s a nice sentiment with a universal truth. I subscribe to it, and to this inversion: “I’m lost because I wander”, and even “I’m lost, and I wander.”
It’s also an apt quote for the direction this rather rambling post has taken. Such is the path that most true walkers take: so focused on the details of where our walk takes us, we sometimes lose sight of the Big Picture.
And so I won’t hold you for much longer (if I’ve managed to hold you at all). Articles about wandering have the tendency to, as you’ve probably noticed, wander. But we cannot afford to pay loose mind to all the benefits of good walking and, even more so, getting goodly lost.
But getting right down to it, these are nothing more than finger foods to chew over next time you find yourself without a roadmap in some desolate, hopefully safe part of town. Geniuses have tramped the same roads before you: masterpieces have emerged regardless of GPS’s. Your own two feet are the cheapest tickets to the annals of a longrunning history, and though the shadows cast by the great walkers is a long one, you can take solace knowing that there’s no end to the miles you can go before you sleep.
Slán agus Sláinte!
PS: Kitten pics courtesy of a very dear friend who doubted that anybody would read this whole post unless it had a cuter incentive.