Why We Walk

I wrote the lions share of this last year whilst I was walking a section of the HRP the first time and its been sitting in the draft pile ever since.  Its scheduled to publish on my birthday, whilst I'm somewhere in Andorra.  Its what I think and where I'm at so far, heart on sleeve - you work out if it makes any sense.


Carl Sagan said 'we are made of star stuff', and that 'we are the way the cosmos can know itself', and I find myself in agreement.  I walk not to find myself, but to find the world.  I am not running away, I am running towards.  If I can begin to know the world, I might stand a chance of knowing myself, although the former is more interesting than the latter.  If I am up here, away from mankind's petty concerns and self importance, then I can start to see a bigger picture. I gain ground to gain perspective. Or, so I think. 

I believe that aside from equipping and planning in order to stay safe, it's not our journey.  We do not own it, we can only share it, jump into the tide, vibrate in sympathy with the land - I am just joining the dots, making a tiny electrical connection each time I place a foot, earthing myself, and maybe, possibly, hopefully, connecting to... who honestly knows what, but just something much bigger than me.  When your out that's most things - trees, rocks, rivers, weather.  Now, hold on a minute.  Just in case you're wondering, I'm not part of any lunatic fringe religion.  My own view is that G*d doesn't approve of religion, not one bit of it - so no, I'm with this guy: 

Through hiking is hard work: even lighter weight is heavy.  Food and water and shelter are the things necessary to life: through hiking reminds you what is minimum and what is excess, every step of the way. Any weight we do carry reminds us there is a Price to pay, in a world where rights and priveleges are confused and costs and consequences not fully understood.  To be here, to fully engage with our true nature, costs.  It can be as simple as counting calories, and it can mean sacrificing some comfort.  We are reminded of our responsibilities, to look after ourselves and our co-walkers, and with any luck to look after our surroundings.  So, I am friends with the mountains, and if they are implacable back, whats a few kilos amongst friends? Some might call it unconditional love.  But, don't ever take it for granted.
At some point, we've all seen or been limping walkers who bind knees and rub ointments into aching joints.  Why bother?  These and much bigger struggles are often lauded as human achievement, a battle of wills, the fighting spirit.  Really? Sounds like vanity to me.  Or else we discuss our experiences in the hushed and reverent tones of an externalised mystical experience: nature did this to me, I was rendered helpless by a power beyond me, passified by the message - slow down and take stock.  It is a powerful message - out here, we aren't at the centre of things for a change.  And its certainly physical as well - endorphins are released, and bodily exercise becomes and allows a meditation beyond the daily grind.  I use an electrical metaphor - the earthing of body to ground is vital to comprehension of my place in the scheme of things.  Maybe it works because of this balance between active and passive, between doing (the walk) and being (in the place).  But, these are all ways of describing the thing, but they are not the thing itself - trying to describe it just begs more questions.  And, we keep going back for more, locked in for tiny but vital reminders.  Strange.  Maybe all I can safely say is that I'm a dumb vessel, a cup of constantly shifting comprehension, a blinking, half baked and completely analogue struggle to get it. Whatever it is.

But, I'd like to think Sagan was right.  On a good day, I see walking as a vehicle for consciousness raising, and walkers as modern day, secular pilgrims - and if it sounds grand, it's because it is, but definitely not because we are necessarily grand as individuals.  Its odd that we enjoy it, and it hurts, but we do it anyway.  Barthes calls this Jouissance - pleasure and pain, (or certainly some discomfort) are somehow linked in bliss, the occasional glimpses of the sublime when on the mountain.  Walking is work, but we like to work, we are drawn to it.  We walk for peace and we walk for piece of mind, we walk to understand, we walk to dream and for flashes of early light and unexpected revelation, and to be squashed flat and atomised by glimpses of prehistory in the trees and rivers, rocks and stars.  We also walk to be challenged and to be scared and to be fouled by the weather and to be hungry, thirsty, angry and dog tired. We walk to become more fully aware of being alive, to be present in the present, and to stand under.  We walk for the experience, because experience teaches us.  Humans love to learn, its almost the definition of the species.  I don't know a single person who walks who doesn't have these reasons at heart, deep down. Now that, my friends, is grand.
Some I imagine are not going to be too comfortable with this kind of talk, because it sounds like hippie claptrap or a g*dtrick.  But its a very human urge, and a scientific urge, to inquire and to do it with joy.  We call it creativity.

SaganFeynman and Feyerabend (who famously said 'anything goes') were open and honest about leaps of faith and the role of dreaming in science.  As was Einstein (who famously said lots of stuff, including 'logic will take you from A to B, imagination will take you everywhere').  If you look at 'Cosmos', Sagan's series from the 1970's, now, it looks and sounds like a hippie manifesto - he's so Utopian (nice corduroy jacket too).  Good science is climbing the un-scalable peak, getting lost in the storm, a striving to discover the unknown in inhospitable conditions - all about raising consciousness and reaching for the skies beyond reason.  If you still doubt that Science is not just cold hard fact but equally inspiration and creativity, where does the phrase "Eureka!" come from?  But maybe I am too dewy eyed about these titans of exploration - Feynman worked on the Manhattan Project, developing the atomic bomb.  Science, focused hard on politics and war.  Not objective. Partisan.

Science is a human endeavour and therefore fallible.  It makes bold guesses, and then tries to prove them (sounds like my map reading). Often it gets things hopelessly wrong and is as far away from objectivity as any other form of knowledge - before you start spluttering with indignation, just read a little Karl Popper and then add some Thomas Kuhn to see how politics and academia get in the way of 'truth' in science.  Knowledge is as often suppressed by Power as encouraged, but Power always plays a role.  Science itself is a political institution too, that's why there's more money spent on developing new dyes for bad meat than on R&D for tropical diseases. We don't know, what we don't know. 

All the best parts of human endeavour are based on exploration and adventure - good science is an art, and good walking is both. The will to forward momentum is the will to learn, to inquire and to do it with joy.  As we walk, we map out our own dreams and desires internally, like land artists or Pagan architects.  The walk is work and we love to work, locked into an effort to comprehend.  Its not out there beyond the senses though, we are part of it.  This neither proves or disproves the existence of G*d, but it does demonstrate an innate creativity, a reflex action in the species - but I don't mind, call it what you want!  All I know is we separate art/science/faith/stillness/action at our peril...and we all spend way too much time arguing over crumbs, when we could be designing better rainbows together.

But that's us, its not the hills. The hills don't have a feeling about it either way.  They will still be here - long after we've finished being outraged with each others stupidity and accidentally pushed the wrong button - slowly turning to scree, then exploding into new forms from under the sea.  And the Pyrenees?  A classroom...and a garden of Eden, incredibly diverse in flora and fauna...but not mine, either way.  Out here, nature is at hand, and all my petty judgments, goals and comforts, mental and physical, are of no consequence.  Out here, its the lack of choice that is liberating - there is no option but to be a worthy guest.  Mountain travel demands selflessness, complete respect and a little cardiovascular sacrifice - really, it requires silence to fully appreciate whats happening, and its a blessed relief when I get there.  That is journey's end, for me and for now.