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Chapter 1 -- Why Walk?
Sanity is a madness put to good uses.
COLIN: I had better admit right away that walking can in the end become an addiction, and that it is then as deadly in its fashion as heroin or television or the stock exchange. But even in this final stage it remains a delectable madness, very good for sanity, and I recommend it with passion.
A redeeming feature of the condition is that no matter how heavily you've been hooked, you can still get your kicks from very small doses.
Ten minutes' drive from the apartment in which I used to live, there was a long, grassy ridge from which you could look out over parkland and sprawling metropolis, over bay and ocean and distant mountains. I often walked along this ridge in order to think uncluttered thoughts or to feel with accuracy or to sweat away a hangover or to achieve some other worthy end, recognized or submerged. And I usually succeeded—especially with the thinking. Up there, alone with the wind and the sky and the steep grassy slopes, I nearly always found after a while that I was beginning to think more clearly. Yet "think" doesn't seem to be quite the right word. Sometimes, when it was a matter of making a choice, I don't believe I decided what to do so much as discovered what I had decided. It was as if my mind, set free by space and solitude and oiled by the body's easy rhythm, swung open and released thoughts it had already formulated. Sometimes, when I'd been straining too hard to impose order on an urgent press of ideas, it seemed only as if my mind had slowly relaxed; and then, all at once, there was room for the ideas to fall into place in a meaningful pattern.
Occasionally you can achieve this kind of release inside a city. One day some years ago, when I had to leave my car at a garage for an hour's repair work, I spent the time strolling through an industrial area. I crossed a man-made wasteland, then walked up onto a little-used pedestrian bridge over a freeway. Leaning on its concrete parapet, I watched the lines of racing, pounding vehicles. From above they seemed self-propelled, automatic. And suddenly, standing there alone, I found myself looking down on the scene like a visitor from another planet, curiously detached and newly instructed. More recently I've discovered a sandhill near the place I now take my car for repair. This desiccated oasis among encroaching industriana still supports on one flank a couple of windswept pines. Its center cradles dips and hummocks that are smooth and flower-decked. And there, while the 21st century ministers to my horseless carriage, I can lie and read and lunch and doze, cut off, in a quiet urban wilderness. Most cities offer such veiled delights. In walking, as in sex, there's always a good chance you'll find, almost anywhere, given enough time, something that wows you.
But no one who has begun to acquire the walking habit can restrict himself for long to cities, or even to their parks or less intentional enclaves. First he explores open spaces out beyond the asphalt. Then, perhaps, he moves on to car camping and makes long, exploratory, all-day treks. But in due course he's almost sure to find his dreams outreaching these limitations. "For the human spirit needs places where nature has not been rearranged by the hand of man." One of the joys of being alive today is the complexity of our human world. We have at our fingertips more riches than anyone has ever had: books by the zillion; CDs and movies and TV by the ton; the Internet; also the opportunity to move around almost as we please. But in time the sheer richness of this complexity can sandbag you. You long for simplicity, for the yin to that yang. You yearn-though you may not openly know it-to take a respite from your eternal wrestling with the abstract and instead to grapple, tight and long and sweaty, with the tangible. So once you've started walking down the right road, you begin, sooner or later, to dream of truly wild places.
At this point you're in danger of meeting a mental block.
Even in these mercifully emancipated decades, many people still seem to become alarmed at the prospect of sleeping away from officially consecrated, car-accommodating campsites with no more equipment than they can carry on their backs. When pressed, they babble about snakes or bears or even, by God, bandits. But the real barrier, I'm sure, is the unknown.
I came to comprehend the reality of this barrier—or, rather, to recomprehend it—30-odd years ago, during a four-day walk through some coastal hills. (I was walking, as a matter of fact, in order to sort out ideas and directions for the first edition of this book.) One warm and cloudless afternoon I was resting at a bend in the trail—there was a little triangular patch of shade, I remember, under a rocky bluff—when some unexpected tilt of my mind reexposed a scene that I had completely forgotten. For all the vividness of the vital features, it remained a curiously indistinct scene. I wasn't at all clear when it had happened, except that it must have been more than 15 years earlier. I still do not even remember for sure whether it happened in Africa or North America. But the salient contours stand out boldly. I had come to some natural boundary. It may have been the end of a trail or road, or the fringes of a forest or the rim of a cliff, I no longer know which. But I do know that I felt I'd gone as far as a man could go. So I just stood there looking out beyond the edge of the world. Except for a wall of thick, dark undergrowth, I'm no longer sure what I saw, but I know it was wild, wild, impossible country. It still looms huge and black and mysterious in the vaults of my memory.
All at once, without warning, two men emerged from that impossible country. They carried packs on their backs, and they were weather-beaten and distilled to bone and muscle. But what I remember best of all is that they were happy and whole. Whole and secure and content.
I talked to them, briefly and in considerable awe. They had been back deep into the wilderness, they said, away from civilization for a week. "Pretty inaccessible, some of it," admitted one of them. "But there's a lot of beautiful country in there-some of the finest I've ever seen." Then they walked away and I was left, still awestruck, looking out once more into the huge, black, mysterious wilderness.
The awe that I felt that day still hangs in my memory. But my present self dismisses it. I know better. Many times in recent years I've emerged from wild country, happy and whole and secure and content, and found myself face-to-face with astonished people who had obviously felt that they were already at the edge of the world; and I know, now I have come to consider the matter, that what I have seen on their faces is exactly what those two men must have seen on mine, many years ago on the edge of that other wilderness. And I know now that the awe is unwarranted. There's nothing very difficult about going into such places. All you need is the right equipment, a reasonable competence in using it, a tolerable degree of physical fitness, and a clear understanding of your own limitations. Beyond that, all you have to do is overcome the fear of the unknown.
Once you've overcome this fear of the unknown and thereby surmounted your sleeping-out-in-the-wilderness block, you are free. Free to go out, when the world will let you slip away into the wildest places you dare explore. Free to walk from dawn to dusk and then again from dawn to dusk, with no harsh interruptions, among the quiet and soothing cathedrals of a virgin forest. Or free to struggle for a week, if that's what you want at that particular time, toward a peak that has captured your imagination. Or free, if your needs or fancies of the moment run that way, to follow a wild river to its source, fishing as you go, or not fishing. Free, once you've grasped the significance of this other reality, to immerse yourself for two months in the timeless silence of a huge desert canyon-and to learn in the end why the silence is not timeless after all.
But long before the madness has taught you this kind of sanity you have learned many simple and valuable things.
You start to learn them from the very beginning. First, the comforting constants. The rhythm of boots and walking staff, and their different inflections on sand and on soil and on rock. The creak of harness as small knapsack or heavy pack settles back into place after a halt. And the satisfactions of a taut, controlled body. Then there are the small, amplified pleasures. In everyday life, taking off your socks is an unnoticed chore; peeling them off after a long day's walk is sheer delight. At home a fly is something that makes you wonder how it got into the house; when you're lying sprawled out on a sandbar beside a remote river you can recognize a fly as something to be studied and learned from-another filament in the intricate web of the world. Or it may be a matter of mere money: five days beyond the last stain of man, you open the precious little package of blister-cushioning felt pads that's marked "$3.65" and discover, tucked away inside, two forgotten and singularly useless $20 bills. Yet two days later you may find your appetite suddenly sharp for civilized comforts that a week earlier had grown flat and stale. Once, toward the end of a week's exploration of a remote headwater basin, I found my heart melting at the thought of hot buttered toast for breakfast. And in the final week of a summer-long walk I even found myself recalling with nostalgia the eternal city hunt for parking.
But well before such unexpected hankerings arise, your mind as well as your body has been honed. You have re-remembered that happiness can have something to do with simplicity. And so, by slow degrees, you regain a sense of harmony with everything you move through-rock and soil, plant and tree and cactus, spider and fly and rattlesnake and coyote, drop of rain and racing cloud shadow. (You have long ago outgrown the crass assumption that the world was made for man.) After a while you find that you're gathering together the whole untidy but glorious mishmash of sights and sounds and smells and touches and tastes and emotions that tumble through your recent memory. Then you begin to connect these ciphers, one with the other. And once you begin to connect, only to connect, nothing can stop you-not even those rare moments of blackness (when all, all is vanity) that can come even in the wilderness.
When you get back at last from the simple things to the complexities of the outside, walled-in man-world you find that you're once more eager to grapple with them. For a while you even detect a meaning behind all the complexity. We are creatures of our time; we cannot escape it. The simple life is not a substitute, only a corrective.
For a while, I said, you detect new meanings. For a while. That's where the hell comes in. In due course the hot buttered toast tastes like damp sawdust again and the parking hassle is once more driving you crazy and the concrete jabs at your eyes and the din and the dirt sicken you, and all at once you realize that there is no sense to be discovered, anywhere, in all the frantic scurryings of the city. And you know there's only one thing to do. You're helplessly trapped. Hooked. Because you know now that you have to go back to the simple things.
You struggle, briefly. But as soon as the straight-line world will let you slip away, or a little sooner, you go. You go in misery, with delight, full of confidence. For you know that you will immerse yourself in the harmonies—and will return to see the meanings.
This is why I recommend walking so passionately. It is an altogether positive and delectable addiction.
. . .
Naturally, not everyone understands.
A smooth and hypersatisfied young man once boasted to me that he had just completed a round-the-world sight-seeing tour in 79 days. In one jet-streamed breath he scuttled from St. Peter's, Rome, via the Pyramids, to a Cambodian jungle temple. "That's the way to travel," he said. "You see everything important."
When I suggested that the way to see important things was to walk, he almost dropped his martini.
Walking can even provoke an active opposition lobby. For many years now I've been told with some regularity that by walking out and away I'm "escaping from reality." I admit the statement puts me on the defensive. Why, I ask myself (and sometimes my accusers as well), are people so ready to assume that chilled champagne is more "real" than water drawn from an ice-cold mountain creek? Or a dusty sidewalk than a carpet of desert dandelions? Or a Boeing 747 than a flight of white pelicans soaring in delicious unison against the sunrise? Why, in other words, do people assume that the acts and emotions and values that stem from city life are more real than those that arise from the beauty and the silence and the solitude of wilderness?
For me, the thing touched bottom when I was gently accused of escapism during a TV interview about a book I'd written on a length-of-California walk. Frankly, I fail to see how going for a six-month, thousand-mile walk through deserts and mountains can be judged less real than spending six months working eight hours a day, five days a week, in order to earn enough money to be able to come back to a comfortable home in the evening and sit in front of a TV screen and watch the two-dimensional image of some guy talking about a book he has written on a six-month, thousand-mile walk through deserts and mountains.
As I said, I get put on the defensive. The last thing I want to do is knock champagne and sidewalks and Boeing 747s. Especially champagne. These things distinguish us from the other animals. But they can also limit our perspectives. And I suggest that they-and all the stimulating complexities of modern life-begin to make more sense, to take on surer meaning, when they're viewed in perspective against the more certain and more lasting reality from which they have evolved-from the underpinning reality, that is, of mountain water and desert flowers and soaring white birds at sunrise.
Here endeth the lesson.
But perhaps you're an unbeliever and need proof-a no-nonsense, show-me-some-practical-results kind of proof.