Ten miles along the peripatetic way
Thoughts from a walk
I went on a walk the other day. Started in Hummel’s Wharf, ended at home in Lewisburg, about ten or eleven miles. Let’s call it ten for aesthetic purposes.
Walking and thought are intimately connected. This is such common knowledge by now that even the obtuse ‘mindfulness’ people who are invading and colonizing every single institution and cultural space are hip to it.
I once, long ago, tried to hold “peripatetic office hours” during which students would sign up to talk and we’d collectively walk around and off campus while we chatted. Nobody came. A shattering failure. I had then not yet come to fully understand how far our world is from the world that once was in which people walked and thought as a matter of course.
Walking long distances—anything more than a half hour or so counts here—inevitably leads me new places, not just in the geographical but also in the mental/spiritual sense.
I should do it more, I tell myself constantly, but I find an infinite number of reasons not to do so, diseased as I am by our times and the foolishness to which I often give in.
One of the many productive things on which you can meditate while walking is to stop assaulting yourself for not doing all the things you should do more often and to just be happy for this one time that you didn’t find a reason to avoid doing the desirable thing.
I walked railroad tracks a lot when I was a kid.
Not on them, mind you, but alongside and at a safe distance. Even young, I had a sense of what kind of destruction a train can wreak on a human being, probably because of the horror fiction I read so much of in those days. Although I never walked around with things inserted in my ears as kids do today, I knew how easily I got lost in thought and how that translated into decreased acoustic vigilance.
I will never come to understand how we made a culture in which large numbers of people, especially but not only the young, routinely walk in close proximity to moving automobiles with their full attention on whatever pop singer they happen to have in their ears, apparently absolutely confident that the people driving the cars are vigilantly doing all the work needed to see to their safety. I watch students walking in traffic on the campus where I am currently employed and think “She would probably not have survived to attend college where I grew up.”
Trains and railroad tracks…
Like many another adolescent, I had youthful dreams of a nomadic existence, but I never fantasized about the actual life of the guys who rode trains and lived as transients, as I had met a few of them and knew a little of how dismally hard and short that life is. I saw several fighting with knives once on the tracks from a bridge safely overhead. That alone would have cured any mythologies about that state of existence.
But I did sometimes wonder what it would be like to walk many miles every day, lost internally, pondering deep questions, never speaking to anyone, just looking at the world pass by and feeling my legs drive me forward, reflecting on the wind and the sun and the trees and sundry other matters.
I read Thoreau avidly as a young person and wondered how he could be of the same race as those I walked among, who so far as I could tell rarely and perhaps never considered any of the things about which he wrote from Walden Pond. I thought sometimes I would live in the woods one day, bears and mountain lions my neighbors, but as a youth I was still too attracted to the things of cities to practically pursue this.
Walking simplifies. It clears out clutter, and human life—my life—is cluttered.
You get a more concrete idea of just how much clutter there is in the human world when you walk roadside.
Beer cans, every conceivable part of a car, clothing, discarded boxes and bottles, cigarette butts and packages, decomposing fast food and the containers in which it was served, rope, twine, tools, pieces of carpet, floor mats, utterly unidentifiable trash, objects of which I am ignorant of name and purpose.
I saw a couple of stuffed animals that had clearly been there for weeks or months, aesthetically weathered in such a way as to sorrowfully communicate the fallenness of a world in which a child’s beloved stuffed bear, with which she cuddled nightly to ward off the darkness, could be so callously abandoned to the cruelties of the elements. Unfortunately, I saw them in a midday sun-drenched area that I was trying in my short sleeves to get through quickly and back into the cool of shade, so I didn't take the time to stop and get what I imagine would have been a poignant photo.
I saw this shoe and then, perhaps a half mile further along, its mate. What is their story?
We put all of it beside the road when we're done with it, sometimes stopping to do so, sometimes just slowing down and indifferently flipping it out the window and then going on our way, forgetting what we tossed altogether in minutes as fresh stimuli collide with our senses.
Transience is at the roadside like weeds and the smell of gasoline. Almost none of our stuff persists. We pursue it ferociously, and then we get it, and in short order we tire of it and discard it.
Imagine two people who work for a company that makes some consumer product or other. One invents a means to make the product last ten times longer for no increased production cost. The other comes up with a way to ensure that a vital part of the product will self-destruct after a short and highly predictable period of time, and it will do so in a way that corrupts the entire device so the single part cannot simply be replaced but a whole new product must be purchased. Which employee is given a promotion and which is let go in contemporary America?
Our lives are a long drive through a huge mountain range of things we kept around for a while and then tossed aside. At some point, the whole planet will appear as a vast, endless hoarder’s apartment, every inch of space stacked ten feet high with somebody’s things they had to have but then they didn’t.
As I walked, I tried to meditate on the idea of the impermanence of the self.
In this view, there is no coherent, enduring, categorically stable “I” because everything that makes up my body, including my brain, is constantly in flux, and these material objects are, it is assumed, the only things we could mean when we say “I,” and any subjective experience we identify with self is dependent on them for existence. Cells are dying and new ones being born every second. Synaptic connections fall into disuse and decay while new experiences create novel such connections. This is true at every point along the time trajectory, so by this approach the I (or what I mistakenly take to be “I”) that photographed the shoe in the image above disintegrated into nothingness the instant it finished that action and took a step away from the shoe, further down the road. And the same as I took the second step.
So many, many people were on the ten mile walk, together in a sense, yet in succession, and each one alone.
Heraclitus’ “You never step in the same stream twice”—or the embellishment of “You can never step into the same stream even once”—is true in a purely material sense, there can be no doubt of this. It’s different molecules of water each time, and even during the one step.
But I contend that for all intents and purposes I am the same me that began and ended the walk, even in the materialist terms of the argument. Enough of the baseline remained intact to make the fiction a meaningful and constructive one. If I’d been struck by a vehicle and hit my head hard enough to scramble it but not hard enough to perish, ok, then it’s surely a different “I.” But there is sufficient continuity in my case that I remember thoughts I had in high school like I had them yesterday, and they are pristinely consistent with everything I know to be me, though they passed through a brain that featured a collection of neurons that is not the brain and collection of neurons with which I write these words. (Neurons, it turns out, are regenerated even in adulthood.)
And there’s something else to it.
I have at some points been quite sympathetic to reductive materialism. Some of the arguments are elegant, and the scientifically validated evidence is cleanly on this side. But there exist other kinds of evidence. How does it come to pass that a mere meat puppet (maybe the greatest band name of all time, btw) cannot accept the inevitability of going the way of meat and instead desires, fervently, with all its energy and all its heart, to live forever?
There's roadkill at the roadside as well.
All the living things that we turn into non-living things with our giant fast-moving metal transport machines. Have you ever thought about the magnitude of this feature of the roadway? It is breathtaking. Precise numbers are made hard to approximate because of technical problems and our lack of interest, but it is certainly in the many billions globally per year. In Brazil alone, half a billion animals are killed by cars annually. 65,00 deer are killed on roadways every year in New York State alone.
“Roadkill” is actually a dreadfully industrial-sounding term, and technically quite incorrect. The road did not kill these once living things. The people who made the decision to get into the vehicles that they then propelled into and through their bodies did it. Distancing from moral responsibility is everywhere in language. We like to try to hide from the havoc we wreak on the world.
I once drove in a friend’s car through the desolate Nevada desert north of Winnemucca at night on US 95. We were far from any hotel, hungry, desperate to get somewhere that was not the desert. My memory of it is that we hit a jackrabbit crossing the road every few minutes. Every few minutes. They were unavoidable, given the darkness and the proximity of deep brush to the edge of the two-lane road on which we were driving. We felt sick about it. But we kept driving.
Jains, when waking at night to change sleeping positions, sweep the floor before lying down in a new place in order to avoid potentially crushing an insect in doing so. It’s of course an impossible task they’ve taken up—their immune systems are, like ours, constantly carrying out a ruthless holocaust of micro-organisms, and there is nothing we can do about that—but still I find something deeply admirable about them. They at least take the whole problem seriously. How many of us even slow down to avoid hitting the squirrel that bolts in front of us on an apparent suicide mission?
I was particularly moved by this snake, now mostly skeleton. Called by the heat of the asphalt, or seeking prey or escape from some predator, its journey in the world ended here at the roadside, and now I’ve preserved it for some period of time in the world of pixels—on this post, in my computer’s hard drive—that will almost certainly exceed the time it spent in scale and bone. The leaf there bears witness until it too disintegrates and is no more.
I felt like I was doing what I could to repent for the sin some anonymous member of my species committed in destroying this marvelous creature whose kind have been here for 150 million years, who were gliding across the earth long before even our earliest primate ancestors existed.
It's an uncanny feeling being on foot beside a busy road.
I always walk on the left side, as far from the road as possible, so I can see the traffic approaching. This is mostly to do with my total lack of trust that motorists at my back will have anything like the concern for my life that I have. This seems a reasonable estimation. I care more about me than they do, almost certainly, and I want to have at least a split second to leap out of the way of negligent drivers if need be.
When you walk against the traffic, for a few seconds you can see the faces of all those fellow humans zooming off to their destinations. The constant stream of humanity in their gleaming painted boxes. A never ending supply. At no hour of the day does it stop completely, and even when it is a mere trickle in one place, it is a torrent in many others.
We’ve achieved the nomadism of which I dreamt as a boy!
But not quite. Always on the go and always seeking to go farther and yet farther and farther still, and at greater and greater speeds, and with less and less connection to what we pass over during the journeys. Where is home in such a life?
For some, home is where the pigs are.
This is three miles in physical distance from the Bucknell University campus, minutes in a car, light years in cultural terms.
I’ve driven by here dozens, perhaps hundreds of times, and never realized there were two grown pigs living in the front yard of this home. The guy next door came over when I waved to him and we had a nice chat about the state of the world, cars, and pigs.
He said the pigs have names. Something like Lola and Lonnie, if my recollection is good.
This haunted me. Home, but blocked and made unreachable by an impassable staircase.
The house was right next to an old church. I tried the front entrance of the latter but it was locked. I would have liked to sit down in a cool spot and ponder the symbolism of that ravaged staircase.
I was starting to get thirsty, having foolishly failed to bring adequate water. A nice receptionist in an auto repair shop with a tattoo completely covering one arm and shoulder let me use the faucet there. She likely saved me a headache, if not something worse. I have had near heat strokes a few times in my life, once after playing too much basketball outside in the summer southern California sun, again while moving furniture from a storage space in central Pennsylvania. Those experiences are to my mind an approximation of what might await the unrepentant in Hell.
This was the first time in a long while that I’d taken up a walk of this distance, and I was pleasantly surprised at how little protest my aging body mounted. Other than thirst, not a twinge of resistance from the machine I inhabit. I rested for perhaps ten minutes two or three times, and I stopped more frequently for briefer periods of time to take these and other pictures.
Even when such physical exertion goes well, I try to keep one thing firmly in mind: The time will come, sooner than you desire even if it is delayed to its maximum possibility, when you will no longer be able to do this. There will thus be a last time. Think of this one as the last.
The aging of the body is on my mind frequently these days.
I find it an odd and disconcerting thing indeed to discover myself in a human form that looks as this one does, that is, clearly no longer young. Is it correct that we all form a mind’s eye view of ourselves that never alters with age, even as our physical reality moves to greater and greater distance from that image? I don’t know if it’s a general phenomenon, but I certainly have done this. The self-image inside my head is from about 25 years in the past now. I never much enjoyed looking at myself in a mirror. I actively avoid it now, so jarring is it for me to see the reality of time’s work.
I hope to get better at this, as nothing good comes from this failure to face reality. I’m not sure what the process of that improvement might look like, though. It is a harrowing aspect of aging. But then, are there any that are not harrowing when properly considered?
The house with the staircase crumbled to rubble. By the ceaseless advance of time.
Hidden from sight from the road, or at least only available to a fleeting glimpse at 50 mph wholly insufficient to the beauty of the site.
Beauty is always like this, isn’t it?
Fail to look in the right place and you miss it. Stop paying attention for an instant and it is gone.
Drink your fill of it while you can, in the instants you find yourself before it, because soon you have to move on and there is no certainty it will be there the next time you pass by. Wait long enough and the certainty is that it will not.
After several hours’ journey, this greeted me as I neared home.
I had settled an important matter I was considering just a few minutes before, and the sun decided to be just where it was, and those trees had been waiting their whole lives to reach just this height and breadth and to glow in the sun’s light in just this way, and these delightful weeds (perhaps Ribwort plaintain, Plantago lanceolata?), which I’ve seen all my life without knowing a proper name to give them, stretching up from the grass, a sea of little sentinels awaiting my passage, standing at attention for their portrait.
The walk is now but a trace of life past. It came and went, like everything else. I wish I could have kept it with me in some way, but that is not possible. Even to do it again tomorrow will not do the trick. It would be a new walk.
What I do here is the doomed attempt to keep it.
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