“The theory is: if you are separated from yourself, you start walking and you keep walking until you meet yourself. Then you sit down and have a long talk. You talk about everything that you’ve learned, everything that you felt. And you talk until you run out of words. Now, that’s vital, because the real important things can’t be said. And then, if you are lucky, you look up and there’s just you, and you can go home.”
― Babylon 5, Walkabout
Every Sunday morning, it begins the same way. As soon as I’m fully awake, I fill one flask with hot sweet tea and another with water, pack sunglasses if the day is bright and a raincoat if it’s not, and pull on my walking boots. I take a ball of seeds to hang in the first hedgerow where I see a robin peering at me with his apple pip eyes, roll a crooked joint or two if I have a little pot to spare, then I am out the door, and walking.
I always take the same route, down to the bottom of the hill where the cars are already whipping up and down the road full of busy people doing busy things. I say a quick hello to the small bright brook that sings its way between the houses, then it’s farewell to it again. I won’t see the stream again until I reach the high place where I’m headed.
Cutting along a public footpath that runs through somebody’s front garden, I open a neat gate and enter the wild woods. From that point on, although I’ll spend a lot of time climbing upwards along narrow country roads, most of the busy world in the valley below fades away.
Walking the same route, over and over again, makes sense to me. It means that I can watch the same plants and places develop and die back throughout the year, learning the rhythms of the nettles and dock and dog’s mercury that ebb and flow beneath the hedgerows. It means that I can gauge the strength of my own body, forcing my obstinate inner voice to acknowledge that yes, this hill is easier now than it was a month ago. To admit that I am getting stronger. And I walk the same route, over and over again, because it builds a sort of pilgrimage into the landscape. Wears the groove of something sacred in my mind. Because every time I walk this path I leave a little of myself behind. Thoughts and memories like the impression of footprints along these roads that only I can see. It’s a ritual to reach out from myself to something beyond myself.
During the Middle Ages, walkers would tramp down sacred roads across all of Europe and along the Way of St. James. Like the grooves on the scallop shell that became its symbol, the Way began in many places and followed many routes to its final destination: a shrine in Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain that holds the mortal remains of James the Great. They walked the Way for months–even years–to reach that shrine, following the scallop shells carved along its way until they hit the North Atlantic ocean and picked one of those shells up off the beaches to mark their own way back.
Somewhere along our own way between then and now, we lost touch with the importance of pilgrimage. Of walking. Although in a strange twinge of symmetry, our roads today are still marked with the glowing neon scallops of Royal Dutch Shell oil.
And yet some of the most meaningful stories that we still tell to each other are about journeys. Frodo leaving the safety of the Shire to walk barefooted into Mordor, or the Knights of the Round Table pouring out of Camelot in their seekings for the Grail. There is something of the quest in a journey, and vice versa. Both present us with a microcosm of our lives: a beginning and an end, and a seeking-questing-forwards in between. Obstacles and ordeals that we must overcome to reach wherever we are going–from navigating a flooded road, to overcoming heartache.
“As I clung to the chaparral that day, attempting to patch up my bleeding finger, terrified by every sound that the bull was coming back, I considered my options. There were only two and they were essentially the same. I could go back in the direction I had come from, or I could go forward in the direction I intended to go.”
― Cheryl Strayed, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
In all these cases, the obstacles can only be overcome by moving forwards, and by progressing through. That is something that we can remember best when walking.
There’s something in the blood and muscle of our bodies that understand: the pace of human thinking is the same as human walking. The steady movement of it, right and left and right again, demands that the two hemispheres of our brain work together. The result is the same as using binaural beats to induce meditation or altered states of consciousness. It is the same as the left-right eye movement therapies currently being used to treat survivors suffering from PTSD. In fact, the psychologist who designed the treatment came up with the idea while walking.
When I pull on my boots and go out into those Sunday mornings, the rhythm of my feet on the earth grounds me in the soft animal of my body. The more the world goes on, the more we seem to spend all of our time in our heads. Our thoughts and feelings chasing themselves around in a disconnected void, getting steadily more cluttered and frantic. Seeking some sort of escape from ourselves. Some sort of escape to ourselves.
Being out in the last few scraps that make up the wild world reminds me that the Earth is more than human. That, despite our best efforts to destroy anything that we cannot control, the grass still tufts up through the tarmac and the trees turn inwards in the winter. I learn that I am not all that is. That my species, no matter how proud and ubiquitous we seem, is not all that is.
Pilgrimages to sites of sacred healing are as old as humanity itself. They express yearning to connect with something larger than ourselves. Something that will make us whole. And the world right now could use more sacred sites. More healing. More ways of walking into both. It falls to us create these places where we may, and make them sacred with our feet and sweat and being.
By early Sunday afternoon, I reach the top of the last rise I will climb that day. It would not be a long walk for an experienced hiker, but it takes me a long time. I am imperfect. Just like the landscape I am walking is imperfect. I am also, if I am lucky, a little stoned.
I approach the gate that marks the boundary between the hill farms and the rolling upland moor. Treeless, savage, and debrided of anything that does not serve the herds of sheep or flocks of grouse we farm there. Turning even this most inhospitable of places to our own ends with our own hands. I put my hand on the skewed old gatepost, covered in antler lichen and split open by countless years of weather. I pour a little lukewarm tea onto the earth to share some of what I have with it, and think silent thoughts out into the brutal wilds of the moor.
And, last of all, I say hello again to the bright stream gathering at the foot of the uplands. Pooling beneath a bow-backed willow tree. Just beginning on its winding way down into the valley where I began.