I’m sitting on the floor of a darkened Boeing 767, a few hundred people sleeping around me while we arc over the North Atlantic, en route from London to Seattle. By the grace of a bulkhead seat, I have space to turn around and shift about just a bit, creating the sort of private corner I need to think and to begin the writing process.
I’ve recorded plenty the last two weeks, traveling in England and Wales – scribbling in my journal on the regular, noting encounters with new places, walk details, bird sightings, unforeseen events. But it’s only now I’m forced into 10 hours of inactivity that my brain begins to pick up these thousand threads and sort them, choosing the colors and preparing the pattern of the cross-stitched story they will become.
The story is the part I get to keep. An experience while I’m having it is just that. A long walk, for example, wayfinding in unfamiliar territory, with a two hour break in the middle for lunch and a pint, and a spot of reading. It’s in the processing that I construct how I will recall this, how it will connect to the rest of my life, and what it means.
Jonathan Rosen says that the writer’s dilemma is precisely this: we’re “drawn to experience, but need to be stationary to make sense of it.” I connected instantly with this statement the first time I read it, though I imagined a rather gentle process of “making sense” – creating a quiet space and just letting the memories and connections assemble in their own time, patiently sorting my threads and waiting until I can see the pattern clear.
Most blocks of time – a day, a week – contain some combination of the novel and the familiar. Two weeks of vacation in another country means back-to-back new experience, which takes all my attention, pushing off the processing I normally do throughout a given day. Now it’s over, and I’m on an airplane – familiar territory. And suddenly the need for pen and paper and solitude is like desperately having to pee.
I’m trying to read – about walking, no surprise here – but every other page ticks something in my brain, and I keep frantically digging out my journal so I can spill the waterfall inside me out onto the page. I finish a thought, or lose it, and go back to my book. Until I read a bit about walking with friends, and that trips something else I want to explore and I rustle through my bag again. My husband asks if he can help and I shake my head too curtly – Don’t talk, I’ll lose the thread. This is the beginning of my process. Not so patient or calm.
I would add to Rosen’s observation the following: the writer’s burden is to be the type of person for whom experience is rarely enough – we’re always thinking about meaning and connection and how we will communicate those things in written form. I’ve been fortunate these last two weeks to let that go for once – my MacBook did not make the trip with me. I haven’t been able to start sense-making, even if I wanted to. My mental life has been refreshingly simple – a true vacation.
My journal is not a place for polish, but it will serve to ease open the floodgates. I can feel the tumbling water pushing at the dam.
If you put the events of this trip into columns labeled “positive” and “negative,” you’d have some pretty strong contenders on the bad side. A good friend with whom we shared some time in-country had a difficult funeral to attend. Just after arrival, I developed an unknown injury to my right foot, and was unable to walk for several days – on a trip planned entirely around long-walking. On our last day, someone smashed the window of our rental car and hauled out my suitcase, stealing nearly all of my most useful, favorite clothing.
So on the face of it, it’s not true that I just spent two carefree weeks with my favorite person and some wonderful friends, walking many miles each day through the British countryside. And yet that’s exactly what this trip looks like in my memory. The song that’s playing over my headphones right now bursts into an exultant chorus that goes:
On my way home/ I remember/ Only good days.
I start crying, silently, in the dim cabin. They’re complex tears – exhaustion, ambivalence, disappointment, happiness, recognition. Gratitude.
It’s comfort music that’s coming through my headphones. An older cousin introduced me to an album called Watermark when I was about 13. I fell hard for the push and pull of the music: driving drumbeats soaked in longing; soothing woodwinds conjuring elemental comfort. In the years since, Enya’s body of work (with the exception of that one album we won’t mention)* has become for me a true and lasting love. In moments of high emotion – I’ve got those to spare – it’s the soundtrack of my life.**
So this is what I’m playing right now, wishing I was walking, but also pleased with my time-less little processing cave. I’m thinking idly about how walking is so blissful with a soundtrack. How it would add so much to the emotional experience to have “The Humming” accompany my footsteps over lonely fells on the Coast to Coast Walk, or “Book of Days” push me to the next summit on the Pennine Way.
And how, in my recent experience, this would never work. Because walking in Britain – or, I suppose, anywhere with a dense network of trails of varying ages and in varying states of clarity – is rarely that straightforward rolling away of empty miles I remember from well-marked trails I didn’t have to wayfind. Walking the scrubby, stone-figured shore of Thingvallavatn, Iceland’s largest natural lake, comes to mind – with my bum left knee newly acquired and dragging behind the rest of me, Sigur Ros spiraling through my headphones, and somebody else identifying the correct trail.
These past few days – bloody grateful to be walking at all – I’ve had nothing like that tranquil sort of mountaintop experience. For one thing, so much of even a major National Trail cuts through private land. More than once, we found ourselves ankle-deep in a cow-trampled mud slick, or pausing to ascertain the intentions of curious livestock. Even on firm and cow-less ground, we’ve stopped every few minutes to consult my Ordnance Survey map, arguing precise direction and landmarks. A pasture might only have a right of way, not a visible path, and it’s up to the walker to figure out which direction continues the proper route. At least twice, we’ve been lost, except for the sun – except when there was no sun.
The point is, it’s not simple, walking in the British countryside. The exercise doesn’t lend itself to long contented hours of meditative strolling. It’s a mental, as much as a physical activity.
OS maps are huge and ungainly until you fold them to the proper quadrant. Even then, they’re too big and bulky to stash comfortably in a pack; you’re always just wrestling them out again, anyway. You can walk without them, but I wouldn’t. So unless I have a pocket guidebook with the relevant section copied, I’ve always got the map itself, in my hand or on a string around my neck, my own personal albatross.
It’s an oddly appealing burden, though. There’s pride in the struggle to find your own way, even if you do it wrong the first time.
It’s not as if you’re working with a vague sketch. No map tells the whole story, but the OS certainly tries. OS maps, if you’re not familiar, mark every damn thing: topography, extra-steep grades, houses, farms, disused quarries, woodlands, moors, bridleways, you name it. Once, on the Llyn Peninsula in North Wales, my map was wrong about the location of a specific trail, which has been moved since the map’s last publication. But it was right about the westward beacon of Bardsey Island, and the more immediate presence of a specific named house at the junction of a nameless path and a numberless road. And so, with a little effort and some semi-educated guesswork, we found our way just the same.
Of course, I had to ask the map repeatedly if we were on the right track, confirming locations once I’d passed them. The poet Simon Armitage, also a way-walker, notes that “…it’s important to keep checking, and in some ways more essential to know where you’ve been than where you’re heading.”
Solid advice for the rest of my life as well.
*Fine, it’s Amarantine. It was okay, I guess.
**A slightly embarrassing love, in which I recently learned I am not nearly as alone as I had always imagined.
Works referenced, in case you’d like to read them
The Life of the Skies, by Jonathan Rosen
Walking Home, by Simon Armitage