“To Walk a Landscape Is to Know It”

Published: January 6, 2008, New York Times , Travel section

“COMES over one an absolute necessity to move. And what is more, to move in some particular direction. A double necessity then: to get on the move, and to know whither.” The unforgettable opening of D. H. Lawrence’s “Sea and Sardinia,” a work written in six weeks flat. “Why can’t one sit still?” he asks.

Why can’t one? For a million years we stalked elk, monkey, crab; we gathered nut, grub and leaf. We had to move to live. Then half a minute ago we stooped to sow seeds and the rest is history. Here we are, with the stock exchange, the Internet and the Hummer. Who wouldn’t want to bust out, to taste the air of the open range, to “swagger the nut-strewn roads,” as Philip Larkin put it, to be out in the weather, to feel the lay of the land vital beneath your boots? Travel is deep in the blood.

But we can still pull on pack and boot and head to the hills. Tread the coastal paths of Wales or Cornwall, say, where the day is one long rainbow of mist, crying gulls and sour heather, and evening brings a fishing harbor clustered in a cove, and a pub with a slate roof gleaming with sea spray, where pints may have been pouring for half a millennium and more. Or hike the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide — anyway travel with our own locomotion, and see close up what this planet has in it. Nothing brings satisfaction like that.

As soon as I could, when I was 14 and deemed old enough, my friends and I would gather sleeping bags, an old pan from the larder, a pack of sausages and a can of beans, and walk out our front door — up the river, down the valley. In the long dusk of English summer we’d find a place to spread ourselves and build our fire. No tent: we called it sleeping out. It was the first real travel I did. Nothing had ever seemed so right as a line of smoke climbing into an evening sky while the biting aroma of a frying sausage reached the nose. And the taste of the first sweet cup of tea boiled over an open fire with water from a stream — surely this was how we were meant to live, outside. The desert tribes say a house is a tomb for the living.

On one of these rambles I met Speedy. He was that all-but-vanished British phenomenon, a true tramp. Wrapped in an overcoat tied with string, with a plastic bag or two, sometimes suspended from a pole over the shoulder, tramps were like the sons in fairy tales who set off to make their fortunes, only years on, in bulky, stiff middle age, they were still wandering. You’d see their cryptograms chalked on town pavements, telling each other in code at which houses a cup of tea was to be had. Speedy’s migrations were like a wild animal’s. You’d hear he’d come back to the valley before you ever saw him. He bedded down in the derelict mill, and was a fount of homespun wisdom. “Less you have the more you have,” he used to say, standing stiffly in his coat that reeked of straw and cow-pats, of years under hedges. “Trouble is, most folks don’t know that.”

The first thing I did on leaving college, after three years in the library, was dig out my old backpack, tie a sleeping bag to it, and a sheet of plastic in case of rain, and walk out the door. I had no plan. It was summer, and I didn’t have to think about my life until the fall. I headed west because that felt right. I didn’t even bring a map, just a compass. I slept in the corners of fields, in copses, at the foot of oaks. I swam when there was a river, and when I needed to cross one I’d walk until I reached a bridge, however far that was. Or if it was narrow enough, I’d hurl my pack to the other side, then scale a tree, teeter on the end of an overhanging branch, and launch myself to the far bank. (Sometimes I made it, sometimes I got soaked.) I hitchhiked if I felt like it, making my way through the Cotswolds into Wales. I wound up on the Pembroke coastal path, which brought me to St. David’s, the country’s smallest city, dwarfed by its 12th-century cathedral.

Even then, in the late ’80s, England was still medieval. Thatched villages, pubs on village greens, little stores where I would stock up on minimal staples, and hill after rolling hill of field and meadow. There’s no telling what you’ll find once you start walking.

That was the best traveling I ever did. I didn’t know it then, but I belonged to a backpack generation. Nothing seemed more important in this brief life than to get out into the world and see it. I worked in Argentina and traveled up the Andes in the open backs of trucks, I hitchhiked across the Sahara, I slept under olive trees in Greece — anything to be out there. I even endured five days on a “Magic Bus” that limped through Yugoslavia with a broken suspension. Along the way I discovered what seemed wildly exotic food: chicken stewed in an oil drum filled with garlic; bread baked in sand; camel’s milk; and spit-roast guinea pig. But nothing quite matched the self-sufficient delight of walking with one’s needs on one’s back.

There are many reasons to have a holiday. Reculer pour mieux sauter, say the French: draw back the better to leap. We may want nothing but relaxation and rest. But as Sherlock Holmes knew, the best form of R&R is to do something different: a change is as good as a rest, if not better; and the best kind of change is to enter another world. And while all other cultures — like Lawrence’s Sardinia — offer a different world, there’s always the wilderness, the hills, nature, waiting for us just up the road, wherever we are. In the woods and hills we find not just nature, but our own past; we remember who we used to be, we rediscover our need not just to be outdoors but also to be of no fixed abode. Is it really enough to slide self and trolley bag into a steel cylinder to be ferried a thousand miles to loll on a sun lounger?

In the 1870’s Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote:

What would the world be, once bereft

Of wet and wildness? Let them be left,

O let them be left, wildness and wet;

Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

Last summer in Scotland my two boys and I foraged for clams, mussels, samphire, wild garlic. The meals we made of them, at the end of salty, rainy afternoons on tidal lochs, with the umber hills brooding over us, tasted better than anything you could buy. To be out under the sky on our own two feet awakens something older, more content within us, a wild creature inside itching to break out, who knows where to go to heal all ills.

Readers’ Comments Wanted:

So, What are your most memorable camping and hiking experiences? Please share in the comments section below.

One thought on ““To Walk a Landscape Is to Know It”

  1. Kent Tableman

    Mine would be thirty days on The Colorado River thru the Grand Canyon from Lees Ferry to Pierce Ferry on the back of a sixteen foot raft. It was a private
    (vs commercial) trip with lots of lay over days that were utilized for side hikes and canyoneering. The time of year was mid December thru mid Januaray. Snow in the dessert, ice on the lines, blue skies, tale tales around a camp fire, exciting whitewater and seven other kindred souls. It was a religious experience.


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