A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

The Simplicity Of Walking (4)

Camino, Spain

Many years ago, a friend made me a begging bowl like the ones used by the Buddhist monks. I keep it on my desk, where it can be seen daily, because it reminds me of several principles that I want to guide my life. First, it reminds me of Lao Tzu's paradoxical advice that we must be empty if we wish to be full. Second, it reminds me that my needs, versus my desires, are no greater than what can be placed in a small bowl each day — a little food and a little water. Finally, and most importantly, it reminds me of the need to anchor my life in simplicity — simplicity of purpose, simplicity of thought, simplicity of action. From GEORGE's blog Transit Notes

Our life is frittered away by detail ... Simplify, simplify. THOREAU

Simplicity of purpose, simplicity of thought, simplicity of action. Where better to find this guiding trinity exemplified than in the simple act of walking, especially long distance walking? Here are a few thoughts on walking's pared-down simplicities.

Simplicity of locomotion: What means of transport is simpler, more economical, more eco-friendly and more liberating than one's own two feet? Even both horse and bicycle - my next preferred modes of travel - are more restrictive, and have maintainance costs involved. But if you walk you are totally free. You can go more or less where you want. If you look after your feet, they'll take you 80,000 miles over 80 years with a little luck. They don't need feeding, oiling, refuelling, waxing and polishing every Sunday, or heaps of hard-earned cash poured into them. Just a little basic care and consideration, and the right footwear (girls, beware those high heels!), and they should give you a lifetime's service - each step a sensual pleasure. Try going barefoot too - the ultimate in freedom.

Simplicity of clothing: Sure, you can spend a fortune on walking gear - technical trousers, wicking underwear, state-of-the-art backpacks and all the rest. Equally, with a little astuteness and imagination, you can spend relatively little. Good quality hiking kit can last a very long time. I've had some of mine for years and years. The secret is to narrow down what you really need and will really use from the outset. I know from experience it's temptingly easy to waste money buying the wrong kind of stuff. Comfort's the prime consideration here: expensive pairs of all-singing-all-dancing walking boots are just scrap if they're not serviceable and comfortable. And the same goes for all other items of apparel, to a greater or lesser extent. But you don't have to sacrifice stylishness: gear these days looks good and is fashionable too. Two golden rules: firstly, footwear's the most important item for the long distance walker. If your feet are unhappy, then you are unhappy. Invest in walking boots carefully and wisely. Secondly, wear relatively thin, technical multi-layers of clothing. This is comfortable and practical. You can strip layers off and put them on according to the weather and the temperature. (Clothing that's too thick and bulky is uncomfortable over a long period of time and impedes flexibility - as well as adding unnecessary weight to your pack.) My own personal favourite items of clothing? Body-hugging Merino wool base layers (long-sleeved top, long pants). I wouldn't be without them in cold weather. In fact I'm wearing them now! And, top tip: you can wear them for days without even a trace of body odour!

Simplicity of food: Food and drink are the very soul of a long hike or pilgrimage. Anyone who tells you differently is lying. Without the pleasure and sustenance of food and drink, all the other untold benefits of walking - opportunities for exercise, reflection, meditation, therapy, spiritual growth - would wither on the vine. When walking long distances day after day you get very hungry and very thirsty. But what's great is that, however much you eat (within reason), you lose weight rather than gain weight, as you're burning calories like mad because of the physical exertion. Also, you lose weight because there are far fewer temptations and opportunities to eat. You're often in the middle of nowhere, miles from shops, towns, even villages. So your packed lunch becomes incredibly important - what you've packed, when and where to eat it, and so on. I must honestly say that some of the best, tastiest and most satisfying meals of my life have been simple al fresco lunches - perhaps of bread, cheese and olives - eaten on a flat rock in a stunning mountain landscape, or on a wild headland jutting out into a blue sea, or in a grassy hollow surrounded by woods full of barking deer.

Simplicity of shelter: On long treks and Camino pilgrimages accommodation is often simple and spartan - but it's cheap, and it usually offers hot showers, a bunk bed and a warm reception. What more could you want or need? Sharing food and stories and experiences with fellow walkers and pilgrims is physical and spiritual sustenance enough at the end of the day. Of course, like anyone I like my posh hotels from time to time. But they can be so, so lonely...

Simplicity of friendship: While walking alone and for long distances through countries and amazing landscapes, fleeting friendships are often struck and abandoned. Or they may be continued. I like to call these micro-friendships. But often there is nothing micro about them. They may be enormously significant and profound, despite the short period of time. We all know the importance of brief but deep conversational rapports we've had, say, with strangers on a train. Barriers come down, the usual polite, camouflaging niceties dissolve, and we make contact with the real, raw, uninhibited person and fellow traveller.

Simplicity of thought: Yes, I've had profound, spiritual epiphanies on my long walks. I've written poems. I've felt an almost mystical identification with Nature from time to time. But in fact, most of the time, one's thoughts are stripped down to bare essentials. How long till I can eat? How many hours of daylight are left? Have I read the map correctly? Does that black cloud mean the weather's about to turn? These primal, primitive, essentially life-preserving instincts cleanse and simplify the anxiety-driven mind. What use the metaphysical torments of the ravaged soul, the restless spirit or the ever-demanding intellect if we are lost, cold or hungry? Such simplification of thought is - actually - a purging experience, and clears the mind of its crippling, life-long baggage in a quite wonderful way.


Ruth said...

There is great advice here. Before I take a long trek, I will check back.

I guess those men on the Bosphorus pier need Merino wool shirts! :)

Friko said...

I wish I had started years ago, now I am too old to start a long pilgrimage.

Short walks will have to suffice, but they can still be immensely satisfying.

I suppose, everything you mention, all the preparation, the food and drink, the boots and clothing apply equally to day long walks or even just half day walks.

Except that I don't have to carry a heavy backpack.

There, I knew there was something to be said for laziness.

George said...

I am both honored and surprised to be quoted in the opening of this wonderful posting, Robert. Thank you. It just so happens that this is a good day for me to be reminded of what I wrote recently about simplicity.

As your posting notes, there are so many aspects of simplicity to be found in walking. Moving across the earth with little more than my clothing a a bit of food and water reminds me always of how little I truly need. I also find your point about the pleasures of eating on the trail; it's odd but true that a simple cheese and tomato sandwich eaten in the mountains after half a day's walk is more pleasurable that a fine meal at an expensive restaurant.

Your point on friendships also resonates with me. Some of the most meaningful friendships i have ever had occurred on long hikes or cycling trips. They were short in duration, of course, but they were genuine and quite liberating. When one is hiking or cycling, the judgmental mind that often cripples us is left behind.

I become restless every time I read one of your articles on walking, and I am feeling especially restless at this moment. Time for me to firm up my plans for a long-distance walk this summer, a couple of months after my wife and I return from Italy. Thanks again.

The Solitary Walker said...

Ruth - re the wool shirts, check on my comment on your post on my post.. oh, hell, this blogging thing goes round and round..!

Friko - a pilgrimage is not defined by its length. It can be as long or short as necessary! It's all about the interior journey. All that practical stuff I was writing about is not that important, really...

George - if your big walk later this year is in England, we could easily meet up for a day or two along the trail? Let me know.

George said...

That would be great, Robert. My calendar gets a little complicated this summer, but I am currently looking at the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path and the Hadrian's Wall Path. Due to some time constraints, I may end up choosing the latter, which would be only six or seven days walking. In any event, I will keep you posted. It would be great to meet you in person and walk a few days together.

Ruth said...

Does all this cross-country posting count as a long trek? If so, I feel remarkably fit, and not at all tired!

The Solitary Walker said...

I'm afraid it doesn't count, Ruth. Though I wish it did. 'Cos then those woolley undie thingies would never get one bead of perspiration on them. One would never need to take them off.

The Solitary Walker said...

And George - Hadrian's Wall is fab. I walked part of it when doing the Pennine Way.

Ruth said...

Hi, Robert. I don't know how else to reach you, except to leave a comment. You don't have to publish it, but it's fine if you do. I just want to let you know there is an interesting article about Tolstoy and Russia in the NYTimes this morning, and I thought of you because I have been meaning to get to the library for a copy of War and Peace and start that journey. I thought you might be interested in the article, as I was.


The Weaver of Grass said...

I am all for simplicity Robert - there are several interesting articles in today's Times - one asks why so many people are visiting the sales - do we really need all this 'gear' - we seem to feel the need to make everything complicated - even a walking trip.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks Ruth. Will check this out.

Pat - what astonished me were all those queues of shoppers in Oxford Street on Boxing Day. I mean, hadn't they had enough of shopping the previous week?

Dominic Rivron said...

BO free layers? Hmm. I certainly know that walking alone for days, it doesn't exactly matter! It's also one of the pleasures of going off in the depths of winter. You need so many layers on you feel like an astronaut. You can't face taking any layers off - never mind washing.