Wayfinding: thoughts on changing direction.

I became a nomad from 2013 – 2016 to change direction in my life, which had been shaped by certain habitual patterns of thought and activity (prioritizing being responsible, solvent, must haves: regular job, home, retirement account, etc.) I created probably the least efficient means of transforming these patterns by becoming a nomad...well, least efficient or most?

Least in that the labor of moving ones physical body to another continent - a land mass distinct from the one my 40-something body had evolved in, separated by a large body of water – required a massive shift in my mental body as well—

(perhaps swimming in these canals around my home in Utrecht is an attempt to stay in touch with where I came from?)

—and most efficient in that we rarely challenge ourselves to changing how we view the world or the ways we move through it, with it, against it, or resist it, wherever we started out. We shift glacially without the virtual rug being pulled out from under us.

Walking is (next to swimming) the most intimate act most of us have with the earth (before death).

Foxwalk, Cape Breton NS.

Foxwalk, Cape Breton NS.

Each step placing the body directly in contact, through the soft tender soles to the soft tender experience of being human, anywhere.

When we walk, we are in relation to place and in interaction with it, without external filter*.

Other means of transit - bicycle, train, horse, roller-skate, Segway, hoverboard, whathaveyou - tires, wings, ayahuasca - have each their own forms of energy exchange with the environment we move through - both contributive and detrimental, but walking reigns as the essential holistic practice, but

walking reighs as an essential holistic practice. (For footed creatures, that is.)

Encountering a (new) place is most potentially meaningful when we walk it. We touch it and it touches us directly through all of our body’s senses.

I traveled as a nomad from one place to another, going by various “efficient” means to cover large distances in a short time - but then reaching a place, the relocation was not complete until I walked the streets or lands of that place, greeting the inhabitants (human, plant, animal, mineral) with my open senses.

Aimless wandering is a traditional buddhist contemplative practice of setting out on a walk (a “wander”) without goal or objective destination, but simply being open and aware of your sense perceptions each moment, then following the natural curiosity that only can arise when you are bored and have no plan. Then you take your steps. It is an open rhythm of moving where your senses take you, pausing when curiousity captures you, observing, then letting go.

Rinse, repeat.

Is it slow walking? Not necessarily - you can walk normally, perhaps like a tiger in a forest, humbly taking in what surrounds you.

What about slow traveling? Of course, some planning is necessary.

How you decide the route, the stopping places, the logistics of sleeping and eating and moving - these require a plan for all but the most intrepid. A true aimless wander as slow travel could be done, if one has no time limit or deadline, minimal physical vulnerabilities, and a healthy relationship with fear.

In the US sometimes intrepid adventurers literally do walk from place to place curious how it will go in each town, and then somehow each place they arrive in, they find shelter, food, people curious about the world and the walker. They are walking for months and months, because the land is enormous.

I was not such a traveler when I set out in a car purchased with the trip in mind. I had long had an inspiration that was also a structure: traveling the “Blue Highways.”  This was the title of William Least-Heat Moon’s book about his 1980’s journey around the US using only the connecting roads that existed between cities before the Interstate Highway System was built in the 1960’s-70’s, which introduced safer high-speed car travel and inadvertently destined the use of national railways and local roads to becoming merely an interesting hobby. Once the Interstates were open (literally inter-state), there was only 3-1/2 day’s travel time needed to go from New York to Los Angeles.** Previously, a week of “slow” travel by car would gain you such a distance. Besides undermining the last bit of dependence on rail, these interstates ‘bypassed’ (also a term for a highway) small cities and towns, spreading commerce and accruing social benefits to a few great cities and depleting the same from the non-connected towns.

Least-Heat Moon was looking for himself. He couldn’t find such, sitting at home in Missouri after a break-up, so took off in a van, “Ghost Dancer” - his modern-day horse - to slow-travel through the small towns and cities and over the “blue highways” that still existed, a less-visible layer of connective tissue in the nation.

The method I followed was the same, though I had a deadline of 7 weeks to his 3 months. There were some places I planned to visit - relatives and friends scattered days apart - but between them were days and days of unknowns. So I used some tools: looked at a map, calculated hours of distance, sought out campground markers.

Day 22, or thereabouts.

Day 22, or thereabouts.

Maps are not merely diagrams of the locations of things, but surfaces of imagination. We look closely at the terrain and see where waterways carve out spaces for cities to arise. We study the roads and see where the smaller, twistier roads and streets indicate older core towns of what are now significant cities. We see the relation of place to place and curiosity leads us to inspect what we infer from these relationships. We can “aimless wander” a map as a strategy for slow-travel planning.

Making a slow-travel journey to a particular destination you have further choices to make - including which versions of tools to use—such as online or paper maps? Maps.me or the big-data ‘G?’ Social media recommendations or asking local people you meet IRL for advice along the way? Following a theme (so many options: medieval, architectural, historical, food-ical, landscape-ical, friend&family-ical, language-ical, climate-changical, cultural-segmentical) or a set of practices (means of transport, means of bed-finding, means of funding) - but advice: don’t make it complicated.  Pick one or two as base rules, and go. Then be as open as you can be to what happens. Let go of destination in your mind. Ask yourself each day, “what can I learn from not-knowing today?” This is how to cultivate aimlessness within the boundaries of your trip.

While aimlessly wandering around the US, a space definitely did open in my perceptions. Out of the usual patterns and surroundings of my east coast life I wandered alone through lush golden fields in Kansas near a sister’s farm, where a solitary man in office attire sauntered on a horse down the road into town, both of us tiny in the vastness of endless blue and gold horizon. I passed a roadside cafe with bright purple deck chairs arrayed in the parking area out front, with a dainty older woman sipping coffee in the midst of North Carolina’s Appalachian foothills. I turned around and discovered a mainstay of the region’s folk and blues music trail, walls lined floor to ceiling with photographs and random seats made from old school furniture and a makeshift stage covered in microphones and surrounded by musical instruments, ready for that night’s jam. Life was lived differently, seen differently than where I was from, and it was possible to see that I could live differently too.

When you arrive at your interstitial places, what then?  Don’t immediately try to fill the frame of your project with what you see. First, see (hear, smell, touch, taste). Feel where you are, ignore what your mind wants to label it. Drop the plan to the background, over and over again. Find what it feels like to be with yourself, in that place, then discover what gesture comes out of that. And the best means of feeling? Go for a walk.

*Filter: automobile, bicycle, earphones, camera, or screens. If you are holding a screen while you walk, or listen to music, you are interfering with the direct experience of your senses. Do what you think serves your objectives, but don’t believe that carrying a phone and walking isn’t doing two or more things at once.

**A distance of 4,139km – about the same as Prague to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, or Prague to Nuuk, Greenland. Prague to Trømso, Norway, above the artic circle, is only half that distance.