Vagabond never had a positive connotation. Someone who walked from place to place, perhaps aimlessly, perhaps with purpose, but not really accomplishing much beyond survival.
Andrew Skurka on the Sierra High Route
Today some of the best and brightest are professional walkers. Hikers really. Actually backpackers. They walk with purpose and determination. They walk after planning their route carefully. Sending food by mail in advance to be picked up at a later date. Or have calculated where they can resupply food. Water sources have also been identified well in advance. And these modern vagabonds walk with one thing no vagabond of old could ever have imagined. They walk with sponsors. Gear supplied by this company. Clothes by another. Trip reports are beamed by satellite to a blog for armchair adventurers to follow. And sometimes they walk in the company of paying travelers who are happy to benefit from the company and experience of a professional hiker to lead the way.
And they walk for months at a time. Sometimes in a circle, around Mont Blanc or Alaska and the Yukon Territories. They walk from point to point, usually starting with the Appalachian Trail to gain experience than heading for the Pacific Crest Trail, or the Continental Divide Trail or Vermont’s Long Trail, or trails in Europe or Asia, like hiking from Kathmandu to Everest base camp.
But unlike vagabonds of yore today’s modern incarnation have rehabilitated walking for survival to walking to thrive. And we who can not or do not take a long walk can see some of the world through their eyes. Two individuals who have elevated wandering to skillful art form are Andrew Skurka and Jennifer Pharr Davis. Both of these individuals have been named as National Geographic Adventurers of the Year, and not for skydiving from the stratosphere or hang-gliding from the top of Mt. Everest. But for walking.
Shelley Lisbona died three and half years ago at the age of 17 from a condition called pulmonary hypertension. She had been on the high school fencing team and sang with her school chorale group. She was an average teenager, or, perhaps it is safe to say, she was an above average teenager. Her health had been complicated by what had been diagnosed as asthma and later vocal chord dysfunction. Subsequent fainting led to her diagnosis of pulmonary hypertension at age 16. She died four months later.
Shelley was remembered by family and friends this past week with a walk sponsored to raise money for the Pulmonary Hypertension Association and to remember this young woman. The length of the walk was not important, or even advertised. The route was not arduous. In fact, the walk was simply around the track at her high school in Wanaque, New Jersey.
People turned out and walked and raised around $3000 in Shelley’s memory. The group was not large. But people showed up. To walk, to remember, to do good in the world. And to continue to heal.
Walking is our most basic form of locomotion and transportation, getting from here to there. Going toward and than arriving at a destination. But walking with intent in its simplicity can also be a powerful form of communication: You are not forgotten.
June is a month of gathering to watch people walk, in graduations, weddings and parades.
This coming Sunday is the Puerto Rican Day Parade, one of the largest in New York City. Last week was the Israel Day Parade, also traveling up Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. On Memorial Day small towns across America had parades and this will be repeated on the Fourth of July.
Why we do we gather in large numbers to watch other people walk with flags and banners? Would we gather in the same numbers to watch people stand with flags and banners? People do not gather in large numbers to watch other people standing in protest. Yet we gather to watch a parade.
Arguably, a parade has music and festive ‘floats’ which is enjoyable to see. But we also gather to watch our children march down the graduation aisle. And no doubt we would go to their graduation even if they did not march in to Pomp and Circumstance. And the same for weddings. We would definitely attend even if there was no ‘marching’, really walking, down the aisle. Yet intrinsic to the graduation and weddings is the walk down the aisle.
We gather to watch people walk, to move, to transition from one stage of life to another. We gather to watch people walk en masse, in an organized manner that is a culmination, that required dedication and planning, that marks an accomplishment or a declaration of allegiance to a cause or an identity. We stand and observe while the people we care about move forward. Walking is after all the choreographed movement of temporarily losing than regaining one’s balance. We the observers stand and bear witness that people we care about or identify with have imposed balance and order in their lives in what at times is a world fast paced and often off-kilter.