To Walk the World…

For walkers, trail runners, travelers and even armchair explorers, read about one man’s slow seven year walk retracing the route of human migration over millennia. Journalist Paul Slopek, partially funded by National Geographic, is making this journey and posting every several hundred miles with text, photos and even a short audio track of the sounds that surround him, wherever he may be, desert, town, market, or no where particular. In this article Slopek writes his first extended length article about this journey he began earlier this year, starting in Ethiopia. Now he has crossed the Red Sea and is walking north along the coast in Saudi Arabia.

Here are some of his opening thoughts in his National Geographic essay. (He can also be followed at outofedenwalk.com ):

“Each step we take is an arrested plunge, a collapse averted, a disaster braked. In this way, to walk becomes an act of faith. We perform it daily: a two-beat miracle—an iambic teetering, a holding on and letting go. For the next seven years I will plummet across the world.

I am on a journey. I am in pursuit of an idea, a story, a chimera, perhaps a folly. I am chasing ghosts. Starting in humanity’s birthplace in the Great Rift Valley of East Africa, I am retracing, on foot, the pathways of the ancestors who first discovered the Earth at least 60,000 years ago. This remains by far our greatest voyage. Not because it delivered us the planet. No. But because the early Homo sapiens who first roamed beyond the mother continent—these pioneer nomads numbered, in total, as few as a couple of hundred people—also bequeathed us the subtlest qualities we now associate with being fully human: complex language, abstract thinking, a compulsion to make art, a genius for technological innovation, and the continuum of today’s many races.”

Here is a link to the NG article:

via To Walk the World.

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Keep your eyes on the trail…

Hiking trail through an oak forest - "Kno...

Hiking trail through an oak forest – “Knorreichenstieg” in Germany (Photo credit: http://www.martin-liebermann.de (zeitspuren))

I drive to work everyday. I look ahead, see I need to turn right and turn the wheel to the right. A pilot makes small adjustments to the yoke to change direction as does a boat captain to the wheel. And a cyclist, of course requires, well, the bike and its handlebars for steering.

But hikers, walkers, runners – we look ahead, see the trail we want to take, and will ourselves toward our chosen direction. We look and our feet respond. A slight bend to the right, a hop across a creek, an off-trail trip up a hill through tall grass or over downed branches, roots and rocks.

No wheel or yoke or handlebars required.

Our eyes do the steering on the trail.  Eyes see. The brain generates the course corrections. The feet loyally follow directions.

Planning and navigating a route is indeed an intellectual endeavor. Following the path that lies ahead, however, is primal. It involves our core senses- the visual of course, our steering mechanism; the tactile-sensing the ground; the auditory-hearing our footfalls over leaves and twigs or the sound of splashing or crunching, say, hard-packed snow; and the aroma and taste of the outdoors. Now in the Fall the smell is of the denoument of fallen leaves, their final act before dissolving into forest floor.

Pay close attention on your next trail. Choose a route, begin the journey and your body appears to simply follow the path. But the walk ahead is never simple: It may begin with just a vision, a vision though that evolves to engage all of your senses.

Walking in a fog…

Fog obscures.

The “fog of war” explains how otherwise  civil men can be driven to act so uncivil. Fog is the rationale. Not only soldiers but poets too have turned their eyes toward the “fog”. For them it is a comfortable literary trope. “Fear death – to feel the fog in my throat and the mist in my face” wrote Sir Robert Browning (1812-1889). And when people look out their window and see the fog, they sigh as if only sunlight can bring happiness.

Last Sunday I hiked a route with which I am quite familiar, a 4 mile trail through boulder fields, along and over brooks, past a cascading waterfall and around fallen trees in an east coast maple-beech-birch forest in northern New Jersey. The trail includes over 1000 feet in elevation change and half of that is a 500 foot ascent up a section with several vistas along the way. From each viewpoint the panorama gets better and better until at the top one can see 30 miles and easily make out the skyline of New York City.

On a clear day.

Fog on Carris Hill Oct. 2013

Fog on Carris Hill Oct. 2013

On a clear day people make their way up the strenuous section which is almost two miles from the trail head. On a clear day a hiker will see others along the way and at the top,  in small groups or large or alone with their dog.

On a foggy, damp day you see no one at the top and just one or two souls  who have turned around complaining about the absent views.

But I for one saw value that day in not seeing. I took comfort in my obstructed view of that which I knew was there yet could not see. And for the first time in my life I made no effort to look past the slate gray cloud which enveloped the summit, which colored the nearby lime green leaves into a drab olive hue and totally hid the canopy only a few dozen feet beyond. No skyline was to be seen no how.

I surrendered any attempt to see beyond my veiled misty curtain for I began to understand that the nature of nature is that it is always beautiful if not always comfortable. We are guests in a vast abode about which we have no say. Yes, I could have waited for a sunny day. But Sunday last the fog at my fingertips was my panorama, and it was good.

The Power of New Shoes?

Of course new shoes can make your feet feel better. But can they really help your soul?

I ran a trail yesterday I have run many times before. I did not see the Great Blue Heron I once saw there feeding not 15 feet away. Nor did I see the Northern Oriole building its dangling hollowed ball  shaped nest I’ve seen before nor the spring irises lining the trail here and there. Yet I felt newly exhilarated despite the sameness of the scenery. What was different?

Not much. Just my shoes.

New shoes.

The old (Asics Trail Sensor circa 2009) and the new (La Sportiva Wildcat circa 2013)

The old (Asics Trail Sensor circa 2009) and the new (La Sportiva Wildcat circa 2013)

New shoes I had researched and pondered, read reviews about and weighed pros and cons before arriving at my decision. I looked for them in stores and ultimately ordered on the web. Even guessed right on the European size.

I am loyal to my shoes. Not the brand specifically but actually to the shoes. I do not part ways with them easily. I wear them until they are frayed. Until chunks of rubber are missing from the sole. Until I am pretty sure the mid sole layer has lost its cushioning. Yet, I have seen pictures of the poorest of the poor running around or carrying water in tattered shoes, or no shoes and I know even at their worst my old shoes are quite adequate.  And so I relinquish them reluctantly and don new shoes undeservedly.

But I am attached to old shoes for quite another reason too. We have traveled together for so long. The rubber rand covering the front of the shoes is peeling. The lining around the heel has worn completely away after thousands and thousands of steps on streets and sidewalks and grassy fields and trails criss crossing county and state parks, as my shoes and I have hiked our way together across rocks in a fast flowing brook or run across a wooden bridge while looking upstream at  riffles of frothy white water. They were with me when I ran a trail race and badly sprained my ankle and they were with me the following year when I redeemed myself on the same course.

Old sole, new sole.

Old sole, new sole.

I look at the worn sole but don’t see shoes worn out. Rather I see miles walked, hiked, run.

Yet the trail does seem more fresh and alive and spirited with my new shoes, a feeling which I attribute to more than better cushioning and less fraying. I am inspired by the possibilities of the new, real or imagined. The shiny sole of my new shoes with their special features to provide traction on uneven terrain beckons the deep forest trail. And I will even take inspiration from the picture on the shoe box, of men I know not, running toward towering mountains I know not where in a place I will likely never be.

Photo on the cover of the La Sportiva Wildcat shoes

Photo on the cover of the La Sportiva Wildcat shoes

(Old shoes: Asics Trail Sensor. New shoes: La Sportiva Wildcat)

Walking with the wisdom of the crowd…

My son and I set out to explore a rock climbing crag nearby, recently approved by the municipal land owners and sanctioned for climbing. The area is an otherwise unused strip of land, long with several undulations of granite cliffs no more than 100 feet tall with several smaller rock formations at its base. The most prominent feature of this wooded land however is a series of towering power lines. The land is actually a power company right of way for high capacity electrical lines. Indeed, if you listen carefully it is possible to hear a faint crackling of electricity traveling through the lines at the top of the steel super structures which stand guard on otherwise undeveloped woodlands.  images

No formal trails lead to the rocks but faint foot paths have stomped down tall grasses. In some areas a dirt path has emerged but no blazes mark the trail. Leave the parking lot, look for a faint trail and walk. Look for a stream and cross by a  fallen log the instructions explain. Pick up a trail on the other side, faint as it is. Finally crossing a dirt road one sees an official sign at the informal entrance to this newly opened rock climbing area.

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Neither my son nor I are real climbers. We have climbed in indoor climbing gyms which simulate some of the athletic moves needed for outdoor climbing on real rock slabs. And we have climbed once in the famous Shawungunk climbing area in New Paltz, NY under the supervision of a watchful and well trained guide. So we were just scoping out this new venue to see if we and the rocks made a good match.

By the time we started hiking into the woods we did not have too much time to explore but did have enough time enough to spot a flock of goldfinches dressed in their bright summery ellow and black plumage flying in and around some low brush.

imgresOn the way back we lost the trail, with no supplies, lights or even water. We were never more than half mile or so from the car but with dusk approaching the thought of stumbling around in the dark in an unfamiliar woods was unappealing. While we lost the main trail, faint as it was, we picked up several other ‘herd’ paths – that is, trails going this way and that left by the footfalls of previous hikers. On some summits a herd path usually leads to a great view, or short cut to the trail’s continuation. The herd path deviates from the main blazed path, placed purposefully by the trail maintainer. White rectangles 2 inches wide and 3 inches long mark the entire 2,160 miles of the Appalachian Trail.

Herd wisdom, or the wisdom of the crowd, has been around for eons. Thompson’s Gazelle‘s use the wisdom of the crowd to turn tail and bolt in the opposite directions from a prowling lion. Schools of fish do the same. And now a days humans ‘crowd source’ using the collective information gathering skills of hundreds to pull resources together to yield new information hitherto not easily knowable.

But walking in the woods in the waning light, pushing away boughs of thorn bushes obstructing the faint herd paths we had little choice but to follow the foot steps of walkers before us, and hope that their intentions in walking this ground were our intentions, that they were going, or coming, from the direction we sought. It felt comforting to embrace the wisdom of the footsteps of the crowd which indeed led us back to where we started.

Austrolapithicus on Breakneck Ridge

My son and I hiked what is commonly referred to as one of the more strenuous day hikes in the greater metropolitan New York region, noted for its steep ascent requiring both hands to navigate several steep rock scrambles. The route begins on the eastern shore of the Hudson River, separated by the Metro-North Hudson line train tracks. The route ascends promptly and continues to do so for seven tenths of a mile, climbing 1,260 feet to the summit.

Ascending Breakneck Ridge

Ascending Breakneck Ridge (photo credit Daniel Chazin, NY/NJ Trail Conference)

While clinging to the precambrian granite gneiss and searching by feel for a toe hold to provide a slender ledge from which to push myself higher I thought for a moment of the footsteps upon which I stood 48 hours earlier. Two days prior I had visited the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan and spent a few moments in the Hall of Human Origins. Near the beginning of the exhibit stand two short hairy human-like people, holding hands, one male and one female. Their gaze is straight ahead and has an air of contented surprise.

Austrolapithicus

Austrolapithicus

The curators have placed in front of this couple a casting of Austrolapithicus footprints, discovered by anthropologists Mary Leakey and Paul Abell in 1978 and taken from a dig in Laetoli, Tanzania, not far from the Olduvai Gorge. About 3.5 million years ago dozens of footprints were fossilized in volcanic ash. The footprints appear human. The great toe is not simian –not angling wildly away from the foot. Rather it is parallel to the other toes and the footprints also reflect an arch, another human characteristic.

These prints are significant because they are among the earliest signs of bipedalism in human ancestors and scientists believe they are proof of when our ancestors mastered walking on two feet, which they also conclude was long before our ancestral brain increased in size.

Visitors of the exhibit are invited to place their feet on the fossilized prints. That I do. My size 10.5 foot dwarfs these uber-ancient footprints. I stand there face to face. This moment of staring in their eyes while also standing in their footsteps came back to me while on Breakneck Ridge, as I searched for a toehold on metamorphosed granite, hardened deep in the earth’s crust eons before man took his first step.

Austrolapiths’ footprints are recorded for all time, a record of a straight-ahead walk across a muddy flat. My toehold on the granite gneiss will leave no mark, no impression on the earth. Yet at that very moment for the first time I contemplated a  connection between myself and the most early walkers: a relationship between those early humans we know by their footprints for whom walking upright was a seminal event in human history and me and my fellow humans for whom a good toehold on the rock is just another day well spent.

Why We Watch Walkers

June is a month of gathering to watch people walk, in graduations, weddings and parades.    parade march

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.

graduationWe 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.