What mountains and forests I’m not walking through
August 6, 2012
Although I have no religious beliefs, this walk has been a pilgrimage of sorts – or, at least, has taken on many attributes of one. Atheists can have pilgrimages too, and mine has involved physical hardship, and occasionally mental hardship, the retracing of a once-trodden route, and the process of arriving at a destination of deep importance. On the way I’ve experienced wonder, and genuine moments of transcendence, to which the hardship has obviously been essential. On several occasions I have felt the presence of Patrick Leigh Fermor – not in a looming, ghostly sense, but in the absolute certain knowledge that he had been in the exact same place, or looking at the exact same thing, as I was eight decades later. These were not places mentioned in his books, and the certainty I felt bordered, at times, on the uncanny. In this, and many other senses, the journey has been a spiritual one too.
Last summer, before I started walking, I met someone else who had walked to Istanbul, though by a different route. He talked a lot about pilgrimage, and pointed out that ‘before planes and trains, pilgrims had to return from their destination by walking. Constantinople or Rome was the journey’s centre point – your real destination was your front door.’ In the original sense of pilgrimage, the journey home was as important as the journey to the place of worship, because this was a process of integrating the knowledge the pilgrim had gained on the road into his or her everyday life – and of making that knowledge useful.
Since arriving in Istanbul – the centre-point of my journey from home – I’ve had suggestions from many people that I carry on walking, or at least return home slowly, overland. I’m deeply grateful for all these suggestions, and for the offers of further hospitality – originally I had intended to hitch-hike, take buses and maybe ferries and trains, and spend a few weeks on the return, becoming acclimatised. However, this won’t happen this time. England is important to me too, there are people there I need to see and things there I need to do, and I have reasons for going back now – reasons that really matter. So tomorrow morning I’ll do the thing I always said I wouldn’t do, and board a plane that will take me home in around four hours – 224 days of walking reduced to less than half a day. In many ways the idea terrifies me, and I’ll spend the duration of the journey staring out of the window and wondering what’s down there, what mountains and forests I’m not walking through, what landscapes I’m not understanding, what people I’m not meeting. I experienced something similar the time I caught a train in Germany, when I’d crippled my left foot, and the few times people drove me around on day trips here and there – travelling at even these speeds was shocking enough, after walking pace, so God knows what flying will be like.
But it’s ok. It really is. It’s part of the journey too. I’ll just have to try to compress my homecoming integration-of-knowledge into four profoundly disorientating hours – or, more excitingly, into the book. Every experience is interesting, and everything is important. That’s one thing that walking has taught me, and I’m not forgetting it now.
Still, though, it makes me realise something seldom understood about flying – something you only come to understand if you value travelling slow. If the meaning of life – or one of them – is the accumulation of memories, stories, experiences and adventures, and truly living in the world, then flying is not an efficient way to travel. Travelling quickly is a waste of time.