When I was very young, my mother walked through the woods with my younger brother and me most afternoons. We shared a stroller, where I, at six years old, stuck my legs out on either side of my brother’s shoulders and reached for twigs, leaves, and daffodils as we briskly strolled beneath and among oaks, poke bushes, and bittersweet.
I internalized the rhythm of walking from a young age and, in my twenties, came to associate this love and practice of walking with the poetic philosophy of Nicholson Baker’s character Paul Chowder from the novel The Anthologist. In this novel, a meditation on poetry, anthologies, writing, sex, relationships, and the passage of time, Baker writes, “what I want is to be as much as possible at the beginning. And that’s what poetry gives me. Many many beginnings. That feeling of setting forth.” A walk is a consistent beginning, no matter the familiarity of the path followed. Every walk, like every poem, thrusts you to the forefront of its narrative and route. While you may adhere to the same path for several days, each first step is an inevitable beginning (both literal and figurative) to a different perspective, experience, or revelation.
In college and throughout my early twenties, I often cleaved to the idea that my own writing and reading were enough of a “setting forth” into the uncharted waters of language and narratives. The literal walks I embarked on were no more adventurous (or geographically spacious) than those of the characters from a Jane Austen novel, and while my favorite stories catapulted me to different countries, my own walks traveled no further than my backyard, or were employed only as a destination to an academic class, restaurant, or rendezvous. While I did find these walks to be meditative and inspiring, as Clark Strand does in his practice of creating haikus (he writes in Seeds from a Birch Tree, “haiku has become like the land itself. Each morning when I wake up I wonder what kinds of things I will notice as I walk the boundaries of that land. Loving its whiteness / I walk around the birch tree / to the other side”), I did not feel as if I were launching into the new. The phrase “setting forth,” evokes a sense of ships setting sail into unchartered territories with Odysseus at the helm, saying, “bring the trial on!”. While the walks of my childhood were sun streaked and lulling, the walks of my adult self were as functional and geometric as creating a line between two points. But never did the twain meet.
When I was twenty-six, teaching Ancient Studies at a boarding school, I, somewhat spontaneously, applied to be a course instructor for a three-week service trip to Nepal. The trip, among other things, featured a five-day trek. A fledgling desire for adventure and new beginnings spurred me on until I found myself, in late June, sipping milk tea in the Sechen monastery in Kathmandu, planning orientation activities with my two fellow instructors. The stint in the city lasted fewer than twenty-four hours, complete with a tour of the Boudhanath. The very next morning we travelled via helicopter to Jiri, where we were informed we had a seven-hour hike to our village, Kaku, where we’d reside for the next nine days. Given my proclivity for walking, I heartily strode to the front of our group, only minutes later finding myself completely winded due to a combination of altitude and steep terrain. As I quietly regressed to the back of our pack, my walking became a concentration not just on the surrounding landscape of the Solukhumbu region, but also in my footing as I slid, tripped, and scrambled over the uneven rocks. I had never much cottoned to hiking and the exercise in balance was an all-consuming enterprise involving a triptych of mind, body, and spirit. As I shifted my canvas bag on my hip and climbed through clouds, brambles, and farmland, I was only at the very beginning of both my trek and the trip itself, poised on the threshold of a new experience that required a relearning of how to walk.
The cadence of my steps was different from my aimless strolls at home, as if I were walking, not in a rambling Walt Whitman poem, but rather in the tight, condensed clarity of a Basho haiku – every step, every syllable mattered. When Strand writes, “I walk around the birch tree / to the other side,” he enters another perspective, another way of being. Similarly, my experience on this first trek led me to shift my stance to understand the rhythm and functionality of walking as well. Whereas at home a walk was a leisurely activity involving meditation or exercise, here, halfway across the world, it was simply a way of travel – the absence of paved roads and cars demanded we walk (and keep walking), no matter the weather, for food, for shelter, for the community necessary to our survival.
Upon reaching our destination at the onset of dark, seven hours later, wet from monsoon rain and sweat, I could barely stand to greet the villagers who warmed my hands with tin cups of milk tea and who gently peeled back my socks and boot lips in search of leeches with only a headlamp for light. The walk physicalized itself on my body in abrasions, blisters, and bites and just as one is able to map the topography of a landscape, so too was I able to map the topography of the walk’s residue on myself that night as I cleaned my wounds with baby wipes. While the pains of walking did not weaken my constitution so clearly as they do Marianne’s in Sense and Sensibility who, despite her deep love of walking, shirks at “a heavy and settled rain [which] even she could not fancy dry or pleasant weather for walking,” my ankles ached when I awoke the next morning to the sounds of roosters and children washing under an outdoor faucet. I traded my hiking boots for lighter sneakers, albeit still damp from last night’s thick rain, and went blinking, blurry with sleep, into the brilliant morning. The village, last night a shapeless mass of wooden buildings under a star-studded sky, was now acutely defined by the red geraniums and the white washed walls with blue roofs and trim.
As I walked the periphery of the tea houses and small shops stocked with Fanta and plastic tarps, I bowed my head to each villager I encountered, greeting and greeted with “Namaste” the whole length of the dirt path. This walk, though brief, afforded me an entirely new perspective on the necessity of walking – the proximity walking gives us to our fellow human beings and the fierce intimacy of that shared space when we pass each other on a path or street, acknowledged by a nod or our name. As I smiled, shyly stumbling over “kasto cha?” or “tapai ka naamke ho?”, I recalled a section of my favorite poem by Jack Gilbert, titled “A Brief for the Defense”:
The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world.
A walk, the closeness of a narrow path both to one another or the towering corn stalks grazing our shoulders, risks familiarity, risks delight. On this initial trek, there was little pleasure in callouses or my cotton shirt heavy with humidity. However, there were moments of astonishment, of pure delight. When we paused to rest in a smoky teahouse, several hours into that first hike, the steaming bowl of noodles brought to me with a silver dish of mashed chili peppers diminished the fatigue and acuteness of joint pain. When Chundra, our leech doctor, handed me his broken umbrella in the midst of a deluge, it was an immediacy of grace. The third morning of our five-day trek (where we clocked in over fifty miles), I awoke at 6 am to a snow-capped mountain peak and a cup of milk tea to warm my hands. The landscape, as detailed and staggering as a National Geographic photograph, was stark due to its very transience – it was monsoon season and the mountains were often obscured with the threat of rain. The very impermanence of the moment held my gaze as if poised between two stanzas or two lines, unable to recover the initial moment of, the initial reaction to, beauty, an embodiment of Rumi’s lines “the sky bears its neck so beautifully, / but gets no kiss. Only a taste.” When the clouds obscured the vision only minutes later, the experience lingered, not on my lips, but in my body, an imprint, a fragrance, a tantalizing taste.
Here is a taste: I close my eyes and a cloud engulfs me. Prayer flags flutter, light as moth wings, suggestive of silence by the very rustling of their cloth. If I were to step out I would unearth a rock or upset the water of a rice paddy, listen to the susurrus of the flickering grasses, yellow like the tongues of snakes. I am round with aloo and dal bhat. My arms are slight, but strong from lifting stalks of bamboo and carrying shards of broken stone. Even now, here, at home, this is the Nepal I recall, as readily as a creased photograph. French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote in The Poetics of Space, “it is better to live in a state of impermanence than in one of finality.” This memory remains forever impermanent and ever changing as the cloudscape in the Himalayas.
But there is a delight in this image. There is a delight from having set forth. I risked something when I took that first step into the wild unknown of my personal, poetic walk and the cadences from those steps and experiences will beat stubbornly, always, in the furnace of my own smoldering heart.
Hannah Bonner’s poems have appeared in Oyster Boy Review, The Cellar Door, Asheville Poetry Review, The Freeman, The North Carolina Literary Review, and The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume VII: North Carolina. She has a review of Robert Pinsky’s Singing School in the 20th Anniversary edition of The Asheville Poetry Review. Her essay “Someday You Will Ache Like I Ache: What Sexualized Language Means to Me” appeared in VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts December 2014. Her travel essay “Looking Up” is featured in Issue 1 of Immersion Journals on her experience in Athens and Delphi, Greece.