Around the turn of the century (or the millennium, if you prefer), I began hiking in a semi-serious way, including overnights on a part of the Appalachian Trail that rambles from eastern New York through Connecticut to southern Massachusetts. The walking itself was calming and invigorating and reminded me of all the walking I had done over many years in my hometown of New York City – partly because I often paid less attention to where I was going, and more to where I was stepping next.
For me, walking – whether in a gridded urban streetscape or on a fern-shrouded forest trail – is a delightful mix of being entertained and making headway.
But the entertainment is not always seeing the broader environment pass by as I move through the world. I see almost only what exists in a smallish cone that reaches about 15 feet forward from my footfalls, spreading slightly to either side for a distance – and reaching up to a height approaching but not reaching my own shoulders.
In order to see outside that localized context – to understand, or even to notice, what is all around me – I need to stop, balance myself on both feet, lift my head, and gaze around like a tourist gawking at the oh-so-tall buildings in Gotham, or a hiker at Yosemite. All while standing still. Otherwise, I risk stumbling.
This is not only the way I walk – it is also the way I live. My perception of my life activity – as of my paths – is localized. My process of “planning” more closely resembles startled responses to unanticipated events. I manage only a little awareness of what milestones I may be nearing, even if I might have somehow predicted their approach.
It was for this reason – because I have trouble predicting approaching cross-streets or likely events and placing them into three-dimensional space – that when I drove a package car for UPS, I did a lot of backtracking, looking for streets and addresses I had visited before, but still couldn’t manage to integrate into my route.
It is for this reason – this complex spatial processing deficit – that I adore simple, linear, cumulative geographic movement.
This is among the reasons that I will never live in Boston, one of my ancestral homes, where simple, linear, cumulative geographic movement is severely punished – and even mocked.
But for this same reason, I can worship a trail like the Mattabesett north of Route 66 in Middlesex County, Connecticut. It begins at a rectangular map near a parking area, and it has only one branch, on which I set out as often as I have time – and on that one branch I will return to complete my trip. Intricate maps fascinate me as artifacts of culture and history, but I can’t use them to find my way home from a new restaurant or store.
I am happy to live near a trail where if I walk in one direction for an hour or so, I can simply turn around and reliably be back at the trailhead in about the same length of time – even when I take time to photograph what I see on my way and to hear stories from fellow travelers who are excited to share the discoveries they made when they went farther along that one-branched trail, turned around, and then returned.