Just Put One Foot in Front of The Other

Walking may be the most natural way of getting from A to B, but there must be more to it than that.  Are the dandy, the drifter, the dog walker, the peripatetic artist, tourists and their guide, barefoot pilgrims and sign carrying protest marchers all on the same footing?  Tomes have been written and TV shows produced about why we walk, who loves to walk, and where to find enjoyable walks.  A few famous and keen walkers are Wordsworth, Martin Luther King, Jr., Elizabeth Bennet, Nietzsche, Bob Dylan, and, of course, me.

But why do we do it?  What is behind this temptation to get out and put one foot in front of the other?  Nietzsche wrote, “It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.”  That certainly bodes well for this blog, as I thought a lot about it while walking.

In mid-May, I began a two-week stay in East Sussex.  Several years ago, a colleague from Rutgers University and I developed a summer class for students.  A simple concept with so many possibilities:  We would spend two weeks walking the South Downs and letting the rhythm and landscape, the people and events, provide a springboard for creative writing.  An opportunity for these students to develop a sense of place and express it through poetry and prose.

As I walk through a meadow smothered in wildflowers near Kipling’s home in Burwash, my heart expands seeing the abundance of daisies, buttercups, cow parsley, poppies, and soft brush tops of a variety of grasses.  A herd of cows eye me as I approach, all the while, slowly chewing, chewing, chewing, chewing the spring grass and clover.  During this brief staring contest with the cows, my mind drifts to home and the field outside our kitchen window where pointy reed bushes provide a backdrop to the wild foxgloves poking through for summer.  Together, both create a camouflage for the hidden-ankle-spraining granite boulders and rabbit holes that make walking through this field a challenge for all but the livestock.  An outcropping of gorse, heather and a slow-growing, but determined Rowan tree are reminders of the nutrient weak soil.

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Sussex!  Oh, lovely Sussex!  With its soft and forgiving walks, easily navigated with an OS map and a bit of intuition.  Even a downpour of rain results in nothing more than getting wet and muddy.  It’s rare to have a descending fog, relentless gale force winds and the cold weather that can spell curtains for a rambler gone astray on Dartmoor.  I confess, it is wonderful to have a few weeks of walks offering forgiveness under my feet and the freedom of simultaneously walking and looking out at the horizon.  While I strut along the South Downs Way, I watch birds soar above and the green undulation of the downs reaching out toward the sea.  I let my mind drift.  And drift it does.

In stark contrast is the country-side of our beloved Dartmoor, significant for its wild, untamed and elusive landscape.  Its jagged outcropping of tors, torrential rivers and hidden bogs require a constant vigilance to prevent a misstep or an ankle twist.   Remaining ever mindful to avoid stepping onto an unstable rock or into a boggy patch, drowning my boot and socks.  As Roger and I cultivate a quieter life, we find ourselves in a more demanding location.  In Sussex, I spy lovely cottage gardens – hollyhocks, gladiolas, forget-me-nots – and know none of this could ever survive our acidic soil, battering of rain and wind, cooler and cloudier days where nettle, moss, gorse, and lichen take their time to establish a tenacious existence.  The hills and moors of Dartmoor fold over themselves deep into the distance.  When one falls from sight, another appears.  The only limit upon them is the horizon.  Is loving this rugged and untamable landscape like lusting after a strong and silent cowboy?  Despite all effort, it may never reciprocate my affections.

On a recent walk with Roger and Millie — Sam electing to remain napping on the cool kitchen floor — we set out with a soft sun and puffy clouds above and a strong breeze from behind.  About an hour into the walk, a coolness descended and the light turned grey.  As we paused to note this, the wind kicked up and we were soon being pelted by hail.  The weather swirled around, causing us all to struggle with our steps as if we had been drugged.  Racing up the hill, we took brief shelter behind a tor and bemoaned the limitations of a weather app in this microclimate.  The wind eventually pulled back and the hail stopped, but not before we were wet, exfoliated and somewhat chilled.  Soon, the sun poked out between layers of grey and white clouds as if nothing had happened.

We walked home where Roger fixed us a medium-enormous gin and tonic and we moved into the living room and sank into the sofa.  Soon we would begin to prepare our dinner, discuss the news or our next project, watch the birds at the feeder, play endless games of fetch with Millie and massage Sam’s old and aging back legs.

So why do we stride out? In an ever auto-dependent world, it’s nice to see the country-side, get some exercise, take photos, learn about birds and plant life, catch up with friends, and even stimulate some creative juices unleashing a story or a song.  But, it’s more than that.  Whether in the company of others or not, there comes a time in every walk where we are alone with only our thoughts and observations, falling neatly to the rhythm of our pace and our breath.   And in that solitude, there emerges a sense of self and grounding.  Whether it is a familiar path walked daily, or a new trail yet to be discovered.   It may just be that no one can provide a sense of place for someone else.  We have no choice but to find it for ourselves and it is in doing that — taking it in our own strides, shuffles, struts, or lopes — that we cease to be alone.

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Treasure Island. A Different Tale.

On some level, all of us love stories of buried treasure and tales of lost fortunes.  Whether the riches are inherited or pirated, they lay hidden in locations known only to those now long dead.  Let’s be perfectly clear, buried treasure is not the same stuff found by archaeologists and metal detector users the world over.  No, buried treasure is just that, it’s treasure, and in my mind the singular domain of pirates or criminals who for whatever reason left their booty behind, well hidden in a remote place, to retrieve later with the aid of a map.

There are many accounts of lost and found treasures and the idea of uncovering unimaginable wealth is seductive.  Many of these supposed fortunes are likely to be myths, or, have been slowly and discretely spent.  Take, for example, the German gold that went missing at the end of WWII.  It is possible that this gold was smuggled to South America and introduced into the market?  Or could it still remain locked in private bank vaults where it is impossible to claim.  Is it not likely that the gold reserves of the last Tsars of Russia are now in the hands of new governments?  And the Titanic?  I’m thinking those treasures never existed in the first place – even though they did recently auction Wallace Hartley’s violin.

Still, you can’t help but dream.  Imagine stumbling upon those Lost Faberge Eggs!  Or uncovering the Treasure of the Knights Templar, especially given the hype from Indiana Jones movies and The Di Vinci Code?   Sure, Long John Silver, Blackbeard, and even Captain Kidd may all come to mind when one imagines looted treasure being buried for later retrieval.  What we do know is that any map worth its treasure, whether tattered or tattooed, has an “X” to mark the spot to locate those hidden gems.

More commonly in fiction than in reality, these maps are often hand drawn and contain arcane clues to aid the user in finding the loot.  One of the earliest suspected instances of a treasure map is the copper scroll, which contains a list of over 60 locations with detailed directions pointing to hidden stores of gold and silver.  It was written between 500 and 100 AD.  But is it real?

I can’t help wonder how do you get your hands on one of these maps?  Who among us hasn’t longed for a crinkled map to fall out of the back of an old dresser or Grandmother’s photo album?  And, what about the crazy luck of the Scooby-Doo Gang finding a treasure map in their pizza box?

I have a standard for what I consider to be treasure, and I suspect I’m not alone.  For example, most, and I solidly place myself in this camp, would NOT consider a bottle of Gallo Rose to be a treasure.  Gold bullions?  Absolutely!  And yet, recently, a treasure hunt has presented itself to us involving a ghost, a pirate and some buried stash!

Here’s the back-story:  Many years ago, a cheap bottle of Rose wine appeared in our house, left behind after being re-gifted by a party attendee.  Hey! Party-attendee! Thanks for that!  When friends called one night to invite us over for a drink, we could hardly show up empty handed so we did the only thing available at the moment and showed up with a half empty bottle of a lovely wine we had started earlier and the re-gifted bottle of plonk, the now infamous Rose.  Not a particularly high-class move on our part, but it was at least an honest gesture.

Since that evening, this bottle has made the rounds between our houses.  Like a bad penny, it keeps turning up unexpectedly:  one time standing proudly in a refrigerator; another time mixed into a case of wine; another, left on a front door step.  When we moved, our friends smuggled it into our house on their first visit, leaving it behind in the shower only for us to discover it as they drove off down the track.   However, Dartmoor magic prevailed and this same bottle made its way to their front door, over 200 miles away, just a few days later.  Back and forth, back and forth, the now speckled-with-paint-from-a-house-decorating-project bottle of Rose joined our friends on a ski trip in France, but failed to make it across the Atlantic to join us in Montana for a birthday celebration weekend with friends.  The cunning deception, detailed planning and execution of this bottle traveling between our two households continues and escalates.

The Bottle itself.  Notice the paint splatters.

The Bottle itself. Notice the paint splatters.

Until recently, I thought the idea of coming across a treasure map was the stuff of legends.  But the other day an email arrived in my inbox entitled ghostofcrockernpast@gmail.com and attached within — a treasure map!

In addition to landmark clues, the treasure map we received contained a helpful message, Treasure buried under large rock. Good luck treasure hunters. Wooooo oooo ooo.”  Honestly, look for yourself:

Not a precise map as there are now two horses in the field and nine chickens in the yard.  But, aren't these maps supposed to have cryptic clues?

Not a precise map as there are now two horses in the field and nine chickens in the yard. But, aren’t these maps supposed to have cryptic clues?

Feeling a little like Nancy Drew, I suggested to Roger we head out in the dark in search of this missing treasure.  We donned our wellies and fleeces, grabbed flashlights and invited our faithful hound, Sam, to join in the hunt.  We committed the map to memory and headed out into the dark.  No self-respecting treasure hunt would be complete without ample atmosphere and we had it in spades.  The clouds obscuring the moon made for an eerie glow and the surrounding mist mostly ate the light from our flashlights.  We took each step with care across the rocky and boggy path indicated on our map.  To add to this atmosphere, a Tawny Owl hooted in the distance as if cueing a spectral ghost, or more to the buried treasure plot, an evildoer hell-bent on stealing our map and thus the buried treasure, to appear and lead us to our doom.

At the end of the trail, we located the large rock, moved it aside and unearthed a cylindrical container swathed in plastic.  Inside was the bottle of Rose.  What is one person’s hidden treasure is another person’s discovered poison.  Now, we await the return of those who entombed their valued goods, securing the memory of its location with a well-drawn map.  We are prepared to happily return this Rose to its rightful owners.

The pirate who will return to collect her buried loot.

The pirate who will return to collect her buried loot.