Walking the World: Backpack Pilgrim
The journey of the pilgrim is essentially
one of negation,
of taking away or dropping that which is unnecessary.
In this way, each step becomes simpler and lighter
than the one which preceded it.
Today will be a day of descent.
Heading South into the Italian-speaking part of the European
Alps, for five days now I've been winding my way through a labyrinthian
landscape of small, uninhabited alpine valleys. But now, I've reached a
major dividethe point where two vast watersheds meet and diverge,
one flowing Northwest, the other Southeast.
Out of this natural articulation of the land into parts, different cultures and
languages have emerged and flowered. But here, unlike the busy border
crossings used by trucks and cars, there are no signs to mark the spot or
men in uniforms asking for passports. There's just a clan of alpine
jackdaws, all shiny black, riding the late morning thermals in ever-higher
spirals, at home on either side of the divide. One bird breaks away from
the others, folds its wings and dives headlong into the distance as its body
gracefully modulates into something like the small black dot which ends
a printed phrase.
One must prepare inwardly for these high alpine crossings. It is not just
the uncomfortable feeling of passing through the strangely alien zone of
the North side of a mountain, with its deep shadows and permanent cold.
Nor is it just the powerful sense of the world contracting around you as the
rock walls of a narrow col close in, giving back the metallic sound of your
crampons biting into the icy firn snow of early fall. As the pass grows steeper
and the zig-zag of ascent tightens into a line of single steps, one above the
other, I always feel the need to compose myself before the final moment
of crossing the divide to the other side.
Every time, every crossing, is always the first. You must know this for your-
self, this great wave, this vast sense of space, which suddenly rushes in.
This is the moment for me when all the memories of the past, all the poems
I have struggled to understand, all the music I have ever performed, both
the good and the bad, simply wither and fall away. To gaze out upon the
entire breadth and width of a wild valley you have never seen before, taking
it in, as it were, in a single breath, and to know that this is where you are
headed, full of all the exciting prospect of the new and unknown, is truly
But it's too windy and cold up here to linger long, so I scramble carefully,
one step at a time, about three or four hundred meters down a boulder field.
Looking ahead, I can already see terrain that is less steep, and a small, inviting,
sunny spot near a stream to sit, have something to drink and rest a while.
The granite rocks are all about the size of small cars, balanced precariously,
one on top of the other. I can't help thinking that, in the spring, this would be
one long smooth glissando or glide down the mountain over hard-packed snow.
But now, with fall, the intense sunlight of the southern exposure has long ago
melted all the winter snow. So different the smooth, continuous rhythm of
my ascent over Northside ice, and now the irregular, rough jerks and leaps
of the happy, sunny, Southside.
The nearest village is still almost two vertical kilometers below, but I can
already hear the traffic of a major North / South connecting highway. The
sound rises on the same gentle updrafts which carry the jackdaws still
Like so many other areas of contemporary life, mountaineering has un-
fortunately fragmented into just so many specialties with a characteristic
emphasis on outward measure: ever higher, faster or more difficult. What
used to be called "the freedom of the hills" is now frequently traded in for
a list of personal achievements attached to one's name like medals on a chest.
And, now that most peaks have already been named and climbed, the search
for something new and spectacular has taken on the air of the ridiculous, being
determined mostly by the clock -- "climbed in half the normal time!"
Ironically, the clock -- that prototypical artifact of the mechanical way of life --
was the very thing one wanted to get away from by going to the mountains
in the first place.
I must confess that I prefer the more open country of mountaineering as
pilgrimage, climbing peaks perhaps when the views are good, but just as
contented with a pass. This is pilgrimage not just in the sense of journeying
to especially beautiful or powerful sites, but more as a movement. This is
pilgrimage as a movement which, like poetry itself, essentially takes away,
dropping freely, without forcing, that which is inherently wasteful or
The cars and trucks of the road below move in a very different direction.
The roar of a diesel grinding its way up the sharp curves and steep grades
of a mountain pass...
If greed has a sound, then this is it.
The bells of a small flock of sheep wake me from my nap. I need to get
going. I still have to go down, get food, gas for the cooker and climb up
the other side of this valley and find a new camp before dark.
After a good bit of cross-country rambling, I pick up the faint trace of an
old goatherd's trail. It passes a cluster of stone huts, the roofs having
collapsed many years ago.Evidently, the stronger vertical order of the walls
only very slowly gives itself back to the random shuffle of a natural pile.
Further down, gradually leaving the low juniper, cranberries and kinnikinnik
of the alpine tundra, I come into the larger, more erect trees of the continuous
forest. Here, the trail becomes an ancient ox-cart path, the work of many
generations. Each stone is layed like a well-chosen word in a carefully
constructed phrase, and worn well, like a phrase worth repeating.
It's so remarkable, this difference between the view within the car and
the view of the highway from the vantage point of the forest clearing where
I now stand. Clearly, the automobile is not simply a neutral mode of
transportation; it is something more like a way of being, a kind of meta-
physics on wheels. To step into the car and close the door is to turn the key
which activates an entire self-worldview. Comfortably seated, a gentle
breeze coming in from the half-opened window, the speakers in the back
playing one's favorite music at just the right volume, enough of the motor's
purr filters through to let one know that this is all real and not a mere
projection on a screen. The foot on the pedal, the hands on the wheel:
it's hard to think of another context which gives us such a strong sense
of power and control.
From within the car, all is order and harmony. But this, of course, is an
illusion, one which is evidently extremely difficult to break. Seen from
the wider context of the car-plus-environment, the car is unequivocally a
disorderly, destructive instrument. This is not just because of the toxic
gases suffocating the spruce trees of the forest through which I now
pass. It's also because the car itself has driven us into a state of isolation
and indifference which at once destroys both the land and, in a far more
subtle way, the sensitivity necessary to see the destruction.
Tragically, as every environmentalist knows, as long as we remain within
the artificial world of cars and car culture, everything will appear perfectly
okay. Hey! What's the problem? Get out of the way!"
Crossing a foot bridge over the road, I look down on the steady flow of
trucks, motorcycles, campers and cars. This is a flow which has tremendous
mechanical power behind it. Listening to the noise it generates gives one a
sense of how difficult it will be to change. But there is also the ever-
present possibility of simply stopping, getting out of the car and venturing
up to higher ground. To pause is evidently momentarily to dissipate the
energy that is caught in the loop which sustains the illusion. In the gap,
there is the potential of a new awareness, a new understanding, a new
beginning. Perhaps I'll return to the car, perhaps I won't. But, as
the jackdaws have always known, from the land far above the road,
the views are superb.
| listen to Cliff Crego read at the ListeningPage: Backpack Pilgrim [Requires QuickTime] |