One of my favorite pastimes has always been exploring my local area. Whether it be on foot, on a bike or with the aid of a vehicle, a boat or a train, seeing what’s out there has never failed to lure me. You could call it wanderlust, but one label could never quite describe it, neither explain the philosophical significance of it.
As I was on one of my regular walks yesterday, the desire for solitary wandering unexpectedly overtook me and I started walking along the railways near my city. Step by step, the city started to fade away and disappear from my surroundings — first on the right and then on the left. It was still afternoon, and, because it’s winter here, quite chilly. Yet I didn’t care. The excitement of walking along a new and unknown path, combined with the necessity to always be on the lookout for giant moving pieces of metal, or trains as we normally call them, naturally heightened my senses. Thus, as soon as the buzz of the city died down, and Nature revealed itself, I was ready to experience it.
It’s hard to explain but there is something quite meditative about hour-long walks like this. Alone and separated from civilization, my mind easily finds rest. Although, to be fair, I usually listen to something along the boring part of the way — when it’s dark or when the road is all the same for kilometers ahead.
Actually, I think that’s partly the secret why wandering works for me. It allows me to escape the worries of civilization for a while — the ordered chaos of the city — and recreate instead a simple chaotic order. In other words, instead of the thousands little rules of the city — where you can go, where you can’t, the cars, the noise, the businesses, the ads, the people, each ordered in their own way but combining together in a form of emergent chaos — wandering offers a taste of life closer to the chaos of nature. A chaos that, due to its pristine simplicity, is often more ordered than the city itself.
Of course, Nature can be dangerously wild and chaotic too — I wouldn’t venture out in the Amazon on my own anytime soon! And although the lethal dangers of the wilderness are obvious to see, the order of the city can be just as stifling for the human wellbeing.
Thus, my place, the one to which I so often wander, is always a delicate combination of the human and the natural. It’s the seeing of nature while walking on the railway, it’s the going to the mountaintop while following the trail left behind by others before. It’s the solitude of nature with an outside view of civilization (the outlines of villages and cities in the near distance).
It’s being at the very border where one can experience the best of the human and the natural world. It’s where you are not watched by anyone else and where no one but you can guarantee your safety. It’s the sudden slip of the foot on the way top, it’s the staying away from the moving trains or escaping from the guard dog chasing after you for daring to cross its territory at night. It’s the slow taking on the chaos of the world away from the loving, yet choking, arms of civilization. It’s learning to be yourself and to depend on your brain for your safety. It’s where real freedom is found.
I think all of that is incredibly important. Not because of the meditative effects (honestly, they wear off in a day or two). Rather, because of the feeling that you know what it feels like to solve problems in the real world as it presents itself to you, not as you would rather have it be. That’s perhaps the most important skill wandering teaches. It’s in many ways the source of wisdom many travelers display.
I am not talking about those who hop from country to country and only ever stay in hotels and visit only the famous museums (I think they are missing much of the point of traveling, which is precisely the opposite of the comfort they cling to). Rather, I am really talking about the ones who take on the emptiest of roads and the steepest of trails; the ones who swim in rivers; the ones who find hotels boring and would instead prefer to spend the night under the desert sky; the ones who would rather dine with locals instead of a fancy restaurant (although these two are not necessarily contradictory).
So yeah, the interplay between civilization and nature is absolutely fascinating. Wandering around and willfully opting out of society for just a while (so you could people-watch during the day, or wrestle with nature during the night) is one of the most amazing (and highly spiritual) experiences out there. It’s so simple yet it won’t be a lie if I said that this is what my life is ultimately about — a playful journey of curiosity and a desire to understand my (our?) world through gradual transcendence of the unnecessary rules imposed on me from without.
If I had to summarize what all of the above means to me in one sentence, it would be: the controlled contact with the unknown. Although wandering is but a part of it (another is wrestling with mind-bending novel ideas), it’s the perfect metaphor for what this blog is all about: the moment and place when/where the youthful in us (the curiosity and the foolishness to break the rules) meets the freedom of actual real-world experience.
So, don’t be afraid to go out, wander, explore. Be with yourself (or rather, be with the world) and you’ll start to see wonders. I know I do, when I spend the early nights of the morning cycling around the country or walking around aimlessly, watching the stars and avoiding whatever danger presents themselves to me. And, since I know not all countries are equally safe, it’s important to note that different places offer different opportunities to face the unknown. Where I am this means going out of the city at night. At another place, it might be simply walking just around the block. At a third place, and if you’re lucky to be able to afford it, it might be skydiving or scuba-diving. It doesn’t ultimately matter as long as it’s neither too dangerous nor too safe. It doesn’t ultimately matter as long as it lets you truly feel free.
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