Commentary – Something waiting around every corner

Commentary by Joe McWilliams

One of the great things about growing up was (and is) exploring trails.

The thrill of anticipation about what might be around the next corner or over the next ridge never really goes away; never gets old.

When you were a kid it was exploring a ravine that took you down to what seemed to be a secret bend in a river, with its own little sandbar. There, you found fossils in rocks, never before seen by human eyes, or so it was easy to imagine. Shiny flecks in the sand were probably gold. Fish jumped, eagles soared and the water rushed by around a bend. What in the world would a kid in circumstances like that need a television for?

While I was doing things like that, other people were up to more serious stuff along the same lines. The year I was born, for example, a fellow named Newby chucked his job in the fashion industry in London and drove off to Afghanistan with a friend. They went as far as their station wagon would take them (somewhere north of Kabul), then hired a few locals and their horses and walked into the mountains. The plan was to climb a 20,000 ft. peak in the Hindu Kush, apparently just because it was there, and they could. Or they thought they could. It turned out they couldn’t.

What Newby did was write a humourous account of the adventure. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush became quite famous (I’m reading it right now). It probably inspired all sorts of other rambles in wild places. Was it a coincidence that Bill Bryson named his book on his adventures on the Appalachian Trail, ‘A Walk in the Woods?’ I don’t think so!

When you walk in remote places, relying upon the kindness of strangers, there’s bound to be a certain amount of discomfort. But there is also likely to be a great deal of satisfaction. The humour inherent in such endeavours is a bonus – one that sharp fellows such as Newby and Bryson have turned to profit. Laughing about your own misfortunes can be quite endearing. If all you do is complain about them, who’s going to listen?

Three years or so ago I tracked down an old schoolmate I hadn’t seen or heard from for 40 years. I had heard he and his wife were hiking from Canterbury in England to Rome. Why would anybody do that?

‘It’s an old pilgrim route,’ he told me (on Facebook: I admit it). ‘We don’t expect to meet many other hikers.’

This was in contrast to the Camino de Santiago in Spain, which they had already done, and which my wife and I were contemplating.

‘It’s a river of humanity,’ he said.

‘Rats,’ I thought. ‘That doesn’t sound very enticing.’

He continued: ‘And as soon as you’re finished, you’ll start making plans to do it again.’

There’s a delightful scene in Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles,’ where three young university students, on a walking holiday in the south of England, come upon a country dance. One of hikers becomes enchanted with a local lass and a whole story grows out of that chance encounter.

The point of this story is that something fascinating and memorable may be waiting around the corner. But if you are stuck in a car going 120 kph, you probably won’t ever see it.

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