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The Unresolved Walk, the Best Walk

Ridgeline Transmission 021


In the end I walked for about 43 days. I crested 1000 total kilometers. I had a few rest days, but most days were walking days, and the rest days were usually 5-10km days in and of themselves. There were no motionless days.

I drank two beers.

One was with an old man in his house up on the ridge high above Narai old town. He ran a minshuku or Japanese style B&B. His wife had died years ago and it was apparent, as soon as I got there, that she had been the cleaner. I was ten minutes late. I sat in his entryway waiting for him — or anyone — to arrive. The house had good bones but garbage had collected everywhere. There were hundreds of stinkbugs. The old man arrived. It turned out he had driven down the road to try and find me from worry. He was very excited for my visit. I was the only guest. Perhaps in a long time. He showed me to my room — which was quite lovely, large, with clean tatami, only a few dozen stink bugs — and then cooked me dinner. He served dried fish, said it was the first time he had tried to make it. Everything broke my heart. He didn’t have anything to drink but beer. He gave me one for free.

The other beer was at the end of the mountain stretch. A small glass with the men I had walked with. Cheers to not dying or breaking anything (I almost broke my wrist, and one of the others his forearm) or going hypothermic (it sleeted on us, heavy winds, etc).

This entire last week itself was an unexpected parting gift from the road. I found a path that seems to have been overlooked by the world. I walked for seven days and saw zero tourists. None. It was surreal. The path was well maintained, mysterious in parts, easy in others, never a serious burden. It wound through old villages that still had a bit of pep left in them. I saw a small fountain in the woods made by Kukai’s foot. I stayed in a couple of truly exceptional inns, one of which was perhaps the first and only time — I now recognize — where I witnessed total omotenashi, the archetypal goal of Japanese service selflessness. It was there, last night, that I ate the best meal of the trip by orders of magnitude. Both in quality of food and joy of delivery. Shared with a dear friend. It was as close to a perfect meal as I’ve ever had. I am still processing its flawlessness.

Hell, I’m still processing the entire trip, and suspect I’ll be processing it for a long time coming. It was remarkable. I am grateful to have been able to walk for these past 43 days. I could walk for 43 more (so easily, just go, zero effort) but feel like I am so utterly full of learning from the road that I need to stop and, you know, synthesize or combobulate the heck out of it all.

I was going to walk for two more days, but I like the idea of not finishing this final path. Leaving a little bit incomplete. Like some writers set a rule with manuscripts — never step back from the text with a resolved passage. Always leave something unresolved for tomorrow. This walk is unresolved. I’m already planning on returning in late fall and walking this last week in reverse, and then walking more beyond that.

The weather’s shifted into summer mode. I drank four liters of water yesterday. For the first 35 days of the walk I averaged about a liter, if that. Rain’s coming. I feel like the walk taught me how to smile with complete openness for the first time in my life. Last night I ate like royalty. It feels like the correct place to end.

I’m going to spend tomorrow morning consolidating all my notes from this last leg and then hop on a train bound for Tokyo, flitting past — in hours — the landscape that took me so many weeks to walk.

More on all of the above, soon. I’m being a little coy only because there’s so much to say. An essay of mine on the walk comes out in WIRED tomorrow. Be on the lookout. I am very glad to have this newsletter. Thank you all for following and supporting me along the way.


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Fellow Walkers

“I’ve spent the last two decades walking in cities - full-day urban hikes, flaneur ones, photographing and architecting and interested. But I didn’t know I liked “the outdoors” proper until a couple of years ago when a sense of excitement drove me and my newly wedded wife five days over from coast to coast across Corsica, and we haven’t stopped walking since. Suddenly it’s all we want to do, from exploring the mountains on the edge of Athens, where we live, to much longer excursions into the Peloponnese and up to Epirus, and soon further afield. And with it, something else. An awareness of nature. This spring, at 38, it suddenly hit me that I’ve never really noticed the world, and now it’s all around me, in bloom, every tree and every flower and it’s like I never saw it before and now I can’t look at anything else - can’t walk down a street without touching the trees, can’t climb a hill without tasting the leaves. So much to see and do, so much further to walk.”

“I’m in my early 20s now, and grew up bouncing between west and east Canada, feeling rootless and restless. My mom and I drove across the country, and drove back. The road feels meditative. For me, it is a place of observation as well as introspection.”

“A line from one of my most favorite television shows, Detectorists, really sums it up for me: ‘My heart has followed all my days, something that I cannot name.’”

“I’m not sure exactly when or why this happened but at some point in my mid twenties I started to be able to see others as individual people with hopes and dreams of their own, instead of just non-playable characters in my particular story.”

(“Fellow Walkers” are short bios of the other folks subscribed to this newsletter. In Ridgeline 001 I asked: “What shell were you torn from?” and got hundreds of responses. We’re working our way through them over the year. You’re an amazing, diverse crew. Grateful to be walking with you all. Feel free to send one in if you haven’t already.)


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(A weekly letter on walking in Japan)