Header image for Responses to SMSs Part 4

Fellow walk-a-noids —

I have to admit: I am jonesin’ for a serious walk. It’s been about six weeks since the Ise-ji and, well, that’s feels like ancient walking. But January 2020 is about stillness and setting up (one hopes!) the rest of the year. So I am writing from my studio, and the rain outside is cold and furious. Inside my room is warm and properly humidified. It is, dare I say, perfectly humidified.

Off to SF in a week for the Figma conference. In preparation for that I’ve been looking back at my Pachinko Road: Walk With Me SMS book, which has only fueled the walk-longing. But it’s also reminded me how much I value this giant “loop” we’ve created together. I’m still only half-way through the book in terms of responding. And so even now, some eight months after the walk itself, I get to return, remember, and we get to continue our conversation.

Cool farmer, did you get to try a tomato?

Oh, even though those farmers wore blue jumpsuits, looking like they may have had baskets of tomatoes just behind the counter, in truth they were bereft of tomatoes, tomato free, and I fear had I asked for one, they would have laughed me into the grave.

What is siphon coffee?

Japan, in all of its Galapagos-esque sheltered glory, skipped straight from very little coffee to high-end hipster siphon coffee around the turn of the 20th century. And a bunch of countryside coffee shops are still operating on that standard set around 1903.

Outside of Japan, siphon coffee was only recently rediscovered (or perhaps just rebranded, or remarketed). Siphon coffee is the kind of coffee you can get in Blue Bottle for like $12 a cup — the kind made in chemistry equipment, with the bunsen burner below the glass globe and tall carafe, funny chains and brushes. Where the coffee sort of burbles up through the grounds and then settles back down once you remove the heat. Except in Japan — like I said — there is nothing special about this method of coffee preparation. You find it often in the middle of nowhere, and for cheap.

Jan Chipchase and I ran our Focus retreat last October in the lumber town of Yoshino, and the local kissa — into which we sort of unceremoniously plopped all 15 of the retreat attendees to the simultaneous delight and horror of the one other customer — was serving up some mean siphon for about $2USD a pop.

On my Nakasendō walk, I ran into some siphon on day 13 just as I entered Narai on the Kiso-ji portion of the trail. There’s a small cafe towards the mouth of the town — Matsuya — and it’s there you can drink strong coffee with Edo-era snacks. The owner (as one of you dubbed him: “japanese richard branson?”) has a three-legged dog and the most robust, majestic, silverfox coiffure perhaps of any coffee shop anywhere. His coffee is solid, and siphoned.

Wonderful to hear how your movement has become meditative. Would love to hear more about that transition. Surely one doesn’t need to walk hundreds of kilometers to achieve that quality. How can we all be moving through life that way?

I’ve written about the “floating consciousness” mode of walking a few times now. And, damn, I wish I could say I found a trick to hold on to that throughout my “normal” day-to-day, but the short answer is: There’s no trick.

Sure, there is the “physiological memory” of the experience. This phrase might make sense to anyone who’s completed a ten day vipassanna course. That is: Being able to return to a state of mind as triggered by the memory of the body at some time. But that memory is (usually) generated only through drab repetition.

And so to get to grace — studied, effortless grace — as far as I can tell, you have to put in the kilometers. I wish there was a hack. As for me — no hacks work, and I’m still a million miles from anything graceful. Even breaking my neurotic baseline — attaining a slightly more meditative state — required it’s own years of cumulative efforts. Mainly ramping up to longer and longer walks over half a decade, like sneaking up on myself. Tricking myself into doing more of this. Hacking life to allow for more space for more walking. Starting membership programs.

That said, here’s something I’ve taken away from all my walking that you may be able to shimmy into your own lives: Find a way to add phone-free walking to your daily schedule. Make it non-negotiable. Make it easy. Skip a bus ride from your house to the station. Get off a station earlier on the way to work. Use 30 minutes of your lunch break to walk to a far-off cafe. The important thing is to leave the phone off the body. It can be in a backpack, that’s fine. Keep it out of easy reach. Even better: keep it at home. I don’t know if the lightness will register for you, but it does for me. Phone, no phone, two entirely separate universes. Like starting the day with the internet on or off. A totally different quality of time and thinking. For me, the phone removed or reduced to a simple tool brings me back to the walks, and in being brought back to the walks I remember the floating consciousness, and from that, if I’m lucky, a dollop of grace.

“Add phone-free walking to your daily schedule.” That may sound reductive and dumb, but all the best tricks to life seem to sound reductive and dumb when you say them out loud. The trick — with most anything! — is repetition, and the shortest route to repetition is making it non-negotiable, reducing friction, baking the act into the schedule, having it simply be the next thing you must do rather than something you can choose to do. Start with something this small, and you may find yourself figuring out ways to otherwise wedge a few hundred kilometers into your life.

Until next week,

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Fellow Walkers

“Born in the urban wilds of Texas, I learned that only steers and queers would leave our state. So as a lesbian I moved to Portland, and then Oakland. I save most of my travel energy for exploration of Japan, which I’ve been visiting annually for the past 10 years, and dearly love. I wear my shoes out in Nakazakicho, Koenji, and in various gardens and mountains.”

“From a chimeric mix of old English stone and California desert brush, always wishing for the one while pacing through the other. I’m starting to learn that I carry them both in my bones—that every step bridges two continents.“

(“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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