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Long Walk Thinking

Ridgeline Transmission 089


Ridgeline subscribers —

The seasons are shifting and I’m beginning to think about Life After Book — or at least Life After Book Production — and so, naturally, a big walk is on the mind.

In Japan, the best walking months (for most of the country) are March, April, May, and then October, November, December. Obviously, the tail ends of these seasons shift by weeks on a year-by-year basis, but for most general walks, non-alpine walks, these are the months to focus on. October carries with it the rear of the typhoon season, so you have to keep that in mind. March can still dump snow on you with callous disregard. I had a friend in an adjacent tent hit hypothermic tones at elevation in May because of a sleeping bag mis-measurement. Meaning: There are always caveats and considerations.

Me? I like the cold; in my mind December is an ideal for long walks. The main downer is the short days. But in exchange you get an abundance of blue skies and sunlight and often t-shirt friendly temperatures. I did my big Ise-Ji walk last year in December and it was glorious. One particularly massive day was a race against the sun — I burned about a billion calories and almost got lost in the woods, and it ended being some of the most fun I’ve had on a day of walking yet.

This year, in April, I was supposed to be walking the Tōkaidō — a kind of sister route to the Nakasendō, which I walked last year. That’ll be the main focus for the fall.

I turn forty in November. I’d like to start this new walk the day after. I think it’s possible.

A big walk seems like a strong beginning to a new decade — six+ weeks of forward falling. Not just the Tōkaidō which will take me from Kamakura to Kyoto, but also then onward from Kyoto to Yoshino, and then Yoshino to Kōyasan, and then — time, energy, weather, life permitting — the walk from Koyasan to Shingū along the Kohechi and a piece of the Nakahechi, and then — mega inshallah and all that — from Shingū up to Ise Grand Shrine along the Ise-ji, south to north. (I want to walk the Ise-ji at least two more times because I’d like to make that the focus of a future book.) Finishing just a bit before the end of the year.

I’ve spent four New Year’s Eves on Kōyasan. One year we climbed the twenty-four kilometer or so Chō-ishi-no-michi in t-shirts, sweating through all our gear, plucking mikans from farmer trust-stalls along the path for a few coins each. My memory is all blues and greens, the yellow glare of the bright sun, flashes between the winter sky and the cedar canopy. And then the fires of the night ceremonies. Another year we abandoned the walk after only a few kilometers — the snow was up to our knees and one guy in the party couldn’t feel his feet anymore. It turns out Chuck Taylors aren’t ideal snow shoes. That year my memory is color-graded a gunmetal gray.

To get back into a long-walk frame of a mine, I’ve been rereading various older accounts of the famous 88-Temples Shikoku Pilgrimage walk. If you’ve ever read anything about walking in Japan, it’s probably focused on that — that clean circle of a walk, with numbers to count your progress up or down, historical infrastructure, et cetera. Unlike, for example, the Kumano Kodō — with its hazy edges and multiple routes — Shikoku is so neatly “contained” as to maximally seduce.

The only “newish” account of Shikoku I’ve read is Gideon Lewis-Kraus’ chapter in A Sense of Direction. The first time I read it, I was in Shikoku doing an abbreviated version of the walk and I thought his take was a bit too snarky. But rereading it last week, I realized I had been ungenerous that first time. Gideon does what others often fail to achieve when writing about fraught topics like pilgrimages: He’s interesting. He threads a fine needle of having us walk alongside him without rehashing the usual tropes of blister complaint and eye-rolling paeans of historical recitation — so easy to do on a walk like this!

Unless you’re Bruce Chatwin or Martha Gellhorn or Laurie Lee, your diary is best mercilessly edited. Meaning: It’s tough to walk and write about Shikoku and not have it fall into cliché; Gideon avoids this in his own, quirky ways that I appreciate more and more.

And therein lies a worthwhile challenge — the challenge of casting a unique gaze on the 88-Temples. Maybe a gauntlet worth picking up in the spring.

As for my fall-winter walk: There are some considerations with the book and book production to keep in mind, but my hope is that that’s all ironed out in the next six weeks, and I can leave the machine to run itself with minimal in-person input from my end. After all, my goal isn’t to be a manager of book making! but a walker who is able to make the best books possible, at a quality that delights, strongly edited, bereft of bullshit, with photos you wouldn’t expect, and enough information to plant a seed in your mind: Maybe I could do this walk, or some walk like it.

I have ideas for how to involve you fine readers in this forthcoming walk. All the more important a goal given this year — the year of Covid and no travel. More details on that later. (Minimal?) System engineering will be required. I’m famished, hungry for a big walk. I can already feel a familiar rising excitement in the chest.

Until next week,

Fellow Walkers

(From Boston)
The 60 acre park spreads out 5 floors below my window.
The 24 acre garden blooms next to it.
At 83 I still can circle both but, I have to rest because my knees hurt.
The 4626 steps are worth it.

At 15, I was sent away from home, to walk the landscape of Utah and undergo therapeutic treatment for drug use, violence, and general misbehavior. It was November – cold. I walked from the mountainous forests to the high desert, where it became warm again. I therapized. I crossed only a single paved road in 10.5 weeks. When not walking, I sat in front of a fire – made by either myself or a peer with a bow drill set – or lay in my sleeping bag. I would occasionally recall each nights’ campsite (raw earth), and by tracing the day’s journey string together a spectrum of the whole landscape as I allowed myself to evolve.

(“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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