Why the walk?

When you’ve figured out what you want to do — perhaps before or perhaps after figuring out who you are and who you want to be — you still have a few questions left in the tidy stack we all learned in primary school: WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHY?

I’ll leave out ‘How?’ because how is detail not substance. It’s important, but not important.

Who is me. Who else?

What is walk. Human speed like.

When is now. Nothing is ever done except now.

Where is uncertain. Sure, I have a place or an idea of a place in my mind — Simla, the capital of Himachel Pradesh in India, and my middle name — but I know as well that I might find everything I’m looking for, and likely a whole lot more, and never even set foot in Simla. So this isn’t exactly about where. A heading is useful, but it isn’t all.

But why? There’s a lot of answers for that, and they all have truth in them. I like walking, that’s an answer, and cycling feels too fast at the moment. I like peace, and I like continuity, and I want to do less harm to the world. Walking satisfies all three, but that isn’t all of it, I just haven’t quite figured out how to express it all.

If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.
not Einstein

Never truer, but I’ll give it a go, badly probably.

The answer to “why?” — if there is one — becomes a bit recursive, because the reason why is to figure out why.

I’ve met folk who don’t care about why, who are happy to know what, when, and where, and set off from there. I envy that sometimes. I’ve always been asking why. At school it would get me into trouble, I drove teachers mad asking why we were learning this and not that, because no one could tell me why we had to do things any particular kinda way, only that that’s how it was and I’d best get used to it. I never did get used to it, and school never did work for me. I always felt like the big idiot standing still while everyone raced ahead. Some days it seemed like they were all racing off to a great big party and I wasn’t invited. Other days it seemed for sure that they were rushing toward a towering cliff edge and I could do nothing except watch1. But there was no party, and there was no cliff edge. I was an over dramatic kid, on the inside anyway. On the outside I think I was achingly, numbingly calm, more boring than I can relay to you now.

When I was 13 or so I said to a classmate, Tom, that I was bored. This wasn’t unusual, I think was rarely anything else. He threw back that ‘only boring people get bored’ or so his mum said. It’s easy to poke holes in that if you’re pedantic, and usually I was, but I knew just as soon as he said it that it was truth, even if it wasn’t an unassailable fact. It only took me the greater part of ten years to figure out how to be something other than bored/boring2. In the mean time I disappointed all my teachers, dropped out of school, wasted another year and a half doing worse than nothing, and then got a job.

My start in the world of work picked up pretty much where I’d left off with school. I seemed competent, took on more responsibilities, was marked as a Rising Star in the business — corporate speak for “here, have some praise because no, we can’t give you a raise.” My bosses were always talking about where I’d be in five, or ten years time (”Not bloody here, pal”, is what I didn’t say). But the same as with school, all that fizzled to nothing as soon I started asking — why? Why am I here? Why this job? Why any job? The whys were more private this time, but like before, they wouldn’t go away.

I remember getting my first proper pay cheque after a couple weeks work. It was for £376.38. Minus £75.20 in tax and I had £301.18 in my bank account. Naturally I immediately went out and spent the whole lot (£298.99!) on a new pair of speakers. It was another month before I could use them because I didn’t have enough left over for an amplifier. A couple of days later I went into my manager’s office to collect my actual payslip, sealed in a ‘tamper proof’ envelope. It sounds daft, but I remember the chair that I was sitting in in the staff room when I tore that sucker open and saw my self and my time valued, to two decimal places in neat little columns for the first time. Right then and there I thought “nah, not for me”.

When I got home after work I sat down at the computer and whipped up a crude little spreadsheet. I recorded the money that had come in, and I recorded it going right back out again, then I started reading about how to retire.

If you don’t already think I’m a lunatic, know that since that revelation I have recorded every pound, penny, dollar, euro, and cent I’ve earned, spent, lost, found, or been gifted. Almost 10 years of meticulous accounting. I can tell you to the penny how much I have spent on public transport, books, clothes, phone plans, software, etc etc in these ten years. Don’t pity me though, I find a tremendous zen in it, and it has been useful beyond what I can express in words. That acute awareness of money — it’s use and it’s danger — that seemed to appear in that instant but which likely was long in coming, has made my curious life possible.

I did buy that amplifier, and a bicycle (and, stupidly, another bicycle) but on the whole, from then on I started saving as much as I could. I found a niche at work, a loop that I could optimise, a piece of the silver that I could polish endlessly without anyone really asking why I didn’t seem to want more than that, and that kept me on course while I saved. Fifteen months and fifteen pay cheques later I figured out where I was going to retire. Well, not exactly retire. I’d saved nobly, but minimum wage is minimum wage. I had enough ‘runway’ to take a year off, I reckoned. It was just before midnight on a Thursday when I booked a one way ticket from England to Melbourne, Australia3, almost as far away as you can get. The next day I gave my notice at work.

I still thought I’d be back in six months then. Six months turned into nearly six years — two years in Australia, seven months of it spent cycling; three and half years in New Zealand, much of it spent walking. I’ll leave the details for another time, but what does all this have to do with walking to India? All that preamble is meant to explain why the ‘why’ matters so much to me — or at least to show that it always has — and that it’s the why, not the what, that has brought me here.

I’ve spent almost all my life asking why, sometimes driving myself mad in the process, because why do anything without knowing why? But how do you find out why without doing first? Often you don’t. I spent a lot of years in exactly that trap, and I’ve been very lucky while I’ve been gone to meet all sorts of people and predicaments that have jump started me into a person who can think and do, rather than the think and don’t of years gone. A functioning person like, and it feels good.

Everybody needs purpose. Some people find it at school, just not me. Some people find it in their work, not me either4. Some people find it by accident, completely alone in a desert on the other side of the world, that’s me.

There’s no truer poison for the self than a tyranny of the mind. To be in complete control of the world around you is a sure recipe for a dark and darkening misery. Or it was for me anyway. Back then I was so sure that I wanted to be as far as I could be from people, and as soon as I truly was I realised that I already had been, and that what I really needed was to figure out how to be close to people. Because my default trajectory is toward isolation and oblivion. As much as I yearn for peace, for calm and quiet, what I need is disruption, commotion, and inspiration — other people.

People are chaotic, they obliterate every carefully laid plan, they make noise, they see things backwards and upside down, they eat with their mouths open, or manage to drown the bathroom every time they have a shower, throw perfectly good food in the bin, complain endlessly about the job that they refuse to leave, forget the things you hoped they’d remember, and remember the things you hoped they’d forget, totally misunderstand when ‘fine’ means fine and when it means really not fine, and they make life worth living.

I needed a bridge from the little island of my self to that big Pangaea over yonder, humanity. I found it first with cycling, now it’s walking that carries me.

In my mind is a tyrant, and only exertion teaches me humility. Only when the body is tired and the voices in my head go quiet do I really see that there is nothing between us except what I’ve put there, that my pain is the same as your pain, my thoughts much the same as your thoughts, my dreams as real as yours, not more, not less. To know you is to know myself, just as well, because I’d like to know us both.

Walking and talking, that’s what I want to do, because the two together let me see beyond my self. Feet on the earth, heart on my sleeve, head in the clouds, that’s where I find myself, and that’s where I’ll go on finding myself for the time being — and that’s why.

  1. I shouldn’t speak for other people, perhaps all those kids who seemed to not care to ask why had already found an answer that satisfied them and could get on with the what and the how with the confidence and sense of purpose that I couldn’t even imagine having. I hope that is so.↩︎︎

  2. Mostly because I was so anxious, and chronically insecure. I always had ideas about how I wanted to live, but I didn’t believe they were possible because the world seemed to say at every turn that there was only one way and that my way wasn’t it.↩︎︎

  3. I paid £393.69 for that flight. Not much more than I’d blown on that pair of speakers 15 months beforehand.↩︎︎

  4. I love working, and I find a great deal of purpose and pleasure in it, but not a life’s purpose.↩︎︎