- How to get lost.
For most of this year, I’ve remained relatively still. I’ve been moving mostly from one place to another for practical reasons and staying for months in one place. For lengths of time I’ve stayed in more permanent structures than my house, like the family cabin, or various indoors during repair work. During this time, I’ve thought a lot about what differs the way I travel for the road, and when I travel to a specific place to do something there.
So I thought I would write a series of posts with thoughts and exercises for those who wish to know more about nomadic travel and perhaps broaden your world a bit. None of these require in themselves a lot of moving about. You will need to leave your house, but you don’t have to go very far.
Fist, I’ll need to get into what makes nomadic travel different. This not something I’ve seen written about other than as an anthropological curiosity, and always from the observers perspective. So it’s taken some time to find words in this unchartered territory.
In some of my previous posts, I’ve touched in on the subject, but as a framework, without having the words to explain outright what it is. It’s a practice rooted in a culture or oral tradition after all, and greatly vilified or ignored in written culture, so I’ve always thought of it as a practice beyond words. And of course, I’m writing about the philosophy of nomadic travel, a thought, and idea, but the practice is old and varied, and more or less successful or more or less present in the mind of the individual traveler. Let’s give it a try anyway.
The simplest way of describing nomadic travel is that it’s a dance with the land. It’s a way of connecting with the place you stay in or travel through and a way of connecting the places you travel with each other.
It’s still a common belief that the nomadic lifestyle is a form of escapism, of running away from responsibility, that it’s all about freedom or in some way childish. But the only responsibility anyone ever really has, is to the land that feeds them, not country, but land. The soil and water, plants and animals and spirit. And there are other ways to connect with land than to grow stuff on it. This is what I’ll be exploring in this series of posts.
Nomadic travel isn’t about moving away from land, it’s about moving with it. Rather than making a connection with land by staying in one place and imposing our will on it, making some things grow while killing off others, changing rivers, planting forests or burning them down, it’s a conversation and a dance.
There are, of course, several nomadic tribes, on all continents, with their unique way of moving. Some live with a herd of animals, and move with them, following the seasons and going where the food and water for the animals are, rather than forcing the food to grow and water to flow to them. Some are seasonal workers on farms or take their chances in cities. Some are confined to reservations. Most nomadic people won’t move terribly far away or cross the globe, it’s the consistency, not the length of the journey that matters.
And while some may have more ‘restless blood’ than others, and some may feel the call of the wild or the road stronger, it’s not like you can say that this is a specific genetic or even cultural thing. The very idea we have of culture, is a colonialist one. It’s one where culture is reduced to a handful of gods and a fancy dress. The real culture, the cosmology and connections to greater things than humans or the self, are in any case greatly damaged or destroyed. These posts are also a way of reviving that, not in a specific group of humans, but in the world.
So let’s say you want to do this thing. That you want to dance, connect with the road. Where do you start? I’m going to write a few posts with exercises on how to change your perspective, even if just a little. And then on how to dance.
The first thing to do if you want to travel is to get lost. It doesn’t matter where, it can be in a city, or a forest or a suburb. Even with travel restrictions, it’s still quite possible to get lost. Turn off you phone or leave it behind, go somewhere you haven’t been. Take the bus, or take that Other path that leads the Wrong Way from where you usually walk. Don’t bring anything and don’t have a goal. Make peace with the chance that you’ll never return home. Most likely you will, but it’s a good thing to let your mind get comfortable with. You can ride your bike or horse or wheelchair or whatever, but the closer you are to the ground, and the slower you move, the better.
Now some people are cursed with a perfect sense of direction, but most people are about ten steps and two corners away from being lost at all times. You just pick a road you haven’t walked, and then follow it. To make it easier, take as many twists and turns as possible, or if you’re in the woods, get away from the beaten path as soon as possible. If it’s dark, try not to use any light, there’s usually enough light pollution and moonlight to see where you’re going. A lot of people may say that this is dangerous, and it certainly is. Not as much as most people think, but a bit. Life is danger, only death is completely safe.
You don’t have to walk very far though, just to the point where you can with confidence look around you and say to yourself that you have no idea where you are. Now, look around you again, because when lost, your eyes become sharper. Try to notice things, sounds of water or traffic, familiar houses or trees, and you’re already looking at the world with wider eyes than before you started.
Now you stay here a bit, being lost. Don’t try to find your way back at once, you’re not doing this as a tracking exercise. The things is, you’re not lost, you’re never lost. You just need to find some basic things. Like food, water and shelter. That’s all. These things may be in a specific place, but as you look around, they are other places as well. (If you plan to get lost in the woods, by the way, it’s helpful to have at least some basic knowledge of edible plants and to not start doing this at winter).
When you’re comfortable with being lost, make your way back. Do not rush, and pay attention to everything, insects, plants growing out of the asphalt, birds flying over head, the call of a crow, the wind. These are the things that you will gradually start following. If you haven’t walked too far, you’re probably going to find your way back pretty soon. If you should get more and more lost, don’t panic, stop walking. Wait. Somewhere there will be something you recognize, a hill in the distance, or a light. You will find someone and they will help. The trick is to not be too vigorous and try to cover too much distance. You only need to get a little bit lost, not set off a rescue mission.
It is perfectly acceptable to ask strangers for help at this point if you should find your self more lost as you go. This is probably something you’ll have to do a lot in your travels. You will need a hand now and then, and might as well get used to asking for help if you’re not used to it before. Politeness and a slight bewilderment goes a long way. Also, if you’re not currently using your gut feeling about who to talk to and who to avoid, it’s best to start listening to that as well. I have knocked on a few doors in my time and disturbed a few dinners in order to ask random strangers if they could please tell me where I am.
The point of this exercise is in any case not to become a great outdoors person or streetwise, but first of all to get used to seeing the world as a place of possibilities. To focus on what you actually need in it, and to see that these things are not linked to one place. This will come gradually and will already be familiar to people who travel in a conventional way in their work.
The second part is to start to notice your surroundings and in time, to let them guide you rather than to plow your way to a goal. This, I’ll be writing more about next time.