The Purpose of Travelling
Losing The Idea Of What You Once Thought You Were
“Being someone is all very well for smart parties where everyone is telling their story, it’s all very well for psychologists’ consulting rooms. But isn’t being someone also a social obligation which trails in its wake — for one has to be faithful to the self-portrait — a stupid and burdensome fiction?” — Frederic Gros
The route from Imlil (1,740m) to the Toubkal Refuge (3207m) takes around four to five hours to hike. For the first three hours it was rather pleasant. Initially, the route was a dirt track that weaved in between farms that stretched across a dry, barren plain at the bottom of the foothills. Then, after an hour or so, the plain halted before a rocky foothill and it was our turn to scramble along the rocks, still following the track although it was less distinct.
It did not take long before the strength of the Moroccan sun began to slow down my senses. The heat licked at our faces, already beginning to sunburn, coiling around our necks like a great serpent. The rocky ground smouldered, sending up a disorientating haze whilst the birds flew silently overhead. The crops in the farms behind us stood dead still as if too hot to move.
After a short break, the group pushed on. The track became steeper and zigzagged upwards across a great fleet of boulders and rocks. Looking up, we were now surrounded by the High Atlas Mountains. Each mountain stood tall and menacing, wearing a necklace of white snow around its peak that glistened in the mid-day sun.
Halfway to the Refuge, snow covered the surroundings, gradually melting into the stream at the bottom of the valley. I was exhausted, wet through with sweat, but content nevertheless. We marched on with brittle bones and empty lungs. Our legs moved without intention. The weight of the bags, two weeks’ worth equipment, tempted our knees to drop to the ground. Still, the sun overcame the mountain wind and slashed itself against our skin. At around three in the afternoon, the group, dog tired and sun burnt, finally made it to the Refuge. It was a relief to be able to sit down.
We would spend the next ten days mountain climbing in the Atlas Mountains. Each day, except from one rest day, we walked from the early morning to the mid-afternoon, travelling between mountains and valleys. Suddenly, I realised, I had come to a place where there was nothing to do except walk.
I was reminded of a book that I had only half read called the ‘Philosophy of Walking’ by Frederic Gros. The book encourages people to see the act of walking differently, as inherent to the human condition and a habit undertaken by great characters.
“In walking, far from any vehicle or machine, from any mediation, I am replaying the earthly human condition, embodying once again man’s inborn, essential destitution. That is why humility is not humiliating: it just makes vain pretensions fall away, and thus nudges us towards authenticity.”
Gros’ words are poetic; he is clearly passionate about his findings, but I had never given much thought to apply his advice. The book came back to my attention about half way through the trip and in a moment, I understood the power of Gros’ work.
Gros draws emphasis to the historical thinkers who saw travelling as a principal part of their practice, and contemplates over things like why Henry David Thoreau entered Walden Woods in pursuit of the wilderness, the reason Rimbaud walked in anger while Nerval wandered to cure his sadness. Gros discovers how Rousseau walked in order to think, Nietzsche in order to write, while Kant walked to divert himself from his minds proneness to overthink.
William Wordsworth walked twenty miles a day around his homes in the Lake District and Scotland, muttering verses of poems to himself whilst gazing across the landscapes. He believed that his creativity depended on movement and that the expression of emotions needed activity, joy of the body rather than the mind. He found that by moving into the unknown and renouncing everything that defined him, verses of poetry flowed more willingly.
Frederic Gros wrote about how beautiful it is, if you allow yourself, to be lost, meaning to exist without an identity. He tells wonderful stories of men who wandered around Europe and how they had come to love their freedom despite all the suffering and pain. Personally, my instinct to travel is really just a wish to lose myself somewhere. For there is no need to define yourself when you are lost, no map or certainty to abide by; it is just you in a new place with new eyes and a fresh face. I have learned to embrace the unknown this way, although not quite as confidently as one would imagine.
There is something rather fascinating about being lost. It seems the creative mind is always meandering somehow. It wanders around seeking novelty, new experiences and inspiration without cause or reason. Travelling is a reflection of this inner struggle and this is why it is so appealing to the creative.
Being lost causes you to become more attuned to your environment, you are more sensitive and grounded to your immediate surroundings. There is no present or future and you do not think about tomorrow or the evening; there is nothing but the cycle of the sun. You do not have a role or an identity, the ancient mountains do not even notice you. Social obligations are left behind and you escape the incessant need to be someone, to seek yourself in others and prove your history.
If you really value freedom then, most likely, your days of travel are without plans. Plans make sure you arrive at your destination, but you are quite comfortable to let things be. You see what you see and you become a child with an undemanding gaze.
Here, lost and absent, you have created space within yourself. You step away from all you have known and distance yourself from the person you are supposed to be. It may even seem that it is not you who is travelling, but you are watching what someone else is experiencing through their own eyes. Because, especially if you are travelling alone, you come to notice that you are slowly losing yourself, or losing the idea of what you once thought you were.
The most important idea in the book is that travelling, no matter the distance from home, allows you to detach yourself from what you were taught to think and, instead, become attentive and spontaneous.
Allowing yourself space away from the expectations that have been placed upon you is rather freeing. You see, another way of speaking about space is the relationship between things. The Hindus call it Akasha. Space is the spirit of everything. It determines the relationship, just as the interval is necessary to hear the melody.
When you give yourself this space, you are able to see more clearly the attachments that do not serve you and those that do. And so, lost in the repetition of travelling, without a name or an idea, you slowly begin to recognise the patterns within yourself. At home, you can only hear the melody but, you do not realise it is a melody for it is all you have ever heard. Travelling serves as an interval that allows you to hear the connections that exist across your life.
Without identity, you become a faceless observer of nature. This state fosters meditative qualities necessary for the creative. This is why, as Gros wrote, great minds favoured repetitive, reflective rambles rather than great voyages destined for discovery. They wished to lose their thoughts and attachments and become a blank screen that nature and medieval cities filled with poetry and truth.
For ten days I walked, without an identity, without a history. I returned from the mountains with a lighter mind and a brighter heart. I enjoyed every moment and I hope to return one day.
“The idea that at each successive moment he was deeper into the Sahara than he had been the moment before, that he was leaving behind all familiar things, this constant consideration kept him in a state of pleasurable agitation.”
― Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky
Thank you for reading.
Harry J. Stead