the skagit trail / credit: em
I grew up in a small village in the countryside. The village did not have street names; in fact, streets were rare: most of the village roads were dirt with patches of tar and gravel, there were no sidewalks, and the houses were not lined on the streets but were obscured behind the towering pine and oak trees. The main road was only an arm’s length wider the side roads, and on harsh winters, they would disappear entirely. Small streams would form, flowing down the mountain, the water churned by wheels of cars making buttery mud that would stick to their bottoms, a wintery stucco that would only completely disappear in spring.
However, cars were mainly reserved to go outside of the village, to the city where there were doctors and shops and banks and supermarkets and a movie house and dozens of restaurants. Most of the people walked from place to place in the village because it was so small. Throughout my childhood, it had no more than a hundred families, and second because the infrastructure was near to nonexistent in many areas of the village. So people walked from their houses to their studios, to the center of the village where there was a small restaurant, a grocery store, and three times a week, the postman would come in a truck, and people would line up to send letters, buy stamps, and get packages from the outside world.
But for me, walking wasn’t about infrastructure, size, or purpose; it was a real autonomous act. The first time I walked alone to my friend’s house, who lived on the other side of the village (we called it “the hill”), I was around five years old. I walked along the road, waving to the people in the cars passing by, brushing up against the cypress trees, kicking stones, and touching hollyhocks. From that day, I walked everywhere, no matter if it was blazing heat or pouring rain. Then, when I got a bit older, I would walk into the woods; not to get anywhere, but as an afternoon venture with my friend: we would pick mushrooms (we knew to identify the right kind), go down to the creek, and even walk down to the olive grove. As long as I had feet, I could go anywhere, even walk down to the main road and hitchhike to the city. And it was autonomous not because I could go anywhere, that I knew all the trails by heart, but I also knew how to forge new trails, how to get to where I wanted to go or walk without knowing, but confident that I could get back safe and happy.
On warm Saturdays, when the water was still too cold to swim in, I used to leave my house and walk towards the old cave on the other side of the ridge. I wouldn’t tell my parents I was leaving—they were used to waking up with me long gone, perhaps at a friend or gone surfing—I would roll out of bed and walk out of the door.
I would quickly walk up the road leading out of our village, a steep incline of tar and dirt, and cross the main road onto the dirt road overlooking the olive grove. The soil was nice and white, and small clouds of white dust would gather at my feet as I picked up speed. Around the bend, another incline, the view of the ocean becoming more visible with every step.
I was never a winter person. The rain made me angry. My thoughts dampened; summer vacation was far away. The village became especially oppressive. My friends and I would have to spend afternoons indoors or drink our cokes in the restaurant, being eyed at by people we knew, but didn’t want to do with.
So walking in my sandals, feeling the sun hit my forehead, I would feel light, the teenage woes lifted. Here in nature, walking past the old barn, which was the last manmade object I would see for a while, I was ageless, my thoughts, like my feet, leaped forward. My mind could race because the path was so familiar it became one with my thoughts; what I imagined was tethered to that piece of earth, to that stretch, I knew the number a steps; an aimless choreography for one.
Walking past a patch of hollyhocks, I could imagine myself twenty years older, walking towards my house, a house that lies beyond the village, a house I built with my own hands. I was not only out in nature. I was out in the world on my own, I was out walking in time, towards a future that was not specific: It was not tethered to my guitar I spent two hours a day with, not to the Business Relationships that were stowed under my bed, not to my homework tucked deep in my school bag. It took the shape of rocks, of rays of sun, views of the ocean I could make up through the dense trees. It was a future in glimpses, changing with every bend of the road, every bird or tree or rock formation that made me stop and reflect on my lost thoughts. It turned every time I decided to go on that walk.
So many futures imagined between the stretch of lone, twisted oak tree and the top of the cave; so many people and things passed between the small incline just before I would get to its narrow opening. Every time I came back from that walk, I wondered when the future would begin, and I would wake up the next dreary day and realize that it was still the present.
Many walks have passed, and then there were no more walks around the village, because I left, not by walking, but on a plane; there were many plane rides, first to London, then to New York.
My walks, although extensive, long, fun, and felicitous at times, seem to be different. More and more, I felt that although I was walking down unknown streets, along canals and rivers, it was a different kind of walking; part of the autonomy my feet gave me was gone.
It is easy to think that the countryside is an arbitrary, vast wilderness with humanity dotted throughout. There is a city, and then there is a large, uniform expanse called “the countryside” limiting people’s freedom, if by nature, if by lack of infrastructure, and if, eventually, by a border. After all, in our imagination, borders always stretch along a desert, over a mountain, at a desolate sea. All countryside trails are the same—unpaved, unnamed, leading out towards a larger wilderness—and all the streets are different: after all, each has its name.
But as one walking in the countryside all my childhood–until I moved to live in the city and became a city walker— Moving about through New York, London, Paris; every western, or more specifically, westernized metropolitan feels the same. Even if every city is different, walking in them becomes an act of mimicry. Even if they are cosmopolitan, there are borders wherever you walk.
I remember when I first arrived in London. A friend and I walked for hours, from one windy street to the next, until he stopped me, pointing and saying, “look, it’s Big Ben.” Suddenly I found myself in a sea of tourists all taking selfies in front of the edifice. In the city, the landmark makes itself known. It is separated from the daily, from the pedestrian. There is a plaque, or an expanse around which makes it flat as a plaque. People gather in front of the Taj Mahal or zoom up 154 floors to the top of the Burj Khalifa to satisfy an experience to occupy a space that was by designated chambers of commerce and tourist boards. Yes, Gustave Eiffel meant to impress and inspire humanity, but the “Société d’exploitation de la tour Eiffel” works to regulate the flow of people to and from the landmark. By its definition, landmarks are easily recognizable. A tourist walking down Champs-Élysées knows that to expect, he or she knows how to walk and where to look because everything from the tourist map to the infrastructure points in the familiar direction. The person is not discovering, not seeing anything new, but walking in the footsteps of his or her imagined self.
But in the countryside, the opposite happens. After school, when the bus dropped us off at the entrance to the village, we would walk home and plan the rest of the day. If we were going for a walk, we would simply say, “meet me at the carob tree at four.” An outsider walking through the village would not notice the tree, and if he or she would, it would not mean anything to them. But we all knew which tree it was. In the countryside, landmarks are private. They arise from a shared history that directly touches everyone who knows about it. And when the situation or circumstance of the people who shared the idea of the tree changes, the landmark gives way to another one–perhaps another tree, or maybe a rusted out car.
What about Ayers Rock, the Cenotes, The Grand Canyon? They have been photographed and mapped out. But although we all have a fixed idea about these places, walking in and around them is a different experience. These are not landmarks, but natural phenomena and we walk precisely to discover what it’s like to be in a landscape that is not organized, that lies beyond categorization, such as street, building, mountain—to fully be in what we call a “natural wonder.” The wonder is that these places just “happened,” therefore unpredictable, awe-inspiring; they do not only challenge our bodies but also what can exist in our world.
We are taken aback by natural phenomena because they always represent an anomaly, something that shouldn’t exist but does, a sort of uncontrollable excess in the world.
The modern city started with the idea of controlling excess: aqueducts flowed water into the town, and Plumbing flushed it out. Streets separated from sidewalks as a way to distinguish potential consumers idling in front of shop windows and workers and producers trying to get from point A to B in the fastest way possible. Public spaces were designated as a way to control the citizenry movement when they were outside of work. In a way, walking in the city is acting out of the city planner’s vision. We do not only know where to walk but how to walk—The city’s infrastructure is also its superstructure. The true landmarks of the city are hidden underground, behind facades of buildings. And we can’t get to them. We cannot witness the true phenomenon of city. We can only skid on the surface, the cracks are paved over, we cannot enter the heart of the city because we do not have access, physical or mental. I walk on the sidewalks, in the designated park areas (seldom on the grass), but I may not walk on private property or in spaces where the state has deemed it dangerous or disused.
Mentally, it is not that I am barred from thinking and imaging new spaces in the city, but I have learned to internalize the invisible borders within the city. That is why tourists from the same class normally congregate in the same areas. Times Square is designated as a “tourist zone,” and Astoria is designated as a residential zone. While Astoria is scientifically the most diverse neighborhood in the world, on tourist maps, Times Square is still considered “the crossroads of the universe.” When I walk through Times Square, I am a reflection of the actions of myself acted out by other people. Like a neon-flooded cage, we all walk in circles, doing the same choreography, performing it to each other. Walking in the city is about looking and noticing others. In London, CCTV monitored my every move. So did the people on the subway, on the street. I was always assessed. I was what people and the state assumed about me (is he a criminal, is he from here, will he bump into me.)
Twenty years ago, I had to learn how to navigate within in the narrow streets of the metropolitan, and when that happened walking becomes performance. I perform to the people around me, but more so, I perform to myself, rehearsing the movements I assume society wants me to take With my feet, I cover up the cracks, I smooth the pavement, I walk on the treadmill that is the city street.
The last time I came back to my village was for a friend’s wedding. I had been back a few times before, seen the village grow, houses appearing between the oak trees, the restaurant being filled with people I didn’t know. It was twenty later, and everything seemed different and the same.
The wedding was at a friend’s who built a house and a barn along the old path. I stayed at my parent’s house, and on the day of the wedding, despite wearing clothes too fancy for walking along dirt roads, I decided to walk. I walked up the road leading out of our village, a steep incline of paved road and crossed the main road. I stepped onto the road, still dirt but damp from the previous night’s rain, so the dust didn’t rise as I walked. I walked slowly, as if it was the first time—it was the first time now. I looked up and saw somebody waving. It was a childhood friend and her husband. Then more people some, who like me, left, and some stayed, our futures converged here, at this present, on this path. The road leading away from people became one leading to them.
We hugged and began talking, and the path disappeared.
Etan Nechin is an Israeli writer living in New York. His writing was published or forthcoming in Boston Review, ZYZZYVA, World Literature Today, The Brooklyn Rail, The Independent, Apogee, Columbia Journal, The Forward, Entropy, and more.
He is the online editor of The Bare Life Review, a journal of immigrant and refugee literature. He is the recipient of the Felipe De Alba Award for Fiction. You can find him on Twitter @etanetan23 and on Instagram @etanetan.