You desire to live in what is new and intense. To save, at any cost, those poor moments scattered haphazardly over your lifetime whose vividness begs to be a part of your eternal memory. You skillfully oblige these moments, using mnemonic tools to aid in the remembrance, even reliving the moments publicly with blogs and pictures, hoping to bring others into the fantasy and shared memory. One of the fastest routes to vividness is a new place, a far flung destination. One of the other fastest routes is drugs.
Most people who take drugs don't record those experiences for other people to see. Drugs are stigmatized such that even well-constructed stories about meaningful drug experiences are likely to be dismissed casually. The newness of those moments is not well preserved.
For travel, on the other hand, the ubiquity of the travel blog is proof positive. Personal travel journals – another incarnation. New places connect us to our senses, and allow the moments we experience to break the translucent curtain of the everday. Go for a bar crawl at home and it's fun. Go for a bar crawl in a new city and it's Memorable. This is why moving to a new place can be cathartic, and why moving to a new city and failing to find your footing quickly can be devastating. You imprint on new places. Those first hours are amplified, those first few days either totally magical or a total disaster. Often, our favorite places are in far-flung cities, not in our own back yard.
I was overcome with sadness when I realized that I'd lost my chance to intentionally engage with the newness of Minneapolis. I'd lost my opportunity to experience travel's vividness in my own town. I spent a year with a car commute and a Netflix subscription. I spent a year too socially anxious to do things on my own. Depression had claimed my opportunity, and there was nothing I could do to get it back. I felt none of the vividness and salience that I had hoped the move would bring. I felt only frustration.
In the many days that have followed, salience, and our ability to manufacture or enhance it, have been frequent topics for my own investigation.
This is a travel blog that's not about newness. It's about familiarity, finding vividness and salience in the stretch of 1.25 miles that I've walked over 1000 times, and the time that I sacrifice to the street each morning and afternoon.
I spend 6% of my time walking to work. Besides sleeping and working, it's the single activity that I spend the most time doing. All that time is "wasted," too. I can't accomplish anything during those hours but the movement of my body and the perusal of my own thought. I've walked the same walk every day for more than two years. I could halve my commute by biking or driving. A diligent optimizer would eliminate this walk at the first possible opportunity. My motion muda is off the charts.
Walking takes place at an agonizingly slow, sweet pace. Cars rush by you. Bikes rush by you. Runners rush by you. Your pace is one by which you may admire the cracks in the sidewalk, find some funny trash in a gutter, and fully take in the impromptu art of the city.
"I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anyone tell you different."
– Kurt Vonnegut
The roads you travel are residential and filled with people. There's a guy walking down the middle of the street who careens towards you and mumbles something about "Adderalls", and a guy dressed in paramilitary gear and operating an electric lawn mower every Friday morning at 11am, and a lady with two dogs, large as bears, that crosses the street so you don't have to deal with them. There's a guy that works as a contractor during the summer but really has a hard time finding any work during the winter, and it's cold, and he may ask you for some money.
You recognize people who don't recognize you, and if you're adventurous enough you may call their name and scare the living shit out of them. Sometimes you walk your route in the opposite direction of a stranger so many times that you're sure they recognize your face now, but some nebulous city etiquette prevents you from trying to make that connection. Ditto the lady who served you pizza earlier in the afternoon. The guy in paramilitary gear eventually starts waving hello, though.
Sometimes, the apartment building you've walked by 500 times is suddenly on fire, and over the next 500 walks you watch the damage be slowly undone. No windows, blackened interior. Boards on the windows. Painted boards on the windows. Windows for windows again. Painted interior. The building nursed slowly back to health.
You cross an interstate bridge, and the cars rushing below take your breath away. Tires on the road have different tones, and big trucks are always carrying a whooshing sucking vortex that's not on the manifest. It's a scary bridge. The concrete develops cracks on its surface that are patched, slipshod, whenever the snow melts. Gray patches of paint are the drab ghosts graffiti, their mostly positive messages the victims of the rule of law.
Slow down. Don't linger on a thought. Don't even let a sentence of your own cogitation reach completion. Become a vessel for your senses, aware of your breathing, your repetitive footfall, and the vast soundscape that has unfolded around you. Feel the cool air on your face, and the crick in your knee that aches a little when you swing your leg forward but not when you swing it back. Notice how your third toe on your right foot rubs a little bit on the inside of your shoe, and how your shoulders feel strained by the weight of your backpack. Collect these sensations easily, without judgment, and eventually, paradoxically, they fade away. Or rather they fade into the moment and become inseparable from it.
What results is a sensational moment with sweeping cinematography and crystal-clear, larger-than-life sound engineering. The film, shot with two high resolution cameras, makes great use of the third dimension. The script, while not exactly an intellectual tour de force, is distinctly and beautifully human.
Now linger in this moment. Develop the plot at your own speed. Probably there is no plot. The moment is there for its own purpose. Ambedo. The opportunity is there to realize that you've felt this way before. Maybe in the fog on a lonely dock, or when focused on a particularly meticulous task that you enjoy, or hand-in-hand with your true love, or in a silent moment on a weird drug trip, or even when watching a movie or enjoying a meal alone. Who knows.
What matters is that you now know that you have access to these moments spontaneously, through triggering events, and on demand, through walking reflection. What are they? You remember them, that's clear, but they lack the intensity, the multiplicative elements that demarcate your other memories. Not a first, not a last, just an everyday experience exploded in importance by some unknown mechanism deep in your brain.
They're the moments that haven't been crushed by the moments that follow. Vividness. Salience. Salience and easy, quiet bliss.
The Visionary Experience
Aldous Huxley described something he called the "visionary experience," a sort of rapture that overcomes the artist, the veil that time has woven removed, the world impossibly more real than it ever was before, the details patterned so exceptionally upon it now made clear. Similarly, positive psychologists think about "flow," a human state where time dilates and the self dissolves into the task at hand. During the throes of early love, the edges of our experience feel on fire, moments stretch into infinity, and we're engrossed in the task of creating passion and bliss for ourselves and another.
When we walk to work, we can commingle with our senses in a way that clarifies thought, amplifies detail, and stokes meaning. Love even makes this commingling easier– nostalgia's sepia tendrils are ever more apparent to us when we're used to the feeling. The crystalline salience of a moment becoming a memory, of immediate meaning, is more easily observed when we have a ready comparison to something in our everyday life.
I've coaxed these experiences under the single umbrella of salience. Not that they are the same phenomena, but that they possess enough of the same elements that they may have a common ancestor. Genus bliss, maybe. Simply knowing that some feelings point to, or spawn from, similar places has helped me harness each one individually. The possibilities for using that feeling, that a moment has meaning, are nearly endless.
Deep or Wide
The poet Michael Longley has implied that although travel broadens the mind, it also shallows the mind somewhat, the antidote to which, he goes on to say, may be going back to the same place, over and over, in a curious and devoted way. The true appreciation of that which is now ordinary can become our greatest tool for deepening ourselves and our understanding of the world that we have inherited.
It makes intuitive sense that depth comes from repeated exposure, and breadth from newness, those unrepeatable one-time experiences and adventures. We carve outward at the boundaries of our own consciousness, and this is fast and exciting, but the rubble falls unceremoniously into our once still pond. The process of removing it, dredging the depths and deepening the pond again is a long and laborious process. When we come into contact with something new and exciting it becomes a trap for our thoughts. It manifests as lust or obsession, fills our conversations, and makes the "real world" seem drab by comparison. With repetition instead we are blessed by the opportunity to fight the drab and to make our own meaning.
Practice, refinement, these are the same neural slight of hand. When we learn new things, they excite and titillate, but meaning building and true understanding come with curious and informed repetition. It's become intellectual vogue to quote Feynman and talk about "cargo cultism" when going through the motions and expecting results without understanding the deeper reasons. Repetition, curiosity, and devotion to craft, coupled with the guiding hand of someone who has already found the way, are the salve to this guileless performance.
When I started walking to work, after having commuted by car for the last year, I wanted to know how this waste of time was any different. I wanted to know how a whole hour of my day could be spent better. I wanted to find purpose in the small things. Even if work was hard, I wanted the journey there to be meaningful, and if I couldn't find meaning immediately, I wanted to practice until I could.
With that in mind, and with the lessons of various podcasters and bloggers in my fore-brain, I set to work.
Not that the oft-cited 10,000 hours of practice to mastery is correct, but I often ask myself what I've already spent 10,000 hours practicing. What am I already a master of? Anything?
I'm not there yet with my walking routine. I've only walked to work 1000 times.
There's More to This
I want to set this blog loose on the world, so I'm ending here.