Walking in France
I love walking for the time it creates. I never see it as an activity that takes me away from something better. It is where I can lose sense of the hours and create space for myself in my head.
It’s when I’m walking that I formulate my ideas, test my theories, look back and look forward. It’s my time and it always seems endless when I’m in it.
Walking created two good days for me recently as part of a week long active trip through the Dordogne region of France. As part of a trip with Headwater Holidays, where I did some cycling and kayaking, I was also able to take myself off into the countryside for two days to travel between hotels by foot.
The routes for both days had been mapped out for me in advance by Headwater and, although I didn’t have to follow the suggestions, I decided to do so because they were supposed to be the most scenic paths.
Away from the main streets, I found the tracks and rural roads relaxing with a constantly changing backdrop that kept me interested as I covered the kilometres.
Although I love thinking as I walk, I also like to listen to something. Usually podcasts, rather than music.
I find they often influence my thoughts and send me down a mental path that I hadn’t seen on the map – until I suddenly realise I hadn’t been paying attention to anything for 15 minutes and am jolted back to the physical path that my subconscious had been guiding me and my musings along.
One afternoon, as I walked between the towns of Martel and Meyronne, I was listening to a podcast of a session from the 2015 Sydney Writers’ Festival. It was a conversation with the Nigerian-born author Ben Okri who won the Man Booker Prize in 1991 for his novel ‘The Famished Road’.
Today he was talking about his new book ‘The Age of Magic’. (You can listen to the podcast here.)
I loved the sound of Ben Okri’s voice. It was cerebrally comforting, as though he was stroking my head with every sentence. When he talked about his colourful youth in Africa, his homeless years in London, and his unreal reality, I felt an empathetic sincerity in every word of his sentences.
But his voice and this conversation is not why I am telling you about this podcast episode. It’s because of a short reading Ben Okri did from ‘The Age of Magic’. It was so unexpected – I had no idea what this book was about. But it was so perfect.
Not just for the life I now lead but for this very moment I found myself in, walking along a path of dappled light around the circumference of a mountain, by myself, an unknown distance to the nearest person.
There wasn’t too much introduction to the passage he read. I don’t think you need much.
What’s important to know is that the world the story is set in is slightly magical and the group of key characters are all together on a train. It begins with a man called Lao.
Staring at the red fabric of the seats and at the faces tinged with the redness, curious notions jumped into his mind. If travel is an escape, he thought, might we not be carrying with us the very things we are trying to escape?
At that moment the train plunged into a tunnel, there was a momentary blackout and Lao caught a glimpse of a figure at the window, attired like a dark magician. Again Malasso’s name slid into his mind. With a bow the figure pointed at something behind Lao and then vanished.
When Lao looked round he saw, in a flash, a horrible spectacle. He saw imps of regret, goblins of worry, red-eyed monsters of nasty thoughts, giants of deeds done, hybrid creatures of fear, ghommids of envy, bats of guilt, cloven-hoofed figures of lust, beings of terrible aspect. He realised they were the problems, fears, nightmares, worries, and guilt that people carried around with them. It seemed everyone’s troubles had accompanied them and crowded the compartment.
Lao saw them all in his eviling. He had seen them at the beginning of the journey, but had forgotten them. He noticed that not all the monsters had continued on the journey. Some might have dissolved on the way. Others might be lingering behind at immigration, faithful servants awaiting their master’s return. But most of the creatures were still on the train.
Our past obscures our future, Lao thought, grimly. We travel forwards, but live backwards. Travelling is no escape; only the panorama changes. We are stuck in ourselves. There is no escape, but maybe there can be a change of direction. Maybe true travel is not the transportation of the body, but a change of perception, renewing the mind.
Ben Okri kept talking on the podcast after he did this reading but I paused the audio for a while and walked on through France, mulling over this passage.
Sometimes I wonder exactly the same thing.
Not that I am trying to ‘escape’ from anything particularly terrible, but I certainly hoped when I began a relatively nomadic life that I would be unburdened. I couldn’t tell you what I wanted to be unburdened from because I didn’t know (and probably still don’t). The best answer would be ‘things’.
But perhaps, as the character of Lao sees in his visions, those things will always come along for the ride or be waiting for me when I return.
This is why I like walking so much. It does renew the mind. It does help change perception.
Yes, my body is transported from one place to another and often it is through beautiful and scenic landscapes that give fuel to the imagination.
But ultimately, whenever I am lost in thought in the time that walking has created, I feel as though my head and my heart are going much further than my feet.
For accommodation, I suggest Hotel Meysset just outside Sarlat.