I spend most of Thursday immersed in theological studies. A headache sets in after long hours spent with text. I decide to take a break, by stretching out on the sofa and listening to my Audible version of the book The Old Way: A Journey on Foot, by Robert MacFarlane. The book is about MacFarlane’s adventures walking ancient foot paths in England and beyond. Today begins the story of his journey on Icknield Way, an ancient walking path in Southern England, which may date back to 4000 BC. The original trail was 110 miles, although some recent work extended it to 170 miles.
I have the Kindle version of the book too, so I can go back and dwell visually on some passages. I am smitten with his writing style, and McFarlane may even surpass Least Heat-Moon as my favorite adventure writer. The difference is not quality but content. McFarlane focuses strictly on nature and his experiences there, while Least Heat-Moon is an obsessed traveler but not a naturalist.
The mesmerizing British voice of the narrator in the Audible version of The Old Way adds a lyrical quality to the prose. Words such as “chalk”, “thicket”, “cottage”, “barrow” and “chuffing” spoken in a British accent are simply alluring. I drift off to the walking paths of England as I stretch out.
As I listen, I want to walk the Icknield Way. The call is urgent and forceful. Of course, I cannot take off to England just to walk right now, but maybe when I retire. I add “Walk Icknield Way” to my bucket list and lay back down to listen further. But the urge to walk in the crisp fall air nags. I must go walking, and I try to conjure up a nearby equivalent of the Icknield Way, which I can reach from my own doorstop. There is nothing so idyllic here, no chalk cliffs or high grassy knolls. I decide to set off from the house and walk the 1.75 miles to the end of my street and then back again. I love this route, but go elsewhere when summer temperatures climb, since most of the way is in the open sunlight and too hot to walk in the afternoon.
The weather is perfect today, and in honor of Icknield Way, I name the walk Walnut Way. It is the best I can do without dropping everything and flying to England or even Marin County in California, where the hills resemble those I see in photographs of Icknield Way.
My humble Walnut Way is best described in sections. The first, from my door to the Interstate, travels through the older neighborhood where I live, passing houses 100 years old or more. Many are updated and well-maintained. The road seems flat but at each intersection it dips, sometimes sharply, causing some hazard for drivers Large caged dogs bark as I pass, a scene that always saddens me. I cross the main street that delineates the west side of town from the east, stop to say hi at the senior center, then continue on another block to the pedestrian tunnel that goes under I-25.
Segment One Photos
Thus begins the next segment. On the other side of the tunnel I pass a newer subdivision and a two-level apartment complex. Then, l begin to see the 1-5 acre rural properties that characterize the rest of Walnut Way. Here, the houses are each different; some are small and a bit ramshackle, others are newer, some are trailers. Modular homes sit on some lots, closer to the street. Others have large cottonwoods that line the edge of the street, and I enter small sections of cool shade. I pass the home of a parishioner who is wheelchair-bound and then the home of a fellow gardener. I see her autumn garden and the high tunnel greenhouse, which produces luscious tomatoes in the summer. Other friends have a small, neat vineyard where they coax grapes from our arid but fertile soil. The road is no longer a thoroughfare, but a country lane. The pedestrian tunnel prevents cars from directly entering this section of the road. The only cars that pass belong to people who live on this street and have motivation to drive around the long way.
Segment Two Photos
The final segment has only dappled shade now and then. The houses are mostly run down the further out of town I progress. Some are only trailer carcasses, all bent and stripped of the outer siding. I see a barely inhabitable trailer connected in an L shape to another trailer. I pass a mailbox post that rests at an angle, still holding up two dented and rusted mailboxes. In this segment I pass my favorite property, a heavily shaded, disheveled homestead with chickens, ducks, sheep and at horses, all making a comforting raucous when I pass. The home is modest, and the whole setting feels so organic, so peaceful. Not much further I am jolted back to today, by a modern one- level home, neatly fenced and nicely landscaped.
Segment Three Photos
Along the whole of Walnut Way, I see more dogs than people. A few cars pass, a school-age girl goes by on a bike. On the return trip home I see a woman with a boy about 10 years old. She is balancing her phone, packages, and keys while trying to enter her apartment. The boy is impatiently pushing on the door, wanting to get to something inside.
Walnut Way is not like the Icknield Way where one might ponder important philosophies, cleanse the soul or interact with ancient history along the way. There is no noble goal or expectation to this walk. I just want to walk and to see what can be seen—migrant birds, fall gardens, clucking hens. I just want to feel the joy inherent in changing leaves and soft breezes.
MacFarlane would suggest that I also walk Walnut Way to step out of the modern world for a few moments. There is some literal truth to that. As I walk west from my house near downtown, towards the lowering sun, I walk out of the busy, modern town and see the lands once homesteaded. My mind clears, my headache vanishes, my body reenergizes. And despite my effort to simply enjoy the walk and rest my mind, the image of the young woman with her son takes me back to my days as a single mom. I remember juggling everything, barely able to carve out time for a 5 minute walk. I remember that life path, working hard, attending school again, trying to get somewhere in life while raising a wonderful son. For a moment, I contrast those times with my life now, which is slower, peaceful, quiet: another form of autumn. As I approach my home on the return trip, I don’t feel so bad about aging, a topic that has caused some anguish in recent months. I accept the gift the walk has offered me today.
I ponder that night the other gifts from walking. From habit I scavenge when walking out on trails or along a shoreline. I have collections of old bones, interesting rocks, and seashells. Once I found a vintage Colorado license plate, and frequently I encounter a single flip-flop or part of a child’s toy. Photographs taken while walking seem like gifts now, including those of birds and animal tracks. I consider the gift of knowledge when I see a bird previously unknown to me, or when the receding water line uncovers new plants. And finally, I ponder the more esoteric gifts of peace, joy and a deep connection to all of creation. Realizing the abundance I receive from walking is itself a gift.
I decide that I need photos of Walnut Way to enliven this post, so two days later, I walk there again. Being a Saturday now, I see more people out, and for a short time I see another walker. The jarring cold snap last night turns a few more leaves in the vineyard orange, but nothing is seriously injured. I see new things, new angles to photograph. As I walk home, the breeze turns into real wind, another sure sign that autumn is progressing.
Back home, I have to placate my dog because he knows I was walking without him. He does not understand that I cannot hold his leash and operate my camera, and he needs some reassurances of my devotion. I tell him not to worry, soon we will find another path that leads from modern life to more pastoral settings.
- Travel writing I have loved: 8. Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways (scribblingforfun.wordpress.com)
- Enjoy a North Devon autumn in Watersmeet Valley (yha.org.uk)
- A Walk in the Yard (joanneglaser.wordpress.com)