I picked up a copy of Bruce Chatwin’s What Am I Doing Here, recognizing the author’s name among the stacks of cheap paperbacks left as offerings to passersby on the street. It was one of those special books that fit precisely in the pocket of a suit jacket, enabling it to be taken everywhere, and I continued on my way into the afternoon. As I crossed the street the momentum of my arms knocked the corner of the book from its snug home, sending it flying into the air. The question of the title, staring up from the asphalt, had turned itself on me. Standing there in the crosswalk I traced the letters of the cover, considering where else I could possibly be. As I picked it up and hurried along, I began to thumb through the pages in search of an answer.
It wasn’t a question that seemed to be weighing on Chatwin’s mind. The first story uses it rhetorically, quickly casting off its epistemological weight for the sake of the unfolding drama. Traveling became a profession for him on the strength of his writing, and he spent his life flying from station to station, going between the empty summer cottages of his well-heeled and influential friends. His stories have the same staccato rhythm as his life, jumping from point to point: to Ghana where he helped Werner Herzog film Cobra Verde, before dinner in New York with Diana Vreeland, and an audience with Indira Gandhi in the middle of a labor protest.
As a traveler, his immediate predecessors—men like Charles Lindbergh, the famed pilot, or Wilfred Thesiger, the desert explorer—were technicians of the journey itself. Their efforts draw a direct line back to the high Middle Ages, to Ibn Battuta and Benjamin of Tudela, when travel was a physical labor rather than a passive event. Chatwin, on the other hand, was among the first generation of commercial jetsetters, a new kind of nomad who could circle the globe in a matter of hours without any technical expertise in the actual means of transit. It was all a simple transaction, a matter of boarding the Concorde and dropping a downer. This was something totally unprecedented. Not like the old hunter-gatherers who revolved around the climate and food supply, or the lives of settled people who revolved around their houses and places of work. The new nomads found themselves caught between worlds as a question of their identity, their profound desires splintered like the shards left behind when a fist strikes a mirror, one publisher’s imprimatur away from becoming a reality.
The conquistadors were known for making things up in their records of the Americas. Roland Barthes went to Japan and did the same thing. Parce que, the Orient is obsessed with harmony… Myth is the language of travel. Tour guides lie constantly, inventing ghosts, exaggerating histories, in the construction of a collective fantasy. Chatwin was famous for it too. He left behind a trail of acquaintances supremely pissed off to have been written into his own narrative, providing comic relief or genuine gravitas as it suited him. Others were delighted, pleased with his immortalization of their own pursuits. In the interest of full disclosure, Chatwin writes in the introduction, “The word ‘story’ is intended to alert the reader to the fact that, however closely the narrative may fit the facts, the fictional process has been at work.” As the New Journalists who emerged from this era would argue, the fictional process is always at work, indulging in the novelistic minutiae which could acquire some spiritual insight. The gift of the travelogue is the sense of travel it creates in the imagination, like a cocktail dress’ plunging neckline, giving the reader the feeling of a privileged altitude.
I had reached the chapter where Chatwin discusses his friendship with Werner Herzog. They were both in touch with what Chatwin referred to as “the sacramental aspect of walking.” The pair walked obsessively, the antidote to their spiritual jetlag, inventing long and perilous journeys for themselves as soon as their chartered plane touched down. On set, Herzog was famously hell bent on making things difficult. His film Fitzcarraldo is about an Irish rubber industrialist who tries to move a steamship over a steep hill in the Peruvian Amazon to reach a territory rich in rubber trees. Rather than using special effects to speed things along, Herzog insisted upon actually moving the three-hundred-and-twenty ton steamship over the hill, an effort that nearly ended in total chaos. “Walking is virtue,” he proclaimed, “tourism a deadly sin.” For his own part, Chatwin pursued the harsh nether regions of Patagonia and the Outback on foot, becoming a frequent resident of hospital beds in the process. His was a cobbled-together idea of the walking mystic, the idle aristocrat, and the subaltern scribe, a man who lived amongst, shared the plight of, and profited from the people of the world, from British socialites to Australian aboriginals. Flying offered a convenient connection to his next long walk.
The speed of modern travel is loaded with meaning, the culmination of our nomadic dreams. Out of the vast desert came this desire to appear and disappear. The prophet Muhammad is said to have flown from Mecca to Jerusalem in a single night, a distance of some seven hundred miles that would have taken weeks to travel on foot. These days an ordinary person can make the trip in a couple of hours, though what awaits beyond the clouds is nothing like heaven. To me, flying has always had a kind of Babylonian feel to it, as if I have somehow transgressed against a supreme being, waking up in Istanbul one morning having slept in New York the night before. In between these two worlds I have moved so quickly that my brain lags behind, expecting the sun to rise and set at the same time it did yesterday, confused at what I’ve done to it.
We aren’t allowed much vacation time as it is, and are intent to spend the least amount of that time in actual transit. This is both regrettable and understandable, like ordering takeout. The President has his own airplane. He lives with a different awareness of time, an accelerated twenty-four-hour time that turned his hair grey within his first year of office. We forgive him these luxuries, they afford the shortest distance between two points, recalling the saddest three words of the twentieth century: time is money.
I am a person on whom almost nothing depends, whereby in the passage of my time, very little is at stake. It has become a sick pleasure of mine to reach a destination as slowly as possible, to join Herzog and Chatwin in a tortoise-and-hare race against a world obsessed with speed. In their company I acquired the esoteric gnosis of the traveler, sharpening the philosophy of my own life as a kind of nomad, the product of a marriage that resulted from the ease of international travel. Over time, walking assumed this spiritual quality, becoming a pilgrimage in search of some deeper destination yet to be discovered.
The hajj is the greatest pilgrimage still in existence. The word itself translates as “to intend a voyage,” recognizing the spiritual intentions that accompany travel. It is no coincidence that most of the journey must be taken on foot. The path leads to the kaaba, a cuboid structure housing a mysterious stone that some believe to be an meteorite. There is a kaaba in everyone’s life, I thought. Lucky for the pilgrims to be sure of what it is.
Intending to find the kaaba of my own life, I started walking more and more to determine some kind of trajectory. I was living in Chicago at the time. From my apartment in the far north of the city I could make it ten miles in an afternoon, south to the Loop or north to Evanston and if the weather were amenable, well into the night. It would always begin as a short walk to Lake Michigan, telling myself I would stop soon, until I caught a glimpse of the lake again, that opalescent orb drawing me with its mirage of colors to ignore the obstacles of unlimited travel.
There was a cosmopolitan group of flâneurs who wandered the streets, having gathered in Chicago due to its strange combination of unpublicized qualities: the sublime beauty of Lake Michigan, low cost of living, and empty tennis courts. They stopped into the cafes to flirt with the many blue-eyed baristas and drink a cappuccino with a heart drawn into the foam. They were influenced by the poet Rumi who drew from the spiritual tradition of the desert nomads. “This is love,” he wrote, “To fly toward a secret sky, to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment. First to let go of life. Finally, to take a step without feet.” The greatest among them didn’t drive or even bike. They appeared and disappeared in the afternoon shade, masters of walking without feet.
Meanwhile, I imagined myself a modern-day Odysseus, tempted by false paradises whose only charge was my time. I spent a year of my life being fed Ethiopian food and watching Barcelona matches on television in the company of some Amharic-speaking gentlemen who kindly used English to include me in the conversation. In my case, the lotus-eaters ate kitfo, an Ethiopian delicacy of raw ground beef mixed with butter and spices. The very taste of it extinguishes all ambition and clouds the mind with a blissful sense of well-being, and I abided in that state, until the restaurant closed its doors one day and released me from its grip, back into the city I had set out to explore.
It was summertime, and I could make it a few miles farther without the fear of frostbite. I went into the forests looking for morels and found only Russian ladies who would smile, shake their heads, and point to their bags full of them. At the end of the day I would bring home some cut of meat and grill it out in the courtyard, learning to control the elements, fire and air, to create optimal smoking temperatures.
After dinner I would go out for another walk, to watch the sun cast its dying rays on the lake. Once night fell I snaked through the residential neighborhoods as my instincts would propel me. I became obsessed with what I called the inhabitus, the idea that each dwelling played host to individuals with their own little strange habits, inside jokes, and family histories. I estimated the number of souls in every building, twenty-five souls, twenty-five different ways of making dinner. Urban living draws us away from these considerations, lest they play out as in Rear Window, and the dinner really masks some horrendous crime. I looked up at the windows from the sidewalk, what little I could make out from the dim light. I thought of their arguments, their laughter, sounds that would forever be locked into that arrangement of brick and mortar. How many times did I see that stupid fishnet stocking lamp from A Christmas Story? Who the hell stencils “Live, Laugh, Love” on their living room wall, in plain view from the window?
I did not hold everyone in contempt. There were plenty of pleasant front windows with pleasant decorative statements: a single orchid, a nice sculpture, a piano. A house nearby had a cardigan corgi mutt who stood guard every night, his short legs keeping him upright on the windowsill. The inhabitus spilled onto the streets in the form of lawn sculptures, movie posters, and flower arrangements. It was everywhere, a leather boot trampling a pack of Chinese cigarettes on the elevated platform. In my own front window there was my great grandmother’s beaux arts lamp featuring a topless woman reaching to the heavens, and a pair of dying basil plants. What that said about me I cannot say.
The greatest moments of these walks were the times when I forgot where I was, simulating the rapid travel of flight I had once paid dearly to acquire. The jagged stone promenade could pass for Montevideo on those blistering afternoons, young Latinos sunning themselves on towels laid over rock, while the lake itself went between the Caribbean and the Aegean, changing the color of a lime flavored paleta. Walking down the narrow alleyways at night I would think about Rome or Kyoto, and smell the honeysuckle growing along the wire fence. The inhabitus was central to this sense of travel, as aesthetic whims of the inhabitants gathered far flung corners of the globe, like some old Hollywood backlot. Finding mangosteen detritus by the lake one day, I classed Chicago among the world’s finest cities for its many rifts in space-time, offering only an elusive sense of itself.
Within these uncanny moments was another, more significant sense of travel, when the walking submerged into the subconscious, like breathing, and I simply floated through the air, crossing miles in the blink of an eye. I thought of the Lung-gom-pa runners of Tibet, a legendary group of monks who, trained in the art of meditation and breath control, were said to be able to run two hundred miles in a single day. The average tennis player will experience lesser moments of transcendence, sliding on gravelly clay to return a cross-court winner, as surprised as the opposing player to see it narrowly kiss the line. An inspired moment, when the potential energy of the body takes over and the mind is sublimely at rest, offer the deepest truths of the organism, that action precedes thought. It was this subconscious energy that propelled me downtown, as soon as it became more natural to keep walking than to stop, pounding the stone promenade with a subconscious rhythm. Only after the fact was I able to consider why I had walked ten or fifteen miles without food, water, or rest, winding up in mild delirium at a cafe in a part of the world I was not born in but traveled to in a moment of received wisdom.
The irony is that the restlessness that propelled Chatwin and so many other travelers of his generation is created by the speed and convenience of our modern forms of travel. It is the strange sense of fatigue created not by physical exertion but by the disorientation of the senses from flashing light and acceleration. So much opens up for the human body in the grips of true tiredness. Food tastes better, cold beer acquires a certain godliness, and the mind sheds much of its existential angst.
It is always this question of why that spoils our enjoyment of the what. The issue of where is also irrelevant. I saw a few photographs taken of me over a period of several years, by different hands at different angles in different parts of the world. It was the same picture over and over again, laughing, head thrown back in a terrible posture, shirt unbuttoned. I suppose you have to recognize what you’re good at it. I was laughing in New Jersey, laughing in Barcelona, I could have been laughing on the moon, shedding long hairs into space. As confirmed by the inhabitus, the human spirit will manifest itself regardless of its surroundings and there will be great monuments left behind by the casual acts of the individual.
In that golden age of travel, I never left Chicago, and my arms stretched only as far as my legs would take them. What a hero was Don Quixote, to have taken on those fearsome knights the cynics mistook for windmills. Life makes a fool of us all, even in the Marais, where sunglasses are worn like amulets to protect us from soul-bearing embarrassment. We can hop on a plane to avoid it and it follows us still. The world of insular communities and terre vierge was ending in Thesiger’s time, and now seems even more distant.
That we are able to use money in the purchasing of travel and experiences has made it a lot less interesting to be a traveler of the world in the traditional sense. Chatwin’s colorful universe pales in the age of the internet, like the pages of an old National Geographic. Ours is an age when satellite imagery reveals every pebble and footprint on this spinning orb, and every star and asteroid for many light years in all directions, and we are able to electronically surveil the interior lives of our acquaintances, their dining room centerpieces, weekend getaways, their likes and dislikes. The irony of the hyper-real is that it only emphasizes the surreal, a Zen dissolution of signs and signifiers, which makes memory itself the last frontier for exploration. On this fragile stage where all things are summoned, we are left alone with our haziest recollections, trading the present moment for the past, a reference between the map and the terrain that always passes through shadows.
With this somewhat grim view of modernity, there is no use in abandoning the ephemera as the world’s ascetics have seen fit, though it is all ephemeral. Instead, the consensus, in the company of Chatwin, is to play along with it, to be thrilled by the fiction and the fact, walking without feet to the sound of dropping veils. We can never really consume the terrain, only catch glimpses of it, whether it is the Philosopher’s Walk or the walk between the back door and the garbage. We will inevitably find ourselves caught in the orbit of some eternal idea, retracing our steps.
In Chicago there is a large pier that unfurls from the beach at Montrose in the shape of a question mark. In rain and shine it is home to an international group of amateur fishermen who tie up lines and sit facing the lake for hours. At the end of walk, one of the flâneurs had etched into the stone A Land Not Mine, a reference to Anna Akhmatova’s poem, which captured the feeling of those walking days:
A land not mine, still
the waters of its ocean
chill and fresh.
Sand on the bottom whiter than chalk,
and the air drunk, like wine,
late sun lays bare
the rosy limbs of the pinetrees.
Sunset in the ethereal waves:
I cannot tell if the day
is ending, or the world, or if
the secret of secrets is inside me again.
Seated next to the fishermen I heard Spanish, Vietnamese, French, and Turkish, but most of the time passed in silence as we stared at the changing blue horizon, wearing sunglasses to shield ourselves from the evening sun as it reached eye level, a wash of craggy faces covered in the shade. As the crescent moon rose those nights over Lake Michigan, who could tell whose eyes were filled with tears?