It Is Solved By Walking

The dawn of the Renaissance is sometimes dated to 26 April, 1336, when thirty-one-year-old Petrarch made his ascent of Mont Ventoux in Southeast France — with no purpose but ‘to see what so great an elevation had to offer.’ Leaving the village of Malaucène in the morning with his brother and two servants, he soon came across an old shepherd

who tried, at great length, to dissuade us from the ascent, saying that some fifty years before he had, in the same ardour of youth, reached the summit, but had gotten for his pains nothing except fatigue and regret, and clothes and body torn by the rocks and briars.

But ‘youth is suspicious of warnings,’ and Petrarch and his companions continued undeterred up the mountain. The day was long, the sky blue, and they felt strong and clear-headed as they laboured up the steep slope. In the late afternoon, they at last reached the peak. Petrarch was stunned by the magnificent view. All around them stretched the countryside of Provence. Far below, the Rhone flowed through farmland towards the Bay of Marseille. To the east rose the rugged and snow-capped Alps.

Resting on the summit for a while, Petrarch meditated on Hannibal’s crossing of those same mountains long ago, and pined for his Italian homeland, which lay just beyond the horizon. Prompted perhaps by something inexpressible about the view, Petrarch reflected that it was exactly ten years since he had finished his university studies and left Bologna for France. He was amazed at the changes this intervening period had wrought on his character. What sort of changes would the next ten years bring?

Taking out a little pocket volume of St Augustine’s Confessions, he decided to open the book at random and read whatever page presented itself. When he looked down, the first words he saw were:

And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.

Petrarch was electrified by this coincidence, which seemed ordained. His energy had been misdirected all along! As the sun began to set, he walked in undisturbed silence down the mountainside. It was already dark when he got back to the inn where he had started out that morning. He locked himself in his room while the servants prepared dinner, and recorded the mountaintop epiphany while it was still fresh.

* * *

Dal bhat in Mangengoth, Helambu region, Nepal

Dal bhat and route planning in Mangengoth, October 2016. Photo / Matt Hayes

It was with the hope of experiencing a similar epiphany that I set out in 2016 on a twelve-day trek in the Langtang region of Nepal. Six years earlier, as an eighteen-year-old, I had gone on a long walk around the nearby mountains of Annapurna. That first walk had been one of the formative experiences of my life. Something about the crisp air, the demanding trail, the awareness of being a solitary stranger in a strange land, gave me a chance to feel things more deeply than I had before. And at such a young age, my feelings as I walked were almost entirely ecstatic — what reason had I then to be unhappy?

Likewise, when a few years later I first came across the phrase solvitur ambulando  —  ‘it is solved by walking’  —  I had very little that needed solving. At twenty-three, I was still cheerful: every important decision since high school seemed to have been the right one, and as I stood at the threshold of medical school, the years ahead seemed to promise a continuing sense of upward motion.

But this contentment didn't last. Medicine became a dark tunnel with no light at its end. A promising relationship broke down. I was in considerable debt. Under the strain of it all, I decided to quit everything and move back to Nepal. Specifically, I wanted to revisit the Himalayas — those mountains which had once given me my greatest happiness, and which might yet hold some mysterious power that could get me back on my feet.

This was my mindset on the bus to Kathmandu’s outer fringe, where I would begin my trek. In order to create the right conditions for a spiritual recovery, I left my laptop at home, and took only an old Nokia phone for emergencies. Besides clothes, my backpack was filled with an ill-considered quantity of heavy books: Gulliver’s Travels, Walden, Horace’s Odes, Saki’s Collected Stories, and The Mill on the Floss. Of these, it was the last which became the defining book of my walk. The job done by soaring mountain landscapes during the day was done by George Eliot under starry skies in the evenings.

Women at a teahouse in Thulo Syapru, Nepal

A teahouse rooftop in Thulo Syapru, October 2016. Photo / Matt Hayes

The first five days of the trek were not uneventful, but they served as a kind of preparation for what was to come. The trail took me northwards from Kathmandu, over hills and across valleys, through fields of sun-tawned rice and millet that sometimes gave way to cool pine forest. Every so often I would pass through a village; and though many of the customary stone houses had crumbled under last year’s earthquake, the residents had stayed put in temporary shelters — some of them still offering the dal bhat that has long been the staple of both Nepali villager and wayward foreign trekker. Whenever the sun drew close to the horizon, I would stop at a certain village, set my eyes on a lodge, and walk towards it with a pleasant expectation of the removal of shoes, the taking up of a book, and the gentle awareness of the day’s heat turning into chilly dusk as I rested my aching body on some soft mattress.

On day six, I left behind the hilly farmland of Helambu region, crossed the 4610m Laurebina Pass, and entered the Himalaya proper. The afternoon and evening were spent in Gosaikunda, one of the strangest places I have ever visited. For centuries, its lakes have had significance for Hindus: the story goes that Shiva, after swallowing poison, thrust his trident into the mountainside and extracted water to soothe his burning throat. Every year, pilgrims flock here from all over Nepal to bathe in the ice-cold holy water. As I strolled around one of the lakes in the late afternoon, a group of young devotees persuaded me to take a dip myself. At the moment of immersion I vaguely recalled that it was possible to die from shock, which only added to my haste to get out again. Fortunately, the tropical sun was generous, and it was an eerie experience to sit outside on a beach towel, dried by a high-altitude breeze, casting my eyes over the shimmering lake.

A sherpa girl in Langtang Valley

A sherpa girl named Mingma and her brother lead pack mules to the mouth of Langtang Valley, October 2016. Photo / Matt Hayes

I now wonder if the purifying power of Gosaikunda extends even to atheists, because the next day turned out to be one of the happiest of my life. I rose early, climbed to a nearby ridge, and made my only phone call of the trek. It seemed suddenly amazing that I could hear my mother’s voice through this small black device, standing as I was with a view of white peaks spread across a deep blue horizon. I returned to the lodge in Gosaikunda, hauled my backpack onto my shoulders, and began to make a slow descent down a steep slope that overlooked Tibet.

This time, six years after my first trek — now well into adulthood, with a wake of questionable life events behind me and an uncertain future ahead — the feeling as I descended was not immediately one of unalloyed bliss. As I followed the dirt path, which fell dramatically on my left to reveal lakes and forests far below, my perception of the past seemed as clear as my view of the countryside. The contemplation of the quarter century behind me wasn't entirely free from pathos; but as the Rolling Stones’ Wild Horses played through my mind, I stood still for ten seconds, taking in the world around me, gripped by a strong, life-affirming feeling of which all subsequent feelings that day were a gradual elaboration.

Swallowed by a sudden surge of mist, I continued down the rocky slope. Now and then a murky figure would pass me, a pilgrim perhaps, or a trekker, glancing up haggard with exhaustion, crooked walking stick in hand. Every so often, I would stop and talk to one. In these brief conversations, life stories were sometimes exchanged. One older woman told me that she was doing the trek now ‘because there comes a time when you realise you won’t be able-bodied forever — what’s possible now might not be possible for much longer.’

Eventually, I dropped below the tree line, and found myself on a hardly used stretch of trail, utterly alone in a forest of haunted-looking firs. The rapturous final stanza of Mr Tambourine Man came to mind. I rested on a rock near a broken-down lumberjack’s hut, and sat still for a very long time, listening to birdsong and looking up at the treetops. Towards evening, I reached the tiny hamlet of Mukharka. A pony grazed outside as I warmed myself by the hearth fire, speaking broken Nepali to a young woman who had never travelled as far as Kathmandu. A two-year-old boy tugged at my arm and gazed up at me with imploring eyes, begging for the chance to use my multi-coloured pen. I felt happy — and deeply, deeply alive.

* * *

Langtang Valley

Langtang Valley, October 2016. Photo / Matt Hayes

Standing now on the other side of the walk, I began to think that solvitur ambulando fails to capture the sheer transformative power of a long trudge through the wilderness. Walking does not merely solve problems, and bring solace to the afflicted: it also offers up an attractive vision of what life might be. No longer ‘clubbed into dank submission,’ as Bukowski put it, we are free to enjoy the world — to take pleasure again in the mere fact of life. Few people conclude a long walk without the consciousness of some kind of firm plan or resolution, which is probably why pilgrimages are so popular with those who wish to change themselves. The Latin phrase, then, could perhaps be slightly amended, to clārātur ambulando: ‘it is illuminated by walking.’

In the same way, the passage from St Augustine’s book, which changed a young poet’s life on a Provençal summit nearly seven hundred years ago, may miss the mark slightly (even if I hesitate to say so myself). A long walk is sure to produce some self-examination, and it's difficult to traverse mountains without also crossing, more noticeably than usual, that invisible barrier that separates who we are today from who we were in the past.

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