A direction for tramps

It is necessary to distinguish idleness from tramping. The latter is technically a subset of the former, but also they are opposites, mutually contained. One may be perfectly idle at a single location — Kenko’s mountain hut, for instance, where nothing of any significance is accomplished over the course of many years, beyond what we tediously call “spiritual growth.” In tramping, we take this show on the road.

In proper tramping the hut, which had maintained its stillness in slow decay, parallel to our own, is replaced by the knapsack or satchel (backpack, duffel, haversack, whatever) and the prospect from the mountain with the prospect to the mountain, along the open road. I hardly know which to prefer.

There is a problem with my feet, they get itchy sometimes, and I long for the old days of wandering and adventure. Though I should concede that I am homebody by nature, as evidence that even on the road, I seldom strayed very far from my knapsack, carrying it as a snail his shell, and moving not much faster, proportionally to size.

With Cicero, I keep insisting that a man needs a library and a garden, though the question of a kitchen often comes to mind. The world, however, can be taken as a garden, and the library can be carried along. While I’m opposed in principle to what used to be called the Harvard Five Foot Bookshelf, and more radically to the Man of One Book, it must be said that in tramping five feet of books is too heavy, and thus, some degree of fanaticism becomes unavoidable.

A Musulmán fanatic need carry only his improvised explosives. His Koran must be left home, lest it be damaged, but the rest of his equipage has enough to say. However the Westernized traveller, in addition to his missal, will need other works to occupy his mind. Orientalist by disposition, he may want, for instance, an authoritative guide to the country through which he is passing, with some hints to its geography and art.

Novels are useless, or of little use; I have seldom met a novel I could read more than five times, and many I could not bear twice. The same is true for any history of events, real or imagined; once one has the story one may leave it in a laundromat somewhere. But should one have a Virgil to carry — a Dante or a Shakespeare or a Bible — one has as much companionship as could be, with justice, demanded. Always, I assume, on India paper, made as light and compact as human wit may craft, and with some waterproof enclosure. Or other works, of some poetical depth and complexity, with which the long conversation may be had, when companions of flesh and blood are absent.

I have the happiest memories of reading on the road, and transcribing into notebooks when I was warm and dry. When young it was usually Penguins that I carried, very light and quite disposable, though I realized at some point they had all a common flaw. They were all in English, worse, contemporary English, and it seemed the world’s literary harvest had been reduced to a hamburger franchise thereby.

This is a terrible limitation upon the English-speaking tramp, that all the world’s voices have been monotonized for him. It all sounds inescapably English, whereas, from the moment of first glorious encounter with the meandering foreign tongue, we find that it doesn’t sound English at all.

Hence the importance, for the tramp, to become a humble visitor, and a mendicant of language, as he proceeds from his familiar mountain hut, towards the ineffable far countrie.