She Walks in the Woods
Updated: Apr 26, 2020
I have yet to discover the truth about who I am, and what I am doing. This is because I spend a lot of time convincing myself that existence is pointless, therefore life is arbitrary. I wonder sometimes if this is all from insecurity or my regurgitating crap I read as a high school student first learning about philosophy. I then remember that the point to life might be to find purpose. So I decided to travel the world and feel and learn from people and their circumstances, their food and architecture, their georgraphy and their politics.
I want to become open to perspective, but I have a tendancy to colonize other peoples experiences with mine - finding some cultures sexist, or strange. So, while my life wandering journey is ahead of me, I wish to admit that I have a heavy time travel writing. I have a hard time writing about the world with meaning, because I sometimes live without meaning. I may fall prey to verbal masterbation and not all my travels have been a flash of inspiration or enlightenment. I might, here, explore why that is, I find in nature, Henry David Thoreau can play a big part of my overwhelming sense of smallness and meaninglessness.
“Jan. 27, 1852. Whatever has been produced on the spur of the moment will bear to be reconsidered and reformed with phlegm. The arrow had best not been loosely shot. The most transient and passing remark must be reconsidered by the writer, made sure and warranted, as if the earth had rested on its axil to back it, and all the natural forces lay behind it. The writer must direct his sentence as carefully and leisurely as the marksman his rifle, who is sitting and with a rest, with patent sights and conical balls inside. He must not merely seem to speak the truth. He must really speak it. If you foresee that a part of your essay will topple down after the lapse of time, throw it down now yourself.”
We chose the red eye from Los Angeles International to Boston Logan because we thought it would save us a day to enjoy the east coast, rather than wasting half a day flying. I finished packing right before we had to leave, and had a bottle of champagne with Alexey, my partner. We got in our Uber and heading to the airport in the late evening, arriving around eight pm with enough time to grab a drink and relax before the flight. I will say, as much as I appreciate a stiff drink, I won’t be getting martinis anywhere that ice chips are a garnish - although LAX servers know how to make a strong cocktail.
Alexey’s got this great travel plan, we check in at the airport and he requests seats together. We buy the cheapest flights we can use that extra cha-ching towards a car rental. If the flight can accommodate we end up sitting at the back in a stiff area but this time we got the emergency aisle seats all to ourselves.
So, drunk around nine pm we tried to doze off and wake up in Boston, together for the first time. This is where I would have done everything all over if I could. No more alcohol before a red eye; I couldn’t get to sleep and I was uncomfortable and freezing to death because the emergency exit has a draft somehow. Why have I not invested in a neck pillow yet?
So, we land around six am, head to the bathrooms where we freshen up. Might I add that flying into Boston is beautiful. It had a slight fog, and you can see all the shades of green in the marshlands. I knew once we landed this would be a strange adventure; the whole thing began because I wanted to visit my sister who had moved out to Manchester New Hampshire over a year before, about time to check her place out. Her fiance had left her, all the better, and we needed some bonding time.
When I was about sixteen, I read some work by the American Transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. As I grew older, and my love for Literature became an obsession, I majored in American Literature and English, which enabled me to spend my days reading all the work I had admired as a teenager. I think part of why I write this blog is on account of my desire to approach travel writing with the same naturalist outlook. So when I realized I was going to Boston, I knew I had to go to Concord and see where the Transcendentalist built their institutions and meeting grounds.
They established the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in 1855, and, on its opening, had a dedication speech by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was later buried there. The cemetery is home to some first United States citizens, individuals and families who shaped the American political, artistic, and cultural landscape. My heart raced as I walked alongside the bodies of Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. They designed the cemetery with reflections of Transcendentalism and it shows in how much nature plays a role in the layout of the grounds. After the pit stop, we drove by the old stomping grounds of these writers, noticed the essence of the time, and wandered into several tourist traps. I walked into the waters of Walden pond, which is more of a Sunday family beach, but even that looked like something from the past.
The opening to our adventure set the tone for something calm, something connected to nature. But keeping all this in mind, I spent almost my week's budget in one day, on food, a shooting range, driving to Maine for lobster, and sightseeing with shopping in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I set out on my travel writing journey, not to recreate naturalist dictations of what I saw, but to generate spellbound stories of the world around me. As usual, I spent my trip focusing on how to have fun, spend money and eat, without talking to locals, or learning about the history of the places I experienced.
So I wanted to tackle this new concept. Is tourism something good, bad, or is it neither? When you travel, you are a tourist, and sometimes there is a negative connotation to the word, and are there traps which we may fall into as travelers. During his musing in Winter, Thoreau said,
“Dec. 24, 1841. I want to go soon and live away by the pond where I shall hear only the wind whispering among the reeds. It will be success if I shall have left myself behind. But my friends ask what I will do when I get there! Will it not be employment enough to watch the progress of the seasons?”
I too heard this call to nature growing up. I constantly had the fantasy to live in trees, on an island away from the world. But another part of me always wanted to make money, make friends, have fun, party. So my dreams drifted elsewhere, as do many childhood daydreams. When I realized I would be at Walden Pond, all these thoughts came crashing back, after having just been to Sequoia and walking through the area where John Muir, like Thoreau, also appriciated nature.
I remember a story about John Muir, that he went to this cabin and watched as families took photos, and there was a sign, which read; the most beautiful cabin. They had lost the ability to see the cabin as just a cabin. And I recall when I was in Sequoia and I saw this similar cabin, and there was a plaque by it, all these people were taking pictures of it. I sat in it to absorb it’s history. It was old, and dirty, but it was kept up well. This place had existed in good condition for the sake of tourism. And the tourism brought in the money to maintain and preserve the national park. So tourism, in any form, is necessary.
Thoreau also said, “If a writer would interest readers, he must report so much life, using a certain satisfaction always as a point d’appui. However mean and limited, it must be a genuine and contented life that he speaks out of. His readers must have the essence or oil of himself, tried out of the fat of his experience and joy.” Alas, I could not live up to this.
Thinking about journalists such as Anthony Bourdain, his travels exposed countries and people, while highlighting the beauty of those places. The fat of my experience and joy was not present in my writing because I had yet to taste it myself. Unlike Bourdain, I had not let myself get an authentic account of the places I went because I did not let myself get aquanted with the locals. Generally I kept to myself, or stayed with Alexey, and we did our research and we traveled to good local spots - but is that enough?
There is this passage from Winter below which felt poignant.
“Jan. 1, 1852.… I have observed that one mood is the natural critic of another. When possessed with a strong feeling on any subject foreign to the one I may be writing on, I know very well what of good and what of bad I have written on the latter. It looks to me now as it will ten years hence. My life is then earnest, and will tolerate no makeshifts nor nonsense. What is tinsel, or euphuism, or irrelevant is revealed to such a touchstone. In the light of a strong feeling all things take their places, and truth of every kind is seen as such. Now let me read my versus and I will tell you if the god has had a hand in them. I wish to survey my composition for a moment from the least favorable point of view. I wish to be translated to the future, and look at my work as it were at a structure on the plain, to observe what portions have crumbled under the influence of the elements.”
So it may seem that I did not have my “aha” moment staring into the trees. Nor did I become enlightened as I walked through any park or forest. However, there were moments where my energy was leveled, and I got a hint of “I am here.” I remember during the week, we had made our way to New York, and we were wandering into Washington Square. I had read about Washington Square a lot because I am an Edith Wharton fan and fantasized about walking around it aimlessly. When I looked at it from across the street, yellow taxis and metro bus in my way, I see this giant pillar, and some trees - behind me was one of the most iconic city scrapes; no push away from nature.
New York has this magic associated to nature, it's in every skyscraper and building, even the metro was rooted around the city like an old willow tree. I flip through my copy of Winter as if it were a bible, finding verses to read which can give insight to whatever I’m writing about. There may come a time where I can write about what I experienced in an extraordinary way; climbing the Everest of my mind. But for now, I think I am open to change, and I am open to the world.