There is something most wonderful about being both lost and aimless. Lost in a new world, a new space, exploring and questing, spontaneously discovering, roaming and wandering. With just a map and travel card, and an old-fashioned, old world, curled paper book as a guide, one can travel the railways around the country, aimless and lost, building a new understanding, a new reality, finding a new sense of place.
In today’s world, it’s hard to be lost: lost geographically, or lost for a lack of knowledge. Everything is at our fingertips, and to be lost is a bad thing. It implies we are out of place, dislocated from our meaning, irrelevant and pointless. And yet to be lost is to discover, to become enlightened through walking, to create a new sense of meaning, outside of our everyday reality, but born from our experience. This is not somebody else’s journey, but mine, mine to be found, mine to be lost.
Maps are beautiful: abstractions of reality, representative and yet not the thing. A simplified version of the thing. A dream of a shadow of the thing. A faint echo of the thing. Even photographs are mere pale reflections: captured frames and colours, shadows and form, but not the spirit and soul of the thing. We are limited by directions: forwards and backwards, left and right, up and down. That simple range of choices, travelling forward through time, are the tools through which we construct our journey. And yet through those simple acts of movement and exploration, we learn, and discover. We navigate through space and build our understanding.
Exploration could be considered an act of subdivision: first review the vista, the widest spaces, the broad sectioning and layout of the new cityscape. Then we cross it, recross it, and cross it again, subdividing the large into the small, walking the trail, walking the streets, filling in broad swathes of detail, interrelating one to another. We take this roughly painted picture and repeat it, subdividing, reducing, discovering, until the point where we stand or sit in one place, motionless, looking at one building, one painting, one brick, down to the finest level of granular detail.
We are found in the moment, in the place, I am here, I am now, I understand how this place relates to the widest reality. I understand where I stand upon the map. I was lost, but I am found. I am here. I am now.
Exploring can be the purpose in itself: my home is my reality, my world is my known world, but when I travel I leave it behind.
I am displaced, i am lost, I am renewed, I am new, in a new place, new spaces, new people, new corners and directions, I am lost, and yet I understand how to be found. I walk, I look around, I build my understanding, time and again, from one place to the next. I travel around Switzerland and build the journey as I go, aimlessly wandering, and yet not aimless as I explore, not a predestined, or preordained journey, but an emergent one. A journey of the soul.
I draw, not to capture, not to immortalise the thing, but to understand the spirit of the thing, to make sense of the thing. Photos are still abstractions of reality, drawings even more so. They do not capture the spirit, they reflect it.
Travel is exhausting. Travel is exciting. Not because of the distance we walk, but because everything is new, everything. Everything is change. Every footstep changes the view, every vista that opens is different from the last, we are built in our heads to understand things, to make sense of them, to codify and make them simple. We build our scripts and schemas to make us self-sufficient in the every day, but as everything changes around us, our scripts become worthless.
We are constantly lost, constantly trying to be found. We have to build and rebuild our understanding of where we are, without any notion of where we are going. This is what it is to explore.
Whilst feet may walk the miles, the discovery may be in our heads. To travel is to learn, sometimes to learn about ourselves.
We say ‘I know this place like the back of my hand’ to describe a place that we know intimately, where we know every detail, every crease and fold, every line and wrinkle. I use this phrase to talk about the fields and hills of home.
We use it to imply intimacy and knowledge, comfort and security. I cannot be lost to because I know it like the back of my hand. You can take comfort, you can take solace, we are not lost, we are found.
The back of our hand is the lanes of our childhood, the paths of our youth, the routes we take to find comfort and hope. The back of our hand is familiar through experience and from simply being right in front of us: we see, we see the familiar, and in the familiar we find comfort.
Hands age: are these my hands? They crease and burn, used endlessly, worn and travelled, our hands are the map of our lives. I remember seeing a blacksmiths hands, thickened, hardened by fire, strengthened through iron, hand of work, hands of the story. Our hands are the maps of our lives. The blacksmiths story written upon his skin. The back of his hand.
But what is the opposite of this? What do we say when the hand is hidden? I am lost, lost without a trace, lost without hope, lost in the twists and turns, lost in space, lost in time, hopelessly lost. That sense of hope and loss goes together: if I am found I have hope, without location I am hopelessly lost. If we constrain ourselves to security through simply being found, we lose the joy of discovery and exploration.
And yet being lost can give hope, hope of discovery, hope of renewal.
It is possible to hold both loss and dislocation simultaneously in mind: the landscape of Switzerland stretches out around me, I am in a village, I’m in a town, I am not lost, I understand how it fits, how it conforms to the pattern. I am here, I’m safe, I am now, and yet I’m lost in the overall scheme of things. I do not understand the distance to Geneva, I do not understand the distance back home, I am in some abstract position on a map but I know not where. The map cannot help me I know only where I am, but not how where I am relates to where everything else is. I am in a state of comfortable uncertainty.
Maybe that is a metaphor for curiosity: standing upon a solid foundation, and yet peering with curiosity out around us, staring at the mountains, looking into the tunnels and caves, wondering where to go next, uncertain, and yet deeply curious, curious what is around the corner, curious what is over the peak, curious where we will end up if we walk through that mountain pass.
Whilst fear may ground us, curiosity may drive us forward. Surely to explore, one must be curious, dissatisfied with what we have now, with where we are now, with what we know now, curious about what is unknown and uncertain, unseen and invisible. It is curiosity that gives us momentum and momentum that carries us over the mountain.
I feel the momentum in my travel: I feel catapulted from place to place, driven by internal and insatiable energy. This is not the dislocation of travel by aeroplane, but the momentum and energy of travel by train, travel by foot. This is a long journey, I feel far from home, dislocated by days and miles, dislocated by endless flashing scenes from the railway window, dislocated by my transition from known to unknown, but carried forward by curiosity, carried forward by that desire to know what comes next, and in this context, does the journey ever end? Do I loop around full-circle, back to the place that I know like the back of my hand, do I end the journey, or do I continue forever, carrying forwards, carrying on, every new turn, every new twist, extending the journey, endlessly travelling, endlessly journeying, endlessly curious?
I become tired, tired by everything new, tired by discovery, tired through that sense of dislocation. I start to think of home: back to the places this I know, back to the certain familiar. We yearn for the mountains, but we yearn to go home afterwards. If we don’t close that loop, if we don’t finish that journey, do we remain endlessly curious, or simply endlessly lost? If it has no end is it truly a journey? Do we become lost and aimless if we don’t choose to end it? Do we simply become lost within our soul? Geography may simply be a metaphor for what happens within our own heads.
I travel, i am lost but not aimless, endlessly curious, looking round the next corner, but certain that one day soon, I will be home.
One of your most insightful and poetic posts, Julian! This one is chockablock with wisdom. “Whilst feet may walk the miles, the discovery may be in our heads. To travel is to learn, sometimes to learn about ourselves.” Thank you.
Thank you for your kind words, greatly appreciated 🙂
Brilliant. Enjoyed it immensely. Well captured.
So beautiful and thought-provoking! Amazing writing 🙂
That’s kind, thank you 🙂
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