The path stretches out in front of me, and I pretend I know nothing about it.
It’s a difficult lie, this not-knowing thing. I’ve walked up and down this particular path hundreds of times. It connects to the hometown of my childhood to the city I retook my A-levels in as an adult, preparing for a career in Archaeology. My feet know it better than almost anywhere else round here. I could probably close my eyes and imagine three quarters of this 15-mile route.
But that’s not the game I’m playing today.
There are two reasons I’m doing this mile-a-day challenge this year.
The first is to turn this style of writing into a habit again. (I’m a lapsed travel writer, with “travel writer” next to my name all over the Web. The shame, it burns.)
The other reason is related to the first: when you’re not writing like this regularly, you lose the skills this kind of writing relies upon, primarily the ability to see things. When I go walking I’m not as aware as I used to be – or, to use the more popular phrase, I’m not as mindful.
Mindfulness is all the rage right now. The New York Times is obsessed with it: just look at the results of this Google search (all articles are from 2016). It’s often used to mean “being aware of your deepest feelings,” but the dictionary definition is simpler: “the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.”
In my case, what I feel unaware of is everything outside my door. I feel blunted to the joys (and horrors) of nature, like a knife that won’t even cut cheese anymore. There is a wall between me and what I’m looking at, and that wall is more Me.
That’s why I’m here, walking down a path in waterproofs with the rain hissing against my back. I’m trying to learn how to decipher the world again – by playing an incredibly stupid game.
The game is simple – and it relies on stupidity. Specifically, mine. I have to pretend I’m perfectly, boundlessly ignorant of everything I’m looking at.
So, here we go. What am I looking at?
This path is long and straight, and bounded on both sides by impressively huge trees and hedgerows. It’s clearly been around for more than a few decades. Who made this? Did it always look like this? Who looks after it now?
It was clearly a big deal at some point, this seemingly modest, never-meandering walkway, because there’s a whacking great bridge over the top of it.
This bridge is weird. Why did they build a bridge that substantial over this path? Why not take the cheaper option of sending the road straight over the path and getting the pedestrians to walk across the road?
What on earth made people on foot more important than cars?
It’s hard, this enforced ignorance. I know the answers, but I’m not allowed to acknowledge them. No cheating.
Aha! Half a mile further, I find a line of black grit by the side of the path, a trace of what’s under this tarmac. That’s a good clue, that is. It’s hard to ignore what it’s telling me. I grit my teeth and do it anyway.
But ten minutes later, a door and a concrete ramp give it all away.
Look at that green door on the side of that house.
No architect in their right mind would stick a door next to a window like that – so that door is a new feature, or that window is. (Or, their architect was an actual lunatic! But let’s think nice thoughts here.)
Underneath the door is a concrete slope with railings, now used as a hard-standing for parking their car. It’s paved: great grey stones hanging slightly over the edge.
There’s no reason for this ramp except the obvious – and this is where the pretend-ignorant version of me would finally put the pieces together.
It’s a train platform, of course. I’m on an abandoned railway line, converted into a path for walkers. Not just any path, though – it’s now part of the Trans Pennine Trail, and a fair bit of money has been laid down to make this a smooth, accessible and yeah, rather more boring walking experience than you’d have enjoyed after the rails were hauled up in the early 1970s, leaving ash and coal dust . . . and a number of abandoned village stations, with buildings too sturdy to just knock down – just perfect for renovation.
(Although, you might have to stick a new door or a window in here and there – if you can find a builder who’s mad enough.)
I’d never have seen that door if I wasn’t actually looking.
Thanks, stupid game. You’ve sharpened me nicely.
Every weekday this year, I’m going for a walk to explore the limits of my ignorance and write about what I find. Want to follow along?
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PREVIOUSLY: A Mile A Day #3 – What’s Inside My Dog?