Everyone has his own particular view of the great outdoors. For some people it is, quite simply, a natural extension of their personal space – a little breezier than their living room and more humid than their basement family room at times, but no less hospitable. For these people, a trek in the woods is as run of the mill as a jaunt to the kitchen for a cup of tea.
For others, though, the outdoors is terra incognito, a land of uncharted hazards and pointless diversions. These folks see a nature walk as trouble just waiting to happen – and as a waste of time to boot.
I'm torn between these two camps, living as I do in Ireland. As the travel guides rightly warn, rainfall here can be general, lasting for hours – or days – and covering great patches of the countryside in a steady, drenching mist. At other times, moisture can fall with pinpoint accuracy, leaving one side of the road bone-dry while the other side is sodden.
As you might expect then, given the unpredictability of the Irish climate, careful planning is required for the simplest of journeys, especially when public transportation is involved and my 8-year-old son is along for the ride.
Most outings call for taking an assortment of clothing and food along. If the mist turns into a deluge or the bus home is late, these items can prove invaluable – neither of us does wet or hungry very well.
Of course, things were not always this way. People with kids are fond of recalling those halcyon days before the children arrived, when – to lift an apt line from Montaigne – we could be "ever booted and spurred and ready to depart."
Back in my high school and college days, I was both a purposeful and spontaneous walker. Sometimes I used my feet as the simplest means of getting to a destination. Other times I set off for the pure pleasure of propelling myself past unfamiliar signposts.
Around Medford, Mass., where I grew up, I often wandered through the woodlands near the sheepfold and tramped the shores of the Mystic Lakes. And I frequently walked down neighborhood streets in Somerville on my way to the Sullivan Square subway station. Each setting was inviting in its own special way.
Then, in June 1984, the year of the Los Angeles Olympics, I went for gold – in walking terms, that is. Setting out from my grandmother's family home in Fountainstown in Cork, Ireland, I spent three weeks walking the roads and byways of West Cork and Kerry, waving away offers of lifts from passing motorists and enduring all manner of glorious and foul weather.
With a 30-pound pack strapped to my back and my mind as uncluttered as a new house, I had the time of my life.
Each morning I enjoyed a good mealand a chat at whatever bead-and-breakfast I'd reached the night before. Then I hit the road. It was as plain and simple as that.
Henry Thoreau, in his essay, "Walking," writes: "I have met with but one or two persons ... in my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, – who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering: which word is beautifully derived 'from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre,' to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, 'There goes a Sainte-Terrer, a Holy-Lander.' "
In my younger days, I was a bit of a waster, without doubt, but something of a Sainte-Terrer as well.
Nowadays, as I say, a bit more planning is required for a day out. But even so, every walk can involve a sacred quest of sorts – which makes Sainte-Terrers of us all.