The Urge to Wander: A Brief Bibliography

Have you ever been taken by surprise during an endurance excursion? Where the confluence of the environment, the effort, the moment, sights and smells and the feel of the air on your skin conspire to generate a mood beyond the sum of sensory input? The scenery, the weather, the trail strike a rare, fleeting, resonant tone?

This paradigm may be familiar to you, if you’re a Wanderer. It’s not something you can conjure at will, any more than you can set out in the morning determined to fall in love by nightfall. The best we can do is place ourselves out there and wait for the Sublime to happen. I use the word Sublime because it’s the best available but, honestly, I don’t think there’s a word for it. I can’t name it, but I recognize it when it comes.

A study published in 2017 showed a correlation between Mood and Movement. Approximately 12,000 people downloaded an app that prompted them at random times about their mood state. The phone’s accelerometer, along with self-reported engagement in physical activity, tracked whether the subject’s mood tracked with activity. The result? What you would think. People are meant to move - to physically engage with the land. When we move, we’re happier. When we don’t, we’re not.

What follows is a list of recent books that explain, chronicle, contextualize the Urge to Wander. I’m fascinated by how recent the awakening of this nascent behavior, that is, it’s shocking that exploration as a hobby; the desire to ascend; the appreciation of human movement; is so new. What you and I love; what we do; is often seen as excessive. Okay. But only 300 years ago the notion of simply walking to the top of a mountain, voluntarily, for no reason but, in George Mallory’s infamous words, “It is there,” would’ve been unimaginable in Western culture.

Graham Robb cycled 14,000 miles to research The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography, which I read during 2007 and the toil and mundanity of a provincial existence in rural 19th Century France painted a readiness, almost an eagerness, for death in one’s later years. Just make it to the end, was the sense for many for those in dismal, mundane, painful existences, the finish line being restful death, and hurry it up.

For most of human history I’m of the belief that the average person would’ve chosen a life of a domestic animal – a free range chicken, a grass fed steer – over the a perilous, terrifying, uncertain, hardscrabble life, however free and self-determinant it may be. We – you and I – live lives of relative luxury, and allow us the privilege and leisure to contemplate more.

Those born to more than average privilege began to contemplate Movement for its own sake, but, in the Western world rarely until the 17th Century, and not in earnest until the 19th Century.

Robert MacFarlane is a British landscape and nature writer, a cultural observer, and the first of his breakout best sellers was Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit. I’m at the beginning of my MacFarlane literary tour. “Mountains” is the first of what MacFarlane calls his, “'loose trilogy of books about landscape and the human heart,” the others being The Wild Places and The Old Ways.

I have read MacFarlane described as a “walker-writer” suggesting that walker-writer is a thing, and that’s fine. Graham Robb is a pedaler-writer then. MacFarlane is also a stroker-writer as he is one of the two named patrons of the Outdoor Swimming Society (go visit this website; then come back).

MacFarlane’s “Mountains” will introduce you to the newness of the concept of ascending for its own sake. Robert Moor will keep you to flatter terrain in On Trails: An Exploration. Just as “Mountains” launched MacFarlane’s literary journey, “On Trails” is “walker-writer” Moor’s first book. I can’t tell you all the reasons why this book rocketed to the top of the best seller list, because I’m not quite to the end.

MacFarlane and Moor above describe our primal attachment to the movement across the earth and up to the heavens. Will Hunt is another walker-writer and at times a crawler-writer. Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet is a (please excuse) deep dive into our fascination with what’s beneath our feet. It’s terrific and, taken with the books above, paints homo sapiens as an inveterate addict to Movement. My favorite vignette in “Underground” is the exasperatingly ornate and lengthy route (a Songline) the author is forced to make with Aboriginal elders in order to earn him the right to explore a cave in Western Australia. I’d like to ask an Australian triathlete versed in Aboriginal culture whether Songlines make more sense when viewed through the prism of our own firm attachments to our own highly-scripted ceremonial arduous wanderings (e.g., Ironman).

Note that Robert MacFarlane is about ready to release Underland: A Deep Time Journey, which sounds a lot like Hunt’s “Underground”. The publisher’s description says it’s, “an epic exploration of the Earth’s underworlds as they exist in myth, literature, memory, and the land itself.” As I move forward through MacFarlane, eventually arriving at “Underland”, I’ll be interested to see what MacFarlane adds to Hunt, though I suspect the window of opportunity to my life as a spelunker opened and closed long ago.

Will Hunt used Moses' command from God to descend into Sinai to justify the urge to go down into the underground. Robert McFarlane used Moses' same command from God to justify going up to God’s Aerie. They were both right, in a way. Moses ascended Mt. Sinai, then went into a cave, underneath the summit. Which just goes to show you: If it’s justification ammo you’re looking for, the Bible is your friend.

MacFarlane, in “Mountains”, notes that Edmund Burke introduced Europeans to the notion of wandering for wandering’s sake as the Age of Enlightenment was in full bloom. Burke's mid-18th Century A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, explained and, I suppose, gave permission to the Enlightened English to appreciate the landscape through which they wandered, much as Barry McDermott gave us all permission to do the Ironman.

I picked up a book at a library sale by a mid-20th-Century author of books written for young readers, Geoffrey Trease’s,
the Grand Tour. No, I don’t mean the Giro or the TdF. The original Grand Tour was the 17th and 18th Century tour of the Continent undertaken as part of the education of an upper class English young man or woman of age (roughly 21 years old). My sense is that these post-Oxford students, and more likely their learned chaperones, traipsing over the Alpine passes from France to Italy, were eventually awestruck by what they saw and this led to Burke's identification and appreciation of the Sublime. (An awesome landscape experience can hit you upside the head only so many times before you eventually get the message.)

Burke described the Sublime through the prism of philosophy, describing an emotion available to, but heretofore unappreciated by, his countrymen. Burke is hard slogging, as are those who followed up on the theme: Kant, Schopenhauer, Hegel. Just, here’s a thought experiment pushed through Google’s engines. Google has some engine candy called the Ngram Viewer, which charts the popularity of a word as deployed in books over the centuries. Acknowledging the limitations of Ngram Viewer, here’s my little thought experiment:

If my imprecision can be forgiven, is it fair to postulate that we’ve gradually slid from an appreciation and discussion of that elusive, seductive quality I describe in my first two paragraphs above, bowing to the emotional entropy that favors the exaltation of the mundane?

Hence my short bibliography presented here: 21st Century authors who remind us of the swashbuckling Clarence King and his prototype walker-writer’s book on ascending, along with the master of all walker-writers, John Muir. King, Muir and William Brewer remind us that the Victorian interest in ascending Alpine peaks like the Matterhorn were contemporaneously mirrored in America, and if you read the prose of these men it’s clear that a hunger for the Sublime ran through their veins.

I’d love to know what Burke would have thought about Muir’s Wind Storm In the Forest.