Following in the footsteps of those we admire is often not entirely possible. In my last heroes post I talked of Alan Rouse and his climbs all over the world. I have been many places in pursuit of the vertical but I cannot and probably never will get to the top of K2 or up most of the stunningly difficult rock climbs he did.
But there are other heroes that create a passion that is easier to copy and one of those, for me, is the poet and writer Laurie Lee.
When I say copy, I do not mean I set out to trace his every step and sentence, where is the point in that? But pilgrimages to the Cotswolds or Spain are easier to arrange that the Himalaya and when he writes in his books of an encounter in a foreign town you can imagine the feeling because you will have had that feeling yourself, many times, in many ways and in many other places than the ones he went. What I do like to do however on my travels is to read As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning about his walk down through Spain in 1935. The way Mr. Lee looked at the world as he tramped the dusty roads south before getting caught up in the Spanish Civil War is a good mind-set to get in before you go out and find you own adventures.
In over ten years of wandering the globe that book has always been in my rucksack, it is here now in Japan of course: battered and stained, held together with sellotape and stuffed with souvenir photos and messages scribbled on scraps of paper of the people I met that meant something to me. It’s the details you see, the minutiae of the travel experience that are the memories we come back to years later. We may forget a name or place but will never forget the way a person held their chopsticks strangely or the look of their clothes after the festival. We will never forget the Mickey Mouse clock in her room or the sadness it welled in us or the cigarette smoke in the jungle’s still air like a fog. With his language in my head I look at the world I travel through differently, noting down things I perhaps wouldn’t have noticed before.
I did literally follow in his footsteps once, not by writing a best selling book (yet) or by fighting a war of moral conviction (again yet) but by walking my favourite section of the book from Valladolid to Segovia. The dream was to be striding alone, with my head down against the baking sun of the Castilian Plain much as LL had done before but those far, flat horizons of fantasy were rather damp and grey as I shuffled out passed the factories and houses of Valladolid’s suburbs. Laurie Lee has hated the city, saying it was a place as “hard as it syllables” but I had quite liked it until then. Leaving it however was to realize that over half a century had passed since those same roads, tracks at that time, had been struck by the sandaled feet of my favourite English poet and while I plodded stoicly on into the fields and forest, leaving behind the urban sprawl, the trucks continued roaring by throwing up dust and garbage.
When I reached my first village some hours later I felt tired and dirty. The rain had gone and sky was hot so I decided to stay there for the night. Unfortunately all the cheap hotels and pensions were full with workmen repairing the castle on the hill so after sharing a few vinos with them I found a place to sleep that night in a local wood. There I spent the night fighting off ants and wary of feral youth. It was an uncomfortable night, I was foetal-curled above the forest litter on a discarded car seat and though I was warm with red wine I shivered coldly in the blanket I had wrapped myself in with romantic stupidity having left my sleeping bag in England.
And do you know what…I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
Talk to you later.