Search for Joy...
or at Least a Guinness
by Tom Trimbath
Excerpts from Walking, Thinking, Drinking Across
Scotland by Tom Trimbath
Sunny beaches? Ha! I was headed to misty Scotland for my autumn vacation.
What was I thinking? My friends wondered about that too. So did I, but I trust
my intuition. I knew I needed a change of scenery and a different routine.
We build ruts. We build them out of habits and for a purpose, even if we
don’t realize it. Our ruts keep us in the vicinity of what we think we need and
aim us towards a goal we expect to reach. A rut is a person’s self-built
one-dimensional maze that includes walls and a picture of cheese. If it is a
deep enough rut, the horizon becomes the top of the trench that we can’t see
over. The world shrinks to something that seems controllable where everything
except the end is within reach. We humans are very good at putting ourselves
into silly situations.
I knew I was in a rut, and that my horizons to either side had become a bit
too near. I’d been there before, and I’d found a way out of it. I had to do
something completely different. My desire to walk across Scotland was a desire
to see my rut from another perspective, even if it meant creating a new rut.
I did something similar ten years earlier, but that time I was just trying to
lose weight. For eight weeks in September and October of 2000 I bicycled from
Washington State to Florida: a corner-to-corner bicycle ride partly intended as
weight reduction, partly to get out of the house, partly to see if I could.
As I closed the garden gate, I looked down the lane. The
morning light made it look like less of a dead-end. The path diving into the
dark tunnel of the underpass was not very encouraging. It looked like an
opportunity for Joseph Campbell to begin a lecture on the hero’s journey. What
lay within and beyond the darkness?
From light, to dark, and back to light as I crossed over to the other side
was like a Wizard of Oz moment. The sky was lightly overcast. The contrast was
bright and welcome. A regular road roughly paralleled the heavy traffic and
steered away from the highway. Soon the road noise drifted away. As a bonus,
instead of a sidewalk, shoulder, or bit of paint defining a lane there was a
wide concrete median guarding a paved path wide enough for bicycles to ride
abreast. I had a mini-road all to myself and a bigger barrier to traffic than I
imagined. Fenwick was luxurious.
I also had a lot of country to myself. Instead of finding more density closer
to the metropolis of Glasgow, I chose to walk through more farmland. Only 17
miles from downtown Glasgow is a big emptiness. The motorway speeds everyone
through the terrain with little effect except noise and exhausts. Credit goes to
car companies that the exhausts weren’t bad. Thirty years earlier the air was
probably much fouler. My route was far enough away that I was more likely to
smell the cow fumes than the car fumes. They both came from tailpipes, but I had
Congratulations, Scots! One farm crop was odor-free: wind. Individual houses
had turbines. Forests of titans gathered on the ridges slicing energy from the
air. Unlike America, where the wind and the cities can be far apart, in Scotland
the turbines were within a 20-minute drive of downtown. The energy didn’t have
far to go.
The lands rolled up and down. I saw more trout farms than people. A bicyclist
startled me, which made me laugh at myself. How inattentive, how relaxed must I
be to jump when a person rides by? Maybe he cursed the pedestrian that took up
the entire bike lane. Maybe he cheered my obviously long walk. Probably he
forgot about me within a mile. I passed through a land without making a mark.
I laughed because I was embarrassed. I’d finally relaxed enough to not worry
about what others would think when they saw me. Hours spent surrounded by no one
were an opportunity to have those conversations I was rarely brave enough to
have in person. They were one-sided conversations, but I talked to people who’d
died, people I hadn’t seen in years, friends who were also always too busy to
sit and talk.
Emotions had a chance to arise without someone telling me how I
should feel or having to worry about how I should respond. Manners, politeness,
diplomacy could all be ignored. I said thank-yous to people who usually have to
be convinced to take a compliment, or I talked about something that bugged me
without having to defend or justify my emotion. They never answered back, I
wasn’t that tired (and if they started talking back either I was more exhausted
than I knew or had mentally gone somewhere I shouldn’t), but I could pretend
that they were listening. The cattle didn’t seem to care, and I was less likely
to scare the sheep because they had a chance to hear me coming. When the cyclist
rolled by I was so deep in my own world that I didn’t know if I had been talking
out loud. Oh well, rather than worry about my image I decided I could always
claim to just be a crazy Yank tourist.
Somewhere in there something else happened. There was a moment that wouldn’t
show up in a video. I was walking one moment, and was walking the next. Yet
between those moments was a flash of a powerful emotion. I glimpsed joy.
For the infinitesimal time between two moments, I somehow opened myself up
and met an emotion I thought I knew. After being properly introduced, I was
humbled by how little I knew about it. Amidst the arguments and expressive
outbursts, I realized why I was walking across Scotland. Yes, I should take a
vacation for my health. Yes, I wanted to get away from my chores for a while.
But I suddenly realized that I was walking across Scotland because I could enjoy
it. Such a simple thing as walking could be described as mobile meditation or
low-impact aerobics or many other multisyllabic rationalizations — but the real
reason I was walking across Scotland was because I enjoyed walking, and travel,
and unstructured time, and having a straightforward goal. I was enjoying myself.
I saw joy and recognized it in a real sense, and realized that
I’d only known it in an ideal sense until then. I recognized that joy was in
every moment, and that it was always waiting for me. I simply had to choose it.
For over 50 years I’d never witnessed the purity of that feeling nor learned
that simple truth. I’d done well in school, behaved myself, graduated from
college with a respectable degree, got a good job, got a better degree, got a
better job, saved my money, managed the suburban lifestyle, and ended up single
again because I should. Nowhere in there did I spend much time learning to
enjoy. I acted responsibly and learned to do the things that people said were
enjoyable, and believed that what I experienced was joy. But I was wrong. For
one moment, without a break in the clouds, or finding money at my feet, or
seeing a beautiful smile, I felt full of joy. I was walking across Scotland
because I enjoyed walking across Scotland. There was no need for any further
The next moment arrived and the feeling was gone.
Yet, a tendril remained. An emotional thread tied me to the awareness that I
could have that feeling and the memory of the real instead of the ideal emotion.
I tried snapping back into joy, but could tell it didn’t work that way. I’d
spent so little time experiencing real joy that I would require practice to get
that feeling back. Slipping back into familiar feelings was inevitable.
Chastising myself for it wouldn’t help. I decided to keep a tender mental hold
on that emotional thread and slowly reel in that treasure. Within a few minutes
I was back to my conversations, but there was a lightness to my face. My jaw and
forehead relaxed. I’d turned a corner into a long and eagerly anticipated
journey and the promising prospect of an ongoing education in deep delight.