Odysseys for the Soul


One Man’s Search for Joy...
or at Least a Guinness

by Tom Trimbath

Excerpts from Walking, Thinking, Drinking Across Scotland by Tom Trimbath

 September 21

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.

September 28

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 a preference.

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 discussion.

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.

Tom Trimbath is the author of the nature essay series “Twelve Months at Barclay Lake, Lake Valhalla, and Merritt Lake”; the cultural essay “Just Keep Pedaling”; Dream. Invest. Live, a book about frugal personal finance; and now, Walking, Thinking, Drinking Across Scotland.

“My walk across Scotland commemorated the tenth year anniversary of my corner-to-corner bicycle ride across America, Just Keep Pedaling. That ride changed my life, even though I didn’t know it at the time. Ten years later I needed a vacation and wanted a nice, long walk, not a life-altering experience. What I got was both.”

For more, visit trimbathcreative.com. Photos (500k jpg and higher resolutions) are available; additional photos are at http://walkthinkdrinkscotland.wordpress.com/photos/.