I just got back from a late-afternoon walk, something I’m trying to do now that winter has released its grasp from “North of the Wall.” At a recent physical, the doctor told me that I am in moderate shape, but I need more physical activity; unsurprisingly, hours spent in front of a television, monitor, or even a good book do very little for the physique. So I found a nicely-sidewalked road running back behind my townhouse and have been spending at least half an hour each Sunday walking it down to a certain point and back.
Along the way, I just kind of let my mind wander, mostly because my iPod can’t hold a charge, but also because I hope doing so will let my brain unwind, and maybe even have a creative idea or two. Nothing overly structured, mind you, just some light brainstorming, or thinking about some work or another I’ve been enjoying of late.
Several times now, I’ve found my thoughts drawn to small patches of woods that stretch off one direction or another from the road I’m following. These are large patches of wilderness, mind you; I doubt you could go far enough in any direction to become lost, out of sight or sound of civilization. Still, they’re little patches of thick trees, bushes, and the like that haven’t been forcibly smoothed over for progress.
I first noticed them because I was re-reading Lord of the Rings, and my mind came upon the thought that almost all of the places Frodo journeys through would be untamed, trackless wilds. Not only that, but he and Sam journeyed over a thousand miles in this fashion, and repeatedly came upon areas where they weren’t really sure how to proceed.
It would be like me deciding to travel from here to Dallas, on foot and occasional horseback, without any help, other than the guidance of a few people who knew some of the areas. Also, I had to use Google maps to find a city that was a comparable distance away. I thought California to begin with, but that’s another extra thousand miles.
An extra thousand miles that, as it stands, people in recent history have crossed in a fashion very similar to what I just described. From 1804-1806, the Lewis and Clark expedition was tasked with travelling from St. Louis to the west and back, while also exploring, learning, and documenting what they found. This was at a time when people still thought there could be a “northwest passage” waterway that would allow for direct sea travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
With the technology we have these days – GPS on handheld devices, 3D-modeled satellite maps, etc. – it’s difficult to imagine a time when people thought such things possible, even though it was a scant two-hundred ten years ago. I know there are still trackless, uncharted parts of the world, but they are fewer every year. On a tangential note, while watching a Batman film today, I realized that the secret road way leading into the bat-cave would no longer be feasible; someone would spot it on Google maps, and then “POW!” teenagers are taking selfies there.
Without these places left to explore, our imaginations have turned to the sky, to “the final frontier” as it has been put on more than one occasion. Star Trek, as it was originally conceived, tapped into that same kind of explorer spirit; the Enterprise travelled countless light-years from Earth, into completely uncharted space, so that the crew could visit unknown worlds. I’m trying to fathom the concept of stepping onto a world that I have no information about, with nothing already there to help me get a sense of direction, bearing, or orientation; I can’t really make that conception work, to be honest.
Probably the closest I have ever gotten in my life is video games, especially ones where you are expected to explore an open-ended game world; things like Metroid, Zelda, Final Fantasy, and the like spring to mind from the past, while new additions like Dark Souls and The Elder Scrolls have carried on the tradition. I always like reading about people who are going through old things and find graph paper with maps of Zebes drawn on it, or scribbled notes about what directions to take and commands to use from a text-based adventure.
Sadly, player accessibility has started to cheat us out of these experiences, and the internet provides instant relief even when the game may not. Yes, Skyrim is an amazing open-ended world, and it can be fun to just set off in a direction for adventure. But almost all of the quests give you a location marker to go by, and fast-travel allows you to zip back and forth between places you have already been.
Dark Souls helps mend this a little, by having almost no sort of mission structure or hand-holding in terms of location marker; Hell, there’s not even an in-game map you can use. Still, if you get frustrated, there are entire websites – most accessible from a data-enabled phone – devoted to helping guide you through Lordran, complete with descriptions, screenshots, and digital maps of each area.
I’m not trying to decry anyone else for wanting to make things easier; I personally have never managed to beat Dark Souls largely because there is so little guidance; yet in my lifetime I have beaten games that offer as little or less guidance, and done it simply by learning the game, or making my own notes and hand-drawn maps; a lot of game used to have both lined and blank pages in the back of the manual intended for that very purpose!
I’ve done a bit of wandering in my life, though admittedly almost always within civilization. When I moved away from home, I traveled 800+ down roads I had never seen, with just some hand-written direction to go by; I arrived in a brand new city, to move into a house I had never visited. I have travelled to Europe on several occasions, once to spend three months livings – albeit with people I knew – in a completely different city, in a country thousands of miles from home.
Probably my favorite thing I’ve done was during that trip, when on my own I took a train, and then a bus to get to Paris, where I spent several days just walking around. I plotted my own course from Sacré Cœur, down to the Arc de Triomphe, and then past the Louvre to Notre Dame. I read maps, talked to people, stayed fed and safe, and even navigated the metro without getting injured, robbed, or hurt worse than some sore feet.
Each time I walk by the woods on the road during my Sunday walks, part of me wants to tramp down into them just for the Hell of it. I might get scratched, bitten, and dirty; people would most assuredly wonder what I was doing if they saw me; yet part of me really feels it would do me good in the long run. If my hope is that my mind might become unburdened by these little strolls, the first thing to do might be drop some of my reservations and expectations. After all, it is supposed to be a dangerous business, going out your door.