There’s a Swiss German chant sometimes recited to spoiled little kids. It goes like this:
Dä Hans im Schnäggäloch hät alles was er will,
Doch was er will, das hät er nöd,
Und was er hät, das will er nöd,
De Hans im Schnäggäloch hät alles was er will…
A rough English translation would go something like this:
Hans (Common German name) in the snailhole has everything he wants,
But what he has, he does not want,
And what he wants, he does not have,
Hans in the snailhole has everything he wants…
Why Hans chooses to dwell in a snailhole (Whatever that’s even supposed to be) will probably remain a mystery. However, while walking from Cogollos de la Vega, a small pueblo north of Granada, to Cadiz, a town situated roughly 350 Kilometers westward on the Atlantic coast, I often had to think of it.
Why did I choose to spend two and a half weeks travelling on foot, covering a distance that would have merely taken three hours by car? Well, I often had to think about that too. This is a story about walking, and about the many thoughts one has while walking.
On the morning of my departure, I wasn’t exactly ecstatic. It reminded me of the time I left home, back in Switzerland. I had spent more than three months at Solana de Granada, slowly settling into a routine. My environment became familiar; the people around me, the town I was in, the view out of my bedroom window. I became used to… life.
At last, I was able to travel again. And yet, I felt apprehensive. I was about to leave behind a whole lot of comfort and security. I had grown accustomed to the luxuries of settled life: To having my own bed, constant access to a kitchen, a fridge, a bathroom and to not living out of a backpack. Perhaps even more inhibiting, mentally, I had gotten used to the sense of stability and safety a routine provides.
For all its pleasures, this kind of life eventually began to rear its ugly head. I had started to notice the by now familiar set of symptoms caused by a lack of movement, a lack of novelty. This unconscious process, always at work, signalling when it’s time to move on, ushering in the space and stimulus necessary for growth. I knew that, had lived it before. That didn’t make it any less daunting.
But, as always, making the first step proved to be the most difficult. Once you get the ball rolling, life takes its course. After a heartfelt goodbye, I was off, headed for the unknown, finally on the road again.
We’re all intimately familiar with walking. It’s a very human thing to do. Even if you prefer to live a sedentary lifestyle, moving from sofa to bed to office chair, you’re still walking. Every day, we walk. Be that as it may, most of us probably don’t think of walking as a mode of transportation. It’s more so something we do to fill in the small gaps from house to car, bus station to workplace. However, for the vast majority of human existence, walking used to be our only way of getting around. Allow me to illustrate:
The first members of the genus Homo (That’s Latin for man by the way, kinda cool) started appearing on planet earth around two million years ago. The first Homo Sapiens popped up around 300’000 years ago. When did we figure out we could sit on a donkey and make it do the walking? About 6000 years ago. The hundred of thousand of years in between? It was spent, well, walking. Walking everywhere. We pretty much settled the entire planet, just on foot.
The invention of the wheel followed shortly after the first incident of donkey-riding. I say shortly, it’s almost another 1000 years. While carriages and wagons were known in Roman times, the first significant mode of transportation available to the public was the railway. That was not even 200 years ago. Cars became common in the 1960s, planes a little while after that.
So, one could make the argument that for literally 99.9% of human existence, we got around by using our own pair of legs.
After a couple of hours, the first wave of euphoria slowly faded, leaving me to face the bleak reality of my undertaking. First and foremost, it was hot. The Andalusian sun, finally unleashed in all its fury by the coming of summer, beat down on me mercilessly. I was beginning to run low on water, and the backpack, which felt surprisingly light not all that long ago, became heavier by the minute.
In retrospect, I headed into this first day with a naive but adorable sense of optimism. Would I feel the ancient power of walking, deeply embedded in my being by my forefathers over millions of years? I most certainly did not, unless it expressed itself by making me uncomfortably sweaty and making my feet ache and blister.
My mind couldn’t take it, sought to escape the immediate reality, which was dominated by physical discomfort. It did so by thinking about when I’ll next stop and rest, by thinking about the food I might eat during my break and what I’ll read. This did prove to lighten my mood, if only for a short little while.
It came at a cost though. I was now focused on this vague event in the future, craving it, depending on it. Every step I took was one closer to the break. Walking started serving this purpose. I found myself daydreaming about the break. Picturing it in my head, inadvertently creating expectations. What did the place look like, what did the food taste like?
From the get-go, I viewed this trip as an experiment. An experiment on different things, one of them being a quest, a desire for a life lived in the present moment. This was kindled by the past weeks, in which I had felt myself gradually losing touch with what I feel to be the center of life, of being; the present moment. Right here, right now.
In the weeks preceding my departure, I had become more and more fixated on the future, started making plans: Where I wanted to go, what I wanted to see, how long it would take me, how much time I would spend at which places. I spent less and less time actually living, instead diverting energy to these ultimately unreal fantasies.
In addition, I spent an increasing amount of time mindlessly browsing the internet, checking current news, watching random videos on Youtube and scrolling through feeds of irrelevant stuff, despite it making me sluggish and unhappy. Bit by bit, it felt like the life was being drained out of me. The days started blurring together, leaving me feeling unfulfilled.
There was this energy, this need for purpose, ready to manifest itself, to be lived, but there was no outlet. I wanted to feel alive again, feel myself again. Wanted intensity. Walking seemed to promise a solution. It would provide a simple framework. Walk to this place. No internet, no distractions. Just me, walking. Who knows what would happen, I’d be completely exposed to the world.
I probably would not have been able to consciously formulate all of this when I left. Even now, writing this, part of me wonders how much of it is simply me creating a neat little explanation for an infinitely more complex situation.
Now, I found myself in the same predicament. My mind just didn’t really seem to like staying in the moment. Unless it enjoyed the present. Even then, it’s sometimes more concerned with enjoying the enjoyment and worrying about the inevitable end of the enjoyment. But what could I do? My mind seemed to have a mind of its own, there was no controlling it.
This was to become a recurring theme over the next 18 days. A pattern I saw occurring many, many times. However, I did notice something. My world became smaller. During this trip, my focus, my life, was revolving around a few basic, human needs. Water, food, shelter. I rarely thought about my destination, it was just too far away.
Instead, I worried about when and where I was going to get water. I thought about my next meal. I hoped for a park with shade to cook in and an air-conditioned bar to hide from the sweltering mid-day heat. I thought about how far I was going to walk today. When I rested, I dozed and read. I set up camp in the evening, I broke camp in the morning. I walked. Day in, day out.
It was a simple life. There wasn’t a lot happening. And yet, perhaps counterintuitively, as the days passed, everything seemed to become amplified. Encounters and conversations with other people, no matter how brief, how simple (Thanks to my rather modest command of the Spanish language) were rich and often times touching, overflowing with meaning, subtext and emotion.
Every new little village I passed through was a mystery, bearing surprises. Would there be a park? A fountain? A bar? (Even though I never had to worry about there not being a bar in any town in Spain, no matter how small) I stumbled across some truly beautiful, authentic villages. Beauty I never expected nor sought out. These unplanned discoveries are some of the most memorable moments I ever made while travelling.
Life was slow. I didn’t move quickly, but non the less, I was in motion. My environment was in constant flux. The landscape barely changed, but it always did, just a tiny little bit. Those changes being gradual, easy to digest. It took hours of walking to get from one village to the next. But this is exactly the reason I experienced them so vividly.
And this doesn’t just apply to the villages, it applied to my entire life. I couldn’t stop my mind from doing its thing, but this way of living forced it to calm down, to pay attention. Life became intense, it became worth living.
A lot of it was spent in discomfort. I’ll be honest, I can recount four or five instances, which lasted a couple of hours at best, where I actually enjoyed the walking itself. For the entirety of the remaining time, my mood while walking ranged from an acceptable neutral to downright misery.
This was, to a large degree, of my own doing. At the root of it, it’s about the following question: How much do I need something in the future, something like a goal or a destination, to validate my current action, to give meaning to my doing in the present. This problem of purpose was another matter I wanted to experiment with on this trip.
As it turned out, it’s extremely hard to live without any purpose. Not only is it hard to live without, it’s straight up scary. Truly. I really tried to think it through, to feel and to live it. But I couldn’t get past the thinking stage.
If this step I’m taking right now isn’t about taking me to the next village, to my next break, closer to my ultimate destination, what is this step about? If it’s about nothing at all, if it’s not the means to an end, why am I taking it? If there is no reason, why am I taking it…
My thoughts started circling around. Eventually, I began to edge closer to a conclusion, looming at the edge of my consciousness, of my ability to comprehend, like a dark, bottomless abyss. If this step, the present moment, doesn’t serve a purpose, if it’s not about something in the future, if it isn’t because of something in the past, if it really just is what it is… then what? What the hell is going on?
It is such a foreign way of thinking, such a remote perspective, so contrary to everything society, culture and our way of life stands for. So alien to everything we’ve been taught since our youngest days. It boggles the mind, overwhelms it, frightens it. It threatens to collapse a foundation, one buried so deeply I wasn’t even aware of its existence.
What does this have to do with discomfort? Well, one more thing I figured out was that this concept of purpose also sucks ass sometimes.
If I can’t just take this step for its own sake, if the step is about getting me somewhere, I try to get there faster. Especially if my goal promises a brief respite from the discomfort I now experience. But, if I think about it, what is discomfort but the mind not accepting, trying to get away from, the present? It can’t really be about the actual circumstances, but rather an inability of the mind to take what is, as it is.
So, in a very real way, the discomfort doesn’t have to do with the sun or my aching feet. It originates in the mind, in this split from reality. And this is a truly vicious circle, for it never ends. When I finally rest, my mind starts drifting ahead again, dreading the next walk. And when I start walking, it doesn’t take too long for it to start longing for the next break.
Dä Hans im Schnäggäloch…
I noticed all of this, but again, I was powerless. There was no stopping it. I tried, I really did. I tried to take this step simply for what it was, I tried to slow down my pace. It proved anything but fruitful. As soon as my concentration wavered, my mind reverted to its usual state. So I just let it have its way. Not that I had a say in it. I just stopped struggling against it. Who’s struggling against what, you ask? Well, let’s not open that can of worms right now.
There was another main cause of my discomfort. This way of travelling, of living, forced me to constantly step out of my comfort zone. It’s another reason I wanted to walk, another experiment. I wanted to create freedom by not needing certain safeties and comforts. For that’s what a comfort zone essentially is, the limit of freedom; freedom being something I value extremely highly.
On a daily basis, there were countless transgressions of those mental barriers: Interacting with other humans, asking for help, making myself understood and laughing at the inevitable, awkward language barrier. Not feeling weird for being the odd one out in a bar full of locals, but actually getting going along with it and enjoying it. Approaching people and being open and accepting to whoever they are, while sharing and being who I am. Everyone became a person to talk to, a friend to share a story and a laugh with.
This social side of the undertaking was rather easy. It took a little bit of time to get used to, but there was no real fear involved. Then there was the middle ground made up of worry and stress about water.
The heat made adequate hydration crucial. Water became invaluable. I needed it to drink, I needed it to cook. There were almost no rivers or streams, so I relied on fountains, bars, and the kindness of my fellow humans. I needed to take the distances between towns into consideration. I needed to calculate and ration it. How long do I need to walk to get to the next village, the next place where I’d have access to water? How much water do I have on me right now? Can I cook dinner and still have enough left to drink until I get to the next village?
(If you have access to a tap with fresh, drinkable water right now, I implore you to take a moment to appreciate the immense wealth this represents.)
Eventually, I came to see that I could relax. Sure, I’d have to keep an eye on water, but it needn’t be a source of anxiety. I started trusting that I’ll always find some source of water, my accumulated experience reassuring me.
What evoked real, primal fear, was the night.
I never knew where I would end up sleeping for the night. This didn’t bother me. The challenging part came after I scouted out a suitable campsite and set up camp. When darkness engulfed me and the world, changing everything.
It is difficult to pinpoint the source of my fear. It wasn’t about other people.
My image of and disposition towards strangers, towards humans and towards humanity has been forever altered by my experiences travelling. I feel like thanks the constant exposure to horrible news and what we’re taught from an early age we’re, on principle, mistrusting towards people we don’t know.
Once I started making my own experiences, I saw that this view couldn’t be further from the truth. I have experienced so much kindness, so much hospitality from strangers, it is hard not to be moved. Just on this trip, without ever asking for any of it, I was given food six times, had a ride offered to me two times and a bed to sleep in once. Not to speak of the countless times I was given water without hesitation.
Animals played a bigger part than humans. Even though I rationally knew there weren’t any dangerous animals around (Except for maybe the boar, but unprovoked even this brute wouldn’t pose a threat), it was gruelling to be this close to nature and wildlife while sleeping. The darkness bestowing a hostile, even sinister quality to sounds and sights.
Sleeping outside, I simply felt naked, exposed and unprotected. This sense of safety we take for granted, having a home and a bed, suddenly missing. I tried to get to the root of this fear. What am I actually afraid of?
It boiled down to my own mortality. I was afraid that the world might harm me. Take my things, injury me, kill me. But living means dying, it’s an indisputable fact. We all know we’re going to die, sooner or later. In this sense, what can really happen to me? I’m already dead. I’m sitting at the black jack table, hitting again with a hand of 20. It doesn’t matter.
Accepting this, really feeling it, while lying on my sleeping pad listening to the noises of the night, I was able to let go. Let go of myself. There’s an extreme strength in this. Night after night, I became more comfortable, worrying less and less. The more I slept outside, the more I saw that my fear and anxiety was unfounded. I slowly started enjoying it.
It’s difficult to convey the sense of freedom I felt after I got used to sleeping and living outside. Walking out of town with two full water bottles, food and my tent, towards the setting sun, was incredibly energizing. To be this mobile, this independent, all the while feeling completely at ease and having gained this trust towards life, felt profoundly liberating.
The funny thing is, I didn’t have to do much, all of this happened almost by itself. It is just this initial step over that imaginary line. Once you take the leap and jump in the cold water, things sort themselves out. It’s just a matter of doing it over and over again, until the line gradually disappears, until life starts becoming so much more enjoyable, so much more free.
I’ve come to appreciate this line, the edge of the comfort zone, as a compass for where to go next. Instead of letting it deter me, restricting my experience, I let it guide me, let it point me in the direction of where I can grow, learn and after all, experience something new life has to offer.
To quote my brother on the topic of stepping out of one’s comfort zone: “You become the boss of life.”
The evening before I arrived in Cadiz, I found myself in some bushes next to the street cooking lentils. Resting and cooking in these bizarre places in the middle of nowhere is something I’ve come to love. These places provide space. Space to simply be.
After I had eaten, faced with the approaching end of this journey, I started thinking. Something special happened. I can only attribute it to the weeks spent walking, as if it cleansed my mind of all the junk cluttering it. I experienced an incredible episode of clarity.
My mind was clear. It spilled out answers to questions I have been pondering over for months now, not getting anywhere. Even more, it went beyond that, giving me answers to questions I didn’t even know I had.
It produced all that at a steady, unwavering pace. It almost seemed unstoppable, like it finally worked the way it’s supposed to work. It was able to freely flow, like some blockage had been removed. Like it had finally tuned in to the right frequency of a radio station. There wasn’t any doubt, any interference, any backtracking.
This lasted for an hour or so. Afterwards, I, it, my mind, all just went quiet. I started walking, feeling pleasantly empty. I just walked. And for a brief time, no thoughts of future or past intruded. I wasn’t walking to get anywhere, I was just walking. The same road I had been on just before I cooked dinner was suddenly transformed, alongside everything else. For the first time, I saw it for what it is, like I had been gifted the sense of sight after being blind for my entire life.
Then, I understood the following quote a bit more: “Not hurrying, the purposeless life misses nothing, for it is only when there is no goal and no rush that the human senses are fully open to receive the world.”
I began to wonder at experience. Right down to its core, I was stunned by simple existence. I marveled at the fact that anything at all exists, instead of there just being nothing. And I truly appreciated, was filled by joy and amazement, that there is anything at all.
I didn’t need anything else, was completely content. In fact, there was nobody to need anything, nobody to be content. For I saw that this “I” is part of everything there is just like anything else. You, me, the street, this rock, our struggles, our confusion, our happiness. It’s all this wonder.
Fuck you Hans.
Walking is a beautiful and intense way to travel. I don’t think there’s a better way to authentically get to know a country, its people, towns, culture, cuisine, nature and climate. It embodies so much of what travel means to me. Through this process of discovery, I discover myself, I discover life.
Life on the road makes me stronger. Time and time again, it teaches me that I can deal with anything life throws at me. And although it can be extremely hard and challenging at times, it’s also incredibly invigorating and fulfilling. Always facing the unknown, never knowing what the day will bring. There’s such joy in being able to live spontaneously, constantly being thrown into new situations.
And all one needs is time. Walking is by far the cheapest way of travelling. Not counting the hotel breaks I took, I lived for around five to ten euros a day, and that’s without strict budgeting, with a lot of “luxury”. That’s less than 300 euros a month.
Thank you for reading. This was something a bit different, less story and more rambling. I hope you enjoyed it non the less. Let me know what you thought of it.