The slopes are gentler at Swarthmore. Far from my home of Los Angeles and new to the East Coast experience, I remember an especially formative California adventure: backpacking across Catalina Island. I imagine myself rising and falling on Catalina’s rollercoaster mountains again, on a near-pilgrimage. It was fresh, budding spring, universally green, cold in the morning shadows of the valleys and scorching upon the mountain’s unsheltered peaks where I would sprawl on the picnic tables to rest — moments of stunning calm and exhaustion — and lift my head again to absorb the ocean on either side, making games out of where the horizon started. Then it was down the rollercoaster … my thoughts were just about footfalls, or debating if the next encounter would be with a snake or a bison.
There was a fantastic peace in the slopes and the opposite extremes of the mountains. It was a land so invigorating that I wanted to connect to it more, to walk as an extension of nature, to jump into the freezing ocean on day three because it was so blue and expansive, and to melt into the first night’s sunset. That was the sunset when the rollercoaster ascended above the cloud line to air so thin I couldn’t breathe — or some ineffable spectacularism and depth of the colors took my breath away — or something in between. Embracing the steepness and its extremity meant leveraging up the most dramatic hills, perching like a mountain goat, grasping at loose rocks, and slipping and grabbing anything to stay upright. The beauty was unending. The hills roll more sweetly here.
By December, the sun sets far earlier, and I commit myself to the shortened Pennsylvania days instead of considering them the next springtime’s preamble. I wonder if the grass will stay green all year –– one of many questions born of my first cycle through true seasons. A friend says yes, maybe the snow will dust it, maybe the rain will flood it, but the grass will stay green. We’ve been waking at sunrise to maximize our daylight hours. The pink and golden light filters into my east-facing window, the one I never close, and so the day begins. Our morning walks seem to be just between us and the intense, freshly risen sun; the day centers around it, and I learn which libraries face west for when 4:30 PM rolls around.
And so I have come to decide that there are two categories of walking. First, the walking with intention: point A to point B, a definite destination, a clear start. Second, the wander: a wonderful, ambling, uncertain, exploratory walk. It’s the walk that takes you into the Crum Woods because it’s a lovely day, or because things are too busy outside of the woods, and tapers into a conclusion when it gets colder or darker or the quiet and peace has been restorative enough. Both categories are important. But, perhaps more interestingly, isn’t there something beautiful about taking the drifting, inquisitive qualities of a wander and superimposing it onto the everyday, purposeful, and regimented walk? Can we take the time to fully experience our rushed or resolute moments of movement, and to realize more wonder in the ordinary?
Swarthmore’s slopes are mellow, its paths tree-lined and flower-filled, an interconnecting, at times unintuitive network of snaking, curved passages. Maybe there’s a reason there are countless different systems of paths to get from point A to point B. Maybe it’s to explore the ways in which wandering can creep its way into necessary transit. There is no single, nor isolated route.