Here at City Between Headquarters, we (like almost everyone) have been rather confined in the last year. Our walking tours are on pause and our travel possibilities limited. But a recent adventure of a faraway horse-bound French philosopher inspired me to reflect on some ways to get find some adventure each day, close to home. Bon Voyage!
In June of 2020 an unusual trip began in Bordeaux, France. A young-ish French philosopher, Gaspard Koenig, left one morning for a 1,000 mile trip to Rome. It was unusual, not only that he was traveling in a global pandemic, but because he was leaving on his horse, Destinada. Koenig’s adventure was no lark. He had been planning the trip for a year, training himself to ride long distances and planning the route. It was philosophical as well.
The famous French philosopher Michel de Montaigne had undertaken the almost exact same route 440 years before. Gaspard, Like Montaigne would first head north to Bavaria, before turning south through the Swiss Alps towards Italy. Montaigne spent five months on the road and Koenig planned to be on horse back for a similar stretch. And so began an incredible journey through the midst of a pandemic of a man on his horse.
It was difficult not to be envious of Koenig in this time of physical confinement, especially as he posted the occasional photo of his adventure on his website. The penultimate photo before entering Rome was like a Medieval tapestry. Koenig stands holding Destinada’s reins as they are both turned looking from their vineyard hill to a Rome in the distance, with St. Peter’s centered calmly and proudly on the ancient sky-line.
Koenig’s trip was a wonder, an adventure. The envy arose from the impossibility of replication. Practically no one owns a horse these days. Very few of us are inspired (or know of) exciting ancient routes to follow, and almost no one has five months to drift around at horse’s pace through the bucolic countryside, however much we might wish it.
For most of us during pandemic, our already humble circuits - workplace, restaurants, gyms, coffee shop, bookstore, friend’s house, park, school, home - have been reduced to two or three of those, and mostly to home. Yet Koenig’s adventure, I believe, offers us, the homebound, something important. From his giant adventure we can extract the ingredients for an at-home, brief, but effective “little” adventure. Adventure is in fact not far away, but accessible and possible each day, if only for a spell.
Adventures, even in small doses, can go a long way in igniting our curiosity, clearing our minds, giving us new perspective on old habits and new challenges - and are often quite fun.
An Everyday Walking Adventure in Three Easy Steps…
Step One: Put your phone down.
Put down your device. Log out of your computer. Walk away from the screens. I don’t deny how impossible this small thing feels as present for many. For one, in these times those screens are how we interact with our workplace, our colleagues, our friends and family. They are also our primary source of news, of leisure and distraction. But to begin an adventure, a small humble daily adventure, put down the phone.
Those screens and the apps, websites, software and images that come with them are designed to mediate between the world and yourself. To put down the phone is to make a choice, if only for a short time, to be in the world. Whether on the road for five months or for a half hour’s walk, this is actually the adventure: to be aware what is around you and to let what is around you be what is.
It is very easy to forget that the stream of memes, the barrage of images, the constant flood of information are not actually real. Sure, they are representation of (sometimes) real things, but they are not the world, no matter how much it sometimes seems that way. To walk away from the phone with intention (if only for a spell) is to enter adventure. There is a small industry of well-meaning voices decrying this overload and pointing out the many benefits of reducing its influence. That is important. But in actually doing so, something else important occurs: it puts you back in the story.
We are, each of us, in the world together and on our own. Our phones down and out of the way, looking around us in the world: this is in fact our lives, this is the adventure. Here is where we actually are. Not on the internet. Not on Twitter, Not on Facebook, not even on Zoom or FaceTime. It is the easiest way to enter an adventurous and curious mindset. Put it down, look up, look around.
Step Two: Go For A Walk
The second lesson is equally simple, and connected to the first: go for a walk without your device (on silent, “do not disturb” mode). In terms of the scale of the everyday, it is the quickest access to adventuresome mindfulness. It draws on a deep evolutionary trait, practiced generation after generation, which involves walking, looking around and observing the world. It’s important to have put down the phone at this point, to have switched off the podcasts and music and to let the world simply be, whether it’s honking horns, chirping birds, the silence of a winter wood. This is the world, the moment you are in. Again, there is a host of literature on the many benefits of walking for physical and mental health, but importantly it puts you immediately in an engaged, action-oriented frame. The view is (I’m sure) also very nice from a horse, but like walking on your own feet, is not a passive activity, but in and of the world. It is the beginning of the adventure.
Step Three: Get Curious
The third step, and a key to adventure, is curiosity. Michel de Montaigne took his trip 480 years ago for several reasons, not least to get some breathing room from France which was tearing itself apart with violent religious conflict. But he was also curious. Primarily about the Italian Renaissance, under full swing at that time and its reputation having spread throughout Europe, it seemed to good to be true. Montaigne went to see for himself. Gaspard Koenig’s curiosity last year was people-driven. Much of his interest (as Humanist philosopher, after all), was encountering people as they are, and not, for example, as the national news media discourse purports them to be. For everyday adventure, you don’t need anything grand like the Renaissance to drive your curiosity. That’s fine for motivating a 1,000 mile journey, but even on those long journey’s you don’t escape the everyday, the step after step. For a short walk, you just need to be slightly curious, open enough to notice a thing or two. Perhaps it’s a pattern on building that had never come into focus before, a question about an out of place farm lot in the exurbs, the observation of pigeons or crows or seagulls interacting for a time, the play of sunlight or rain, or wondering about a passing stranger’s life. That is enough, you are in the adventure, as you always have been.
The Many Benefits of an Everyday Adventure:
As with any worthy practice, the thing itself is the reward. To walk and observe is fundamental to being a human. Our deepest ancestral system are designed to respond to it. But, of course, the additional benefits of a humble adventurous walk will also become apparent. Giving a little practice to a curiosity mindset can transfer its positive effects (even immediately) on return to a work project, a home project. That is, a little time spent observing on your walk something previously unnoticed or asking yourself why something is this way and not that way, carries over to other parts of our lives where we to easily become to accustomed to assuming that we know what is where and where each thing should be, including old problems. It opens new ways of seeing our everyday world and therefore presents opportunities to see new solutions and new adventures. Adventures are not only for walks (of course).
Curiosity is what drives the City Between podcast, pursuing the hidden and forgotten corners of New York City history. Curiosity also helps with our professional relationships, allowing us to wonder and learn and see different perspectives. In our consulting work, my co-facilitator, Şirin Köprücü, and I noticed this in designing our Cultural Awareness and Cultural Competence workshops, especially where we focus on professional intercultural relationships. Being curious about the world, translates into being curious about others and why they do what they do, allowing for heightened chances of positive and productive working relationships. Curiosity opens up rich intercultural experiences to us and further ignites curiosity about the world, how to be in it and solve its problems.
A few additional Practical Thoughts for A Short Walking Adventure.
Turning your phone and various screens off within reasonable limits, of course. Put your phone on “Do Not Disturb” in your pocket (you can set it to allow certain phone calls to arrive regardless). The main point is that you don’t look at your phone. It will call to you like a siren, but ignore it for the duration of the walk. No headphones, earbuds, either, let the world in.
Walking is easy and accessible to most. Its pace is designed for observation, so avoid cars (more screens), bikes (too fast, different kind of focus), or other exercise oriented activity. Horses are okay too, if you got em. The walk doesn’t have to be long, but I think 15 minutes is the minimum. That’s enough time to get out of your previous mindset (Zoom brain, family chaos, endless tidying) and into the walk, the present. If you are going on a familiar route (such as with a dog), it’s best to take an unfamiliar turn or two — it keeps the intentionality at the forefront.
Keep your curiosity simple. Don’t overthink it. Be open to what’s around you, take note, wonder. That’s it.