Two quotations for your consideration (as Mr. Rod Serling might say):
ONE: “If I do not walk I cannot make a work of art. The physical involvement of walking creates a receptiveness to the landscape. I walk on the land to be woven into nature. A road walk can transform the everyday world and give a heightened sense of human history.” Hamish Fulton. That's him below, and yes, that's a map of Paris - stay with me on this.
TWO: “Under the paving-stones, the beach!” which is the translation of a graffito seen on the streets of Paris in May 1968, and I suppose for some time after that. I wonder when they cleaned it off. It also happens to be the epigraph of Pynchon’s Inherent Vice.
Frankly I’ve never been very sure I understand all the nuances of what “sous les pavés, la plage” really means, and perhaps that very ambiguity is the reason it’s had such wide currency, why it’s become such a hit.
Certainly we all know that some of the paving stones of Paris were dug up and thrown during the events of 1968, but as images from the time show, there was no beach beneath them, which of course we all knew anyway. Paris – believe it or not - was not built on a beach.
The slogan does fit a little better with Pynchon’s novel set in the fictional Gordita Beach which bears a striking similarity to Manhattan Beach, just 2O miles down the road from Hollywood, and where Pynchon lived in the late sixties and early seventies while writing Gravity’s Rainbow. I’ve walked there and it’s a good place to walk but I think very few, if any, early-career novelists can afford to live there these days.
As for the Fulton quotation, well, after you’ve read and thought about Hamish Fulton’s heroic walking activities, any walk you’re likely to do in your own daily life is likely to seem a bit trivial and timid. At the weekend, for instance, the Loved One and I were in Yucca Valley, and we went up to Landers, driving, walking, poking around in ruins, including a walk partly up and partly around Goat Mountain.
Walking and poking around is what I do (it may even be my “art”) – but I’m always aware that certain walkers would turn it into something more thoroughly programmatic - maybe ten circular walks around Goat Mountain at different times of the day, at different phases of the moon, stopping and taking a photograph or picking up a rock every hundred yards. Well, why not?
And something that occurred to me while I was in Landers: I like walking in cities and I like walking in “nature” but I actually think I may have done the majority of my walking in suburbs. Now, I think that suburbia is surprisingly hard to define, but I know it when I see it, and I’ve seen plenty of it. I grew up in various suburbs in Sheffield. Vast swathes of London, where I lived for a long time, are by any measure suburban, and Los Angeles where I live now is, by many accounts, the most suburban city in the world. You might think I’m attracted to suburbia.
And it so happened that the motel where we were staying in Yucca Valley was right next to a thoroughly suburban subdivision. My knowledge of Yucca Valley is patchy, but as I remember it this suburbia scarcely existed even ten years ago: it was just naked desert.
And so these suburban bungalows and ranch houses have descended on the desert like alien presences. I can’t say I found it especially horrible (though it would surely have been better left untouched), and as I walked around the sidewalk-free streets there was always something interesting to look at, some interesting architectural features, some quirky gardens, and what you see in most cases is a willingness to let the desert show through – to celebrate the desert, within the confines of a domestic plot.
Some of this, admittedly, seems less than authentic. I did see a few garden-bound saguaro cacti, and I think no saguaro ever got to Yucca Valley except on the back of a truck.
The gardens with Joshua trees seemed a little more “natural” but even here I couldn’t shake the feeling that some of the trees had been, at least, moved around and transplanted for the sake of the picturesque (see John Ruskin, op cit). The presence of desert quail and jackrabbits was far more convincing.
At the time I was walking, early morning, people were leaving home and going to work – some in very clean trucks, some in surprisingly fancy cars, and one or two of them seemed to slow down to take a good look at me to see if I was up to no good, but maybe that was just my paranoia: an honest enough Pynchonian trait.
Would I like to live in a desert suburbia? Well no, not much, since in the case of Yucca Valley there’s no adjacent “urbia” where I could go to get my city-boy thrills. The desert fantasy is to own 100 acres of sand and scrub, big enough that a couple of laps of the boundary would constitute a reasonable walking expedition, though I’m sure some would still find that trivial and timid.
On the other hand, I’d quite like to walk a few laps of this place, though I can’t tell you exactly where it is. The photograph is by Christopher Gielen and is titled (as it were) “UNTITLED XXXI Arizona” from the book Ciphers.
Under the desert, another damn desert.