Dougald Hine’s travels as a young man, hitchhiking and backpacking through a time of apparent political plenty, seem to belong to a different era. Today, in the age of XR, what does it mean to travel onwards? And, more importantly, what does it mean to come home?
‘Have you ever travelled onwards?’ Mr Hester asked us. ‘You know, not gone somewhere and come back again, but just kept going, day after day?’
It was a strange question for a teacher to ask, but this was the last year of sixth form and he was only a few years older than the small group of us taking A-level Music, so the usual relationship between teacher and pupils hardly seemed to apply. At weekends he would cycle seventy miles or more on the high Pennine roads, or come clubbing with us and end up sleeping on the floor of my parents’ living room. The following year, he set off to cycle from John o’ Groats to Land’s End. He’d given notice on the teaching job and was fundraising to join a project in South America. On the second day, he was in an accident, hit by a heavy goods vehicle on the A9, north of Inverness. He died at the scene.
I heard the news on a perfect blue-skied afternoon in early summer, dialling home from a payphone on a quayside in Corfu, using the international phone card that was a backpacker’s friend in the mid-1990s – and suddenly home felt very far away. I would never get to tell Mr Hester about my own onward journey, or to thank him for being the only teacher who encouraged me when I announced my plan to set off with a backpack and a guitar and no fixed destination, busking and hitchhiking my way around Europe.
When you grow up in a small place, all the longing of adolescence can end up focused on the idea of getting out, striking out for the big world and the adventure that it promises. This is not a mistake, exactly, and later I could feel a certain pity for the people I met who had grown up in comfortable metropolitan surroundings: for all their seemingly effortless self-confidence, I had something they lacked, because I was aware that I hadn’t grown up at the centre of the universe. You wouldn’t call it small, the place where I grew up, but as a teenager it felt inward-looking; “low horizons” was a phrase I’d picked up, trying to describe it, and I remember Mr Hester telling me how rude this sounded. Another friend from those years told me how she used to go and sit in the railway station café, just to watch the flow of people and the mainline trains carrying them elsewhere, savouring the promise that it was possible to leave. When you grow up feeling that way, you owe a lot to the grown-ups who encourage your sense of adventure.
'When you grow up in a small place, all the longing of adolescence can end up focused on the idea of getting out, striking out for the big world and the adventure that it promises. This is not a mistake, exactly, and later I could feel a certain pity for the people I met who had grown up in comfortable metropolitan surroundings: for all their seemingly effortless self-confidence, I had something they lacked, because I was aware that I hadn’t grown up at the centre of the universe.'
So the autumn after A-level results, when most of my friends were leaving for university, I boarded the ferry that sailed in those days from the Port of Tyne to Bergen and then the coastal steamer that runs along the Norwegian coast. If you were under twenty-six, you could buy a “Kystpass”: for a fraction of the price the cruise passengers were paying, this gave three weeks of travel, rolling out your sleeping bag at night in the ship’s lounge, hopping on and off at small ports in the Arctic north. On the Lofoten Islands in late September, I saw the Northern Lights for the first time, standing on the rocks outside Roar Justad’s legendary hostel at Stamsund, and that remains the most spectacular sighting of the aurora I’ve ever had. On the way south, a huge storm blew up and for two days the sea was so rough that the ship could not dock at any of the scheduled ports. The only way to eat cheaply on board was to make the breakfast buffet your main meal of the day, and those mornings I seemed to be the only passenger eating breakfast. Back on shore, I hitched a lift with a truck driver, zigzagging up the mountain road from Bergen towards Oslo, and when I told him casually about this sea journey, his eyes widened. “You were in the storm?” he said. What I had taken for normal autumn weather turned out to have been headline news with smaller vessels wrecked or lost at sea.
In the months that followed, I made my way south and then east across Europe, reaching Istanbul in January and winding back around the Mediterranean, then up through the countries of the former Eastern Bloc, where the legacy of Communism was still fresh in the conversations with drivers who gave me lifts and people I got talking to on the streets where I sang for money. In late June, I sat alone by a lake in northern Finland, watching the sun lower and then slowly begin to rise again without ever dropping below the horizon. Two days later, I caught a lift across the border to Norway with a group of Danish families in a converted bus and soon after that I turned south again, back to the Bergen ferry, making it home with a few weeks to spare before starting university, where I showed up trying to sound worldly with tales of life “on the road” which became a running joke among the friends I made in fresher’s week.
Yet, in another sense, the onward journey continued. All through my twenties, as friends threw themselves into the careers for which our education had apparently prepared us, I would find myself saving a little money and then setting off to live for half a year in Cape Town, failing to write a book, or to teach English in Xinjiang, where I spent my weekends exploring the old Silk Road towns and the Uighur villages where life still went at the pace of a donkey cart and strangers with whom you had no words in common would invite you into their front rooms and bring out apricots and fragrant pears from the walled gardens within which each house was set.
In those years, I learned to surrender to a new place, to trust that things would happen if I gave it time. Travelling back overland through Central Asia, I stayed for a week in Almaty. Across the street from the hostel was a replica of the Eiffel Tower, twenty metres high. For two days, I walked the gridplan of the city, watching the wind blow up swirls of dust from casino carparks, learning to find my bearings – at every junction, you could look for the Tien Shan mountains and then you knew which way was south – and waiting for something to happen. Sure enough, on the second night, I fell into conversation with a Kazakh cardiologist who would take me up into those mountains by bus and cable car, where we walked in meadows full of alpine flowers as she told me about her grandmother who still lived half the year in a yurt on the steppe and her great-grandfather who had been a traditional healer of great renown. Her parents were good Soviet-era rationalists, but despite her medical training, she found herself drawn home to the culture of her ancestors.
The arc that passes through modernity and out the far side was shorter for my Kazakh friend than it had been for me, growing up in the North East of England, where the Industrial Revolution had taken my ancestors away from the land generations earlier. Her lived experience of something older and not yet gone stirred my sense of loss at having so little to fall back on. But the reckoning with the modern world and its consequences has been coming for all of us – and as I tell these stories, there’s a sense that I now come from another era, when they used to say that history had ended, when those of us born with the right passport could cross borders without thinking about it and climate change did not yet loom so darkly on the horizon.
'Her lived experience of something older and not yet gone stirred my sense of loss at having so little to fall back on. But the reckoning with the modern world and its consequences has been coming for all of us – and as I tell these stories, there’s a sense that I now come from another era, when they used to say that history had ended, when those of us born with the right passport could cross borders without thinking about it and climate change did not yet loom so darkly on the horizon.'
For much of my life, shaped in no small part by the encounters I had during the journeys I made in my teens and twenties, I have been writing about the shadow side of modernity and the failure of its promises. When I began to write about these things, the response was usually puzzlement or dismissal: even environmentalism seemed set on making the modern world sustainable, rather than asking whether that goal was either possible or desirable. But the wind has changed, the sense of unravelling is now widespread and even the 1990s, as soaked in irony as they seemed at the time, look care-free and innocent in hindsight.
In the age of Extinction Rebellion, the ease with which my generation got on and off planes seems unjustifiable, and the wanderlust we felt as teenagers a privilege belonging to an era that now falls under suspicion. Anyway, after Brexit, and Trump, and Covid, and the war in Ukraine, does anyone still feel like we live in a world where the borders are coming down and it will only get easier and easier to move around as you wish and live where you feel like living? Perhaps the promise of the onward journey was itself a product of a short historical window, between the arrival of affordable air travel in the later decades of the twentieth century and the point at which the costs of this way of living began to come home? And yet, I want to say that this is not the whole story.
That historical window is often spoken of as the age of globalisation. At its height, this word conjured an unstoppable force: “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer,” Tony Blair told Labour party members in 2005. These days, the rhythm of the seasons seems harder to rely on, and the tide of globalisation is going out. But it leaves behind a half-buried assumption that humanity only became global when jetplanes linked the world’s cities – as if, until a few generations ago, our cultures existed in isolation from one another, and almost everyone was condemned to live and die in the same small place where they had been born.
'Perhaps the promise of the onward journey was itself a product of a short historical window, between the arrival of affordable air travel in the later decades of the twentieth century and the point at which the costs of this way of living began to come home? And yet, I want to say that this is not the whole story.'
Whenever I hear someone talking that way, I think of the novelist Alan Garner scrabbling at the back of a barn on a hillfarm near the border of Cheshire and Derbyshire. Under generations of accumulated junk, he found what he couldn’t have known he was looking for: a Tibetan prayer wheel that had reached this remote corner of England at some point in the eighteenth century. The object provided material confirmation for a theory Garner had been pursuing for decades, that the old salt roads branching across this landscape had carried not only goods traded the length of the old world – as far as the Silk Road settlements of Xinjiang and beyond – but also ideas, beliefs and practices, spreading across Asia and Europe in the stories told in marketplaces and around campfires. In Thursbitch, the novel Garner was working on, the central character is Jack Turner, an eighteenth century packman who comes and goes from his native community, bringing objects and riddles from beyond its horizons which take root in the soil of half-forgotten local traditions and practices.
In his grandmother’s village in Oaxaca, the Mexican activist and intellectual Gustavo Esteva told me about the archaeologists who had discovered Zapotec objects thousands of miles to the north, confirming what was known from oral tradition, that his ancestors had made journeys over land taking months or years. “They were not travelling to trade!” he insisted. “They had no carts to carry goods! They were travelling to see their cousins, to share their hospitality.”
The storyteller, art critic and novelist John Berger grew up in London but in the mid-1970s he settled in a steep-sided valley in the Haute-Savoie, part of the French Alps, where he lived for the next forty years alongside the last generation of peasant farmers in Western Europe. By the time he came to the village of Quincy, he was already an accomplished writer and had recently won the Booker prize; yet, by his own account, he had to begin again and learn a new way of telling in order to do justice to the stories of his neighbours. The result was the Into Their Labours trilogy which traces the journey from their traditional peasant way of life into the modernity of the urban slums where the villagers’ descendants find themselves. One thing is clear in these novels, and in the essays Berger wrote during the same years: there was nothing new about young people going away to the city; this had been going on for generations. What changed in the second half of the twentieth century was that they could no longer find their way back. The gap between the village and the city had grown too wide, the desires and expectations of modernity left a new generation of young people so changed that they and their parents could no longer speak the same language or understand each other’s lives.
For as long as the onward journey of modernisation and progress could be taken for granted, this hardly seemed to matter. Many of Berger’s comrades on the British Left found his move to the Haute-Savoie baffling, a retreat from the modern world to a place and a culture that was already passing into history. But when the direction of history becomes less certain, we may remember that the seasons form a circle and not just a relentless forward motion. Summer gives way to autumn, yes, but summer will come again.
'But when the direction of history becomes less certain, we may remember that the seasons form a circle and not just a relentless forward motion. Summer gives way to autumn, yes, but summer will come again.'
And so we return to the young person, growing up in a small place, whose longing is focused on the journey out into the world. Nothing about this is new or special to modernity; it is a pattern as old as fairy tales, the beginning of so many stories. As long as humans have lived in settled communities, there have been young men and women feeling the pull of what lies beyond the horizon, and some whose lives become shaped around journeys that take them backwards and forwards, connecting small places into a web along which stories and ideas can travel. What marks out the modern world, the handful of generations through which we have recently passed and whose certainties are coming to an end, is not our interconnectedness – as the myth of globalisation promised – but the breaking of the circle, the loss of the possibility of a homecoming.
'What marks out the modern world, the handful of generations through which we have recently passed and whose certainties are coming to an end, is not our interconnectedness – as the myth of globalisation promised – but the breaking of the circle, the loss of the possibility of a homecoming.'
There is nothing simple about coming home. Even a day–return ticket can take you far enough to come back changed, and any adventure that involves travelling onwards is liable to bring you back a different person to the one who set off. The place you set off from will have changed, too, if only in as much as the gap your absence made has closed up behind you. Some of those who were there to wish you farewell may no longer be around when you return. The old stories are clear about this: the moment of greatest risk often comes just as you cross that last hill and the home place comes into view. One false move now and the gold in the sack on your shoulder will turn to dried leaves.
My friend Martin Shaw tells old stories and has led many groups through wilderness rites of passage where each participant goes out to sit alone on a patch of hillside, in one of the wilder corners of the British Isles, fasting for four days and nights. Once, he says, the danger might have lain in the encounters that came during that vigil, but today the animals you meet on the hillside are unlikely to do you harm; the greater vulnerability now comes afterwards, when the group scatters, going back to their everyday lives. In the families and workplaces to which they return, no one is waiting to welcome them and acknowledge the significance of the experience they just went through. Try to explain what you were doing on that hillside and this is likely to be met with puzzlement, dismissal or misunderstanding.
The Westcountry School of Myth that Martin runs was one of the inspirations that led Anna Björkman and I to create a school called HOME, based in an old shoe shop and the barn behind it in the small Swedish town of Östervåla. Not far from where Anna grew up, this is where our family settled and we are doing our best to create a place worth calling home, while supporting an international community of members, many of whom are committed to similar projects in the places where they find themselves. Together, we are learning what it might take to be at home in a damaged world, to create pockets of conviviality and hospitality, even in times as strange and shadowed as these.
Last week, one of our members told the story of how she found her way to the school. She had spent a few years working in what looked like a successful career, feeling it quietly deaden her soul. At last she could stand it no more and she set off walking. Her plan was to walk to Istanbul, though she told no one that she was going further than the route across the south of England on which she started out. But she went on, crossing the whole of France, feeling the relief of coming to herself again, shaking off the life she had left behind. Weeks into this journey, on her way across the Alps, something began to shift. The joy of her own company gave way to a new kind of longing, a desire for community. And so she began to stop off and work for a while on farms, learning a set of skills quite different to the ones that were valued in her old life and learning to come into relationship with land. She never got to Istanbul, but today she runs a market garden in Scotland.
There is truth in the longing that calls us out into the world. We don’t need to get on planes and fly to far off places, but many of us, if our lives allow for it, do well to travel onwards for a while: to see what lies beyond the horizon of our upbringing, to learn something of who we are when we leave behind the assumptions of those who have surrounded us so far in life, to place ourselves against a larger landscape. But the fulfilment of such a journey does not lie in an endless upward trajectory, like a space probe headed further and further out into the cold. Rather, somewhere down the road, there comes another call, and if we have the luck and the courage to answer it, then we may find there is work to be done, regrowing a living culture and making homes where friends can gather and strangers be made welcome.
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