Landscapes inspire me, but so also do words. I make my living as a writer, putting one word on a page (OK, a screen), followed by another and then another. Usually I shuffle them around into this position and that, and then typically I move them all back to where they began. When I’m done, I hope they’re interesting enough for some people to want to buy them, and for others to want to read them.
Over recent weeks, two things have reminded me of words and their power to inspire. I recently returned to the writing of early American wilderness warrior John Muir, and was struck by the longevity and timelessness of his observations. Things he wrote more than a century ago have acquired no rust – they’re just as relevant today as they were in the early 20th century. I read sentences and paragraphs from Muir and I wish I’d written them, because they’re the very statements I’ve felt most of my life but never had the ability to frame so well into words. These are just a few of them:
“I am losing precious days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news.”
“Few places in this world are more dangerous than home. Fear not, therefore, to try the mountain passes. They will kill care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action.”
“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
At the same time as I was rediscovering Muir, a friend signed off a blog post with a quote from Edward Abbey (“May all your paths be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view … where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you.”), who has long been my favourite writer on matters of wilderness.
I thought I saw traces of the curmudgeonly Abbey when I once travelled through Arches National Park – the park that was the foundation of his book Desert Solitaire – and it was Abbey’s writing alone that sent me hiking through Havasu Canyon to the waters of the Colorado River. I tried to adopt Abbey’s own approach to the place – “What I heard made me think that I should see Havasu immediately, before something went wrong somewhere.” – though I’m sure I disappointed him, for I came clothed where he spent most of his time here naked, only bothering with trousers when he needed to buy food from the Havasupai people who lived in the canyon.
But there are two quotes that have stuck with me, over and above all others, for the last couple of decades. The first was no more than a pithy throwaway from Eric Newby about the drive from London to Afghanistan. “If there is any way of seeing less of a country than from a motor car I have yet to experience it,” he wrote in A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. Simple and yet, at the time that I read it, a lightning bolt. And so I chose to travel, when possible, on foot or by bike or kayak. I still find cars to be an anaesthetic.
The second quote has been with me so long, it’s scribbled inside the front cover of the very first notebook I used as a travel writer more than 15 years ago. It was a paragraph I’d found, written by Neal Cassady in a letter to Jack Kerouac (Cassady was the man who became the character Dean Moriarty in On the Road): “I have always held that when one writes one should forget all rules, literary styles and other such pretensions as large words, lordly clauses as other phrases as such – rolling the words around in the mouth as one would wine. Rather, I think one should write, as nearly as possible, as if he were the first person on earth and was humbly and sincerely putting on paper that which he saw and experienced and loved and lost; what his passing thoughts were and his sorrows and desires; and these things should be said with careful avoidance of common phrases, trite usage of hackneyed words and the like.”
It’s as good a writing motto as any I know.