98. Craig Mod, “The Glorious, Almost-Disconnected Boredom of My Walk in Japan”
My friend Geoff Travers sent me a link to Craig Mod’s discussion of his 620-mile walk along Japan’s “Nakasendo,” or “inner mountain route,” one of the longest historical walks in that country. I’ve been thinking about that article for a couple of weeks now, and although I promised myself I would read about other things than walking until the end of this project, Mod’s comments about boredom and walking are important, and I want to give myself a chance to think about them by writing about them.
Because Mod’s article was published in Wired, it’s not surprising that much of its focus in on technology—or, to be more clear, Mod’s decision to avoid as much of the internet as possible, and his use of technology to achieve that goal. “In practice this meant going cold turkey on all social networks and most news and media sites,” Mod writes. He used an app called Freedom that blocked his access to most websites and social-media apps. He only allowed himself access to a few websites—one about the route he was walking, Wikipedia, and some Japanese blogs—that gave him some historical background on the towns he was walking through, and he downloaded a GPX route file (whatever that is) into an app on his phone. That file contained the historical Nakasendo road overlaid on a contemporary map, so that he could locate his route when there were no way markers. “I was able to deviate from the historical route with greater freedom, knowing just where the original line lay,” he tells us. “I could do this with essentially zero cognitive overhead, which is an advantage the ever-updating smartphone map has over a paper map.” He also used Google Maps to find cafés called kissaten in villages. Apparently those cafés are the best way to meet regular Japanese people.
Mod shared his walk, but he writes that he wanted to avoid “getting caught up in the small loops of contemporary sharing platforms,” so he used a custom-build SMS tool to send out one text every day, and one photo, to an unknown number of recipients. He didn’t know who was subscribing to the messages: subscribers joined by sending a text to a number he wrote on his website and in his newsletters. Recipients could respond, but he wasn’t able to see what they said. “Those responses have been collected in a print-on-demand book that’s waiting for me when I get home,” Mod writes. “My intent is then to respond to the responses in aggregate, long after the walk is finished.” The point of “this convoluted system,” he continues, “is to use the network without being used by it”:
the purpose of time-shifted conversation is to share the walk without being pulled away from it. I could use a tool like Instagram to approximate this, but I’d have to fight with its algorithm and avoid looking at the timeline. I’m not superhuman. I would look at the notifications, the likes, and comments. Reply to them. Become intoxicated by the chemicals released by the tiny loops. Invariably this process would make me think about that audience and how they would be reacting to the next text and photo. I would have lost the purity of the experience.
“The daily SMS became a forcing function that deepened my experience of the walk, made me more aware of how painful or joyful or crushingly boring the days were,” Mod continues. “Being able to share in somewhat real time and not be pulled out of the moment was just an issue of tools and framing.”
Mod also shared sound files of his walk, recorded every day at around 9:45 a.m. He would take out a small Sony recorder, plug in a microphone preamp, and then plug in a pair of binaural microphones. “The microphones sit in my ears, sucking in sound like audio microscopes, so it just looks like I’m listening to music,” he writes. “But I’m not; I’m recording high-fidelity audio.” At the end of the day, after sending out his SMS, he would publish the audio file to a podcast called SW945. “For me,” he states,
the recording process was a little beat—15 minutes of mediation each morning. It forced me to think about the sounds of the day. I recorded in front of temples, standing next to rice paddies full of croaking frogs, in screaming pachinko parlors, bowling alleys, cafes, hotel lobbies. Anywhere that seemed to typify that day, that moment, that chunk of the road. I’d close my eyes and marvel at the sheer volume and specificity of sound around me.
Like the SMS, it seems that the recording was a way of deepening the experience of the walk for Mod; it drew his attention to what he was hearing. “Both the SMS and podcast publishing systems are ‘open’ systems, with no controlling entity like Facebook or Twitter,” he points out. “And they are ‘quiet’ systems, in that production and consumption spaces are separated. You don’t have to enter a timeline of consumption in order to produce.” Mod’s ways of sharing the walk are thought-provoking. When I use the WordPress app on my phone to blog my walks, I do end up responding to comments and checking the statistics of how many people are reading. And I always end up using Facebook to publicize the blog, which inevitably draws me into its web and out of the experience of walking. Mod has found ways to engage with others without getting sucked into a social media platform. It’s very smart.
But I was most interested in Mod’s comments about “the grand, pervasive boredom” of his walk. “Let me be clear,” he writes: “I was luxuriously, all-consumingly bored for most of the day. The road was often dreary and repetitive. But as trite as it may sound, within this boredom, I tried to cultivate kindness and patience”:
A continuous walk is powerful because every day you can choose to be a new person. You flit between towns. You don’t really exist. And so this is who I decided to be: a fully present, disgustingly kind hello machine. I said hello to bent-over grandmothers and their grandchildren playing in rice paddies. I said hello to business folk about to hop into their Suzuki Jimny jeeps, to Portuguese workers on break from car factories, to men in traditional fundoshi underwear about to carry a portable shrine in a festival. I greeted shop owners cranking open their rusted awnings and a man selling chocolate-dipped bananas. I’d estimate a hello return rate of almost 98 percent. Folks looked up from their gardening or sweeping or bananas and flung a hello back, often reflexively but then, once their eyes caught up with their mouths and they saw I was not a local, not one of them, their faces shifted to delight.
I felt as if the walk itself was pulling that kindness from me, biochemically. The feedback cycle was exhilarating. It was banal. It was something I rarely felt when plugged in online: kind hellos begetting hellos, begetting more kindness.
More importantly, though, from my perspective—because of course he wanted to engage with people when he was walking and bored: those interactions were a form of stimulus, a way out of the boredom of the walk—are Mod’s comments about how that experience of boredom fostered “a heightened sense of presence”:
In the context of a walk like this, “boredom” is a goal, the antipode of mindless connectivity, constant stimulation, anger and dissatisfaction. I put “boredom” in quotes because the boredom I’m talking about fosters a heightened sense of presence. To be “bored” is to be free of distraction.
That “heightened sense of presence” enabled Mod to perceive things he thinks he would have missed otherwise: the hidden Christian messaging in small signs along the way, the fact that every small village had “no fewer than three barbers or hairdressers,” the existence of classical statues in small gardens, the playgrounds that looked as if no child had touched them in decades. If he had been listening to podcasts or looking at his phone, Mod would have missed those details–or so he believes.
I think he’s probably right, and he’s talking about an experience that anyone engaged in a long solo walk probably has. It’s not exactly a meditative experience, or at least it isn’t for me: my mind is constantly running with trivia of one sort or another, including how much my feet hurt and how much farther I can go before I allow myself to have a rest. I’m thinking of my walk to Wood Mountain in particular, and how the notebook I scribbled in reveals how gruelling that experience was, while my memories tell me I was having a great time. Maybe both statements are true. I was bored, among other things, and that boredom did lead to what Mod calls a “heightened sense of presence.” I think that’s why I’ve been writing about the experience of space and place in that walk; I’ve been trying to get at that aspect of the experience of walking. I think Mod’s comments open up a new direction for my thinking about walking. That “heightened sense of presence” might even by why so many long-distance walkers describe their experience as somehow spiritual.
The length of the walk is an important part of breaking old habits, which helps to lead to that sense of presence. For the first week of his walk, Mod experienced a form of withdrawal from news and social networks. But as the walk progressed and his body changed, his perceptions changed as well:
Around 10 days in, after the skin had peeled off my pinkie toes and my shoulders started to heal and accept their fate, I found that my general musculature acclimated to the daily grind. Walking shifted from a laborious act of biomechanics, to something that simply happened. This sounds crazy, but it was as if walking became part of my autonomic nervous system, like breathing. With stronger leg and gluteus muscles, the world felt like an extremely high resolution simulation, and I was merely a floating consciousness, bobbing between rice paddies and up and down mountains saying hello to anything that moved. Everything still hurt at the end of the day, but the movement was effortless, and sometimes I found myself yelping with joy, alone in the woods, at the beauty and smoothness of it all.
That was when his urge for information and digital stimulation faded away. It’s been a long time since I’ve been on a solo walk as long as Mod’s, but even on a relatively short walk, like my nine-day trek to Wood Mountain, I’ve felt similar emotional changes as my body began to change.
One day an old woman asked Mod if his walking was an ascetic practice. He laughed, but for weeks afterwards, as he walked, he considered that question more seriously: “The grueling pace. The boredom. The pain. And then doing it over again the next day. It certainly starts to sound like an ascetic practice.” And it led to an insistent thankfulness: Mod uttered prayers of gratitude every day as he passed Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. “I recognize what a strange give and incredible privilege it is to take the time to do a walk like this,” he writes. “And the disconnection from online chaos and the creating of space to think, to be present does feel somewhat religious, even if it’s a religion of contemporary woe: to stop being a ding-dong who can’t pull his eyes away from Twitter.”
Mod doesn’t expect much of his experience to continue into his regular routine now that his walk is over. “But one chief purpose for this kind of monastic walking,” he writes,
is to literally pound into your body, step after step, the positive habits that can be found only through repetition. To create a physiological template of stillness, or kindness, or focus that you can then attempt to bring back to the ‘real’ world. Stillness is then no longer an idea, but a muscular configuration.
And that awareness, that experience of presence or focus, is one of the reasons that I find the current dismissal of long, solo walks as anti-democratic or exclusionary, as falsely heroic, quite frustrating. The only kind of walking performance that’s now considered appropriate, it seems, are walking performances with other people, performances that fall under the rubric of relational aesthetics or social practice. That refusal of solo performance is hard for me to understand. If solo walks are anti-democratic, what about other forms of solo performance? Are they anti-democratic as well? Has relational aesthetics become the only allowable art form? Isn’t that more than a little prescriptive? I mean, there’s nothing wrong with relational aesthetics, with curating walks with or for others. I like walking with people. But walking alone is good, too. It’s a different kind of experience, a different kind of performance. It might not be for everyone, but that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be.
Mod, Craig. “The Glorious, Almost-Disconnected Boredom of My Walk in Japan.” Wired, 29 May 2019, https://www.wired.com/story/six-weeks-100s-miles-hours-glorious-boredom-japan/.