“I always wish I was somewhere else,” the writer Bruce Chatwin once told Michael Ignatieff, in an interview published in the literary magazine Granta. Chatwin was famously restless, a reputation he advanced both in interviews and in books such as In Patagonia and The Songlines. “My God is the God of walkers,” he wrote. “If you walk hard enough, you probably don’t need any other God.”
Photo via Segnaleorario, Flickr
Chatwin spent six months walking acoss Patagonia, tramping from village to village, sketching out the characters he met as he chased a relic from his childhood—a scrap of skin from a brontosaurus which turned out to be, as all myths do, not what it appeared.
It seems to me that for Chatwin walking was a means to an end. Though he might have disagreed. In The Songlines he writes that the nomads he meets, first in Africa, were “peoples whose journeys, unlike my own, had neither beginning or end.”)
Chatwin was guided by a personal mythology, and his writing is sometimes likened to magic realism. “Myth, like love, is a decision,” the Canadian author Charles Montgomery wrote in his own quest story, The Shark God: Encounter with Ghosts and Ancestors in the South Pacific. “What it answers is longing. What it demands is faith. What it opens is possibility.”
The possibility that Chatwin opened in The Songlines and In Patagonia was accomplished through this walking, this tramping, this nomadism. This restlessness. It was a quest that could never be finished. Sometimes, when I am new to a place and I miss my family and friends and enter that strange ecosystem of foreigness where one is both a part of a community and apart of it, I am skeptical of this kind of endless quest. As I’ll explore in The Modern Nomad, it can become a goal never accomplished, a place never reached. Momentum for the sake of momentum, you might say.
When I think about the God of Chatwin’s personal mythology, I’m reminded of a great line from Peter Behrens’ novel The Law of Dreams: “Tramping was strange and addictive, a kind of perfection, but there came a time when you had to stop or you would walk right out of yourself.”