Toledo Magazine: Footpaths

Trails can lead to discovery of the world and the self

6/16/2013
BY S. AMJAD HUSSAIN
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE
India and Pakistan come face to face in hostile posture in Kashmir. The small grassy knoll in the middle is no man's land. The famous Lasa-Skardu trail is half-way up the mountain on the right.
India and Pakistan come face to face in hostile posture in Kashmir. The small grassy knoll in the middle is no man's land. The famous Lasa-Skardu trail is half-way up the mountain on the right.

A trail in Oak Openings Preserve.
A trail in Oak Openings Preserve.

I am partial to footpaths — not the asphalt ribbons that run parallel to urban roads but the unpaved trails that meander through mountains, parks, and forests. I consider walking as a means to reaffirm my sense of being.

Tibetan pilgrims perform the 32-mile long circumambulation of the sacred Mount Kailash in western Tibet.
Tibetan pilgrims perform the 32-mile long circumambulation of the sacred Mount Kailash in western Tibet.

Self-contemplation is as old as man and history is replete with stories and parables of prophets, holy men, and sages connecting with themselves, their surroundings, and with the ultimate reality by walking. Buddha, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Nanak, and countless others were shepherds in the metaphorical sense and they all reached a higher level of awareness during their wanderings. All of us carry that noble legacy whether we consciously recognize it or not.

The ferocious Chitral River in northern Pakistan.
The ferocious Chitral River in northern Pakistan.

In bygone eras trails meandered for thousands of miles across many realms and men moved freely across indistinct borders and natural barriers. When one comes across man-made impassable barriers, one feels the confining of human spirit in suffocating and unyielding ideological and political tight compartments.

A famous trail once traversed for thousands of miles from Lhasa in eastern Tibet to Skardu in the west and beyond. On this trail merchants and seekers walked from China to Central Asia and to Europe. This ancient silk route was the conduit where wisdom from the East and West met and forged an amazing synthesis of art, religion, and philosophy.

Sadly, today the trail stops abruptly at a point where India and Pakistan face each other in hostile posture in Kashmir. For about a quarter of a mile the trail has been blasted out of existence to create a new geopolitical reality. Cumulative knowledge and wisdom of many millennia are now held up on both sides to stagnate and wither.

I have walked on trails that were as easy and predictable as those in our local parks and also on trails that were challenging and unpredictable. Those trails brought me face to face against the seemingly insurmountable difficulties and an occasional danger that an explorer, be it a mountaineer or an adventurer, may experience. There are always surprises lurking around the bend or beyond the thicket: a new vista, a spooked animal, or a slithering reptile.

Living history can disappear into oblivion under the dust of time where centuries and millennia later archeologists piece together the mosaic of life that once was part of some trails. At one time Mohenjo-Daro, Angkor Wat, the oasis of Taklamakan Desert, and the fabulous cities of Mesopotamia and Inca and Aztec civilizations were all on beaten tracks. When we do not preserve the link with our past, nature moves in and obliterates our footprints and our past.

I like to walk because it helps me understand myself. I am able to think and contemplate without the extraneous noises that are part of our modern urban lives. I like the wooded blurred edges of narrow trails, the soothing scent of pine needles, and the ever-changing seasonal display of simple earthy colors. Occasionally I keep company with a close friend who can communicate without uttering a single word. It is a holy communion in the cathedral of nature.

I echo my dear friend Satyapal Anand’s sentiments from his poem The Alternate Path:

A traveler I have always been,

A wayfaring explorer of strenuous paths.

Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose op-ed column appears every other week in The Blade.

Contact him at: aghaji@bex.net