I went to England for the first time, a decade ago, on a SUNY study abroad program. It was my first time in foreign country; I had never even been to Canada, which was only a few hours drive from my home. Although I was based in London and was instantly enamored with the vast remnants of architecture spanning from the Norman conquest to the Millennium Bridge, I was raised in a fairly urban environment and had always found myself comfortable in cities. The most unsettling and exhilarating experiences of living abroad arose from a trip to the Lake District.
Several weeks before my trip I had been assigned a selection of Wordsworth poems and was particularly drawn to The World is Too Much With Us, which I used as the basis for a close reading in one of my papers. My analysis was marred by the fact that I had never really spent very much time outdoors in a rural environment. I had never climbed a tree, or been on a nature walk. I had never seen a lake, unless you counted the cement bottom pond in the center of my hometown. My interpretation of solitude was limited to the experience of eating alone in a cafe. It was incomprehensible to me, in my limited experiences, the difference between being with the world and being without it.
It was on my own walk through Wordsworth’s path that I found my way to an understanding. Our hostel in Ambleside was not accessible by coach and we walked several miles to the summit of what then appeared, to me, to be a mountain. Now having spent several years living on the West Coast, I know what a real mountain looks like, but at the time it seemed to me that we were headed to heaven. While out on an excursion with some friends my camera was stolen, which was partially my fault for not properly locking it away. At this juncture digital cameras were in their most nascent stage; I only knew one person on our trip who owed one. Luckily my travels were captured on film, which I had removed from my camera and stored in a separate place (the thief probably wouldn’t have wanted the photos from the British Museum anyway). Losing my camera was the best possible thing that could have happened to me on this trip.
Not only did I lose my camera, my cheap plastic watch that I had purchased for my trip abroad in lieu of carrying my beloved Swatch, had stopped. Perhaps it needed a battery or it could have been revived with some mere tinkering, but I was an English major and firmly believed in the significance of symbolism. I decided to throw it away. The following day we were headed to Lake Windemere, a resort town with a variety of different recreational options. My closest traveling companions were my college girlfriends and roommates, who each had a different opinion on how she would want to spend her time in Windemere. We elected to part ways and meet up at a dinner and a movie place called Zefferelli’s. I wandered into town without a map, or a guidebook, or a watch, or a camera, and just walked.
With no particular destination in mind, I ambled through the town and was surprised to realize that it was quite possible to walk outside of town, that the town had a firm end, and that it was separated from the next town by countryside. Even as I type these words I am aware of the ridiculousness of this revelation; however, it was real. I grew up in a place where only the locals could tell where one town ends and another begins. The Northeast corridor of the US is cluttered with overlapping towns and cities and suburban sprawl that one would need to drive several hours, probably walk for over a day, before finding a more rural space.
At the edge of town I could feel myself splitting, the way that the “I” does in Frost’s The Road Not Taken and it was the first moment that I can ever remember feeling truly curious. I kept walking. I walked up to a place called Loughman’s Fell (though I am not certain that this is the correct name because I am working from notes scribbled in my imperfect handwriting). On the way up the Fell I met a group of British school girls who were delighted by my accent and wanted to know if I was a real New Yorker like the girls on Sex in the City. We chatted for awhile and then I met an elderly woman with her walking stick, who persists in my memory because when she smiled she only had a handful of teeth. She was so delighted to meet me and to know that I had travelled so far, and that by chance we were walking on the same path, at the same time. Prior to meeting her I intended to turn around but her age inspired me to keep walking.
At the top of the Fell, I threw myself backward onto the grass and looked up at the sky overwhelmed and humbled by what in my mind had seemed insurmountable. As I laid in the grass and my heart rate regressed, I became more aware of my surroundings, particularly the faint hum of traffic. Although I could not see the cars, by hearing them I knew that I had not travelled as far as I had imagined, that even in what seemed so far away, the world was too much with us.
Still, it was delightful, even seemingly sinful, to walk in this way. At 20, I went to England for reasons far too numerous and complex to clearly explore in this post, but it was this one tiny day day over the course of a hundred days or so that shifted the course of my life. It’s a feeling of wonder, curiosity and satisfaction; one I want to revisit once more.