Making a Path

When I decided to spend my second week of Easter Break exploring Wales, I was so excited that I jumped on Google Maps and started starring every place I could possibly want to go. I consulted a friend who had visited Cardiff and some surrounding areas, asked a half-Welsh friend of mine where I should go, and trolled tourist sites trying to find the hidden gems of the country. Before I knew it, my screen was littered with tiny golden stars marking more places than I could decently see in a month with my own car, let alone a week relying on either my feet or public transportation. I had fallen prey to the enthusiasm created by a blank map – the amateur artist’s mistake of assuming a blank canvas is made to be filled from corner to corner in order to be most effective.

In Eccentric Spaces, Harbison (1977) says,

‘Maps simplify the world somewhat in the way a heavy snowfall does, give the sense of starting over, clarify for those overstimulated by the ordinary confusion. Each path in the snow shows, the ground keeps a record but also makes one feel there is a manageable amount going on’ (127).

My snow-covered ground had gotten a little overwhelmed by spastic footpaths and was in need of a fresh blanket. Thankfully, the digital world allows us to start over without having to completely start from scratch. More wisely, I scoured the internet looking for specific walking trails, knowing that I was going to be reliant on my own ability to get around largely outside of a vehicle. I came across Glyndwr’s Way and used recommendations and walking guides to organize my trip.

Just following Harbison’s quote above, he continues to say that ‘like maps, itineraries impose an illusion of uniformity on loose extent and duration, by attempting to live out a map, bringing to life and putting a life to bed in the map’ (127). For me, this meant connecting the tiny villages dotted throughout Wales by vaguely-marked footpaths and sheep pastures. I lived out my journey before I took it by exploring and studying maps online and physical, and then I lived out the maps I’d studied by getting out onto the path and walking. (Of course, whether my actualized path aligned perfectly with the ‘correct’ path is certainly up for debate. Maps simplify our paths by saying they are the same each time, even if in reality the trip diverges.)

Itineraries and maps alike also give us clearly defined ‘start’ and ‘end’ points for our journeys. For me, walking Glyndwr’s Way had multiple beginning and ending nodes. I started in Cardiff and took the train to Knighton, where I started the trail that then ended each night and began afresh each morning for the next five days. Ultimately, my walking journey ended in Machynlleth. However, then I had to take a train to Manchester and Bradford and then to Leeds and then to Edinburgh, where I would consider my itinerary officially ending. Upon returning to Edinburgh, I returned to ‘normal’ life.

Looking back on the map I used and itinerary I followed during my small pilgrimage, I agree with Harbison’s observation that ‘maps give a kind of false intimacy to adjacent towns’ (126). Indeed, the distance between these small country Welsh towns seems incredibly minuscule, yet each leg of my journey was an entire day’s walk. My itinerary simplified my days into waking up, eating breakfast, walking, snacking, arriving, eating supper, and sleeping – yet my lived day was far more complicated, involving everything from hiding behind trees from wind and rain and singing songs to getting lost and wandering through sheep pastures during feeding time.

Here my mental map of Glyndwr’s Way is far more complicated than the map I use as a visual aid to describe my journey. Of course, that is how maps like this work. Our individual paths created diverge from and add to the grand maps given to the general traveller. Just as roads demand to be travelled, maps demand to be personalized, enacted by individuals in such a way that the points shift, the names change, and the paper is ruffled. And that’s exactly what I did.

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