June 15th, 2020

by himself

Going my own way

I was restless and troubled in my mind, so I went out to walk a few miles on the Clear Creek Trail. As I got into the rhythm of my hike, I relaxed and my mind cast over many things. Finally, I noticed a fact that had been presented to me many times recently, but which I had not really thought much about: that I was the only person walking on the left side of the path.

Those coming down the right side of the path generally got over for me. I imagine they thought they were doing me a courtesy, as one humors someone who doesn’t know the right thing to do. Well, they were nice to do so, but they are the ones who don’t know the right thing to do. For if there is one thing that was hammered into me as a young Scout – and which I have hammered into generations of boys and girls since – is that you should walk on the side of the road facing traffic. This is true, even if there is no traffic, to speak of, on this path. (The local trails are shared with bicycles, skates, and baby buggies.) In any case, you want to adopt a settled habit, so that you don’t have to remind yourself to switch patterns when you are stepping off a trail onto a road without a sidewalk.

The people tromping up and down the local trails were probably not Scouts, most of them. They are modern Americans, and their habits have been shaped by driving and riding in automobiles. Bicyclists are also taught to stay to the right, as wheeled vehicles themselves. So, without thinking very deeply about it, most Americans will stray to the right when they are on foot. I’ve even seen Scouts do it; otherwise, I wouldn’t have to remind them.

Hiking in Britain is different, since traffic comes from the left, not the right. You walk on the right side of the road there – the side facing on-coming traffic. When you step into the street, you look left first, not right – for danger comes from the left in the UK.

Well, these two ways of walking represent two different “cultures.” I was acculturated to the Scout way of doing things, which is simply the old hikers’ way. There are all kinds of courtesies, trail signs, and other lore that seem antique to other people – until you get up on some dangerous path in the real wilderness. Then, it can make a difference of life or death to know what the old hikers know. But on most paths, we old hikers are simply members of one culture, and the mass of the people out for a walk are members of another culture. That other culture was never consciously formed in anyone. They just went with the flow, and like water finding its own way downhill, they have worn a habit into their collective minds. This, too, is a culture, a way of doing and understanding.

Can one culture be “right” and another, “wrong?” If culture is determined merely by, “what everybody does,” then, No, not really. Even if I’m an oddball, an eccentric, in everybody else’s eyes, I have the same right to just do what I do as they do. On the other hand, if there are other values in play, then the question is answered differently. The reason we old hikers walk on the side facing traffic is a matter of safety. The mass of people aren’t “wrong” in the sense that they are defying some arbitrary authority that decrees these things (like the Scout Handbook), but they are setting themselves up for the occasional tragedy, because they haven’t had the advantages of better training. In that sense, I am “right” because I’m doing things more safely, and my culture is objectively better than theirs, though not better than the old hikers’ culture in Britain, where they do things differently.

And this helps me understand how to cope with the madness of our present society. I see all kinds of things going on, which the mass of people just go along with. I think some of them will end in tragedy of one kind or another. In that sense, my way, my understanding is objectively better than theirs, but there’s no point trying to stop people and try to get them to go the way I think they should go. I’m not going to try to impose a “right” way, my way, on people who don’t want to do it that way. But I’m too old to change my ways now, and I will do as I was taught and have done all my life.

I’m glad that I’m not trying to get a job in this day and age, not trying to get ahead in a profession, not running for office. But I do grieve for my country. There are so many hard lessons we’re going to have to relearn someday. And there will be tears.