Photo: Jacques Holst

“Shouganai,” Iriyama shakes his head. It can’t be helped.

Thunderheads tumble above the teahouse where we’re sitting. Around us the woods cower in pockets of shadows, a heavy calm that seems to invert silence. He wipes his bald head with a green towel around his neck. The straps on his black backpack are rubbed thin and frayed.

“I’m never satisfied staying in one place,” he says.

He’s the only other pilgrim I’ve come across on the 70km stretch of the Kohechi Trail, one of several sacred paths that comprise the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage on Japan’s rugged Kii Peninsula. Along with St. James’ Way in Spain, the Kumano Kodo is one of only two pilgrimages designated as World Heritage by UNESCO. Iriyama’s walked both.

As the summer typhoon rain starts to run off the teahouse roof, he talks at length about his travels. Living in Cairo before the Arab Spring, acting in a short film for the UN, being mistaken for Jackie Chan after attending the premiere of Rush Hour in a Zimbabwe theater.

He takes a deep quaff from his water bottle. Then, “Anata wa…. Naze?” And you? Why do you travel alone?

There’s a lot of ways to answer that, I think.

* * *

A day-and-a-half ago I’d collapsed in a small shelter at the summit of Miuratoge, one of three mountain passes on the Kohechi. Twenty five-plus kilometers a day over 1,000-meter elevations with a 50-pound pack had taken its toll, and it took several minutes of hard massage to ease the spasm in my left leg. Low-cloud nuzzled steep green clear-cuts to my right, and in the distance sheer mountain ranges stretched out in successive degrees of silhouette, finally blending into a storm on the horizon.

The sound of a waterfall below began to sink into my ears as it followed the sharp groove of the earth. A singular pulsing note that struck the air. In it there was a constancy I had been searching for when I’d first set out from the small Buddhist town of Koya, a rhythm in the motion of walking that seemed to mirror some universal metaphor. The way things struggle against themselves, but gracefully.

As feeling came back to my knee, I was reminded of a haiku I’d read by the poet Mukai Kyorai, a pupil of Matsuo Basho: “Tsudzukuri-mo / Hatenashi-zuka-ya / Satsuki-ame.”

However maintained / Endless slope and / Summer rain.

I pulled a water-damaged map from my pocket, carefully unfolding it and checking my progress. It was still 5km to Yagura Kannon-do, a small shrine where I’d set up camp for the night. A gust of wind burned over the ridge from the east, shaking the grove of sugi cedar trees and pelting the roof of the shelter with heavy drops. Deep smells of moss and fern invaded the air like a green frequency.

Wrap the knee with a scarf. Five more kilometers.

* * *

Many have written meditations on hiking, which seems to suggest that meditation comes as hindsight. For the Shinto and Buddhist monks who walked these trails hundreds of years ago, there was no division. Each tree or stream they passed, each pause they took at stone jizo statues (Bodhisattva incarnations) along the way, each animal they encountered, somehow contributed to the activity of contemplation.

It seems more appropriate to talk about the meditation of hiking. To push oneself to the physical extent, to reach a critical point which on a mental level allows for a receptiveness, an openness to the surroundings you’re hiking through.

That’s what every meditation is — a pushing into the “liminal” in order to (re)gain receptivity, whether it be to God or gods, nature, or your own inner turmoil that isn’t permitted a voice in day-to-day domestic life.

* * *

That night the hum of cicadas echoing in the small alcove of my tent was eventually swallowed by thunder. The flicking of rain as it struck the fly, as if trying to drive home some belief in gravity. Lightning far off broke intermittent shadows of the forest across my eyelids. A thought suddenly occurred to me, and I stiffened in the dark.

How easy it would be to die alone, to disappear into the forest.

Thoughts like these are not uncommon to me. I’ve suffered depression for a long time, and although I think a healthy contemplation of death from time to time is what prevents me from seriously considering anything, I know there are those who would disagree.

I turned on my side, rearranging my rain jacket as a pillow. The only human on the whole mountain.

I’d always traveled alone. Part of it had to do with my difficulty with people. Relationships never seemed to fit me quite right, like a glove that couldn’t find all the right fingers. Being alone always came easier and often left me ungrounded, which is why I could drift from place to place so easily. But it was also what isolated me, terribly.

Solitude was the ultimate liminal expression — humbling myself to the elements, accepting risk and hunger and exhaustion alone.

I’d once remarked to an old friend: “Maybe on some subconscious level I have a misguided belief that if I can survive myself, I can survive anything?”

* * *

Back in the teahouse the rain begins to lighten. Fog lifts between trunks of trees like a protracted sigh. Iriyama bends and tightens the laces on his boots, getting ready to head out again. The end of our pilgrimage at Hongu Taisha is less than 2km, all downhill over ancient cobblestone. I haven’t answered his question, but he seems fine with that.

“My ancestors were Shugendo. How do you say, professional priests?” he says. “They believed by walking they cleansed themselves. Therefore, they prayed. To get to a better world.”

I wonder if that’s what Iriyama is doing now, carrying on some age-old legacy in his own way as he ambles up mountainsides. For me it has functioned as reaffirmation. That I am alive, and that movement is life, regardless of what you’re moving toward or looking for.

“What did you pray for, along the trail?” I ask before he leaves.

He grins and laughs. “A beer and some yakisoba!”

His footsteps fade into the fog and I lean back against the wall of the teahouse. At my feet, a small black ant pulls the corpse of a caterpillar across the wooden floor. The world’s cycles seem to inhabit every microcosm around me. My own cycles of solitude and depression, as well. The uphill struggle, one foot after the other. The downhill ecstasy.

However maintained / Endless slope and / Summer rain.

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