As time goes by, it may be that I do not walk as far or as fast as I used to; but speed and distance were never my forte. I have usually found the journey to be more interesting than the destination. But then, I have never really had a destination. The glory that comes from conquering Himalayan peaks is not for me. My greatest pleasure consists in taking a path - any old path will do - and following it until it leads me to forest glade or mountain stream.
This sort of tramping - it does not even qualify as trekking - is a compulsive thing with me. To be out on the open road, the wind in my hair, the sun warm on my back, fills me with a certain joie de vivre - an exhilaration not easily found in other, possibly more worthy, pursuits.
Only this afternoon I experienced one of my more enjoyable tramps. I had been cooped up in my room in this Indian hill station for several days, while outside it rained and hailed and snowed and blew icily from all directions. It seemed like ages since I'd had a long walk. Fed up with it all, I pulled on my overcoat , banged the door shut, and set off up the hillside.
I kept to the main road, which, because of the heavy snow, had no vehicles on it. Even as I walked, flurries of snow struck my face, collected on my coat and cap. Up at the top of the hill, the deodars wore a mantle of white. It was a fairyland - everything still and silent. The only movement was the circling of an eagle high above the trees. I walked for about an hour, and passed only one person, the milkman on his way back to his village. His cans were crowned with snow. He greeted me, and then asked me what I was doing out in a snowstorm.
''Nothing,'' I said. ''Just taking a walk.''
He looked puzzled. Of course the walk was for him a necessity. But it never ceases to mystify some people, this propensity of mine for walking long distances without any objective in view. Anyway, I came home invigorated, and sat down by the stove to write. Perhaps I did have something in mind. Nothing is really wasted on the writer of essays. A novelist needs conflict and a cast of characters; but for the essayist, snowflakes will do.
R.L. Stevenson, that prince of essayists, was moved to song by the charms of tramping: And this shall be for music when no one else is near, The fine song for singing, the rare song to hear! That only I remember, that only you admire, Of the broad road that stretches, and the roadside fire.
Stevenson speaks directly to me, over the passage of the years. There are few like him today. We hurry, hurry in a heat of hope - and who has time for roadside fires, except perhaps those who must work on the roads in inclement weather?
Whenever I walk in these hills, I come across gangs of road workers breaking stones, cutting into the rocky hillsides, building retaining walls. I am not averse to more roads (especially on these Himalayan ranges, where the people have remained impoverished largely due to the inaccessibility of their villages). Besides, a new road is one more road for me to explore, and in the interests of progress (both mine and the world's) I am prepared to put up with the dust raised by an occasional bus or truck. And if the walk becomes too dusty , I can always leave the main road. There is no dearth of paths leading off into the valleys.
On one such diversionary walk, I reached a village where I was given a drink of curds and a meal of rice and beans. That is another of the attractions of tramping to nowhere in particular - the finding of somewhere in particular! There is the striking up of friendships, the discovery of new springs and waterfalls, unusual plants, rare flowers, strange birds. In the mountains, a new vista opens up at every bend in the road.
That is what makes me a compulsive walker: new vistas, and the charm of the unexpected.