When I was growing up I used to think that the best thing about coming from Des Moines was that it meant you didn't come from anywhere else in Iowa. By Iowa standards, Des Moines is a mecca of cosmopolitanism, a dynamic hub of wealth and education, where people wear three-piece suits and dark socks, often simultaneously.
Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot. A mile becomes a long way, two miles literally considerable, ten miles whopping, fifty miles at the very limits of conception. The world, you realize, is enormous in a way that only you and a small community of fellow hikers know. Planetary scale is your little secret.
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Being a pessimist is just such a gloomy way of looking at things, so I have to hope for the best - life wouldn't be worth living if we didn't have hope. And I also do think that human beings often do do wonderful, correct, brilliant things. So, on balance, I'd like to be optimistic about the future.
It was an odd situation. For a century and a half, men got rid of their own hair, which was perfectly comfortable, and instead covered their heads with something foreign and uncomfortable. Very often it was actually their own hair made into a wig. People who couldn't afford wigs tried to make their hair look like a wig.
Australians are very unfair in this way. They spend half of any conversation insisting that the country's dangers are vastly overrated and that there's nothing to worry about, and the other half telling you how six months ago their Uncle Bob was driving to Mudgee when a tiger snake slid out from under the dashboard and bit him on the groin, but that it's okay now because he's off the life support machine and they've discovered he can communicate with eye blinks.
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Every living thing is an elaboration of a single original plan. As humans we are mere increments - each of us a musty archive of adjustments, adaptations, modifications and providential tinkerings stretching back to 3,8 billion years. Remarkably we are even quite closely related to fruit and vegetables. About half the chemical functions that take place in a banana are fundamentally the same as the chemical functions that place in you. It cannot be said too often: all life is one. That is, and I suspect will ever prove to be, the most profound true statement there is.
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At the foot of the mountain, the park ended and suddenly all was squalor again. I was once more struck by this strange compartmentalization that goes on in America -- a belief that no commercial activities must be allowed inside the park, but permitting unrestrained development outside, even though the landscape there may be just as outstanding. America has never quite grasped that you can live in a place without making it ugly, that beauty doesn't have to be confined behind fences, as if a national park were a sort of zoo for nature.
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Our instinct may be to see the impossibility of tracking everything down as frustrating, dispiriting, perhaps even appalling, but it can just as well be viewed as almost unbearably exciting. We live on a planet that has a more or less infinite capacity to surprise. What reasoning person could possibly want it any other way?
So here I am, my affections torn between a postal service that never feeds me but can tackle a challenge and one that gives me free tape and prompt service but won't help me out when I can't remember a street name. The lesson to draw from this, of course, is that when you move from one country to another you have to accept that there are some things that are better and some things worse, and there is nothing you can do about it. That may not be the profoundest of insights to take away from a morning's outing, but I did get a free doughnut as well, so on balance I guess I'm happy.
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You may not feel outstandingly robust, but if you are an average-sized adult you will contain within your modest frame no less than 7 X 10^18 joules of potential energy""enough to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.
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...if you were designing an organism to look after life in our lonely cosmos, to monitor where it is going and keep a record of where it has been, you wouldn't choose human beings for the job. But here's an extrememly salient point: we have been chosen, by fate or Providence or whatever you wish to call it. As far as we can tell, we are the best there is. We may be all there is. It's an unnerving thought that we may be the living universe's supreme achievement and its worst nightmare simultaneously.
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What this means in practice is that if you are not a born worrier you have nothing to worry about (though of course you wouldn't be worrying anyway), whereas if you are a worrier by nature there is absolutely nothing you can do about it, so you may as well stop worrying, except of course you can't.
Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life's quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result - eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly - in you.
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This was 1990 the year that communism died in Europe and it seemed strange to me that in all the words that were written about the fall of the iron curtain, nobody anywhere lamented that it was the end of a noble experiment. I know that communism never worked and I would have disliked living under it myself but none the less it seems that there was a kind of sadness in the thought that the only economic system that appeared to work was one based on self interest and greed.
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But that's the glory of foreign travel, as far as I am concerned. I don't want to know what people are talking about. I can't think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can't read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can't even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.
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It is not true that the English invented cricket as a way of making all other human endeavors look interesting and lively; that was merely an unintended side effect... It is the only sport that incorporates meal breaks. It is the only sport that shares its name with an insect. It is the only sport in which spectators burn as many calories as the players-more if they are moderately restless.
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It was the kind of pure, undiffused light that can only come from a really hot blue sky, the kind that makes even a concrete highway painful to behold and turns every distant reflective surface into a little glint of flame. Do you know how sometimes on very fine days the sun will shine with a particular intensity that makes the most mundane objects in the landscape glow with an unusual radiance, so that buildings and structures you normally pass without a glance suddenly become arresting, even beautiful? Well, they seem to have that light in Australia nearly all the time.
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Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot. A mile becomes a long way, two miles literally considerable, ten miles whopping, fifty miles at the very limits of conception. The world, you realize, is enormous in a way that only you and a small community of fellow hikers know. Planetary scale is your little secret. Life takes on a neat simplicity, too. Time ceases to have any meaning. When it is dark, you go to bed, and when it is light again you get up, and everything in between is just in between. It's quite wonderful, really. You have no engagements, commitments, obligations, or duties; no special ambitions and only the smallest, least complicated of wants; you exist in a tranquil tedium, serenely beyond the reach of exasperation, 'far removed from the seats of strife, ' as the early explorer and botanist William Bartram put it. All that is required of you is a willingness to trudge. There is no point in hurrying because you are not actually going anywhere. However far or long you plod, you are always in the same place: in the woods. It's where you were yesterday, where you will be tomorrow. The woods is one boundless singularity. Every bend in the path presents a prospect indistinguishable from every other, every glimpse into the trees the same tangled mass. For all you know, your route could describe a very large, pointless circle. In a way, it would hardly matter. At times, you become almost certain that you slabbed this hillside three days ago, crossed this stream yesterday, clambered over this fallen tree at least twice today already. But most of the time you don't think. No point. Instead, you exist in a kind of mobile Zen mode, your brain like a balloon tethered with string, accompanying but not actually part of the body below. Walking for hours and miles becomes as automatic, as unremarkable, as breathing. At the end of the day you don't think, 'Hey, I did sixteen miles today, ' any more than you think, 'Hey, I took eight-thousand breaths today.' It's just what you do.
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By the time I had finished my coffee and returned to the streets, the rain had temporarily abated, but the streets were full of vast puddles where the drains where unable to cope with the volume of water. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you would think that if one nation ought by now to have mastered the science of drainage, Britain would be it.
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[Traveling] makes you realize what an immeasurably nice place much of America could be if only people possessed the same instinct for preservation as they do in Europe. You would think the millions of people who come to Williamsburg every year would say to each other, "Gosh, Bobbi, this place is beautiful. Let's go home to Smellville and plant lots of trees and preserve all the fine old buildings." But in fact that never occurs to them. They just go back and build more parking lots and Pizza Huts.
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