When people learn that I am a writer, the main question they ask me is, “Do you ever get writer’s block?”
Even though I have been asked this question dozens of times, it still always catches me off guard.
I would prefer to be able to answer questions like, “Have you ever had a book published?” or “how do you locate your clients?” These questions might lead to interesting conversations. But no, they always want to know what I do when I get writer’s block.
I never quite know how to answer this question, since the condition of having “writer’s block” evidently refers to more than simply waking up in the morning and not feeling like going to work. From what I can gather, writer’s block it is the elusive opposite of “writer’s inspiration,” something of which I also have little direct experience.
It seems peculiar that this condition of having “writer’s block” is supposed to afflict my trade alone among the professions. Does the washer-woman complain of having “washer block”? Does the barber occasionally find himself unable to cut hair because of an acute bout of “barber block”?
These were some of the questions I used to puzzle over until a sunny morning in the second week of May last year. The morning started off like any other day: I woke up, said my prayers, did a little reading, and then went to work. But sitting comfortably in my office, I found I just couldn’t write.
I supposed I was simply tired, and so I took a nap. After returning to the computer, the words still would not flow.
I shifted uneasily in my seat. Then it finally hit me! This must be what people mean when they talk about “writer’s block.”
I still didn’t know what “writer’s block” actually was, where it came from, or what to do about it. But I did feel fairly certain that, whatever it was, I was suffering within its tyrannical grip.
So I decided to leave my office and head to Canfield Mountain to do some wayfaring (the distinction between wayfaring and walking will be explained later on in this post).
I had learned about Canfield mountain in 2016, shortly after moving to Coeur d’Alene from neighboring Post Falls. One of the trailheads was less than a ten minute drive from our home, nestled on the eastern edge of town. With a complex network of trails, many of which connected to neighboring mountain ranges, it is a popular spot for motorbikes and three-wheelers. By hiking high enough, one could get beyond all the recreation and enjoy a serene stillness, complemented with stunning vistas of the surrounding area.
As I drove my truck to the trailhead at the end of Nettleton Gulch Road, I reflected on a hike I had done that March when there was still snow on the mountain. The snow had actually turned out to be providential since I got slightly lost and was able to find my way down by retracing my footprints in the snow.
Even experienced mountain bikers frequently get lost on Canfield Mountain, since the trails cross and crisscross in a veritable maze. If you get on the wrong trail, you might end up travelling twenty or thirty miles east, only to find the path terminating at an obscure logging road.
Needless to say, I knew I needed to take precautions against getting lost. I have never had a very good sense of geography, and sometimes I can’t even find my way home after going to the supermarket. I knew I needed to tackle this day’s hike from a position of preparedness. Having done a little research, I discovered that I had an app on my smartphone that could lead me home from literally anywhere. I don’t normally like taking my phone on walks, but this time I decided to keep it turned off in my pocket until it was required for my homeward journey.
It was about 10:30 in the morning when I started. The spring air was exhilarating. It was that perfect type of temperature, at what I call “the goldilocks level” – not too hot, and not too cold, but just right.
As I walked, the birds seemed to be rejoicing that spring had finally arrived after a protracted winter. The mountain was awash in green grass and wild flowers, with that unique smell of spring that seems to proclaim, “God’s in his heaven and all’s well with the world.”
A few hours into my hike, I came upon a moose standing confidently in the middle of my trail. Not wanting to take my chances, I quickly turned around and found another fork that veered off towards the right. I didn’t know where this new trail led, but I liked it.
As I walked, I reflected on some of my recent research on the difference between walking and wayfaring. One of my favorite technology writers, Nicholas Carr, introduced me to the concept of wayfaring in his 2014 book The Glass Cage, and also in this YouTube video. Carr explained how wayfaring differs from walking-as-transportation, and it also differs from walking-as-exercise. To be a wayfarer is to approach walking as an end in itself, as a type of leisure activity.
Wayfaring was a popular pastime in the 19th and early 20th century. In fact, two of my favorite novels begin with a wayfarer (Huntingtower by John Buchan, and Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis).
About half an hour after meeting the moose, I suddenly knew that I had made the transition. I had crossed over an invisible line. I was no longer merely walking. I was wayfaring.
Immediately my mind turned to Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem “The Vagabond”, which was put to such gorgeous music by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The last two lines of the poem kept coming back to me:
“All I ask, the heaven above,
And the road below me.”
As the morning gave way to afternoon, I relished the carefree nature of my wayfaring: taking this trail, then that trail, purely as inclination suggested. I wasn’t sure if there was a method to my madness, but I did know that there was certainly a madness to my method. I relished this element of madness, the sheer randomness of my wayfaring activity.
I reflected how the philosophy of the walker is that “it is better to arrive than to travel hopefully.” By contrast, the wayfarer says, “It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.” It is the wayfarer, I thought, who has the correct philosophy of life. Walking to a destination may be an admirable activity, to be sure, but it remains merely a means to an end. Wayfaring, on the other hand, functions as its own reward.
Again I repeated to myself the wayfarer’s maxim: “It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.”
At around 2:30 I stopped in a grove of trees at the summit of a mountain to have a snack. I took out the book I was reading, The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. This book, probably more than any other, touches the deep recesses of what it means to be human, and what it means to love in a world enchanted by God’s all-consuming desire for us.
After some reading, my mind turned again to wayfaring. I reflected, with more than a little self-congratulation, that my wayfaring activities ran against the pragmatic ethic of our machine-driven culture. At the same time, I was thankful for our machines. In particular, I was thankful for the phone in my pocket, for I knew that when I had had enough wayfaring, all I needed to do was to turn on my phone and it would lead me back to town. At that point, I would cease to be a wayfarer and I would become a walker again. But not yet: I still had more wayfaring to do.
I continued down the other side of the mountain, and up a few minor hills. I kept remembering how wayfaring is so good for the human brain. As I inhaled deep breaths of oxygen, I could almost feel new synapses being formed in my brain.
By mid to late afternoon, I began to feel it was time to head back. “Yes,” I thought to myself, “it’s time to go home.” I reached into my pocket and brought out my phone. I turned it on. But there was no signal.
I could feel the blood drain out of my face as I tried to process my situation. I must have wandered so far afield that I was completely out of cell-phone range. What would I do?
I knew there was no way I could remember all the labyrinthine twists and turns I had taken. After all, I had purposely not paid attention to where I had hiked—that was the whole point.
There was nothing for it but to put on a brave face, turn myself around, and do my best to find the way back to town before dark.
For the next hour I walked in what I guessed to be the right direction. The problem was that I didn’t recognize anything. The more I tried to find my way back, the more I seemed to penetrate deeper and deeper into the mountains. The sounds of the woods, which had been so cheerful that morning, began to take on an ominous tone. I thought I heard the hoot of an owl, but then reflected that it was still too early for that.
I continued walking, trying not to think about the wolves and bears that live in the mountains bordering Canfield.
Eventually I found myself heading up to what appeared the summit of a mountain. This was a good sign, I thought, for if I could reach the top of a mountain then I might be able to look down to get my bearings, perhaps even get a sight of Coeur d’Alene lake.
When I reached the top, I saw nothing recognizable. Mountains after mountains stretched out as far as the eye could see. However, away on my right, I did notice a paved road. I decided to make for it.
Once I joined the road, it led me downward until suddenly it opened out into some farmland and a little village. I looked out upon gentle pastureland, dotted here and there by a house or a barn, with horses and cows grazing contentedly. The scene filled me with hope. I might still be lost, but at least I wouldn’t have to spend the night on the mountain. I was ready to knock on the first door I saw, and hug whoever opened it just because they were human.
But what village could this possibly be, I wondered? I thought I knew all the towns around, but this was completely unrecognizable. Yet on the basis of Bilbo Baggins’ theory that all roads eventually connect, I became hopeful of finding my way back to Coeur d’Alene.
Following the main road out of the village, I came to another road, then another, all of which were curiously lacking in road signs. My phone still had no signal. The hope that had recently been kindled by the discovery of civilization, turned to despondency.
By now I was so tired that each step was a chore. What would I do if my legs gave out and I had to stop walking?
If only I had never read all the poems about wayfaring, I thought! If only I hadn’t filled my mind with such grandiose ideas, then I might still be sitting comfortably in my office sipping tea. Even writers’ block was preferable to this aimless wandering.
I think it was at this point that my philosophy of life shifted. Suddenly I realized—as if from an epiphany—that the people are wrong who say that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive. Surely it is better to arrive than to travel hopefully!
Occasionally a car would pass me on the road. I kept praying someone would stop and offer me a lift, or even tell me where I was. But nobody stopped. I don’t like talking to people I don’t know, but after another hour I worked up the courage and decided that I would wave down the next car that came by.
About twenty minutes later, a truck approached. I waved it down. It was a pickup, with the bed completely filled with antlers. Evidently the driver saw my gesticulations, for he slowed down as he approached.
The window of the truck rolled down, revealing a middle age man who looked both rugged and friendly.
“Can you tell me how to get to Coeur d’Alene?” I asked eagerly.
“Coeur d’Alene?” he mused. “Hmm, you’re a long way from there!”
The man proceeded to explain a complex route, involving various roads, twists, and turns. I knew there was no way I would be able to remember all his instructions, so I asked him to explain the directions again while pausing for about ten seconds after each part so I could commit it to memory.
He eyed me inquisitively without saying anything.
I began explaining that the reason I needed him to repeat the directions slowly is because of the limitations of my short-term memory, which can only hold seven things at once, plus or minus two.
“How about if I just drive you,” he said, motioning for me to get in. I have to admit, that is what I had been secretly hoping for the whole time.
After a few minutes of driving he asked, “So what brings you so far from town?”
“I was hiking on Canfield mountain and I got lost,” I said awkwardly. Then laughing, I added, “You probably have lost hikers wandering down here all the time.”
“Actually,” he said, “we don’t. You’re the first time it’s ever happened.”
An awkward silence ensued.
Trying to make some friendly conversation, I began questioning the man about his work. I found that he was an extremely interesting guy, with an array of fascinating jobs. I also learned that he is the author Ryan Wood, who writes books about his experiences in North Idaho.
After a while, Ryan began asking me about myself and my own adventures that day. As I began relating everything that had happened, he didn’t say anything. Yet a slight smile broke out on his face as he listened.
“This is all so interesting,” he finally commented.
“Well, I’m sorry to make you drive so far out of your way,” I put in.
“Not at all,” said Ryan. “I’m rather enjoying all of this.”
Half worried that I would find my way into one of Ryan’s books, I changed the subject back to himself. He told me more about his own writing, and different humorous adventures he’s had in this area. His own experiences in North Idaho–including funny experiences from other people’s mistakes–formed the chief inspiration for his books.
After about fifteen minutes, we came to Coeur d’Alene and then to the trailhead where my car was parked.
I thanked Ryan profusely as I stepped out of his truck. Just as he was saying goodbye, it occurred to me to ask him if he ever gets writer’s block. But I thought better of it. I got into my truck and drove home.