A Very Long Walk: Time, Distance, and Creativity on the PCT

Sonora Pass

Sonora Pass

When I initially started walking the Pacific Crest Trail as a mobile residency, my usual daily concerns–tea, the garden, my cat–were immediately swept away, and so was the work-related concern: composing. Finding myself in the middle of a windy, dry, hot desert in Southern California those first couple weeks, I primarily spent my time figuring out how to meet my basic human needs in order to stay alive. Acquiring water became a particular obsession; when the weight of carrying 5-6 liters at a time is coupled with only coming across water once or twice a day (every 10-20 miles), for me thoughts about it simply became all-consuming.

Needless to say, composing while hiking the PCT has been a radically different experience than at my usual studio pace at home. My normal routine is something like this: 6-7 a.m.–wake up and see what the more easterly time zones are up to and read emails. Between 7 a.m.-12 p.m. is when I get pretty much any creative sort of work done; really much after 11:30 and my brain is toast! Afternoons are the time I reserve for doing most of my communicating and handling the business side of things and that may or may not trickle into the evening, which I generally reserve for attending music or art events or just cooking and socializing. Breaks for tea, exercise, or gardening, etc., punctuate the day.

The intersection of seemingly divergent types of rock in Toiyabe is wild.

The intersection of seemingly divergent types of rock in Toiyabe is wild.

So, composing on the trail was necessarily going to have to be different. Initially I was really weight conscious. I got rid of my trusty yellow legal pad and moleskin within the first couple days and instead began writing everything on the backs of my topo maps as I went through them. Without instruments at my disposal for notes, I now occasionally use a dinky little keyboard app when I’m lucky enough to have some spare charge in my phone (it’s fueled by a solar charger out here). When at home if I have a nuanced question about an instrument that my reference books can’t answer, I’ll just jump online and tweet out a question or text a friend who plays said instrument. However, most of the time on the trail there’s little cellphone coverage and even less possibility of enough reception to use good ol’ Google. So, I spend a lot more time thinking through ideas and trying to figure things out on my own, writing things out the best I can and carefully recording queries to pose to Google or musicians when I reach a town or happen across reception.

Highway-like sign on the PCT

As you can tell, composing on the trail is a pretty solitary and isolated activity! In fact, I have attended zero concerts since starting my trip and haven’t really had time to get into any new music when briefly in towns either. At the time of my writing this, I’m taking three days off the trail to go to a new music event of mine at the Soundwave Festival in San Francisco and I’ll see a friend, sound artist and occasional collaborator Chris Kallmyer, then. He’s the first fellow in our community that I’ve seen in person since May! So, this self-created residency takes on new levels of isolation not just from general society but from our community as well–something even most rural or remote artist residencies don’t do. Instead of working at a desk, I work out ideas in my head all day, then spend time in the evening after dinner writing things down.

Recording the sound of a huge steam vent called Terminal Geyser.

Recording the sound of a huge steam vent called Terminal Geyser.

In short, I’m just, well, out there. Even though my wife has joined me now for a couple of months, we still usually only see a few people a day out on the trail. So, though my days are spent meeting basic human needs, making field recordings, and doing a lot of walking, for the most part I have endless time to just think and few decisions to make. Besides composing, I’m making many field recordings for my project so it’s my job to spend endless hours simply listening. In Dave Grohl’s 2013 keynote address at SXSW, he returns frequently to the idea of the creative process for himself being the product of simply being left to one’s own devices without anyone telling you what to do. It’s an almost archetypal stereotype (whether it’s true or not) of childhood–that one has nothing really to do, no big responsibilities, and an endless amount of time to mess around, get bored, make trouble, and just play. That very same day-dreaming drifting time is the luxury that I have out on the trail. Instead of my usual pattern of working on four or five things at once, I work on just one piece, mulling things over sometimes for days before actually writing them down. I’m not distracted by emails or petty bickering on social media. This is just one very long period of time to think about sound, and to organize a little of it for folks. My legs have just healed from having several dozen mosquito bites after being swarmed, and I’m sure there will be another unexpected physical hurdle soon, but I wouldn’t trade the luxury of so much time left to my own devices to work on music and sound for anything…well, except maybe for having some Chinese food delivered on the trail.

Where’s Nat at?

Where’s Nat at? When he sent in this post from the trail, he was approximately where the red dot is.

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