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Dream sequence: Walking the Length of the Erie Canal

map-erie canalI have been asked today to discuss the proper way to traverse the Erie Canal, the 363-mile waterway that links Albany, New York, to Buffalo and the Great Lakes. 

Before we go any further, it is important for you to know that I was asked to deliver this talk in a dream.

I know.

It shocked me too.


An 1852 watercolor on paper by William Rickerby Miller (1818–1893), at Little Falls, NY

I have also been asked to deliver this lecture in the voice of the great Zen philosopher Allan Watts. Since you will only be reading this, I suggest you search for his name on YouTube and listen to one or two talks until his tone is firmly implanted in your head.

Any lecture will do. They’re all wonderfully enlightening and entertaining.

Here’s a good one:

Barges and boats crossed the state of New York on the canal in the 1800s, before there were proper roads and railways. This is what made New York City the great commercial and cultural center that it still is today. 

And to a lesser extent, I suppose, it did the same for Buffalo.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Erie Canal, although much of my childhood was spent 20 miles south of Buffalo.

For all I know, I could have crossed over the canal hundreds of times but I don’t think I ever heard the name until junior high school history class. Certainly, nobody was promoting the canal as a significant historic landmark — or as we refer to them today “significant recreational and tourism opportunities.”

Indeed, the canal is back. 

And this very vivid dream is pressing me to talk about walking the length of the canal.

But clearly, I’m not here to speak to you about the history of the Erie Canal, or its recreational opportunities, or wax poetically about the natural beauty that surrounds the canal.

I want to talk about how you approach such an effort. And obviously, what I am going to say applies to the Suez Canal, the Camino Santiago or crossing an intersection.


By E.L. Henry, c 1900 Packet boats on the Erie Canal were usually 60 to 80 feet long and 14 feet wide. The central cabin room served as lounge, dining room, sleeping room, and a kitchen. The average charge for traveling on packet boats was four cents per mile ($26 in 2011 dollars), and included meals and sleeping accommodations.

These observations are universally applicable and scalable.

That is the beauty of traveling any distance, first with your mind, then your heart, and then your feet.

I should add that these practices apply to all modes of transportation. And I make no judgment about which is used. Although, it will be clear that I favor walking if your goal is to experience a significant level of mindfulness and revelation.

The point of any journey ought to be a raising of consciousness — not a collection of selfies in front of familiar landmarks.

In my dream, I was presented with a series of shapes and color schemes to help illustrate this talk. The schemes are based on a descending order of speed.

Say if you choose to drive the distance in a car — your experience might be portrayed as a whirling blur of colors that you are speeding through. Shapes are indefinite, sensations are intermittent. But certainly, it is an experience of sorts.

Now imagine you are on a bicycle. The scheme around you would be like passing through an array of vertical colored bars. There is greater sensual contact as you brush against these bars and the colors of the bars themselves are clustered and more defined. You might pass through a cluster of red bars that represent the scent of a eucalyptus tree, say. You have contact with the universe, albeit fleeting.

Suppose you choose to walk the length of the canal over a series of weeks. Picture yourself walking through a universe filled with large colored bubbles, say the size of soccer balls. Your senses are in constant contact with the sensual environment but because of the size of the bubbles, you can only “touch” so many.  

So your experience is still limited, though denser.

Now, the longer you walk, as your senses grow more heightened, the smaller and more populous these bubbles become. You experience more and more and denser and tinier bubbles.

And you can relate the color of each bubble to a specific sensation — the smell of pine needles, or fresh dirt after a rain, or the sound of a sparrow, or the fresh-baked pie just out of the oven, or the scent of a eucalyptus tree, or a casual conversation with a stranger sharing your journey, or the heat of the day, or the sudden splash of a trout leaping out of the water.

How exciting would it be to experience all of these things simultaneously, adroitly processing and recognizing each sound or sensation for what it is, and reveling at the existence of all?

Is there one video game that gives you that experience?

You are aware of all of these things in your ordinary life but how often do you stop to isolate them, to reel them in, and let them wash over your entire being?

At some point, your level of awareness rises to an intensity unexperienced before. It is involuntary. You are being bombarded by so many stimuli from the universe around you that you can’t help yourself.

This isn’t just the run of the mill admonition to “stop and smell the roses.” This is a call from your senses to revel in the roses, drink in their beauty, inhale the fragrance, feel the tenderness of a petal as it caresses your cheek, wonder at the drop of dew holding tenuously to a leaf, observe the relationship of the roses to the world around them.

dandelionIf you ever read the marvelous Opus cartoons, the eponymous penguin’s solution in moments of stress was to take a dandelion bath — lay down in an open field and let the dandelion fluff wash over your skin.

I highly recommend this, if you can find a field and a patch of dandelions. The idea is to stretch out on your back, feel the caressing rays of the sun, and let the fuzzy windborne florets tickle your nose and eyelids. Positively giddy.

But otherwise, our walk through the bubbles of awareness will achieve the same thing. 

Let’s call our walk a “bubble bath.”

Both dandelions baths and our “bubble bath” require one key directive in your life: slow down.

Let’s find a concrete example of all of this.

croissantsConsider for a moment that there is a French bakery somewhere along the Erie Canal, an entirely legitimate supposition. But an Italian Pizzeria will accomplish the same for our purposes.

So, our very talented baker is in the process of pulling out of her oven the perfect batch of croissants.

At this same moment, the driver of our touring car is passing by the shop. In our bubble bath concoction, the driver experiences a brief but pleasant red sensation as his vehicle moves quickly through the thickening wall of red generated by the smell of the croissants.

If the driver is alert enough, he might turn to his left and note the name of the bakery and tell himself that he should stop and check it out — should he ever pass this way again.

When he gets home, he can regale friends with the story of the moment that he smelled an excellent French bakery in some town or other along the Erie Canal.

A bicyclist is passing by the bakery at this very same moment. So the smell of the croissants in this scenario might be a series of red bars and the sensation, with the open air in the cyclists’ faces, is likely more intense than the driver of the vehicle. She is pedaling through a veritable forest of red bars.

The cyclist might even briefly consider halting all that forward momentum and finding a place to lock up her bike while she has a croissant. I don’t know, so many of the cyclists I know personally are very A-to-B people, with goals and distances and speeds in mind.

Let’s say that while this cyclist considers stopping, she’s almost hit by a drifting car in which the driver is staring back at the bakery. The moment of drama raises the adrenaline in the cyclist and it takes another 10 miles of strong pedaling before her heart rate is back in the comfort zone.

Moments later, our walker passes by the bakery and is awash in a sea of tiny red bubbles. They cling to the skin, rise up the nostrils, tickle the various parts of the brain that respond to such stimuli — and our walker slows down even more.

Slow enough to see the tray of fresh croissants being lovingly put in the display case.

After an extremely pleasant chat with the baker who suggests a few other things to do in the miles ahead, our walker steps out with two croissants and a cup of fresh-brewed coffee and plops down on a bench in the park across the street. One of the croissants is partially shared with two pigeons and a precocious squirrel.

Now, I need not have to tell you that all or none of this might ever happen. This is, after all, an illustrative scenario — something that is also called literature in some circles.

But I can tell you from experience which of these is most likely to happen. I have enjoyed many an impromptu baked good after having my senses scrubbed in a bubble bath of stimulation while walking past bakeries.


Lockport, N.Y. on the Erie Canal, 1840

I recently began copying down favorite sentences and thoughts from writers whom I admire. And I find this exercise very different from simply reading something and moving on, or even reading and digesting the words.

As I copy down a choice phrase, I find myself falling into the letters, the words, the meanings. I begin to question the choice of one word over another that might have served equally well. 

And once I have the whole before me in my own handwriting, in my little black leather book, I can explore any wider or hidden meanings. I can categorize its value to me by comparing it to my own accumulated knowledge.

Sometimes, something that seems so wise at first glance, is merely clever under scrutiny.

What has this to do with walking the Erie Canal?

Our lives are all about transcription. We read, we see, we feel, we hear, we taste something, and we record it in our nervous system, that great computer bank of memory and sensation. 

Clearly, the faster we go through it, the less data we process.

For me, walking is a rewardingly slow form of transcription. The more I walk, the slower I walk, the more data I absorb. By the time we reach the end of the Erie Canal, our neuro systems ought to be bursting with fresh data.

And finally, all that slowness — and exercise — opens up fresh capacities in the brain for new thoughts, new revelations, new observations on just about any topic the human mind can conjure up.

You are no longer in the world of stimulus-response. You are in control of your perceptions, control of your destiny.

And a damned site more healthy for it all.

+++++      +++++      +++++     +++++

Postscript: One thing we haven’t talked about is time travel. 

Yes, walking considerable distances over long periods of time does give you the sensation of traveling back in time as you move forward. That is, you grow more in touch with a more primeval self.

But if you really want to experience a place — and its place in history — read up on it before you go. 

The Erie Canal is rich in lore and unique language, colorful characters. It even had its own Mark Twain, that marvelous chronicler of the Mississippi.

In fact, it was Mark Twain. I’ll leave you with his Erie Canal poem:

The Aged Pilot Man

 by Mark Twain

On the Erie Canal, it was,
All on a summer’s day,
I sailed forth with my parents
Far away to Albany.

From out the clouds at noon that day
There came a dreadful storm,
That piled the billows high about,
And filled us with alarm.

A man came rushing from a house,
Saying, “Snub up your boat I pray,
Snub up your boat, snub up, alas,
Snub up while yet you may.”

Our captain cast one glance astern,
Then forward glanced he,
And said, “My wife and little ones
I never more shall see.”

Said Dollinger the pilot man,
In noble words, but few,–
“Fear not, but lean on Dollinger,
And he will fetch you through.”

The boat drove on, the frightened mules
Tore through the rain and wind,
And bravely still, in danger’s post,
The whip-boy strode behind.

“Come ‘board, come ‘board,” the captain cried,
“Nor tempt so wild a storm;”
But still the raging mules advanced,
And still the boy strode on.

Then said the captain to us all,
“Alas, ’tis plain to me,
The greater danger is not there,
But here upon the sea.

So let us strive, while life remains,
To save all souls on board,
And then if die at last we must,
Let . . . . I cannot speak the word!”

Said Dollinger the pilot man,
Tow’ring above the crew,
“Fear not, but trust in Dollinger,
And he will fetch you through.”

“Low bridge! low bridge!” all heads went down,
The laboring bark sped on;
A mill we passed, we passed church,
Hamlets, and fields of corn;
And all the world came out to see,
And chased along the shore
Crying, “Alas, alas, the sheeted rain,
The wind, the tempest’s roar!
Alas, the gallant ship and crew,
Can nothing help them more?”

And from our deck sad eyes looked out
Across the stormy scene:
The tossing wake of billows aft,
The bending forests green,
The chickens sheltered under carts
In lee of barn the cows,
The skurrying swine with straw in mouth,
The wild spray from our bows!

“She balances!
She wavers!
Now let her go about!
If she misses stays and broaches to,
We’re all”–then with a shout,]
“Huray! huray!
Avast! belay!
Take in more sail!
Lord, what a gale!
Ho, boy, haul taut on the hind mule’s tail!”
“Ho! lighten ship! ho! man the pump!
Ho, hostler, heave the lead!

“A quarter-three!–’tis shoaling fast!
Three feet large!–t-h-r-e-e feet!–
Three feet scant!” I cried in fright
“Oh, is there no retreat?”

Said Dollinger, the pilot man,
As on the vessel flew,
“Fear not, but trust in Dollinger,
And he will fetch you through.”

A panic struck the bravest hearts,
The boldest cheek turned pale;
For plain to all, this shoaling said
A leak had burst the ditch’s bed!
And, straight as bolt from crossbow sped,
Our ship swept on, with shoaling lead,
Before the fearful gale!

“Sever the tow-line! Cripple the mules!”
Too late! There comes a shock!
Another length, and the fated craft
Would have swum in the saving lock!

Then gathered together the shipwrecked crew
And took one last embrace,
While sorrowful tears from despairing eyes
Ran down each hopeless face;
And some did think of their little ones
Whom they never more might see,
And others of waiting wives at home,
And mothers that grieved would be.

But of all the children of misery there
On that poor sinking frame,
But one spake words of hope and faith,
And I worshipped as they came:
Said Dollinger the pilot man,–
(O brave heart, strong and true!)–
“Fear not, but trust in Dollinger,
For he will fetch you through.”

Lo! scarce the words have passed his lips
The dauntless prophet say’th,
When every soul about him seeth
A wonder crown his faith!

And count ye all, both great and small,
As numbered with the dead:
For mariner for forty year,
On Erie, boy and man,
I never yet saw such a storm,
Or one’t with it began!”

So overboard a keg of nails
And anvils three we threw,
Likewise four bales of gunny-sacks,
Two hundred pounds of glue,
Two sacks of corn, four ditto wheat,
A box of books, a cow,
A violin, Lord Byron’s works,
A rip-saw and a sow.

A curve! a curve! the dangers grow!
Hard-a-port, Dol!–hellum-a-lee!
Haw the head mule!–the aft one gee!
Luff!–bring her to the wind!”

For straight a farmer brought a plank,–
(Mysteriously inspired)–
And laying it unto the ship,
In silent awe retired.

Then every sufferer stood amazed
That pilot man before;
A moment stood. Then wondering turned,
And speechless walked ashore.


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