Total Miles: 74.6
When I was a kid I loved geography. Couldn’t get enough of it. Maps, atlases, countries, flags, states, capitals. It was the first way I remember trying to understand the world I was a part of. To learn about my place in that world, and to exercise that childhood curiosity about places I would likely never see with my own two eyes, filing away places, names, and information for future reference seemed like a reasonable place to start.
The task itself was simple: to absorb as much information as I possibly could. Best of all, it relied upon a tool that I was particularly gifted with: memory.
Memorizing things became a pastime. Facts, dates, names, trivia, everything. There was a little machine inside my head that magically kept track of almost anything and I was enamored by it. Locked away in a place I didn’t understand was this infallible record of the past. Or so I thought.
School was a simple challenge. Load my memory with new facts, and recall those facts when needed. Until one day, when the illusion of this machine’s infallibility was shattered. It’s happened to all of us: I simply couldn’t remember.
Worse still was the corollary: if I couldn’t remember something that had been diligently loaded into my brain’s memory bank, what might that mean for the accuracy of other things stored there? For a child so shackled to memory, I was a ship adrift at sea that had suddenly found itself without a rudder.
There are memories of my Dad, of myself, of my friends that I cannot be completely sure are accurate. Even this narrow ribbon of trail on which I now walk—for the third time—holds flames of memory that I’m not certain I can trust in even the slightest of breezes. Did I stay at this shelter, or was it maybe the next one? Did it rain the day I was here in 2002, or am I confusing it with 2004? Pretty soon, you’re left wondering what it is you really do know about your own past with anything approaching certainty.
Climbing the last few paces to the summit of Bromley Mountain had me pondering memory and my own nostalgia for this very place as I looked around in wonder for an observation tower that was nowhere to be found. Had I airbrushed it into my recollection of this place? Had I somehow transposed it from a different mountaintop onto this one? Based as it is on the flawed human machinery of record keeping, is the nostalgia I feel so innately in this place even real, or is it imagined?
In season 3 of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History, there is a superb unpacking of the paradox of memory in an episode titled “Free Brian Williams.” The paradox is simple: on the one hand, we’re biased to believe in the accuracy of our own memory—an unfailing record of our past’s most cherished moments. And on the other hand: the truth. The plain reality of how inaccurate an instrument it truly is.
Put simply, we are not who we think we are. At least, not exactly. Much of who we are, our identity, is built upon selective, ever-evolving images of our past selves. But the flaws of memory force us to ask a question about those images: what if we are no longer what we told ourselves we once were? Or worse, what if we never were? Disorienting doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Scratching my head about which details of past trail experiences I can trust is one thing. In the real world, there are bigger implications. In Texas, a new battle over the history of the Alamo is a testament to what happens when collective memory becomes collective mythology. It’s no less problematic in politics, where one political party peddles a nostalgia for an America that never was. Worst of all, failures of collective memory have even managed to erase entire chapters of history, like the Tulsa Race Massacre.
Why do we tie so much of ourselves to a narrative of the past? Why are we shaped so much by it? Because we’re human. Why bother indicting the flaws of memory then? Because freed from the shackled confines of memory, we can at last live in the present. Where the only steps on this trail I need to be mindful of are the ones I’m currently taking.