The endlessness of walking

With Walking in circlesRoelant Meijer wanted to experiment with getting lost by intentionally walking in circles. In Oman.

This walking piece is one of the shortlisted pieces in the Marŝarto Awards 2023. Here, Roelant discusses his work.

When you are lost in the desert, you might think your best option is to keep walking in a straight line, in the hope of hitting a road or some other landmark. Research has shown that, without visual reference points, you will most likely walk in a circle and end up where you started.

I wanted to experiment with getting lost by intentionally walking in circles. I chose the emptiest, most isolated landscape you can imagine: the Rub’ al Khali (Empty Quarter) desert on the Arabian Peninsula. In a dry flat valley – a wadi – I created a circle by walking the same route on seven consecutive days. The perimeter of the circle was about 3.7 kilometres, which made it a 45 minute walk. Along the track I left flat signs on the ground, chalk circles with text. You cannot see these from afar, they only appear when you are really close. I did not intend them as waymarks but as subtle footnotes beside the track.

By walking for seven days in a row, I emphasise the endlessness of walking round in circles. Day after day, ending up where I began, following my own footsteps. In the empty wadi, in the punishing heat, you can’t walk away from questions.

Is it possible to get lost?

Is it a problem if you return at your starting point? If you end up where you began?

Aren’t we all walking in circles in life, all the while thinking we are going in a straight line? 

Some practicalities

The plan was there, the desert had been picked. A friend of mine organised the logistics and Amur drove us into the desert, where we created a camp. There we stayed, the 4 of us. Jerome Blösser was going to take pictures, Carsten Westphal (The Desert Painter) was going to paint, with Amur al Rawahi doing his writing. From here, I made my circular walk. In a way, we created our own Artist in Residency program in the Rub al Khali.

How to actually walk in circles needed to be figured out on location. The landscape, for instance, dictated where we could set up camp. The terrain directed us in where to make the circle: the wadi below our camp seemed to offer the perfect place, a flat piece of sand enclosed by dunes. A place big enough to create a circle, that would feel like a straight line when walking.

During the walk, the creation of this piece, I made field notes. By sharing some parts here I hope to show a bit more about the proces, the actual constructing, but also about the deeper levels I wanted to touch on in this project.

The complete collection of field notes you can find in the publication I made about the project.

Fieldnotes

To walk in a circle, is as difficult as walking in a straight line. 

Day 1: setting the circle

I’ve entered waypoints on the GPS, with the idea of neatly walking from dot to dot in the empty wadi. When I try to walk the circle, I soon discover it is as difficult as walking in a straight line. When I focus on the GPS to follow the course I entered, I lose contact with the landscape. When I pick a point on the horizon and aim for it, my mind starts to play tricks on me. It feels as if I am I walking in a straight line. But that can’t be right; I’m meant to be walking in a circle. So I tend to veer to the left, but too soon, too much. When I check this on the gps I start to micromanage and overcorrect my course. The result is a track with a series of odd zig-zags.

Also, the scale is misleading. I walk towards the dune directly ahead for what feels like a very long time. Surely I should be seeing some change in the view by now? All the time, that same dune ahead. Strangely enough, you lose all sense of distance. If there is a clear goal you’re moving towards, you gradually see it come closer. But here, in my circle, there are no visible landmarks to guide me. The dunes only seem to play games with me.

I didn’t even mark my starting point. My only clue is the footsteps I must have left. But when I search for them on the bare ground, I can’t find them. So closing the circle was not as easy as I thought it would be. I passed by my footprints without seeing any trace of them. Even worse; I am circling around searching for them.

The circle I walked yesterday is invisible from a mere 50 meters away, it disappears in its surroundings. 

Day 2: tracing my steps

Yesterday’s traces of my walk are hardly visible. In the more sandy parts they sometimes show up well, on the stonier ground they are lost entirely. Here, I need an eagle’s eye to find them. I have to look ahead, to see the bigger picture, in order to identify the right direction. At the same time, I constantly need to look closely at the ground, to check for the slightest imprint. Due to some of the odd moves I made yesterday, the track is not always evenly curved, which makes the retracing more difficult. 

Again, I find it a long way to go. Although I know I am walking a circular track, it persistently feels as if I’m going in a straight line. A big dune stands out, and for a long time it is straight ahead of me. I continue to walk towards it, but I never reach it.

Along the way I make my circle markings in the sand. They are getting better and better. The chalk-sand mix lasts for a long time.

Day 4: experiencing the scale

Walking my circle, I think of the circle of life. We start as dust and we return to dust; this seems especially meaningful in this dusty desert. The circle of life has imperfections, left by the events experienced along the way. Wouldn’t a perfect circle, a perfect life, be boring? Like striving for the perfect zen mediation, which no one can perform. My walking circle has detours, missteps, corrections, reflecting my mood and distractions. It makes it a more interesting line. In the bigger picture, it is a perfectly circular form, but one with character.

My track is full of twists and turns, reflecting my distractions and attempts to regain control. 

Day 5: just walking

This morning I concentrate solely on the walking, without making new chalk marks. I just walk, one foot in front of the other. The track deepens as the days pass. The circle shows more clearly. 

While I walk, I think about the circle being a perfect metaphor, now I just have to find the words to describe it. But the walking stops the linear thinking. I cannot think logically, I drift away to not thinking. Just feeling the cadence of my feet. Emptying the mind, so any conscious thought will have to wait.

Day 6: thoughts come and go

Each time, there is a certain relief when I return to my starting point. It feels like reaching a destination, even though it is the spot I started out from. There is a certain pointlessness to walking a full circle, and yet it feels like an accomplishment. To finish the track. Just being ’en route’ is fulfilling in itself: it is good to be on the move. Moving feels good; something is initiated, something is happening. In the narrowness of the here and now, small events unfold all the time. I find a nice stone. I recognise some ripples in the sand. I see the wind has changed the markers I made. 

I can feel the sand has softened where I have walked before.

Day 7: walking with a full moon

At night, the track shows up much better than during the day. This is actually what I had hoped for. The traces of my steps, visible as a groove in the landscape. The scarcity of light smooths the floor of the wadi; all irregularities melt together. Daytime details have disappeared. But the track, its sand disturbed by my feet, is clearly visible as a light pathway. I may have to look further and harder, in the dark, to recognise the curving line of the circle. Sometimes I bend over and look very closely; can I see footprints? Yes, I’m still right on track. It’s great to notice that I am using more of my senses in the dark. I feel the surface below my feet more keenly. Where I have walked before, the ground has become softer. I only have to pay attention to the ground being firmer, more solid, to know I am off track. The darkness triggers the fear of getting lost. A condition very fitting to the project; being afraid of getting lost while trying to get lost.

On the whole, the walk at night is more focused, more in touch with the circle, and my own footsteps feel reassuring. The track, the circle, is now the safe ground.

When I stop walking, all is gone but not lost.

Reflection

In this project, I wanted to touch on some (philosophical) questions everyone struggles with. These questions became more urgent because of the fact that I was actually walking in circles. By making it physical, these questions are taken out of the realm of thought and they become embodied and lived through. 


The winners and honourable mentions of the Marŝarto Awards 2023 will be announced in early 2024.

Roelant Meijer

Roelant Meijer

Marŝarto23 shortlisted

Roelant Meijer (Walking artist / graphic designer) makes special publications of walks nearby and far away. The photographs, texts and design bring stories to life with an inspiring eye for details. This all evokes a deeper experience of the walks that con...

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