Walks of Life

Brass bands and slow travel

Freelance writer Helen Fields says the stories she most likes to report are about how science actually gets done—“how it works and the people who do it. I think science often seems like these grand ideas are handed down from on high,” she says. “But they come from people with dogs and kids and interests.”

Interests, that is, in things like trilobites and brass bands, both of which have fascinated mineralogist Bob Hazen, whose day job is trying to figure out how life itself began billions of years ago and about whom Fields writes in this issue (“Before There Was Life,”). One of the many things that intrigued her about Hazen’s chosen endeavor was “that there’s no agreed upon definition of life. It’s just one of those things that, like pornography, you know it when you see it.”

Thomas Swick spent nearly 20 years as the peripatetic travel editor of the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. But in 2008, he traded gainful employment for the freelancer’s lot and hit the road full time. Many of his travel essays have been collected in his book A Way to See the World. “I think my purpose is to let people see a place through my eyes, or, better still, through the eyes of the people I meet.”

For “A Walk Through Old Japan,”, Swick joined his friend Bill Wilson, a translator of Japanese and Chinese literature, on an 11-day walk along the Kiso Road, part of an ancient route linking Tokyo and Kyoto. “I’ve always been drawn to unsung places,” says Swick. “The Kiso Road definitely fit that description. The idea of slow travel also appealed to me—of just really taking your time. You can’t slow travel down any more than by walking.”

The trip fulfilled Swick’s expectation to visit a “part of Japan that I hadn’t seen and most Westerners don’t see.” But he also found the unexpected. “I’ve always known that the Japanese are very polite and gracious. But the little moments and gestures that came out of the blue really touched me—like a gas station attendant bowing to me as I walked by. Elderly women had these beautiful smiles, and there just seemed to be something very warm about the way they welcomed us and sent us off. I was very touched by all of that.”

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