IMHO: Wandering, But Not Lost

By Ron Scopelliti

Lately my mind has been wandering. That’s not unusual, in itself, but this time it’s unique because my mind keeps wandering onto the physical activity of wandering.

I wander a lot. It tends to clear my mind, and get me thinking creatively. For me, one of the main appeals of wandering is the lack of any goal or deadline. Over the past 17 years I’ve become accustomed to always having a deadline, even if it’s only the low-simmer type deadline of having to write a column every month. So when I go wandering I make it a point to set no time limit; whether it’s a walk through the city, a hike in the woods, a drive through the countryside, or a paddle on a pond, it will only end when it’s ready to end.

The art of wandering involves minimal equipment. In my case, it’s a backpack with a notebook, a bottle of water, and my Canon point-and-shoot camera. Or maybe, if I’m intent on writing, I’ll take my tablet and my mini keyboard. And a spork. I try to always take an extra spork when I eat at Popeye’s or Taco Bell, because you never know when you might need one, either as an eating utensil or a weapon. Having a spork on hand also gives me a chance to tell casual acquaintances about that time in Folsom Prison when I killed a man with a spork. They tend to give me a look that says, “I think he’s kidding, but then again…”

I can’t write about the art of wandering without mentioning a specific type of wandering called “the dérive.” This is something that I first heard about through a book involving Guy Debord, a French philosopher and filmmaker, and a founding member of the Situationist International group.

In “The Theory of the Dérive,” as translated by Ken Knabb, Debord states: “In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.”

This wandering, though it may seem random often isn’t. The Situationists were interested in the “psychogeography” of the modern urban landscape – the fact that there are psychological factors, conscious and subconscious, which make us want to take certain paths while avoiding others, or end up at one point rather than another. And they reach beyond any sort of municipal or political or practical boundaries.

I’ve never nailed down what the ultimate goal of the dérive was, other than to explore the nature of urban areas, and the nature of the participants themselves. Maybe the Situationists were trying to put an overly-intellectual spin on a very simple concept – they did seem to revel in elusive and obscure concepts. But the fact that Debord thought enough of this process to write about it and give it a name makes me feel that it, and my own wanderings, are more than just a way to kill time.

Psychogeography seemed a bit abstract to me until I started thinking about the psychological link between Esmond and Centerdale that clearly existed when I was a kid, but seems to have disappeared.

Back then, Centerdale seemed as much a part of my town as Greenville. Without the barrier of Rte. 295, it was actually much more inviting to walk or ride my bike to Centerdale, than to Greenville.

There was a natural gravitation towards Centerdale, centered around its critical mass of stores and services, drawing Esmondites to it. When I was a kid, my mother was just as likely to shop for groceries the A&P in Centerdale as she was to visit Almac’s in Greenville. And in the days before CVS became ubiquitous, Adams’ and Kane’s, near North Providence Town Hall, were the preferred places to pick up calamine lotion, Mercurochrome, yellow soap, and all the other childhood cures invented slightly after leeches and cow-dung poultices fell out of fashion.

It wasn’t just those practical factors that made it inviting to wander into Centerdale. My friends and I didn’t need a particular reason to go there. There was something welcoming about every step, or turn of the sprocket going from Esmond to Centerdale. We never felt like we were trespassing into some foreign territory or uncomfortable domain, or crossing any sort of barrier. It seemed natural. But these days I’m more likely to drive through Smithfield than walk or cycle. And if I can actually make it through the traffic to the intersection at the top of Esmond Street, I’m much more likely to turn west on Putnam Pike than east.

Maybe next time I get to that intersection, some of that old psychogeographic attraction will impel me to head east. It might be a buzz of nostalgia thinking about the Centerdale reference from the Throwing Muses song “Mania,” or it may be the lure of a roast beef sandwich from Walt’s. In fact, the more I write, the more tempting it becomes to put a Throwing Muses CD in my car, head to Walt’s, and give Centerdale another chance, complete with fries, root beer, and A-1 Steak Sauce. I just hope there’s no Mercurochrome involved.