My first encounter with Sebastian Junger was through his book on philosophical look at belonging, Tribe. A book rich with stories on how belonging to tribes connects us to humanity and something deeper. In a similar style, Freedom delves into the idea of what it means to be free through Junger's own eyes and stories linked to his journey across the Eastern U.S.
Junger and three friends set out for the better part of a year travelling railroad lines across the East Coast, examing the land and people they encounter. His writing style has always exuded a sense of calmness, giving off an air of authority as he reflects on the journey he is taking and stories of the past. Junger looks back at Native Americans and their freedoms living off the land versus the slow creeping behemoth of settlers moving across the land imposing their own sense of freedom.
As Junger notes, the joke about freedom is that most forms of space are simply swapping obedience to one thing for adherence to another. Settlers believing their heading West to freedom, imposing it on the native population through violence, only to find themselves obedient to a government. Junger notes:
"...the inside joke about freedom is that you're always trading obedience to one thing for obedience to another."
It is a striking realization that much of what we do is out of obedience depending on how you look at it. Even the chase for financial freedom and independence is predicated on our obedience to a financial system that to some degree controls what we do. Perhaps the key is recognizing that there are layers of freedom and understanding what we truly value.
There is something about Junger's writing that I love. If I had one complaint, it's that the book is too short! The journey itself sounded fascinating as the small group of friends avoid police and strange characters while reflecting on their lives as individuals and meeting some interesting people along the way. I would have loved more stories of being on the road and those experiences in Junger's voice.
I'm reminded of Robert Moor's book On Trails in some respect. Robert brings a similar storytelling ability to the paths we walk in our daily lives. The railroad is yet another trail that some of us walk and constitutes one of the most extensive cross-country "trail" systems in North America. Consider this quote from Robert Moor with regards to super-thru-hikers (consider the Appalachian Trail thru-hike takes five months!) and perhaps what they seek:
"...out here, all alone, I caught a glimmer of the feeling these super-thru-hikers were chasing. It was the same feeling the early AT thru-hikers must have experienced: lonesome, uncertain, faintly electric. It felt like an adventure."
Reading those words felt similar to the experience I took from Junger's book as he describes the feeling of sleeping on alert. A sense of anything can happen and am I ready to respond in whatever way necessary?
As Robert Moor travels his own thru-hike, he reflects on the mental challenges that everyone faces on the road for prolonged periods: "We had each faced down the same Cerberus of loneliness, boredom, and self-doubt, and we had learned that the only solution was to out-walk it.
A reader should note that this book follows the journey that is also documented in the 2014 movie The Last Patrol. Although I don't think that takes anything away from it, the trip itself was made in stages. And on the last day of the journey, Junger notes: "The trip was over. I was 51 years old, I had no children, I was in the process of getting divorce." Suddenly, the link to what Robert Moor talks about is made clear. Perhaps Junger was out there facing his own Cerberus and dealing with it by walking it out.
Consider a brief look at Robert Moor's On Trails to supplement your reading of Junger with this post. Perhaps a reflection of a writer on the road is Travels with Charley written by John Steinbeck; I have a post here.
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