In an extended fit of nostalgia, I’ve purchased several stories about Frances the badger for my daughter. I remember the books from my childhood, and I’m glad Edie enjoys them too. I’ve also been pleasantly surprised to find that they don’t insult children’s intelligence and they tackle sticky issues head-on, both of which are all too common in today’s infantilized, escapist children’s culture.
One of my favorites is Best Friends for Frances, wherein Frances works out some issues with her best friend, Albert. But what caught my eye in this story is a concept Albert calls his “Wandering Day.” Frances goes to Albert’s place to play ball, but he’s on his way out the door with a gargantuan lunch (the boy likes to EAT):
“Where do you wander?” said Frances.
“I don’t know,” said Albert. “I just go around until I get hungry, and then I eat my lunch.”
“Can I wander with you?” asked Frances.
“No,” said Albert. “I think I better go by myself. The things I do on my wandering days aren’t things you can do.”
“Like what?” said Frances.
“Catching snakes,” said Albert. “Throwing stones at telephone poles. A little frog work maybe. Walking on fences. Whistling with grass blades. Looking for crow feathers.”
“I can do all that,” said Frances, “except for the frog work and the snakes.”
“That’s what I mean,” said Albert. “I’d have to ruin the whole day, showing you how. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
This is only Albert’s first offense against Frances in the book, and if you weren’t careful, you could be lulled into thinking that Albert is a selfish misanthrope. But the details of this wandering day are rendered too lovingly for that to be the case. This is an author who understands the value of a good wandering day.
Lately, I’ve been incorporating wandering days into my life a little more consciously. It started back in June with a solo trip to the coast. Here’s a bit of writing from that time:
I headed down to the beach with a metal bowl and a butter knife. I rolled up my pants and waded out into the low tide to a large rock crusted with mussels almost the size of my hand. I shimmied up, laid on my belly, and reached down, plucking them off one by one with the knife until I had a dozen or so. At one point, I looked around me—the sea, the sky, the birds, the elk tracks in the sand, the wild strawberries growing up the hillside—and knew I was a part of it. That I’m simply one of 7 billion people. At that moment, all I could think: thank you thank you thank you.
When I got home, I could sense just how important this time was to my wellbeing. It’s only been in this past week that I’ve been better at actually integrating them into my schedule.
Highway 66 runs south and east of town, skirting the edges of Emigrant Lake, a reservoir. While driving past one day several weeks ago, I spied some fruit trees there on public property. One day, after dropping my daughter off at day-camp and with nothing important to do, I decided to finally go check out the area. What I found astounded me: a huge feral orchard of pears, apples, and a nut tree or two, in addition to wild blackberries and rose hips. The pear trees were overburdened with ripe fruit, and though I’m not familiar with all the varieties, there are several, including what (at least to me) look like Bartletts, Comstocks, Boscs, and Anjous. I spent three hours picking pears and apples and trust me, nobody would’ve noticed any of the fruit missing! I brought home a total of about 60 pounds. While I was there, I walked through tall grasses, followed evidence of deer and bear, watched ospreys glide overhead, and listened to various bird calls.
Another day, I drove 3 1/2 hours north to visit a friend for the day. I set off in the early morning hours in the tumbly truck and hit the open road with my favorite music blaring. It’s a beautiful drive that winds past Crater Lake and passes through a few national forests within view of several mountains. Valley, pine forest, and high desert. I spent the day hanging out, drinking hard ciders and gluten-free beer, walking around barefoot on the pine needles, and yakking nearly non-stop.
After picking pears and apples around Emigrant Lake, I did a little research, thinking that there couldn’t just be this random orchard without any information. What I got was a lesson in the history of the area. The orchard was probably planted by either the pioneers to the area or their descendents. There was once a town there called Klamath Junction which served as an important stopover for travelers between Ashland and Klamath Falls. When the reservoir was expanded in 1960, Klamath Junction surrendered, its residents forced to move elsewhere. Old Highway 99 still disappears into the water and reemerges across the lake. They had to disinter the residents of the pioneer cemetery and move them up the hill.
Pioneer cemetery?! Sounds like another good wandering day.
I walked through the old tombstones carved from the endless supply of granite and marble in the area. As many old cemeteries are, this one was just as neglected, with unreplaced broken headstones, unmarked graves, and more ground squirrels than visitors. It surprised me to see that people were still being buried there, but then it occurred to me that there are people still alive who lived in the town of Klamath Junction. My guess is that you have to be connected to the town or the pioneers to be buried there today. Then I took a walk down a trail and found old building foundations. There, in a nearby oak tree, the birdhouse someone once nailed to the trunk outlives the human structures. It’s low-water season on Emigrant Lake. I had to chase the waterline for quite a ways, and was covered with the scent of wild peppermint when I got there. I dipped my feet into the water, also spying some wild purslane nearby. I ended my wandering day in the branches of an old oak tree.
How you go about your own wandering day will depend on your personality. I’m an introvert and an explorer. I can watch one square foot of dirt for an hour without getting bored, but some of you may find other ways to do it. You can include others—children especially enjoy being given the space to roam—but I recommend heading out on your own, in a place where prying eyes either don’t matter or don’t exist. Consider starting with a place, but try not to have any goals. Just wander. Let your natural curiosity determine your path.
- Find someplace nearby you’ve always meant to check out. Maybe it has historical, artistic, cultural, or natural interest. Maybe it involves an activity you love or want to try: rock climbing, mountain biking, hiking, swimming.
- Consider buying a guidebook with hikes or local places to go. Vow to try a new one each week or month.
- If you have trouble carving out time for yourself due to work or family obligations, take time off work to do it. I’m serious. Use one of your sick days for a mental health day. I’m going to try to use one morning a week while my daughter is in school to wander.
- You might not think you’ll need it if you’re only out for a few hours, but bring some water and a snack just in case you’re out there longer than you expect. I’ve been caught a few times unprepared!
- At least once a year, consider a vacation or getaway by yourself. This can seem ultra-indulgent, but I promise you won’t regret it. I’m aiming for once or twice a year alone at the Oregon coast or at a lake cabin for a few days.
It seems somewhat counterintuitive in our culture that prizes efficiency, productivity, and results. Wandering days look like the opposite of this, extraneous—even luxurious! Which is sad. What I’ve come to realize is that they are simply crucial to me. I have space to be myself, do what I want to do, go where I want to go. For us parents, this can be deeply sweet time where we reclaim a part of ourselves for ourselves. And it’s tempting to frame it as apart from the rest of our lives, but a wandering day’s importance lies in the fact that it is part of the whole. We cannot be good workers, parents, partners, or individuals without that respite.
I’ve been enjoying sharing my wandering days on Instagram, which is the perfect wandering day platform. You can wander along with me, often in real time, if you follow me there, account name: kcbphelps.
How about you? What would your ideal wandering day look like?