Borders, Boundaries and Aching Ankles: A Leader’s Reflections

“I think I am quite ready for another adventure.”

—Bilbo Baggins

In May I led a study abroad trip for the first time. Thirty-three students and five leaders, including myself, travelled to England and Scotland. We began in London, but quickly left the great urban centers for the medieval city of York, for Durham and Holy Island, and, finally, the Scottish Highlands. We hiked the countryside more than we walked the city streets, and along the way we focused on places many visitors skip entirely.

All these places are tied together by their status as “borderlands.” Texas, especially south Texas, is a borderland—are its inhabitants Mexican American? American Mexican? Something else entirely? All of the above? We look at a map and see a big black line separating countries. We imagine this line separating languages, peoples, identities—as though an invisible barrier prevents language or community from crossing it. But, in reality, that is almost never the case. Even geographical separations, like the Rio Grande, are porous.

This is equally true of the North of England and Scotland. Not only are the Scottish “borders” a region where different communities coexist and mutually influence each other, but even areas within Scotland or England differ greatly and create shifting, porous borders. The West Highlands are or at least were predominantly Catholic, while the Scottish Lowlands are largely Presbyterian. That is a point of conflict, but both may speak with pride of Scottish national identity. Scottish identity is often asserted through the speaking of Gaelic, which is originally Irish; or through Scots, which is actually a descendant of Northumbrian English. London is the capital, but York was a capital too, and the House of York has contributed more than one king (Richard III), and at least one royal assassin (Guy Fawkes). Royal power clashed with York but, until 1832, it was all but meaningless in Durham, ruled over by its Prince-Bishops, whose power was equal in the County of Durham to that of the King. So, as we went to Britain, we looked for borderlands, for the frontiers of power in which peoples work out their complicated identities; and in order to do that, we escaped quickly from the center of London and sought out the coasts and mountains where authority founders and whole other worlds lie open to exploration.

If the places on our itinerary offered a window into British histories and cultures, they also constituted a deeply personal journey. I did my graduate studies in Durham, a small cathedral city in the Northeast of England. Our daughter was born there;  we discovered the joy of walking rugged landscapes on misty days there; in sum, we found our home there. During five years in Durham we travelled around Great Britain, certainly, but most often down to York or up to Holy Island and into Scotland.

It was a tremendous joy to share these places with my students and Honors colleagues. We watched Jonathan Pryce as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice at London’s Globe Theatre. Our tour manager, Yorick Harker, led us around the alleys and hidden places of York. We picnicked in the shadow of Lindisfarne’s fairy-tale castle under an impossibly blue sky. We climbed Arthur’s Seat, and explored Edinburgh’s castle—a fine comparison with London’s Tower—and listened to “Trad” music in Sandy Bells Pub, with the same posture as we had when listening to Evensong at St. Paul’s and the York Minster.

Edinburgh - Group - Arthur's Seat Summit
Coogs  conquer Arthur’s Seat near Edinburgh, Scotland

And then we hiked. We hiked twenty-six miles in two days, along the northern shore of Loch Ness—an iron-age fort site, Urquhart Castle, the falls of Invermoriston, Inverness Castle. Hiking is a contemplative practice, in some ways, and was a fitting physical climax for a trip full of intellectual adventures. A walk fosters conversation, but a hike calls for silence. In that silence you can begin to look at the world around, but you also look at yourself. You feel your feet hit the trail, you know each step you take and the rhythm you make. And at some point, you realize that you can’t go further. You have to stop, because you’re tired, because you hurt, because however much preparation you did, this is worse. But then you take another step, and another, and go on. That’s what my students did—and as they stumbled the last few hundred meters right down a steep hillside into Invermoriston and realized that they had hiked fourteen miles, they were proud of themselves. I was proud of them. They had found their limits, and they had gone further than they thought possible.

I think this kind of experience lies at the heart of Study Abroad: we find our limitations, and then we refuse to be bound by them. We take another step. With companions for support and so much beauty to find, Study Abroad calls us—students and faculty alike—beyond our limitations to an adventure.

Bilbo was right, too.  I am quite ready for another adventure, and I know just the place.  So, who’s for exploring Wales and Ireland in 2017?

Onward to Wales!

—Jonathan Zecher

The Honors College







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