Traveler: No More Beyond. These words were inscribed on the Pillars of Hercules in ancient times. A warning to sailors reaching the narrow stretch of sea where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic Ocean. It was O Fim do Mundo, the End of the World.
In the early 1400’s, Prince Henry the Navigator gathered map makers and sea explorers in nearby Sagres, Portugal and launched the Age of Discovery for Western Europe. The locked doors at the end of the earth had opened.
Plus Ultra — More Beyond. Since I was a teenager, I have learned to love the plus ultra. The pull of faraway places remains a constant in my life, it impels me to wander and explore, living and learning and loving places that are always just beyond where I root.
Henry David Thoreau was a great discoverer. His recorded travels have helped me understand that my physical and intellectual universe is unbounded and multidimensional. His writings teach O Começo do Mundo, the beginnings of the worlds everywhere — within us and around us.
Consider Thoreau’s Walden Pond:
It is the earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.
As a teenager spending my summers in nearby Concord, Massachusetts, I watched, walked and swam its span. During these formative years, Walden Pond and Concord were centers in my life. They fed my growing interest in the New England transcendentalists and their New World of ideas with an open inquisitiveness towards the world around me.
Later Walden Pond was a frequent biking destination when I lived in Boston and in need of escape from the congestion and complications of the city. During some particularly vulnerable times when I felt trapped at O Fim do Mundo, Walden Pond provided sanctuary and solace. Its comforting waters and woods helped me move forward.
Thoreau lived on Cape Cod and there too I unwittingly followed his footsteps to the plus ultra of its sandy shores. The golden dunes, roaring surf and stinging salt of Atlantic Cape Cod was a wild, warm and wonderful new universe to my landlocked Midwestern upbringing.
I enjoyed many good times on Cape Cod, discovering the marvels of unending beaches, artful and tolerant communities, friends and family sharing blankets, bunks, tents, and cottages. I hold fine memories of discovery, creation and camaraderie from the Cape’s sunny, sandy expanse.
A few years later when I lived in Madrid, I visited O Fin do Mundo in Portugal’s southwestern corner several times. As I struggled with my life on a new continent in another culture, I looked out over the sea, comforted knowing my home and family were “just beyond”. I gained new confidence to travel farther, look more deeply into the earth’s eyes, relish discovery.
Standing on Provincetown’s eastern beaches facing the Atlantic Ocean, Thoreau saw no Ne Plus Ultra. The beyond was his beginning. He describes the permeability of Earth’s boundaries in Cape Cod:
Again we took to the beach for another day (October 13), walking along the shore of the resounding sea, determined to get it into us. We wished to associate with the Ocean until it lost the pond-like look which it wears to a countryman. We still thought that we could see the other side. Its surface was still more sparkling than the day before, and we beheld “the countless smilings of the ocean waves”; though some of them were pretty broad grins, for still the wind blew and the billows broke in foam along the beach.
The nearest beach to us on the other side, whither we looked, due east, was on the coast of Galicia, in Spain, whose capital is Santiago, though by old poets’ reckoning it should have been Atlantis or the Hesperides; but heaven is found to be farther west now. At first we were abreast of that part of Portugal entre Douro e Mino, and then Galicia and the port of Pontevedra opened to us as we walked along; but we did not enter, the breakers ran so high.
The bold headland of Cape Finisterre, a little north of east, jutted toward us next, with its vain brag, for we flung back, — “Here is Cape Cod, — Cape Land’s-Beginning.” A little indentation toward the north, — for the land loomed to our imaginations by a common mirage, — we knew was the Bay of Biscay, and we sang: —
“There we lay, till next day,
In the Bay of Biscay O!”
A little south of east was Palos, where Columbus weighed anchor, and farther yet the pillars which Hercules set up; concerning which when we inquired at the top of our voices what was written on them, — for we had the morning sun in our faces, and could not see distinctly, — the inhabitants shouted Ne plus ultra (no more beyond), but the wind bore to us the truth only, plus ultra (more beyond), and over the Bay westward was echoed ultra (beyond).
We spoke to them through the surf about the Far West, the true Hesperia, or end of the day, the This Side Sundown, where the sun was extinguished in the Pacific, and we advised them to pull up stakes and plant those pillars of theirs on the shore of California, whither all our folks were gone, — the only ne plus ultra now. Whereat they looked crestfallen on their cliffs, for we had taken the wind out of all their sails.
The Plus Ultra is forever waiting, wanting, welcoming my footsteps. And the pillars move farther away with each step.