I have been off my beloved streets and more homebound than not for three days now, hobbled by what I fear is a broken little toe and amused hardly at all by the irony of every physical step being a pain while immersed deeply, from my reclining position, in the literature of walking. And while reading about walking is never as good as an actual walk, at least it does not require 10—or even any—functioning toes to go about its business.
These are the consolations a devout walker clings to when denied his daily wanderings.
Such a simple thing, a walk is, yet with such overwhelming evolutionary force behind it. In her Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit traces the invisible evolutionary string pulling us aright from our four-legged ambulation to our eventual “bipedalism.” After this life- and consciousness-shattering development, nothing was the same for homo sapiens and the earth we came to rule with such unprecedented influence. Once we reared up and figured out how to zip along without hunching back down, it was game-on for us and everything we gazed upon.
You’ve no doubt observed more than one baby demonstrate the remarkable tenacity that got our species up and kept us going. There’s the newest grandchild or great niece at 9 or 11 months on Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve, pulling itself up to a wobbly standing position via a friendly hand or chair arm, taking a halting step or two or three, then collapsing to its usually well-padded diaper side before getting up and doing it again. And again and again again again…………
This relentless human drive to move and walk toward the new vistas promised by wide-ranging mobility has proven a tonic not only to toddlers, but to poets, philosophers and writers through the ages. Hobbes, Mill, Rousseau, Kant, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Russell, Wittgenstein, Thoreau, Kafka, Sartre, Woolf, and in our own age, the free-range intellectual Solnit: dedicated walkers all, sometimes walking to gather their thoughts for essays and other ruminations on walking itself.
Give me the clear blue sky over my head, and the green turf beneath my feet, a winding road before me, and a three hours’ march to dinner–and then to thinking!
“I sat down one spring day to write about walking and stood up again, because a desk is no place to think on the large scale,” wrote Solnit on page 4 of her historical—and somewhat meandering, in the spirit of her subject—romp through walking. Over subsequent months, she was apparently able to get back to that desk to complete the remaining 286 pages, even as she walked herself through various cities, gardens and labyrinths, up library steps and on to religious pilgrimages.
We walk for many reasons, of course. Doctor’s orders, civil rights, disease awareness, romance, retreat, exploration, peace of mind. Through the vast bulk of our history, walking has been our chief means to secure food, drink, work, social relations, sex, entertainment. Talk about utilitarian. We walk, therefore we obtain—and manage to live another day.
But with the coming of the industrial age and its machine transportation, this overarching utilitarian purpose began to recede. The built-in exercise and associated mental benefits of having to walk pretty much everywhere for our daily sustenance and social relations gave way to walking as an elective activity for a far narrower segment of the population.
In her popular New York Times exercise blog, “The First 20 Minutes,” Gretchen Morgan writes, “Humans are born to stroll.” Yet she also points to statistics indicating that two-thirds of Americans deny themselves this birthright and get no exercise at all, unless brief ambulations from bedroom to bathroom, kitchen to den and front door to car qualify as such.
True story: not a decade ago, on a family vacation, my wife, daughter and I were staying in a cabin at a state park that featured musical entertainment in a small auditorium we had not yet seen. Inquiring about the location, we were told to assemble at a parking lot where a tram would pick us up. When we asked about the possibility of walking directly to the auditorium, the staffperson we consulted dismissed the idea out of hand, explaining: “Oh no, it’s quite a ways and up a big hill.”
So we complied, waited about 15 minutes, and then boarded the tram. Not even 200 yards up a modest incline, the tram driver stopped and invited us to disembark. There we were, at our destination, incredulous, half laughing and half despairing for the state of our nation.
Today, we need walk hardly at all to gather our food or wood or water. Increasingly, we can drop walking in favor of trams and cars and planes. We can get our food and wood delivered, our water through a tap, our offices at home in the spare bedroom.
How beautiful a street is in winter!
Sometimes, if we fail to monitor her, I can witness my teen daughter perfectly willing to engage in text message conversations with friends for hours at a time, no longer feeling the need or desire to walk to their houses or even talk on her own phone to engage them in live conversation. And I begin to envision, as a kind of nightmare, a wholly bodiless condition of existence, humanity reduced to intake-output machine functions, served by robots, powered by prostheses, entertained by electronics, none of it to be walked for, experienced, smelled, sweated over. No hills to contend with, no breezes to muss our hair, no rain to make us race merrily for a free doorway.
Ultimately, this movement-free machination and digitalization of life may include the defeat of that other pesky holdover from our pre-machine past: death itself. As scientists uncover more keys on exactly how cells thrive, decline and die, eternal life may become the ultimate product of our evolution, as intelligent human beings dedicated to the transcendence of suffering overcome this final biological limitation. And with less use for burdensome bodies at all, we can focus on growing huge brains, augmented by two finely shaped prosthetic thumbs, the final necessary appendages, ideally suited to texting through eternity.
Thankfully, I am relieved of these grim mental meanderings every time I gaze out my kitchen window and espy the mini-crossroads that leads to a substantial city-county-state parks system just minutes away. A steady stream of walkers, runners and cyclists demonstrate their lust for fully embodied mobility pretty much year-round on these streets.
One of my favorite and most heartening excursions to witness the same phenomenon is to cross the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco on weekends, when literal hordes of homo sapiens roll and stroll their way across the bridge in a miles-long stream that lasts all day.
As for my own walking, I like those bridge walks and park hikes and forays deep into woods plenty well, but the crux of a walker’s life remains for me whatever route I can put together from my front door, usually on the fly.
“Going for a walk,” one announces.
“Nowhere in particular.”
“No reason in particular.”
“For how long?”
“No time in particular.”
In her classic essay, Street Haunting: A London Adventure, Virginia Woolf uses the pretext of needing to go buy a pencil to set out and enjoy the life on London’s streets, none of them resembling Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Nothing dramatic occurs, just the usual inexhaustibly rich human moments that include passing by a dwarf, two blind men, a party in a mansion and a brief spat between husband-wife proprietors of a bookstore, all of it going forever unobserved by suburbanites locked securely in their homes or even those city walkers who keep their eyes and wits sealed and closed off from the pageantry everywhere around them.
For a novelist of Woolf’s acute sensibilities, however, a simple extended stroll through city streets reveals worlds.
Walking home through the desolation one could tell oneself the story of the dwarf, of the blind men, of the party in the Mayfair mansion, of the quarrel in the stationer’s shop. Into each of these lives one could penetrate a little way, far enough to give oneself the illusion that one is not tethered to a single mind, but can put on briefly for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others. One could become a washerwoman, a publican, a street singer. And what greater delight and wonder can there be than to leave the straight lines of personality and deviate into those footpaths that lead beneath brambles and thick tree trunks into the heart of the forest where live those wild beasts, our fellow men?
All writers are voyeurs, of course. Though I try to be subtle, one of my favorite walking activities is to look in windows—yes, probably yours if you’ll just oblige by leaving the curtains open. Fall and winter in early- to mid-evening is best, the inhabitants often prepping or finishing dinner or sitting quietly in easy chairs with eyes upon a book or TV. With the brief click of my mind, camera-like, into the scene, I am afforded my own private wonderings of what life might be like under that roof, with one or another of those identities, engaged in the particular conversations—and silences—that fill those rooms.
In these moments, there is in one sense a feeling of kinship, of solidarity with fellow members of the human family sharing the common comforts of domestic life. And in a whole other sense, the radical strangeness of other human beings, all of us unique souls harboring ultimately unknowable depths. Solnit describes the walker’s vantage point this way:
A solitary walker, however short his or her route, is unsettled, between places, drawn forth into action by desire and lack, having the detachment of the traveler rather than the ties of the worker, the dweller, the member of a group.
When a traveler asked Wordsworth’s servant to show him her master’s study, she answered, ‘Here is his library, but his study is out of doors.’
And then there is the condition of the trees and big brambly bushes on one’s neighborhood walking routes, the wafting of the jasmine on cue and in season in that particularly fecund stand three blocks and a slight jag right and then left from my house.
And the old couple with the almost matching Cadillacs, he in his front yard daily for years, headphones on, offering a desultory wave as he goes about picking up the evergreen (and thus ever falling) magnolia leaves covering his lawn from eight towering trees. Began to see him more sparingly a few years ago, then only through the blinds as he and the missus sat at the kitchen table.
Then, one week or one month or other, no more at all as young people (their children?) began coming out for the morning paper. Last year, half the magnolias came down, and just this weekend, huge loads of dirt and bark sit in strategic locations around the expansive front property.
Tell me what you see when I pass by
A shadow, a cloud, or a line in the sky
Am I gettin’ you wrong or am I gettin’ you right
Well, all I can take is one,
One step at a time
(From “Walking” by the duo Mary Mary, © 2010, Sony Music)
“For every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels,” wrote Thoreau in his often hilarious and typically biting 1862 essay, Walking. To those infidels who, since Thoreau’s time have developed the motorcar and jet plane and woeful city planning that attacks the very foundations of our bipedalism and identity as moving, breathing, horizon-scanning humanity, we must simply say, “Slow down there, partner. Let’s take a walk and think this through.”
Grateful acknowledgement for black and white photographs in body copy to Rupert Ganzer of Baden-Baden, Germany, used with permission under Creative Commons licensing. See http://www.flickr.com/photos/loop_oh/ for his complete uploaded works.
Rotating banner photos top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Finally, I’m not sure whether Mary & Mary have quite the right sensible shoes for walking as they sashay through this video, but their easy breezy attitude fits quite nicely for my tastes.