Aimless wandering

I like to walk. I don’t like to run, to jog, to move about as part of a group, or to go on any kind of organised walking holiday. In fact, I’m quite surprised to see how people believe that for walking you need expensive shoes, special clothes in drab colours, an unlimited supply of granola bars and a sophisticated water container. The alternative: just step outside and walk whenever the mood hits you. By walking to the shops or to a dentist appointment, you might notice how you enjoy walking instead of focussing on your destination. Take a walk at night and see your familiar surroundings in a new light.

“You can dress it up any way you like, but walking remains resolutely simple, basic, analog.” Geoff Nicholson, “The lost art of walking”

You’re not adding to the pollution of your environment and walking is often the perfect way to discover new surroundings. It’s an unobtrusive way of looking around, just taking note of what’s going on in passing. I would not be surprised if, evolutionary speaking, the human brain is still best suited to thinking, talking and absorbing new information at a walking pace. Hearing what goes on around you is part of the experience. It’s best not to spoil it by bringing a smartphone or a headset.

Walking in history

Bruce Chatwin recalls being a boy reading about the Aboriginals in Australia:

“…the Wanderlust of the Australian Aboriginals. I retained the image of those ‘tame’ black people who were happily working at a cattle station one day and the next day, without notice and without any clear indication downed tools and just left. They stepped out of their working clothes and left for weeks or months or years. They would trek across half the continent, just to meet someone and then they would walk back again as if nothing had happened.”

He imagined:

“Their employer to walk outside and call them. In the blinding sun he would call them again. No sound, except for the derisive laughter of a kookaburra. He would scan the horizon. Nothing but eucalyptus trees. (…) And in front of their huts he found their undershirts and hats and their pants still sticking out of their boots.”

Even though Chatwin admits it’s impossible to write a book about wandering, he makes a credible attempt with “The Songlines”, named after the way the Aboriginals went around by singing their routes all over the continent. Their songs would invoke mythical animals, sacred places and historical events in passing. The book qualifies as classic travel writing, spiced up with lots of literary quotes and historical fragments.

Bradshaw rock paintings, by TimJN1[CC-BY-SA-2.0 (]

Bradshaw rock paintings, by TimJN1[CC-BY-SA-2.0 (

There seems to be a contradiction between nomads and city dwellers, as if they find themselves on opposite ends of the spectrum. Hesiod already noticed this in 750-650 BCE. In his 800-line poem Works and Days he talks about the ages of man and names them golden, silver, bronze and iron to illustrate man’s progressive unhappiness.

“First of all the deathless gods who dwell on Olympus made a golden race of mortal men who lived in the time of Cronos when he was reigning in heaven. And they lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all evils. When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things, rich in flocks and loved by the blessed gods.”

The image is one of wanderers, living off the land. The fifth generation is completely different:

“Thereafter, would that I were not among the men of the fifth generation, but either had died before or been born afterwards. For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labour and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them.”

Here, the people seem to have stopped walking and started working. Hesiod says they had some good mingled with their evil, but that sounds like a small consolation in their pitiful state.

City walking

Modern day big cities are often good places to walk. I like to start at first light and see the world wake up around me; often surprisingly late. You’ll have hours to yourself to look at buildings without worrying about traffic. If you’re not too conspicuous, that is:

“Four times I was honked at for having the temerity to proceed through town without the benefit of metal.” Bill Bryson

In third world countries, the status of people on foot is made clear by the way all the others on the road treat them: like dirt. People just can’t imagine that you’d choose to walk if you have money in your pocket to pay for a riksha. And if you don’t have the financial means, you obviously don’t count. It’s still interesting to walk in these places because often people’s lives are lived on the street. You get to see the things that tourist brochures and travel guides don’t mention.

Downtown Hanoi, by Maryam Laura Moazedi [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (

Downtown Hanoi, by Maryam Laura Moazedi [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (

Healthy walking

According to research, walking for about 30 minutes a day has improved the health of people suffering from depression and anxiety. But it’s a sign of the times that we need a reason to do something that should come naturally. When I googled wandering aimlessly I found some Taoist advice on how to do this. The website tells you this practice is easy and takes 30 to 45 minutes or longer if you’d like. Maybe you should do the walk and spend your time wondering when you last did anything for pleasure: that is, not to improve your health or yourself in any way and without setting a timer!

I have read Bill Bryson’s “A walk in the woods: rediscovering America on the Appalachian trail” on an airplane and I remember him starting to hike without much preparation and not suffering too much. If people aren’t overweight in a way that puts their knees and hips in acute danger, they can benefit from the fact that humans evolved to walk, even if they have forgotten:

“On average, the total walking of an American these days – that’s walking of all types: from car to office, from office to car, around the supermarket and shopping malls – adds up to 1.4 miles a week…That’s ridiculous.” Bill Bryson

About Pipteinpteron

Catch a falling feather. Don't keep it.
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20 Responses to Aimless wandering

  1. Mordanicus says:

    I do the same, only instead of walking I prefer to use my bycycle. Generally I try to make a trip every day. Just to clear up my mind.

  2. Bastet says:

    Oh…darn..had to skim as I’m running late, so I’ll share this on the Facebook and get back to it in peace! But from what I gleamed I must confirm that walking…even if for only 30 minutes a day has done wonders for me! Love Bryson! I have his: Mother Tongue, one of the funniest books I’ve ever read…and it’s about English!

    • Thank you for your comment, Bastet! I’ve only got Bryson’s “A small history of nearly everything” right here on the shelf but that was funny, too. I’ll look up “Mother Tongue”. Thanks for the tip. 🙂

  3. “…it’s a sign of the times that we need a reason to do something that should come naturally.” You’ve hit the proverbial nail on its head. It never ceases to amaze me that people go to fancy gyms and pay a lot of money to do nothing but exercise on treadmills or StairMasters. You can do that stuff to your heart’s content and for free, it’s called walking or taking the stairs instead of escalators or elevators. I always take the stairs, unless my destination is significantly more than 5 floors up, while most folks half my age take the elevator. I used to teach in a building where my class room was on the second floor. I made it a daily source of chuckles to take the stairs, while virtually all of my students (usually in their early 20s) would take the elevator — only to arrive first and open the elevator door for them. I never tired of the puzzled expressions on their faces. I know, simple minds are easily entertained.

    Of course, it’s very easy to enjoy walking, instead of focusing on the destination, when you’re going to the dentist…

  4. I’m a huge walker myself and I’m entirely with you on this. There is nothing I like better in a city than aimlessly wandering off the tourist map: that is where the city usually starts. Now I live in the country so most of my walking is in mountains, forests and by lakes: I can’t think of a better pastime. I must have some aboriginal genes as well because many times when I walk I want to go on, not return. Walk to the end of the earth; wouldn’t that be a dream come true? Walkabout and Dreaming – too bad aboriginal culture didn’t make it beyond the land of the rainbow serpent.

    • Thank you for your comment, Genetic Fractals. I really like how you describe your walks in your blogs. And you are lucky to walk in the mountains and forest and, especially, around lakes. Walking near water is always interesting, I think.
      Maybe we all have some aboriginal genes, from way back!

  5. True, true.

    I used to do a lot of this type of walking. I would often do errands on foot, but I would take my sweet time. I think the biggest benefit was the mindset. To even decide “I will take my time” is to adopt a receptive, meditative frame of mind.

    I would get an entirely different perspective of life and the city when I would walk. Things would feel more intimate, I’d encounter people over and over and feel a sense of community, and would even notice wonderful little details — like tiny knitted objects on street signs — that I would miss when in a car.

    I now usually ride a bicycle. The same thing applies. Granted, I don’t catch as much, but my range is increased.

    I hear you on over-preparation and TongueSandwich’s comment is on the mark. I would see people over-packing and wonder why. Why the fancy gear, why the water, why all this? Often they would give elaborate health reasons, but I never bought it. Why would people go through all this hassle to exercise, yet refuse to simply walk to their errands? Why would people go through elaborate gym rituals, yet refuse to park more than 100 feet away from their local supermarket — or better ye, just walk there?

    But then when you have gyms with VALET PARKING, that gives a hint as to what’s wrong with attitudes towards exercise.

    • Thank you for your comment, BR. It’s really true that your perspective changes when you walk, doesn’t it. Somebody says it’s not a question of distance…it’s a question of time. I liked that.

  6. john zande says:

    It’s great to have dogs…. an excuse to go on long walks if wonderful!

  7. dyssebeia says:

    I can safely say that if there is one thing that has cursed my current life more than anything else, it’s the fact that there is a bus that runs straight from my apartment to campus (and back), and that I can take it for free. (The distance is easily walkable: 1.5 miles.) I’ve been house-and-dog-sitting for a professor who lives just outside a nice park, and I’ll miss it dearly when I have to leave.

    • Thank you for your comment, dyssebeia! Public transport is often cursed, but not in the way you describe it… 🙂

      • dyssebeia says:

        Before I got my ID card from the University that let me ride for free, I walked to and from campus every day. Now, I have to fight temptation every time I need to go there or back—and I often lose. So I think it qualifies as a curse.

  8. David Yerle says:

    I used to walk a lot when I was in Barcelona. In there it’s great because you just leave your home and in an hour you’re at the mountain. My walks would usually be 5 hours or more, never with a destination but with a direction. It really gave me peace of minds and I think it’s something that should be done at least once a week for your mental health.
    As you pointed out, walking in Beijing sucks because the city is not made for pedestrians and, well, there’s the problem that you can’t really breathe the air. We still make it a point to spend a day in a park once every two weeks at least, though. When it’s not polluted they’re very nice.
    As a biker I’ve also experience the “being treated like dirt.” I have the feeling people would not mind it in the least if they ran me over, seeing as they use the bike lane to overtake other vehicles.

    • Thank you for your comment, David. Beijing seems a terrible place for bikers and pedestrians. Fresh air doesn’t sound like a luxury at all, but it must be terrible to have to do without for long stretches of time.

  9. makagutu says:

    I jog in the morning before I leave for work and walk whenever I just want to be lazy and out of the house.

  10. sv says:

    True , the lost art of walking – the best exercise , and we (me ,actually) ” walk ” on tread mills to shed the weight gained by not walking enough – the irony . I should really learn from my dad , who is an avid walker.

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