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.”
“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.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.
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.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