Thursday, August 9, 2012


You know, I really like walking.

Okay, big surprise, right? I did, after all, thru-hike the AT and attempt the PCT, and loved every minute of both. But even when we're not talking about hiking or backpacking, walking is great. Even in relatively boring places, there's something to be said for it. I used to walk miles and miles, often at night, around my hometown back when I was a moody teenager. Somehow it seemed to help. I've always loved going out walking the dog, or wandering a bit in the woods, the train tracks, or just cruising the neighborhoods. I used to walk to work, back when I lived where it was feasible.

I walk a lot less these days, unfortunately. Laziness, depression, and being tired from work, all conspire to keep me sitting on my duff, reading or watching TV. But a couple months ago, I took a walk while my truck was being worked on. It wasn't an interesting route, less than a mile each way, past a couple car dealerships and strip malls, then some empty lots, one being an abandoned trailer park, with nothing but concrete slabs and electric and water hookups scattered throughout the grassy field. Finally, there was the library, where I dropped off a book and loitered around killing time.

Like I said, pretty boring, bland scenery. But though I'd driven that route a ton of times, it was like experiencing an entirely new place...which I was. Driving, you zip by at 40 miles an hour, speeds unheard of until, what, 170 years ago? Maybe less. And not counting race horses. Until passenger rail got going, almost no one had any experience of speed past their own fastest run, and most of the time they walked. Now it's backwards, where we are so much behind the wheel that our own cities at walking speed are totally strange to us.

So while I didn't have any great experience on this short jaunt, I did reflect a bit on how enjoyable it was, even in the chafing humidity. It's a good way to see the world, and commonplace though it was, I enjoyed what I saw. It reminded me again of that Thoreau quote, mentioned in my post Lines of Travel, about how "There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles’ radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the three-score-years and ten of human life. It will never become quite familiar to you." There's always something fresh.

And I can't imagine a better way to see the world. This is a scale and tempo that fits perfectly. And it's nice to dream, of a future where people walk a lot, and they have shaped their cities to be human. No more walking the mean streets past blank brick walls, endless strip malls and dealerships on cracked and broken sidewalks, where sidewalks even exist. These are low things, and I think this is part of why people don't walk much anymore. We got so used to the convenience of driving, that everything began to be built at car scale and car speed. Blocks got longer, signs got bigger, there was less need for detail or interesting things to look at because at 40 mph, it's sort of a blur. So we end up with cities that are ugly and repellent to walk in, further strengthening the vicious cycle of more driving.

These guys all know what I'm talkin' 'bout.
And it's a shame. We lose our health, we lose our cities, we lose meeting random people. We also miss our thoughts. For walking is, I think, the movement-aspect of thought. You start walking, and before you know it, your thoughts are flowing just the same way as your body is. The only other time I get such thought-flow is when I'm three cups of coffee deep. Not that they're always important thoughts. Walking, though, is unique in this (save perhaps for running, but given my limitations, running is so demanding that I am rarely able to get past the effort and pain so I can zone out into free-thought). I never get thought-flow from bicycling, for example, not even on my bicycle tour. After a week, I was so in shape and comfortable on the bike I had to sing aloud to keep from falling asleep while I pedaled (!), but though my mind drifted, it had a different quality: moreso regular internal-monologue stuff.

I used to reflect on my AT hike that what I was doing was the most natural thing for a human to do: I was walking. I was also thinking. Are these two traits not among the most important when it comes to discerning humans from other animals? Walking erect on two legs, and complex thought. Since I was hiking in a group and meeting people all the time, you can throw in talking/language too. I think this is part of the allure to a long hike. It's literally back to basics: just the act of walking brings you back to yourself, to your basic nature.

Yet this is attainable on any neighborhood jaunt. A thru-hike is a special case (in all senses of the word), but just walking down to the grocery store gets you there. It may take a mile or so to get into the rhythm, but it's always there. I begin to wonder about the "science" of reflexology, whether they are on to something, whether the stimulation of your stepping feet sends energy running like jolts of electricity up the legs all the way to the brain, inspiring thought, and energizing the body along the way.


  1. Great post!

    "These guys all know what I'm talkin' 'bout."

    I always liked the leftmost hominid in that picture. He's the only one having any real fun. The others all look a little too serious - caught up in that "progress" thing. Methinks it was all downhill after him. Heh heh.

    I started jogging again last week. Part of my course goes along the edge of a big field with tons of wildflowers and such. I immediately noticed that while running I wasn't seeing as much of where I was running versus when I walked it. I kept catching quick glimpses of interesting plants and thinking "Hey, if I weren't jogging right now I would waylay over there and check that out, but I can't because I'm jogging right now and well, stopping to check out flowers is detrimental to the jogging thing." The "I'm jogging right now" mindset interfered with my usual "Hey, what's that?" curiosity mode.

    I wonder if that's part of why nobody sees anything when they're driving at 40mph? Like the "driving/riding at 40mph" task requires more brain power to process what you're seeing, thus leaving fewer cycles for other higher level thinking. They say driving becomes automatic, but I've never thought that, especially if there are other cars around...

    1. I'm reminded of what Tom Brown Jr wrote in his book The Tracker, about when he was tracking a mentally retarded adult who was lost in the woods. His trail wound around like a child's. Brown reflected that it was easy for him to track it, for the somewhat disconcerting reason that his own wanderings followed a similar pattern, wandering from one interesting thing to the next, not the purposeful, more direct route most people have, nor the panicked thrashings of the typical lost adult. A playful, engaged, interested sort of walk, rather than a utilitarian one, or one of someone not tuned in to the wonders around him.

      I think driving is automatic, but still uses up scarce brain power. Still, one can have higher level thinking, only it's rarely about the surroundings, because a driver is so isolated from them, behind glass and steel and speed, skimming over the road. It's like your "jogging mode" on steroids; and even if you wanted to stop your driving-mode flow, you usually can't, because of traffic and traffic laws.

      Bicycling (and running) are better. I'm reminded of a graphic i saw once that compared cars to insects (exoskeleton) and mammals and bicyclists (endoskeleton), the latter being the higher order of evolution. Or the Edward Abbey quote, "A pickup truck is fine, a horse is better, but in the end, when you come right down to it the noblest mode of locomotion is that by way of the legs, proceeding upright, erect, like a human being, not squatting on the haunches like a frog."

      And I agree about the monkey in the picture :)

    2. Back when I was doing a lot of road cycling we had a derogatory name for people driving around in cars: "cagers." As in "That f*cking cager almost clipped me with his mirror!" It referred to their being trapped inside cages of steel and glass, oblivious to their surroundings and how they were affecting those around them.