Walking as a radical act

Walking: One Step at a Time
By Erling Kagge
192 pp. Pantheon. $20.

Activities promoting a return to nature seem particularly in vogue lately, and this is just another in the long line of books about walking that I see appearing in bookshops with ever increasing frequency. 

Or is it? 

Granted, I haven’t read those “other” books about walking, but is there a better person to pen a book on the subject than the first fellow to have walked to the North Pole, the South Pole, AND the summit of Everest? I mean, Jesus Christ. It’s a good thing I just read Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive because after reading Erling Kagge’s biography I feel like I haven’t done much with my life.

I first heard about this book back in April. I was stuck in traffic on the way to my favorite used bookstore (because where else would I be headed?) in Orlando, Florida. The radio was tuned to the local NPR (National Public Radio) station and Erling Kagge’s accented-English suddenly crackled on the car’s speakers. 

Some of Kagge’s answers that day struck me as a bit too “zen”. In response to the interviewer’s question of how he prepared for his hike to the South Pole, Kagge answered that it was simply a matter of putting “one foot in front of the other”. The interviewer scoffed at this, as did I when listening, but I think I get Kagge’s point now. “One foot in front of the other” isn’t necessarily to be taken literally, but has more to do with the mental state one has to have to set out on such a hike in the first place. 

Or perhaps I’m just fooling myself.

I fully understand the health benefits that come with routinely walking, but I wasn’t as clear on the mental and emotional benefits. I’m not sure how I could have missed this, as just about every famous person throughout history is referenced in “Walking” as being a devotee. 

There’s Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard who, in a letter to his sister-in-law, writes, “Above all, do not lose your desire to walk; every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness.”

Then there’s American poet and essayist Henry David Thoreau, who writes, “I think I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least — and it is commonly more than that — sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.” 

Of people who don’t walk regularly, Thoreau writes that they “deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.”

Greek physician Hippocrates notes that “if you are in a bad mood, go for a walk” and, if you are still in a bad mood, “go for another walk”. Fellow-Greek philosopher Diogenes says, in reply to the idea that movement does not exist, “solvitor ambulando” (it is solved by walking).

Others — Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs — were avid walkers who reportedly got some of their best ideas when strolling outdoors. 

Kagge notes that walking is connected to our bodies and emotions even in our language. 

Motion, emotion. Move, moved

Kagge also emphasizes that the way we walk often says a lot about us. Do we take timid steps, or do we stride confidently? Do we rush forward hunched or do we stand straight as we saunter? 

In his extraordinary novel Austerlitz, W.G. Sebald writes that, following the German-invasion, the residents of Prague “walked more slowly, like sonambulists, as if they no longer knew where they were going.” 

At this point I recalled something a friend of mine told me a few years ago. Her brother, she said, had been mugged three times in the past few months simply walking back to their London home. My friend’s family lived in a relatively safe area of London, but having never lived in London myself, I enquired as to whether such muggings were “normal”.

“Not at all,” she told me. “It’s the way he walks. He’s hunched and constantly looking over his shoulder. It’s obvious to anyone who sees him that he’s terrified.”

Before reading this I had never seriously thought about walking before or, rather, I had never thought of walking as a serious endeavor. It’s so easy to take the ability to walk for granted, to not consider the fact that millions of individuals lack this seemingly basic ability. And yet the majority of us don’t make the most of this ability. 

We desire to sit day in, day out, and our kids are increasingly preferring to spend their free time inside rather than out. Walking, it seems, is something we practice in our daily lives less and less. Nevermind hiking to the South Pole, what about going around the block? 

Some places are worse than others. Most of us in America have been conditioned to view walking as a last resort, as something you have to do rather than something you want to do. After all, why walk when you can drive?

Even leaving aside the obvious environmental and health benefits, walking has so much to offer.

As Kagge writes, because so much in our lives is fast paced and walking is such a slow undertaking, “it is among the most radical things you can do.” Furthermore, “walking expands time rather than collapses it.”

I’m about to head out on something of a walk myself, along the 382-mile Oregon Coast Trail. I’m sure I can’t even comprehend at this point the challenges I’m likely to come across in doing so. But I fully intend to “put one foot in front of the other” until I’ve reached the end of the trail. 

It’s not the South Pole, it’s just a walk, still a radical act in today’s world. Because maybe it’s not taking the road less traveled that matters as much as the way you’re taking that road. 

Maybe the thing that most drives me to walk is that I could drive.

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