What We Talk About When We Talk About Walking
Let's be clear, for fear that the next time around you'll find a review on blinking, breathing, or another verb. Since it’s the foundation of pretty much all athletics, I believe walking is a sport. The best part about it is its low barrier of entry. Babies walk. My sixty-one-year-old mom, who no one will ever confuse with Wilma Rudolph, tries to walk two miles a day. You don’t have to be coordinated or muscular or blessed with speed. All you need is the ability to put one foot in front of the other.
It is a common act with uncommon impact, which was brought to my attention in Geoff Nicholson’s excellent book, The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, Philosophy, and Literature of Pedestrianism. Nicholson does devote a good portion of his book to historical footnotes, such as Captain Robert Barclay Allardice (1779-1854), who participated in a number of walking wagers, including walking sixty-four miles in twelve hours. The wrinkle is that between the interviews and research, Nicholson injects himself into the narrative. He recalls his own life as an inveterate walker and takes fresh strolls in New York, Los Angeles, London, and his childhood streets in suburban England, even revisiting the steep hill that contributed to his mother’s death.
Walking, it turns out, is extremely personal, an essential act that forms impressions, anecdotes, memories, and everything else. Nicholson reveals that when we talk about walking, we’re really talking about ourselves, and our relationship with the world. It isn’t a grand event, but “worth doing for its own sake,” so it is a panacea in a lot of ways. Nicholson admits that a good walk helps him work out problems with his writing, and as a child it helped him escape the endless expanse of unoccupied hours. The personal recollections and neat factual tidbits blend into the real reason why the book is such a treat, why anyone should find meaning in its pages. We all have a walking history, and one that defines who we are.
I walk for a variety of reasons. If the Northeast isn’t in one of its unpredictable bouts of weather, I like to take a few laps around my condominium complex to get my blood going. It’s easy exercise that clears my head and doesn’t cause my joints to scream in pain. When the summer hits, my brother and I will stroll down the aisles of the Englishtown Flea Market for deals and people watching. I’ve seen vendors yell at customers, customers rummaging through the trash looking for deals, and on one memorable, sticky day, an out-of-shape, middle-aged man wearing only a pair of purple bicycle pants and a fanny pack.
As I get older, walks have become more meditative, as I use the time outside to work on one of life’s simultaneously big and small problems. Though I love working at home, the walls do close in, meaning that the occasional mid-afternoon stroll is a reminder that there’s a life outside. If we’re feeling lethargic and want to give the body a mild jolt, my girlfriend and I take a brisk walk, another one of the simple joys of a relationship that make the whole so gratifying.
For a while, I spent a lot of time walking alone. When I traveled for business and finished trudging up and down the aisles at some soulless trade show, I’d stomp away the hatred by walking around the host city. Sometimes this was fun: A nighttime stroll through Chicago was solitary and awash in streetlights, moody and comfortable all at once. Sometimes not so much: I once decided to venture outside the safe confines of Baltimore’s Harbor Place and wound up in the city’s armpit. When I found a cop, he prefaced his directions by saying, “OK, now the straightest and safest way to get back . . .” I have gotten lost with others; a friend and I nearly lost it after getting hopelessly confused by a gorgeous and vexing Hawaiian nature trail.
When I’m not walking around my complex or at the gym’s treadmill, I spend a lot of time walking in New York, my favorite city. I love the challenge of walking there because it requires using every sense and it tests your mettle. If you look lost or hesitant, you’re toast. But once you master the quick pace, it offers a visual feast: self-important businessmen; impossibly hot women who always look preoccupied and the fast-talking men trying to get their attention; sidewalk vendors and gloriously unedited conversations. That city teems with observational possibilities, and I love going there. I hope to return to London, if only to see more C-list stars have their names in light—Darryl Hannah in The Seven-Year Itch—in the city’s theatre district.
Nicholson’s book is a grand reminder that we need to recapture that intimacy with the world and ourselves. Walking might be the most pure, simple connection we have with a world that requires more effort to participate in with each passing day. Sometimes slowing down is the only way we can catch up.
Books mentioned in this column: