After 40 years as a runner, including 26.2 mile marathons in Boston, Burlington, Vermont (sub-4 hours!), and my home town of Chicago, my knees and hips made it clear to me that it was time to stop and move to another form of outdoor exercise. Enter walking!
In keeping with my obsessive character, I’ve organized my walking in several interesting ways, summarized under Projects. I’ve walked the 3.5 mile loop up Rowe Hill and around Anderson Pond behind our home in Vermont on each of the 366 days of the calendar, recording one walk for every calendar day over a period of 10 years for a total of 1280 miles. Last year, I completed my walk of the length of every one of Cambridge’s 811 streets, a journey of approximately 275 miles over 77 hours of walking. I’ve completed nearly 85 miles of the 274 mile Long Trail which is the oldest long distance hiking trail in the US, stretching 274 miles from the Massachusetts border to the Canadian border along the crest of the Green Mountains in Vermont.
Of course, in order to fully enjoy my walks, I also had to do a great deal of reading about the topic, and the good news is that walking has been a topic for many of my favorite authors. Moreover, a number of books made connections between walking and meditation and that strongly appealed to me.
Beginning with Thoreau’s famous essay of 1862 Walking in which he urges the reader to ‘saunter’ at least four miles every day to enjoy the beauty of nature and to free the mind from its daily quotidian troubles, walking seemed to be everywhere. Bill Bryson’s Road to Little Dribbling humorously cataloged his walks from one corner of England to the other; Christopher Wren wrote about his walk from his old job in Manhattan to our neighborhood in Vermont in Walking to Vermont. Robert Moor’s On Trails and Robert McFarland’s The Old Ways deeply explored man’s need to understand and manage the world through connecting spaces and time using ancient trails, paths, and ways. Peter LaSalle’s The City at 3PM described walks in cities where favorite authors had written or cited books. One book that specifically focused on the connection between walking and meditating was Thich Nhat Hanh’s How to Walk, and Annie Dillard’s The Abundance addressed the role of walking in our appreciation of beauty (“I walk out: I see something, an event I’d otherwise have utterly missed and lost; or something sees me, some enormous power brushes me with its clean wing, and I resound like a beaten bell”.)
The connection between walking and consciousness continued in poetry in Ted Kooser’s Winter Morning Walks, a collection of 100 poems written on postcards which he sent to his friend and author Jim Harrison during Kooser’s course of chemotherapy. Kooser lives on; Harrison died in 2016.
Over and over again, we are urged to get out, to walk, to saunter aimlessly in the woods and fields, or to walk to a destination—Vermont (Wren), Little Dribbling (Bryson), Borges house in Buenos Aires (LaSalle). Perhaps the prime example of connecting walking, thinking, and life is McFarland who repeatedly reflects on the broader meaning and scope of walking as follows: “walking as the enabling sight and thought rather than encouraging retreat and escape; paths as offering not only means of traversing space, but also ways of feeling, being, and knowing.”, ‘walking as a means of personal myth-making’, ‘walking is not the action by which one arrives at knowledge; it is itself the means of knowing.’, ’’inner landscapes being powerfully shaped by outer.” “landscape has long offered us keen ways of figuring ourselves to ourselves, strong means of shaping memories and giving form to thought.” “Landscape is a noun containing a hidden verb: landscape scapes, it is dynamic and commotion causing, it sculpts and shapes us not only over the courses of our lives but also instant by instant, incident by incident….Landscape as a collective term for the temperature and pressure of the air, the fall of light and its rebounds, the textures and surfaces of rock, soil and building, the sounds, the scents, and the uncountable other transitory phenomena and atmospheres that together comprise the bristling presence of a particular place at a particular moment.” He also has wonderful observations of walking: ‘foot journeys involved the traveler’s usual mix of excitement, incompetence, ennui, adventure, and epiphany.’, that long familiarity with a place will lead not to absolute knowledge but only every to further enquiry.”, “mind as a landscape of a kind and walking a means of crossing it.”