Is walking a lost art? Get back in step with your community and make personal discoveries.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — In 1951, Ray Bradbury published a short story, “The Pedestrian,” set in a totalitarian world circa 2050, in which no one walks the streets for pleasure or purpose.
No one except the story’s titular hero, Mr. Leonard Mead. He strolls the sidewalks in early evening, looking into windows with only “the faintest glimmers of firefly light” — the flicker of prime-time television. To be ambulatory in such a milieu draws suspicion and, eventually, the police.
“What are you out doing?” the police ask Mead.
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“Walking where? For what?”
“Walking for air. Walking to see.”
The man ends up in the “Psychiatric Center for Research on Regressive Tendencies.”
This is the stuff of fanciful fiction, Bradbury’s dystopian musings. It could never really happen, right?
And yet …
In July 2009, Long Branch, N.J., police answered a call about a suspicious-looking person walking in a suburban neighborhood in a light rain. The man had stopped on the sidewalk to look at a house for sale.
The officer, Kristie Buble, asked the aging pedestrian, his curly salt-and-pepper hair partly covered by a hood, his purpose in the neighborhood.
“Walking,” the man said.
She asked his name.
She asked for identification. He had none. The officer put Dylan, 68, in the back of the squad car and took him back to a nearby hotel parking lot, where the legendary musician’s tour buses were parked, so he could present valid ID.
Once Dylan’s character was vouched for, police Sgt. Michael Ahart asked him what in the world he was doing roaming city streets hours before his scheduled concert in a nearby town.
“I just felt like going for a walk,” Dylan said.
So maybe we don’t live in a world yet? where it’s illegal to walk for pleasure, to wander and wonder without a specific destination or an aerobically correct stride.
But it seems that walking so elemental, so primal now is seen by some as uncommon, if not unnatural. We rush to work or to the store in cars, and if we notice stray pedestrians as we whiz by, we presume they are walking because their doctor prescribed exercise and they can’t afford a treadmill, or their car broke down and they’re forced to hoof it, or they live just down the street.
We also confine nature walking to hikes on well-maintained trails in bucolic places. As Geoff Nicholson writes in “The Lost Art of Walking” (Riverhead, 288 pages), a 2009 book of essays, “Most people who want to walk in nature want to walk in a very specific version of it. … They want to walk in managed nature, which is probably just as well, since nothing else is currently available to us.”
At the risk of going all Thoreau, permit me to share a dismaying recent sight: a line of treadmill walkers at my health club in Davis, looking like so many automatons staring at TV sets mounted on walls, while just outside, nature offered a gorgeous spring day with miles of trails and farmland to walk.
Essayist Rebecca Solnit has called health clubs “wildlife preserves for bodily exertion.” The gym, she writes, “accommodates the survival of bodies after the abandonment of the original sites of bodily exertion.”
Treadmill users, especially women who do not walk in groups, will counter that they feel safer walking indoors. If true, it’s a fact of modern urban life to be mourned.
“Just as it demeans life to live alongside a great river you can no longer swim in or drink from, to be crowded into safer areas and hours takes much of the gloss off walking one sport you shouldn’t have to reserve a time and a court for,” writer Edward Hoagland mused.
Walking in midtown Sacramento can be a sensory joy the aroma of ethnic restaurants, the personal touches on front porches of well-maintained Victorian homes, the cute little boutique you failed to see while driving on J Street.
Yes, there’s a flip side: the stench of alleys, dilapidated, empty storefronts, sketchy sidewalk characters. But urban walking advocates such as Anne Geraghty of Walk Sacramento call midtown a jewel awaiting pedestrians and a model for less-walking-friendly suburbs to emulate via “retrofitting.” She sees walking as a social lubricant, a way to connect people who spend too much time hermetically sealed in cars with windows rolled up, air conditioning blowing and radio blasting.
“I had a friend once who had been my Realtor years before,” Geraghty recalls. “I had been meaning to visit for years. Every time I’d drive by her house, I’d think of it but keep going. One day, I happened to be walking by her house and I decided, ‘You know, I’m going to go visit her now.’ It was such a treat. And she died (shortly thereafter). I was glad I did that.
But it’s about more than social connections; it can be a journey of discovery.
Walking for meditation
Mike Garofalo grew up walking the streets of East Los Angeles by necessity his only means of transportation. But walking grew into a lifelong passion. Now, in retirement near Red Bluff, Garofalo walks daily for meditation, communing with nature and, yes, fitness.
He says walking helps him “achieve a state of mind that is truly effortless awareness.”
To be an effortless walker, though, takes some effort.
“If you’re walking to take consciousness to the level of reaching the senses, to fully be present in terms of hearing, seeing, smelling, it does take some practice,” he says. “Our mind likes to dwell on things that aren’t real, such as what am I going to do next week, or dwell on the past. You need to be wholly present when you’re walking if you want to draw in all the experience.”
Many religious rituals include contemplative walking. Taoists practice Baguazhang, walking in circles for enlightenment. Islam has its pilgrimage to Mecca. A Buddhist temple in Oregon holds a yearly “Meditation Marathon” walking relay for 26.2 hours. (Community members take turns circumambulating a labyrinth for 15 minutes.) Christian labyrinths are popular in France.
The moralist philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote one of his singular works, “Reveries of the Solitary Walker,” a meditation on God, politics and the nature of happiness, on rambles he called “charming periods of contemplation.”
But even the godless can find inspiration in a good walk. No less a personage than Friedrich (“God is dead”) Nietzsche famously declared, “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.”
Provided, of course, he wasn’t stopped for questioning by a Swiss constable.
The great thing about walking is that you don’t need much to do it not necessarily even shoes, if you’re game to go barefoot. But here are accessories for the activity, with some frugal and expensive examples.
Cheap: Any pair of comfortable, well-fitting sneakers
Pricey: New Balance 844 Women’s Walking Shoes and New Balance 927 Men’s Walking Shoes ($109.95)
Pedometers and GPS
Cheap: Sportline Step and Calorie Monitor ($14.99 at Big 5)
Pricey: Garmin Forerunner 205 GPS ($155 at REI)
Cheap: A sturdy, yet lightweight, tree branch slightly more than waist high
Pricey: Gymstick Health Nordic Walking Poles ($89.95 at Target)
Cheap: A breathable cotton T-shirt from the dresser drawer
Pricey: Patagonia Capilene 3 Long-Sleeve Crew T-shirt ($45 at REI)
Cheap: Any water bottle purchased at a convenience store
Pricey: CamelBak Rogue Hydration Pack, 70 ounces ($58, REI)