I have rediscovered how delightful it is to go for a walk.
I turn on my Runkeeper app and head out, clocking my time, my distance, and my pace, and nodding sheepishly if I’m near another person when my phone squawks out my progress report.
We take for granted the things we do with little effort, but I’ve been reading Shane O’Mara’s new book, In Praise of Walking, and he points out how much neurological and physiological energy go in to walking, and that and my six-year old sense of wonder have me heading out a couple times a week on treks with no destination other than the distance covered before I get back.
O’Mara’s book is wonderful, and I recommend it. He’s a neuroscientist, so he talks about the systems involved in walking—our muscles and skeletal system are working, of course, but so are our senses and our vestibular system (responsible for balance). This book is about more than neuroscience, though. It’s an apology for walking as of benefit to our bodies, our minds, and even our social lives. It argues that walking is not only fundamental for humans, evolutionarily speaking; it is unique. That got my attention.
So I’ve started walking with purpose again. I live in a hilly suburb with lots of trees, and I work on a university campus that used to be an Arabian horse ranch. Both offer lovely walking. I just have to get up and do it.
Some people grab their dogs and go for a brisk walk. We, however, have a Basset Hound. There is nothing brisk about his cadence except in the distance between the couch and the refrigerator. But he needs to be walked. I just don’t count the saunter as proper exercise. For a real walk, the heart-pumping, sensory experience O’Mara recommends, one must not be walking a Basset.
Twice a week, then, I’ve started going for a solo walk, to rediscover my brisk pace and reap some of these walking benefits. It’s great. It’s really great. Although when I walk alone, I’ve discovered I free my inner six-year old. If it’s not the Basset slowing me down, it’s the Beauty.
The world is so beautiful. When I’m walking and not trying to drag a dog or keep up a conversation, I’m noticing every bird song, every elegant line in a building, every flower and tree blooming and growing and dying, and it’s all lovely. I’ve seen plenty of trees; these are not novel things. But when your only purpose is to go and be going, you have license to notice everything and give it all your attention. And when you do that, or at least when I do, you become captivated by color and sound—by the world—in a more dynamic, invigorating way than when you just see it presented on television or through a window.
Audrey Hepburn’s Sabrina learned to be “in the world and of the world,” and that is how I feel on a walk. Shane O’Mara says “You’re not built from the soles of your feet up—it’s more like your head is a ‘castle in the air’, with scaffolding reaching down to the ground” (64). All of that scaffolding is trundling up hills and through intersections and feeling the contours and textures of the world, while I take in the light reflecting off surfaces and the rustle of spring flowers in the wind.
There’s a long history of people praising walking as a balm for the body and mind. Charles Dickens walked the street of London in the evenings, listening to people and gathering story material. Friedrich Nietzsche sorted all his many thoughts on long walks. Recently there has been fresh attention to the mental boost a walk can give, either for clarity or creativity. They all seem right to me as I tool around, trying to break my last record without breaking my neck gawking at the architecture.