“A number of recent books have lauded the connection between walking - just for its own sake - and thinking. But are people losing their love of the purposeless walk?
Walking is a luxury in the West. Very few people, particularly in cities, are obliged to do much of it at all. Cars, bicycles, buses, trams, and trains all beckon.
Instead, walking for any distance is usually a planned leisure activity. Or a health aid. Something to help people lose weight. Or keep their fitness. But there's something else people get from choosing to walk. A place to think.
Wordsworth was a walker. His work is inextricably bound up with tramping in the Lake District. Drinking in the stark beauty. Getting lost in his thoughts.
"As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives."
Charles Dickens was a walker. He could easily rack up 20 miles, often at night. You can almost smell London's atmosphere in his prose. Virginia Woolf walked for inspiration. She walked out from her home at Rodmell in the South Downs. She wandered through London's parks.
Henry David Thoreau, who was both author and naturalist, walked and walked and walked. But even he couldn't match the feat of someone like Constantin Brancusi, the sculptor who walked much of the way between his home village in Romania and Paris. Or indeed Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose walk from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul at the age of 18 inspired several volumes of travel writing. George Orwell, Thomas De Quincey, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bruce Chatwin, WG Sebald and Vladimir Nabokov are just some of the others who have written about it…
In the UK, May is National Walking Month. And a new book, A Philosophy of Walking by Prof Frederic Gros, is currently the object of much discussion. Only last week, a study from Stanford University showed that even walking on a treadmill improved creative thinking…
"There is something about the pace of walking and the pace of thinking that goes together. Walking requires a certain amount of attention but it leaves great parts of the time open to thinking. I do believe once you get the blood flowing through the brain it does start working more creatively," says Geoff Nicholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking.
"Your senses are sharpened. As a writer, I also use it as a form of problem solving. I'm far more likely to find a solution by going for a walk than sitting at my desk and 'thinking'…"
There are many people who regard walking from place to place as "dead time" that they resent losing, in a busy schedule where work and commuting takes them away from home, family and other pleasures. It is viewed as "an empty space that needs to be filled up", says Rebecca Solnit, author of Wanderlust: A History of Walking…
Many now walk and text at the same time. There's been an increase in injuries to pedestrians in the US attributed to this. One study suggested texting even changed the manner in which people walked.
It's not just texting. This is the era of the "smartphone map zombie" - people who only take occasional glances away from an electronic routefinder to avoid stepping in anything or being hit by a car.
"You see people who don't get from point A to point B without looking at their phones," says Solnit. "People used to get to know the lay of the land."
People should go out and walk free of distractions, says Nicholson. "I do think there is something about walking mindfully. To actually be there and be in the moment and concentrate on what you are doing."
And this means no music, no podcasts, no audiobooks…
CS Lewis thought that even talking could spoil the walk. "The only friend to walk with is one who so exactly shares your taste for each mood of the countryside that a glance, a halt, or at most a nudge, is enough to assure us that the pleasure is shared."
The way people in the West have started to look down on walking is detectable in the language. "When people say something is pedestrian they mean flat, limited in scope," says Solnit.
Boil down the books on walking and you're left with some key tips:
Walk further and with no fixed route
Stop texting and mapping
Don't soundtrack your walks…
Then you may get the rewards…”
-- Finlo Rohrer, “The Slow Death of Purposeless Walking,” BBC News Magazine, May 1, 2014
* * * * *
For some of us who hike, a treasured reward is the opportunity to allow our overly busy, overworked minds to take a much-needed vacation for a few hours or more.
Socializing with other hikers is often fun and something we look forward to, but giving our minds space and time to rest or roam freely can be a special pleasure.
Sometimes it’s necessary to focus on the trail and what we’re doing, particularly when it’s rough and rocky, but otherwise there’s not a lot our minds need to do.
When’s the last time you were able to ruminate freely for hours, phone/device-free, without necessarily doing problem-solving? For some adults that’s a rarity indeed.
But for those of us who hike, or engage in other outdoor recreation – meaning spending hours or even days in the natural world – such opportunities come often.
The result can sometimes include insights, potentially wonderful ideas, solutions to problems we weren’t even thinking about, and occasionally other surprises as well.
Or… perhaps we simply have the common experience while in nature of a sense of peaceful calm and equanimity, where our thoughts slow down and worries fade.
The therapeutic value of resting our minds can’t be overestimated, nor can allowing our minds to find a “natural balance.” And during and after a day of hiking, any creative thinking we do will often have extra gratifying results.
-- Charlie Cook