“This summer I bought a blue wristband that counts every step I take. Its display is microscopic. It grants me nine or ten bonus steps whenever my truck hits a pothole, and in all likelihood it’s uploading data about me to a surveillance satellite this very second...
Worse, it will almost certainly end up in a landfill in the not-too-distant future, its little battery leaching hydrofluoric acid into my grandchildren’s trout streams.
But! …there is one wonderful thing about this device on my wrist, and it might outweigh everything else. It’s making me walk more. Way more.
I walk before I get into bed and after I get out of it. I walk before lunch and again after lunch… I walk to buy cake. I walk to mail letters. While visiting Washington DC one morning, I walked to see a friend, a spaceship, a Monet, the Declaration of Independence, the White House, and to by frozen yogurt in Georgetown, which I shoveled into my mouth while walking back to my hotel.
Other days I think I’ve moved around a bunch, only to glance at my wrist before dinner and learn I haven’t broken two thousand steps. So up I get. In the past few weeks alone, I’ve seen three owls, fifty rabbits, sixteen hot air balloons, a grass fire, and the pinkest sunset of my life. I saw a housecat stalk a chicken. I saw a forty-pound raccoon waddle up to a curbside storm drain and vanish. I saw a man in mint-green jeans finish his Dannon yogurt, stuff the empty cup into a hedge, and walk away.
Walking has brought back memories of previous walks, too: tramps in New Zealand, passeggiatas in Rome. I’ve imagined the footfalls of those who might have trod the paths before me… A New Yorker essay by Adam Gopnik reminded me of Whitman’s New York rambles… and Wordsworth’s legendary jaunts (“And should the chosen guide / Be nothing better than a wandering cloud / I cannot miss my way”).
(Wordsworth, by the way, supposedly walked 180,000 miles before going to the grave, which averages to 8.2 miles per day for every day of his adult life – a pretty juicy step count…)
In the 1850s, Thoreau claimed to walk four hours a day to “preserve my health and spirits,” and in 1947, Alfred Kazin dreamed of an infinite walk, “of going on and on, forever unimpeded by weariness or duties somewhere else… until I in my body and the world in its skin of earth are somehow blended in a single motion.”
Beyond its obvious value as a form of locomotion, lots of folks believe walking improves one’s thinking. One travels the landscape, they say, to unravel the mind. Thomas Clark, in a lovely prose poem titled “In Praise of Walking,” wrote, “In the course of a walk, we usually find out something about our companion, and this is true even when we travel alone.”
Or, as John Muir famously put it, “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
I’m not sure how much inner illumination I’m finding as I squint at the LCD on my wrist at dusk, trying to turn 12,000 steps into 12,500. I’m actually after something less profound: that pleasant numbness that permeates the body after you’ve racked up a few thousand steps, that ancient contact with the world, putting one shoe in front of the other.
“Having nothing to do but walk,” writes the French philosopher Frederic Gros in his book A Philosophy of Walking, “makes it possible to recover the pure sensation of being, to rediscover the simple joy of existing, the joy that permeates the whole of childhood.”
That’s probably a bit overstated: recovering the joy of a romanticized childhood isn’t so easy in the age of drone strikes, climate disruption, and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Still, Gros is on to something. To fold up shop for an hour or two, leave the phone behind, and take a walk (to “take” it as you might “take” medicine) does seem to perform a magic trick on the mind. You’re away from your to-do-list, you’re mute, you’re moving, which is what you evolved to do, after all.
After a mile or so, the brain stops scrambling and plotting and worrying; it simply starts being. Maybe you’re not closer to solving the world’s problems, but you might be closer to what your body and mind really need. Which is to be in motion, under the sky, and finding a way.”
-- Anthony Doerr, “The Walk,” Orion Magazine, January/February 2015
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An excerpt like the one above provides another opportunity to return to the never-outmoded subject of walking, which is obviously a very close cousin of hiking.
[Hiking IS walking, of course -- walking that’s usually done far from sidewalks, on natural terrain that can be reasonably flat but is often hilly, rocky, and sometimes steep].
Few activities may be more taken for granted than walking, which is the way most of us get around every day. It’s also among the most popular forms of exercise.
Our bodies were made for movement, and almost everything functions better when we walk regularly and/or practice other forms of (preferably vigorous) exercise.
Even the busiest of us can fit walking into our day, which can provide a bridge between activities. And it’s our most basic and ancient form of transportation.
Unless we live next to a mountain or near a large natural area, it’s harder to hike on a daily basis. But we can walk almost anywhere, and do it virtually any day.
All the observations in the above excerpt apply to hiking, of course. Many walking benefits are, in fact, intensified when we hike into a mountain park or natural area.
As long as we’re physically able to, we can’t fail to gain from walking regularly, preferably daily or nearly every day. The same holds for hiking as often as we can.
This is among the few things in our world that never change: when we walk or hike we’re following a healthy practice that goes back to the origins of our species.
-- Charlie Cook