“Never have I thought so much, never have I realised my own existence so much, been so much alive, been so much myself ... as in those journeys which I have made alone and afoot….” - Jean-Jacques Rousseau
In one of the most famous quotations about the act of walking, Rousseau tells us that walking is, for him, a means to an elevated existence. It is a mechanism he turned to throughout his life for physical and intellectual escape and inspiration. As spring blossoms in anticipation of summer, the outdoors beckon and never has the simple act of walking been so alluring. No longer simple locomotion, steps to be counted, or a digital ring almost closed, walking has become a lifeline - a connection to a world that we long to return to in full. That world isn’t ready for us yet, but even a glimpse in passing quickens the blood and simultaneously brings calm to anxious minds.
My neighborhood is full of walkers. Young and old, couples, solo urban explorers, families strolling together, involuntary college boomerangs, bored teens, all have rediscovered the joy of a simple walk. They go up to the hills, down to the flats, with a smile and perhaps a friendly shout out to a neighbor or fellow stroller, and always with a wide berth. Bikes too. People who obviously haven’t been on bikes in a long time, sporting spandex from another era but clearly enjoying the experience. Best of all are the kids taking over the streets a block at a time, riding in figure eights, unconcerned about cars, traffic having been temporarily banished for all but essential trips.
I am tempted to wax nostalgic about simpler times and wholesome pursuits, before reminding myself of the tens of thousands dead and the threat of many more that has brought this strange calm upon us. This is no time to celebrate. Spring blooms or no, this is a fight. But it’s a strange one, often about self-denial and a shaky calculus about what is going to help and what isn’t. Decisions about socializing are easy - IRL is out, Zoom is in. Restaurant meals, movie theaters, baseball games or summer festivals are still a distant dream. Our hardwired craving for fellowship and the frisson of human contact will be dulled but not satiated by hours of strained talking to screens for weeks to come.
But the walk, the solo walk or the stroll with our quarantine partners, that is a pleasure we should indulge. Social distancing observed, mask worn if needed, definitely. This has not been without controversy. Even as journalists, medical professionals and politicians alike have endorsed the concept of a daily dose of outdoor exercise even under quarantine, a moral spectre looms and the wrong tweet is likely to lead to an eruption of angst - Is that walk truly essential? Wouldn’t we all be better off if we just stayed inside and maybe binged another show on Netflix?
I want to offer an emphatic no!
Rosseau walked to stimulate his mind. Henry David Thoreau gave us ‘Walking,’ his ode to the benefit of the humble stroll as a way to commune with nature. Thich Nhat Hanh praised walking on the earth in a state of mindfulness as a greater “miracle” than walking on water or in the air. Japan has turned from the subway to the understory to embrace shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing” as a path to health and happiness. Most of us are inundated with contemporary medical thinking on the benefits of the walk to our physical health, but less well known is the burgeoning body of evidence that the benefit to our mental health may be equally significant. Put simply, our bodies and minds have evolved over millions of years to put us in motion and to reward that behavior with a chemical cocktail that lets us know we did the right thing. We got the food, collected the firewood, mapped our territory. Done. Good job. Now you get a good night’s sleep.
As we shake off the aches of too many weeks with too little motion, and the sun starts to shine, and cities from New York to Milan to Vilnius talk of blocking off streets to make room for people on foot and on bikes, let’s make this our summer of the humble, free, and better-than-ever walk. Rosseau told us “to live is not to breathe, but to act.” For those of us fortunate enough to be able, it’s time to move. We’ve got a long road ahead and a lot of work to do to beat the virus and rebuild lives and economies around the world.
I’ll be sharing photos now and again from my neighborhood walks. Hope to see yours.
Please take care. #walkdaily
- John Hanke