Missing the opportunity to travel non-essentially these days? As claustrophobia reigns, as children bounce off walls, and as the Zoomification of everyday life makes virtual contact feel too often like the only way of accessing the world beyond the confines of our homes, it’s worth remembering that the original form of transportation has not yet been prohibited. A vigorous stroll can still provide a balm for nerves, a tonic for mind and body, and maybe even a modest consolation for that canceled spring vacation. Did you really need that exotic trip anyway? Take if from Thoreau: “Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a country as I ever expect to see.”
And for those days when you can’t take an actual walk, reading about walking can bring compensatory pleasures.
For most bookish amblers, Rebecca Solnit’s omnivorous “Wanderlust: A History of Walking” should be a good place to start. Walking as locomotion, she reminds us, is older than humanity itself, but walking “as a conscious cultural act” dates back only a few centuries, at least in the Western imagination. Solnit relates both sides of this history, exploring the evolutionary origins of bipedalism and the archeological traces of walkers past, and of course lavishing attention on the subject’s cultural history dating back to Rousseau.
The trail offers many charming detours, such as how the act of walking influenced the philosophical thinking of Kierkegaard and the poetic cadences of Wordsworth, who may have walked more than 175,000 miles in his day. There are also fascinating excursions into the history of religious pilgrimage, and the political struggle for women to walk as freely as men.
But what comes through most clearly in Solnit’s account is a concerned sense of walking as an endangered act in an era obsessed with maximizing speed, productivity, and efficiency. Through its very slowness, walking becomes subversive, a countervailing force against the pervasive “fragmentation of lives and landscapes.” And this book predates the advent of GPS, which is to the leisurely stroll what florescent lighting is to ambiance. More to the point: Because a good walk is full of surprises, walking preserves a place for contingency, for the chance encounter at a time when viewing the world exclusively through our screens gives us a vision of reality so algorithmically manipulated that you lose any chance of finding “what you don’t know you are looking for.”
Solnit takes actual walks in her book, but not the way Robert Macfarlane does in “The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot.” The British nature writer walked over 1,000 miles of trails and takes the reader along on many of them. His prose-style is questing yet lyrical, and he is amazingly attuned to a forgotten preserve of language: the myriad words we once used to describe actual places with precision, a lexicon that has almost entirely vanished thanks to our increasingly homogenized ways of knowing and seeing the land. There are so many unknown words in these pages (serac? sarsen? shieling?) that this book comes with its own glossary.
But Macfarlane is also an intrepid reader, and so the book becomes a kind of literary history of walking, one told with a mystical bent as he seeks out ghosts that have haunted the same paths, voices still crowding in along the trail’s edges if we only have the ears to hear them. It adds up to an inspiringly pores-open way of relating to nature. As he writes, “The two questions we should ask of any strong landscape are these: firstly, what do I know when I am in this place that I can know nowhere else? And then ... what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?”
In a very different tonal register, the question of what these places know of us, how they remember our history, is also the leitmotif of W.G. Sebald’s unforgettably haunting book “The Rings of Saturn,” in which the narrator’s extended walk across the Suffolk coast of England becomes a luminous meditation on time, on history, and on the traces of a faded imperial past. Even without the room to describe this book properly here, I can’t help but recommend it. There’s also Alfred Kazin’s classic memoir “A Walker in the City” and Franz Hessel’s tremulous Weimar-era tribute to the German capital, “Walking in Berlin.” The list could go on and on.
Will all this reading quicken the desire for the thing itself? Let’s hope so. Strange to say, walking during this surreal moment of public closure may be the purest kind of walking — as an end in itself — precisely because there is literally nowhere to go. Except for, as these books remind us: everywhere.