It Is Solved by Walking
What is the point of a very long walk? It doesn’t generally count as exercise, or maybe it could but that’s usually not what it’s really about. A long meandering walk is almost the opposite of the way most of us work out—those carefully timed-out accumulations of moves meant to be as efficient as possible. Walking isn’t efficient. It’s slow, and unflashy, and either stolidly utilitarian or annoyingly whimsical. (A walk has also become, in pandemic-times, all there is to do — both great and not-great for Long Walks’ PR.) What, actually, is the point?
A few years ago I read a New York Times article about The Great Saunter — a group stroll around the edge of Manhattan — and became slightly obsessed with the idea of joining myself. “To walk the streets of New York is to walk a symphony by Gershwin — a tumbling, clattering, harmonic joy. To find its edges, those leafy enclaves and rocky riverbanks, the dense overhang of branches in the woods, is an unexpected lullaby amid chaos,” wrote Caroline H. Dworin of the spring day on which she joined 1,500 other walkers on the 32-mile journey. After 12 hours of walking, she was exhausted but had found what she came for, “that cinema of movement and emotion, sidewalk vanishing into woods, and then gorgeously reappearing, the solitude of nature within a city of millions.”
I’ve always loved a good urban stroll. One particularly golden pre-kids day, my then-husband and I decided to walk the entire length of Manhattan on a Saturday, just because, you know, why not? We started in Fort Tryon Park, a rocky cliff on the northernmost tip of the island, and by sunset, we were waving to the Statue of Liberty down in Battery Park City. Our legs pounded pleasantly with blood, and that night lying in bed I could feel the motion in my body as if my legs were still moving. I understood the city differently, after that trek — knew in my body how small that bristly island really was. I want to do something like this again, so after I read Dworin’s article I signed up for the next Great Saunter but then came the pandemic, and there hasn’t been one since.
Of course, I could just cross the river to Manhattan and follow the route myself but somehow I think that’s not exactly what I’m looking for. Or maybe it is? Maybe the solitude would in fact be a key part of a proper Long Walk. My current favorite walker is the journalist Neil King, who is taking himself on a “slow stroll through a fast corridor,” walking from Washington D.C. to New York City. It will take him about a month, and he’s tweeting about the historical sites he encounters along the way.
One piece about King puts it this way:
Of all the colors of truth to seek — scientific, historical, religious, emotional, empirical, logical — there’s nothing quite as satisfying something I’ll call Walking Truth.
That’s the magic aggregation of story, relationship, exercise, smell, touch, and wonder you can experience by simply walking around talking to people and seeing stuff, listening, watching, reading, learning.
Walking Truth! Don’t you miss walking around seeing stuff? For me, the world has gotten quite small this pandemic year, and while I’m taking walks almost every day, I’m not often seeing stuff that fills me with wonder, just the same nearby blocks over and over.
Maybe the key is to go slightly farther afield. One day I walked from my Brooklyn neighborhood all the way to Coney Island, which took about an hour and 40 minutes each way. I saw neighborhoods I don’t usually encounter, and remembered with my legs how sprawling and messy Brooklyn is, and how very close the ocean is, though it never feels that way. That’s one good thing about a walk around where you live — it changes the shape of the place in your mind, lets your body absorb the map.
Of course, there’s a long history of thinkers walking and walking while thinking and then thinking about walking. Rebecca Solnit writes in Wanderlust, her history of walking:
Walking itself is the intentional act closest to the unwilled rhythms of the body, to breathing and the beating of the heart…Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord. Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts.
Literature teems with flâneurs, from Balzac to Virginia Woolf to Teju Cole — restless types who walk aimlessly, endlessly, wandering around their cities and seeing where they end up, what inspiration will strike them. Lauren Elkin writes in her book Flâneuse of Woolf: “Shape-shifting, sense-shifting, this unsayable thing wreathes around and through the city walker, binding her in a pact whose terms she doesn’t understand. For Woolf, it will be a lifetime’s work trying to articulate it, trying to find a form to fit an always unknowable feeling.” (Woolf herself called her city walks “street haunting.”)
While I know there are lots of extreme walkers looking to break records, using their walks like slow marathons, I’m most interested in these aimless street haunters who go walking in search of the ineffable. Like Grandma Gatewood, who famously told her children and grandchildren, “I think I’ll go out for a walk” and then apparently on a whim took off to hike the entire Appalachian Trail in Keds — the first woman to through-hike it, and as a solo septuagenarian, no less. Who hasn’t needed to step out and get some air, and then found it really hard to go back inside, back to normal life?
As Solnit writes, “Exploring the world is one of the best ways of exploring the mind, and walking travels both terrains.” Maybe that’s why a long walk — whether it’s a city saunter or a cross-country trek — is so appealing. There’s a scene I love in Dorothy Richardon’s modernist novel Pilgrimage, where the main character is walking alone throughout London feeling as though she is becoming physically part of the city as she walks: “I am part of the dense smooth clean paving stone… Why am I so happy and free?”
A long walk can feel annoying and stupid. Your feet ache and you get grouchy and wonder why you’ve taken on such a uniquely pointless project in your limited free time. But that’s just part of it. You take a rest. You have a snack. (That part is important.) And then you keep going until you break through to the part where you feel happy and free.