Why Long Walks Will Change Your Life
Walking is medicine — it cures anxiety, sparks inspiration, and brings us back to ourselves
I am back home for Christmas, and yesterday, on Boxing Day, I walked in the rain from my village and down into the valley, then upwards and into the woodlands. This is my childhood village — a village called Shelley in the West Riding of Yorkshire. One woodland stands above and another at the bottom of the valley. On either side of the village, farmlands blanket endless rolling hills. A patchwork of green fields bordered by hedgerows and drystone walls cut across the landscape in every direction. Wildflowers and farm animals (mostly cows or sheep) abound, and the picture is dotted with the occasional ancient farmhouse or barn.
The late sun spilled light through the trees and onto the footpath, and every so often a grey squirrel would scurry across my path and ascend the nearest tree until out of sight. Whenever you walk into the woods it feels as if you have entered a sanctuary — everything you think matters does not seem to matter all that much under the shelter of the trees. Trees are mysterious to me, like gods or mystics, infinitely wiser than humans, all-knowing, all-seeing, and we can only admire them from below.
I could have walked anywhere: along the roads, over the green fields, across the towns and cities — but I always choose the woodlands. In the woods, I walk amongst my ancestors, and I am home. Even in childhood, the woods were where I felt closest to nature’s awe-inspiring workings.
I most enjoy woodlands which are unkempt, with fallen trees and branches on the ground, brushes and brambles in sprawl, and no clear footpath. You have to find your own way through a deadly labyrinth of nettles, thorns, spines, and prickles. These wild woodlands are a fascinating reminder of what nature was like before humanity: a tangled, prickly, and venomous darkness, often hostile and sinister, but at the same time mysteriously beautiful. The wildest things are the most alive, and finding yourself amid the wilderness in an age when man has subdued every other part of life is refreshing.
After some time walking along the narrow woodland path, I came across a lonely stream, which flowed through the heart of the woodlands and down the valley. A father watched over his young daughter, a happy, blonde girl, as she played with twigs and sticks and hopped across the stones that sat on the water. I smiled at the father, lunged over the water, and went onward through the trees. Some distance later, the trees stopped before a train track, which stretched across into the distance in a perfect straight line, headed in both directions for the industrial cities of Yorkshire. When I re-entered the woodlands, I was absorbed once again by the trees, the leaves, the sprays of sunlight, the crawling insects, the wet mud — the simple and forgotten things — and carried on toward the village.
During my walks, I am in a constant, slow-burning rapture.
Eventually, after about an hour and a half of walking, I reached the end of the footpath: a cricket pitch at the top of a hill in a village called Shepley — the name deriving from the Old English sceap (sheep) and leah (clearing), thus meaning “a clearing or meadow where sheep are kept.” At this point, I had a view of the entire landscape, including a full scope of my village on the hillside opposite. Beyond the village, I could see yet more farmlands and woodlands, a Victorian village church, Emmanuel Church, and in the far distance, Emley Moor, a broadcasting tower that pierces through the sky and watches over every village southeast of Huddersfield.
Over the years, I must have walked this same route a thousand times, yet I’ve never tired of its charms. If one is attentive enough, every walk is an opportunity to see new sights and hear new sounds. On many occasions, I walked off the track and ended up in some unfamiliar landscape I never could have imagined. For the most part, the landscape of West Yorkshire is not very diverse; it’s mostly green fields and green hills that seem to stretch on forever. But on my local walks, I am an explorer, a pioneer, I am involved in the landscapes, and I notice the wonderful capabilities of the landscape to bend and fold over short distances. I learn the shapes and curves of different trees and plants, and I notice how they change throughout each season. On my walks I am in a constant, slow-burning rapture.
Usually, I walk without a plan. I have nothing to achieve; the beauty is in the walking, in the journey itself. I depend on instinct and walk interminably, one foot in front of the other, breathing in the cold air, marveling at the stature of the oak trees, nodding and greeting the dog walkers who pass me by. And then, quite suddenly, ideas arrive. Stories unfold. Meaning and purpose are restored. Beautiful words, long sentences, poetry and rhyme, answers to dreaded questions — these all come in flashing moments when I am absorbed in the landscape, in the eternity of the natural world. It always takes me by surprise, and I often regret not carrying a notepad to write my thoughts down; I just have to hope I will remember everything when I get back home.
In nature, you leave yourself behind. You are nobody in the woods. When faced with a particularly difficult problem, I find it’s always healthier to just get out of the house and go for a walk rather than trying to force the answer. For in the repetition of walking you empty yourself out, free yourself of opinion and expectation, and embody once again humanity’s innate character. In this state of emptiness, your mind begins to clear — and then the gods descend to fill the void. Freedom of movement stimulates the mind, bringing forth divine wisdom. A free body is a free mind; which is why, I suppose, the powers that be prefer we sit in offices and cubicles day and night, so that we are made forever stupid and loyal customers.
In nature, you leave yourself behind.
Indeed, like everyone else, I have days that require I sit inside the office or the library all day and work until the end. And on these days I always feel as if there is a small stove slowly burning in my stomach, a hollow pain, which grows fierier the longer I stifle my vitality. If evening comes and I have not walked far at all, then this fire cannot be contained and it becomes impossible to remain sitting still. I get so anxious that I cannot concentrate on even the simplest of tasks. My mind is exhausted but my body’s energy is idle and unsatisfied. If this energy does not find release through physical exertion, it seeps into the mind and transforms into worries, doubts, fears — what’s more, I can’t sleep, because the untapped life force whirls and spins around my mind, desperately trying to exert itself, keeping me awake. The life force I should be expressing through physical exertion turns back on my body and slowly destroys me.
I take long walks because I have a body, and if I do not use my body then I become bad-tempered and apathetic. Those who concentrate solely on their intellect and leave the body behind tend to be rigid, stern characters, and unhealthy. As far as I can tell, each of us seems to have a primal drive toward life, which finds its easiest expression in the act of walking, in the act of moving forward through the natural world and marveling at its beauty. In my experience, all anxious and depressive feelings seem to dissipate when walking along a woodland path. And if you walk far enough you eventually achieve a state of joy — a quiet, inner happiness — and you are relieved, as you have escaped the walls, the squares, the eternity of sitting, of stagnation; now you are moving over the landscape, over the hills and far away, fighting against gravity, breathing fresh air, with a pulsing heart and an appetite for flowers and sunlight. You are free in search of the springs of life. A long walk is a rebirth of consciousness; one never returns quite the same, and is always better off for it.