Never have I thought so much, never have I realized my own existence so much, been so much alive, been so much myself…as in those journeys which I have made alone and afoot. Walking has something in it which animates and heightens my ideas: I can scarcely think when I stay in one place; my body must be set a-going if my mind is to work.
― Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Confessions
Walker-thinkers have found various ways to accommodate the gifts that their walking brings. Caught paperless on his walks in the Czech enclaves of Iowa, maestro Dvořák scribbles the string quartets that visited his brain on his starched white shirt cuffs (so the legend goes). More proactively, Thomas Hobbes fashioned a walking stick for himself with an inkwell attached, and modern poet Mary Oliver leaves pencils in the trees along her usual pathways, in case a poem descends during her rambles.
I hear a swelling swoosh; from the south a bullet train whizzes into view on the tracks, knifes through the landscape in a matter of moments, then disappears with a whoosh. It has just covered in a few seconds what has taken me hours to walk. That very fast train reminds me that, as a pilgrim, travel is made holy in its slowness. I see things that neither the passengers of the train nor the drivers of the automobiles see. I feel things that they will never feel. I have time to ponder, imagine, daydream. I tire. I thirst. In my slow walking, I find me.
― Kevin Codd, Beyond Even the Stars: A Compostela Pilgrim in France
Paths are the habits of a landscape. They are acts of consensual making. It’s hard to create a footpath on your own…Paths connect. This is their first duty and their chief reason for being. They relate places in a literal sense, and by extension they relate people.
Paths are consensual, too, because without common care and common practice they disappear: overgrown by vegetation, ploughed up or built over (though they may persist in the memorious substance of land law). Like sea channels that require regular dredging to stay open, paths NEED walking.
Suppose two astronauts go to the moon. When they arrive, they have an accident and find out that they have only enough oxygen for two days. There is no hope of someone coming from Earth in time to rescue them. They have only two days to live. If you asked them at that moment, “What is your deepest wish?” they would answer, “To be back home walking on the beautiful planet Earth.” That would be enough for them; they would not want anything else. They would not want to be the head of a large corporation, a big celebrity or president of the United States. They would not want anything except to be back on Earth – to be walking on Earth, enjoying every step, listening to the sounds of nature and holding the hand of their beloved while contemplating the moon.
We should live every day like people who have just been rescued from the moon. We are on Earth now, and we need to enjoy walking on this precious beautiful planet. The Zen master Lin Chi said, “The miracle is not to walk on water but to walk on the Earth.” I cherish that teaching. I enjoy just walking, even in busy places like airports and railway stations. In walking like that, with each step caressing our Mother Earth, we can inspire other people to do the same. We can enjoy every minute of our lives.
On Saturday afternoons I used to go for a walk with my mother. From the dusk of the hallway, we stepped at once into the brightness of the day. The passerby, bathed in melting gold, had their eyes half-closed against the glare, as if they were drenched with honey, upper lips were drawn back, exposing the teeth. Everyone in this golden day wore that grimace of heat–as if the sun had forced his worshipers to wear identical masks of gold. The old and the young, women and children, greeted each other with these masks, painted on their faces with thick gold paint; they smiled at each other’s pagan faces–the barbaric smiles of Bacchus.
―Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles
It is easy to miss delightful things when we only accept and cultivate experiences that we expect to be life-changing.
Last summer, my husband and I stayed one night at Lake Brownwood State Park here in Texas on our way to New Mexico. I woke up early that morning and decided that I would take a walk over to the lake. I didn’t expect much, being far more excited about the places to come, but it was not too hot yet and I needed the exercise.
The hike was a pleasant one, notable for the interesting mix of desert and wetland plants and the juxtaposition of habitats. The Western Cross Timbers, Edwards Plateau, Grand Prairie and Rolling Plains regions all come together here. There are also some attractive stone structures and features made by the Civilian Conservation Corps before and during the World War II era (1933-42). Moths and butterflies were plentiful, and I met up with an itinerant road runner who kept me from missing the trail on the way back. This trail reminded me that some of life’s great moments happen unannounced. If we only take those walks that promise to impress us with spectacular scenery, we miss the subtler beauty that lies all around us. Sometimes that is all we need and all the more precious.
None of your knowledge, your reading, your connections will be of any use here: two legs suffice, and big eyes to see with. Walk alone, across mountains or through forests. You are nobody to the hills or the thick boughs heavy with greenery. You are no longer a role, or a status, not even an individual, but a body, a body that feels sharp stones on the paths, the caress of long grass and the freshness of the wind. When you walk, the world has neither present nor future: nothing but the cycle of mornings and evenings. Always the same thing to do all day: walk. But the walker who marvels while walking (the blue of the rocks in a July evening light, the silvery green of olive leaves at noon, the violet morning hills) has no past, no plans, no experience. He has within him the eternal child. While walking I am but a simple gaze.