Walking is one of those things that seems mundane, purely practical, and frequently inconvenient. We do it when we have somewhere to go, often in a hurry, often wishing that we had a more efficient mode of transportation. I’m thinking of rushing through airports to get to our gate, stressed that it’s so far from security, running out for lunch or a coffee before sitting back at our desk, or shuffling to the car or bus and back again.
I remember a time when walking felt like brushing my teeth or putting away laundry: something that I had to do but didn’t pay much attention to. In university parking was in high demand and I remember how bummed I was when I had to pay for a spot that was a 15-minute walk from my classes, and how tiresome it was to trek back and forth, especially on cold, dark winter mornings.
Of course, there are times when we choose to walk, like when we hike through the woods or mountains, or when we explore a new city. At these moments, walking feels like a blissful detour from real life. We slow down and appreciate what we experience. Walking is the goal itself, rather than a means to an end.
Learning to love walking
My love affair with walking actually started with cycling. Several years ago, I started riding my bike to work and discovered how good it felt to feel the air on my skin and to see the world going by so much more closely than it did when I was in a car. I felt more connected to my surroundings and more engaged with the process of getting between two points, rather than being solely focused on the destination.
Soon I discovered that walking was like cycling, only better because it was slower and I could connect even more deeply. I could see, vividly, all the details of my path and especially how they changed from day to day. I was mesmerized.
I think my late arrival to the joys of walking came from growing up in a suburb, where, as soon as I got my own car, I didn’t walk anywhere, because there was no reason to. As a child, I walked to the library and the park, but later started riding my bike and once I had that magical ticket to highways and high speeds, I turned my back on walking completely.
When I finally moved to the city, at the age of 23, I was enchanted with public transit and other “alternative” methods of transportation. The joy I felt about being able to take the subway to school more than overcame the fact that I had to walk for 15 minutes to get to the station.
Why would you walk?
Last year I had meetings after work on Mondays that started at 5:30. I finished work at 4:30. I could take the bus, get there 20 minutes early and stand around in the cold waiting for the building to open, or I could walk. It took me exactly an hour and the first time I did it, it felt a little crazy. I crossed parts of the city that I had never seen on foot and it felt like a grand adventure, especially since it was winter and I had to add layer upon layer of warmth before going out.
When I spent a summer living in New York City, walking seemed natural—everyone did it. Here in car-centred Edmonton, however, walking seems unorthodox, and even a little weird. When I told people where I had walked from, they looked shocked. Why would I do that to myself? Wasn’t it cold? Wasn’t it dangerous? Wasn’t it just plain too far?
Often, using my own two feet feels almost transgressive. Walking around the block is fine and normal, but walking as transportation is impractical and inefficient. Which is exactly what makes it so great. The Fitbit that Matt got me for my birthday last year has legitimised walking significantly (because who wouldn’t get excited by the exuberant buzzing and the flashing lights that celebrate reaching your 10000 step goal?), but it still feels out of the ordinary to set off on foot, rather than waiting for the bus or hopping in an Uber.
Now, I can’t walk enough. I spend my lunch breaks at the office wandering the neighbourhoods, watching people’s front yards change from season to season. Matt and I go for walks after dinner like an old married couple, holding hands the whole way. When I’m feeling low, I walk in the woods—no matter the season or the temperature. I never listen to music when I’m walking outside because I like to keep all my senses wide open to receive the stories and wonders of everyday life. I observe the people I pass, the height of the river, the progress of flowers and leaves, and the changing weather. I listen for birds and smell the mingling natural and man-made scents.
It’s nice to get out to the woods, but even walking along concrete sidewalks, in the shade of tall buildings, can ease tension and give me a new perspective. Walking helps me think, and also helps me not think, depending on what’s needed.
Walking makes me feel like an adventurer and an explorer. It turns the time “in between” activities into something worthwhile in itself. It helps me practice mindfulness and has recently become my favourite form of meditation.
Here are some ways that you might start to enjoy walking:
Plenty of famous creators are said to have composed music, or written poetry, or solved theorems while walking. There’s something about the slow motion of the body and the gradually changing landscape that lets our minds wander freely. As your mind meanders, it can pick up new ideas and start stringing them along until something new is born.
If you feel stuck in a problem or unsure of what to do next, head out for a stroll and see what it helps dredge up.
“…because thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented culture, and doing nothing is hard to do. It’s best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking. Walking itself is the closest to the unwilled rhythms of the body, to breathing and the beating of the heart. It strikes a delicate balance between working and idling, being and doing. It is a bodily labor that produces nothing but thoughts, experiences, arrivals.” Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust
Last weekend I went to a meditation retreat where I learned about walking meditation. We were instructed to choose a section of ground a few metres long and to slowly walk from one point to another and then back again, focusing on the sensations in our feet the entire time. As thoughts drifted in we were told to let them drift out again as we gently brought out attention back to our feet.
While many people said they found this quite challenging, I found it much easier than sitting meditation. My body was more comfortable while standing and the feeling of my bare feet on the grass was so mesmerizing that I didn’t want to think about anything else. I found myself feel calm and focused almost instantly.
“There is no point in hurrying because you are not actually going anywhere. However far or long you plod, you are always in the same place.” Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods
I’ve started inviting friends for walks instead of sitting down for tea because I’ve found that the conversations seem to flow more easily when we walk together. Maybe it’s because we’re side by side, rather than facing each other, maybe it’s because the same phenomenon that makes it easy to think while walking makes it easier to talk as well. All I know that some of my favourite hangouts involve a long walk through crunchy leaves, or even deep snow. A simple walk around the block becomes a shared experience as you point out what you notice with each other and open up about thoughts and feelings.
“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. Moving on foot seems to make it easier to move in time; the mind wanders from plans to recollections to observations.” Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust
When I was doing my #100daysoffieldnotes challenge, most of the field notes were recorded as I was walking. You can’t carefully observe your world while driving 60 km/h. It’s only on foot that you can see the tiny details that spark new ideas or make your day feel magical. This is when you can engage all your senses and connect with the world around you.
“I walk everywhere in the city. Any city. You see everything you need to see for a lifetime. Every emotion. Every condition. Every fashion. Every glory.” Maira Kalman
Walking in winter has become a surprising joy. I start off feeling chilled but, like magic, I warm up quickly as the blood begins to flow briskly through my veins. With a scarf over my face and a hood coming down to my eyebrows, I feel protected, enveloped in security, and that I can take on any challenge the weather can throw at me.
In the same way, walking can change my perspective on any given situation. A rainy or grey day becomes beautiful when I bring my full attention and presence to it. A bad mood starts to shift and break apart along with my steps.
“To me, the magic of the streets is the mingling of the errand and the epiphany.” Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust
When I get into a car I feel instantly disconnected from reality. I turn on music, I have a windshield and tons of metal separating me from other people, and I exist in my own little bubble. When I walk, I feel like every step I take connects me to the last. Walking out my front door starts a chain of awareness and presence that leads right up to my destination. If I’m really paying attention, that chain is never broken. I don’t see the world as a collection of places, instead, it’s all one place and I can explore it one step at a time.
“Sono’s truck had been stolen from her West Oakland studio, and she told me that though everyone responded to it as a disaster, she wasn’t all that sorry it was gone, or in a hurry to replace it. There was a joy, she said, to finding that her body was adequate to get here where she was going, and it was a gift to develop a more tangible, concrete relationship to her neighborhood and its residents. We talked about the more stately sense of time on has afoot and on public transit, where things must be planned and scheduled beforehand, rather than rushed through at the last minute, and about the sense of place that can only be gained on foot. Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors–home, car, gym, office, shops–disconnected from each other. On foot, everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it.” Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust