It’s easy to take walking for granted, to dismiss it when judged against an outdoors life packed with exciting gear like skis and kayaks and bikes, but it is walking, after all, that is the easiest form of escape. Just get up, put one foot in front of the other, and you’re gone. Across the street, down the block, around the world. Our bodies evolved as walkers. It’s as much a part of our human experience as anything else.
And though that makes walking experts out of all of us capable of walking, Duncan Minshull is an expert when it comes to thinking and writing about walking. Big long adventurous walks, and short head-clearing around the corner walks. He’s written books and essays for years about the meaning of going for a walk, especially in beautiful places. Now, he’s edited a new book, Beneath My Feet: Writers on Walking, an anthology of essays from some of history’s finest writers and thinkers. John Muir is here, as is Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain, Kierkegaard, and many more.
The book itself is a little joy to hold, too. Small, hardback, a good weight of paper, fits nicely in a rucksack, the right coat pocket. It’s the sort of book you bring to a cabin, post-walk reading material, even, if this is such a thing, a book to get you amped to take a thoughtful stroll. It was difficult picking a section to excerpt, each essay is carefully considered and very good, but this, from Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust, is one of the strongest in the collection. Your walking shoes are calling.
I sat down one spring day to write about walking and stood up again, because a desk is no place to think on the large scale. In a headland just north of the Golden Gate Bridge studded with abandoned military fortifications, I went out walking up a valley and along a ridgeline, then down to the Pacific.
Spring had come after an unusually wet winter, and the hills had turned that riotous, exuberant green I forget and re-discover every year. Through the new growth poked grass from the year before, bleached from the summer gold to an ashen grey by the rain, part of the subtler palette of the rest of the year.
Henry David Thoreau, who walked more vigorously than me on the other side of the continent, wrote of the local, ‘An absolutely new prospect is a great happiness, and I can still get this any afternoon. Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a county as I expect ever to see. A single farmhouse which I had not seen before is sometimes as good as the dominions of the King of Dahomey. There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles’ radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the threescore years and ten of human life. It will never become quite familiar to you.’
These linked paths and roads form a circuit of about six miles that I began hiking ten years ago to walk off my angst during a difficult year. I kept coming back to this route for respite from my work and for my work too, because thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-orientated 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 intentional act 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. After all those years of walking to work out other things, it made sense to come back to work close to home, in Thoreau’s sense, and to think about walking.
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.
I wasn’t sure whether I was too soon or too late for the purple lupine that can be so spectacular in these headlands, but milkmaids were growing on the shady side of the road on the way to the trail, and they recalled the hillsides of my childhood that first bloomed every year with an extravagance of these white flowers. Black butterflies fluttered around me, tossed along by wind and wings, and they called up another era of my past. Moving on foot seems to make it easier to move in time; the mind wanders from plans to recollections to observations.
From Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit copyright © 2001. This excerpt is featured in Beneath My Feet: Writers on Walking, introduced and edited by Duncan Minshull, published by Notting Hill Editions, April 2019.