My friend John Harkey walks, bikes and practices sustainable living in Nashville, Tennessee. I loved his essay on walking and thought you might enjoy it too. You can read more of John\’s writing at
In his essay of the same title Henry David Thoreau repeated the phrase wrongly ascribed to Horace Greeley: “go west young man, go west.” Actually, Thoreau was talking about “walking” west, and for him the more precise direction was “southwest,” away from his village home (Concord), and away from the city (Boston), in the direction of the setting sun. In his essay, he said he was going to make an “extreme” statement. As he describes his walks, and the ambition of walking, the word “extreme” seems mild
For Thoreau a daily four-hour walk was the minimum duration, and more was preferred. His walking “ambition” was to leave civilization entirely, avoiding the well traveled path and claiming the uncharted wilderness to the south and west as his home. His “home” in the village was merely a starting place for his walking adventure, but his destination was the Pacific Ocean, or maybe the Rocky Mountains.
Unfortunately, or maybe to our good fortune, Thoreau never made it that far. In fact, his pace wasn’t very rapid, and he was easily diverted. If you have ever been on a spring wildflower walk, you will know what happened. Every step or two there is something new and unusual for a botanist/poet to look at, and if you are in a group, comment on. Thoreau, like Christopher Robin, knew a lot about the 100-acre wood, but a 4-hour walk might take him one place in his imagination (say to some of the Greek Isles as he followed the meanderings of Odysseus), but while thinking about Odysseus he might be observing some ant platoons outside his door re-enacting their version of the Trojan war.
For me, a walk in the wilderness is a deep pleasure. But my wilderness walks are a part time occupation. I take those walks several times a year, but in my daily walks (and bike rides), I turn Thoreau’s treatise on its head, and turn towards the city, to meet friends, to purchase coffee, to shop for groceries, and to enjoy the pleasures of the urban experience, which are many.
Thoreau, of course, did too. His sustenance was more from the village and the city than from the wilderness. He thrived on the intellectual stimulation of Concord and the wider Boston community, and he enjoyed friendship. He wrote about the horrors of the village (“most men lead lives of quiet desperation”), but was really sustained by The Village.
For Thoreau, walking was an elite activity. While it involved only a modest investment of money (good shoes, sturdy clothing, and a hat), it required time. In Thoreau’s day, the only people with “time” were the wealthy and the occasional bohemian poet. The men (and women) of quiet desperation walked to work and to market, but otherwise were busy creating the economic engine that won the Civil War.
One of Thoreau’s more memorable trips was taken by train rather than on foot, from Boston down to New York, and there he met a promising new urban poet, Walt Whitman, who had just been “found” and promoted by Thoreau’s mentor, a Mr. Emerson. Thoreau had just published his masterpiece, Walden, a year earlier (1854), and Whitman had just published his first edition of “Leaves of Grass.”
In contrast to Thoreau, Whitman looked toward the city and its thriving masses of people for inspiration rather than to the uncharted wilderness near Thoreau’s cabin. Whitman’s walk is also open ended —walking “the long brown road before me leading wherever I choose”—but is about those he meets rather than where he goes—“the felon, the diseased, the illiterate person” and “the escaped youth, the rich person’s carriage, the fop, the eloping couple.” And, the objects of civilization: “planks and posts of wharves, rows of houses, porches” and then the ideas, the “philosophies” and the “music.” Whitman’s walk was an exploration of culture—the city—rather than fields and forest, and he liked what he saw, as much as Thoreau liked wilderness.
I like both walks. For my wilderness walks, though, I take part of the city with me, in the form of a friend or two. Climbing up a mountain along a shady path, we observe the beauty of a cascading stream while discussing whether charter schools really make a difference.
Walking is easy, requires no new expenditures, can be fit into a busy lifestyle, and helps you maintain health. It’s also fun, or can be. Twenty minutes a day (just over a mile) is helpful to health. Forty minutes (2-3 miles) will help you maintain weight, and with healthier eating, possibly lose weight. Either distance gives you time to think (alone) or banter (with friends), improving your mood and your friendships.
Thoreau set the bar too high, leaving his quietly desperate neighbors behind as he walked “away” from the Village. Today, in Nashville at least, the Village is the spark, encouraging its residents to leave the desperation (the TV, the computer, the couch, the bag of potato chips) behind, and take a walk (on the new greenway or sidewalk) “into” the Village.
For a description of one of the more interesting urban walks in America, try this:
Research note on Walking for Health
Two researchers at University College of London conducted a meta-analysis of 18 observational studies (460,000 participants) on the health effects of walking published between 1970 and 2007. Their study was summarized in the August 2009 edition of the Harvard Health Letter.
- Walking reduced the risk of dying by 32% during the study period. The study period averaged 11.3 years for the studies reviewed. )
- The risk of cardiovascular events was reduced by 31%.
- Benefits of walking were found for people walking as little as 5.5 miles a week at a pace of 2 miles per hour. Greater protection was obtained by more miles and a more rapid pace
Here is a link to the Harvard Report