what is a walk?
“When I go for a walk it’s just a walk. But for you it’s more than that, isn’t it?” said my mum recently. Well, no, not really. It’s still just a walk. But I think there’s a lot to a walk; the name given to the physical mechanics of it being by far the least interesting part. The movement of walking largely takes care of itself, becoming, literally, a vehicle for everything else that that easy, natural, silent self-propelled locomotion facilitates: thinking, talking, humming, noticing, breathing, gazing, watching, ruminating, planning, rehearsing, reflecting, remembering, hoping, dreaming, feeling, hearing, smelling, meditating and … doing nothing. Doing the thing that defines us as human beings is an excellent means for us to stop doing and enjoy just being human.
Sometimes I worry that in the spirit of the late-capitalist society in which we live I am commodifying this perennial, simple, free and natural quality. Or at least overthinking it. Just because I write a blog and post on social media about it, and there is mounting scientific research into the benefits of it, doesn’t mean that our grandparents didn’t appreciate walking and its myriad benefits too. Maybe they just didn’t feel the need to shout about it, and it wouldn’t have occurred to them to charge people for it. Perhaps I’m making a song and dance about this walking malarkey.
But my mum, my grandparents and to be honest, most people, don’t spend much time trying to articulate what they mean, think or feel about walking. Saying ‘it’s just a walk’ seems a reasonable dismissal for an activity so base and plebeian that we’ve been doing it for millennia, before our spines straightened, vocal chords developed, and brains grew beyond the size of a pea. But is there a risk that our capitalist sensibilities have learned to value that which we pay for, or at least pay attention to, and that by dismissing the concept as ‘simple’, ‘only’ or ‘just’ we are close to labelling walking for pleasure as pointless and turning off the younger generations to its value?
Ironically, much of our doings in the technological age look from the outside very inactive and somewhat pointless. Aliens being shown around offices in our financial districts would struggle to understand quite how this sedentary and near-silent tapping and clicking is such a vital industry. Luddite relatives the world over must enquire of screen-grabbed teenagers ‘What are you doing up there?’ when they appear hunched over games consoles. And we all know the hours we can eat up near-comatose in bed, one thumb sliding repetitively over the same 6 inches of rolling screen. It is all too easy to spend 8 hours a day ‘doing’ almost without movement, and we have filled the hours we used to spend ‘being’ with diversions which prevent us from every having to just sit and wait or pass the time. But as pastimes go, walking remains a national obsession. For the millions of Britons who amble, bimble, stroll and saunter for pleasure the pointlessness is precisely the point.
I have realised that I pretty much only enjoy walking when it’s pointless, or at least non-functional. I seldom walk as a means of getting somewhere. If it’s for the purpose of travel, I would much rather cycle, and that is how I choose to get around town, commute to work and run errands. Cities are for doing, and if I’m busy doing then I’m happiest nipping around on my bike. An urban walk always just feels harried and stressful; a slightly inefficient way of getting from A to B. And because my time-keeping is poor, I am nearly always at least 6 minutes late for everything, so my unavoidable city walks are usually too fast and slightly sweaty too. If a walk is to be for pleasure, I would always choose the countryside or the seaside where the pace is slower, the view more soothing and the purpose ostensibly pointless.
However, I do seem to have developed something of a vocabulary of walking. There are walks and walks. There’s all the different terminology: hike, trek, promenade, roam, stroll, ramble, with all the varying connotations of difficulty and remoteness. There’s nipping out, popping out and heading out, with the implied scale of duration. There’s walking the dog or taking the dog for a walk versus going for a walk with the dog, with the attendant inferences of priority. There’s walking to the pub, having a pub lunch, and going for a walk with a pub at the end; useful obfuscations for hood-winking reluctant family members into a 3-hour pre-prandial. Crucially, before booking the Airbnb with a friend, there’s going for a walk on holiday versus going for a walking holiday, where walking is the holiday.
when is a walk not a walk?
Walking also means loads of other things which definitely aren’t walking. Sitting down, taking one’s boots off and paddling in a stream, for example. Having a picnic, or at least a sandwich and an apple on a grassy bank. Stopping stock still, cocking one’s ear and whispering urgently, ‘Listen! Cuckoo!’. Frowning at a blue plaque and going, ‘Was he the one that married that actress?’. Pointing with a stick at a distant spire, hoping the pub really is as close to the church as common decency would dictate. Stopping to read The Book because something Quite Interesting happened Somewhere Near Here. Reaching out to touch a soft-looking plant and discovering it’s quite spikey. Leaning so far forwards to smell a flower that all the things in the top compartment of one’s rucksack slide forward and hit you on the head. Lying flat on one’s back in a field and watching the clouds scudding. Saying ‘Hello!’ quite enthusiastically to an animal you meet. Examining a friend’s foot with a tantalizing mixture of horror and delight. Calling a halt to check the map but drinking in the view instead. Calling a halt to admire the view to disguise an urgent need to catch one’s breath. Calling a halt to catch one’s breath and by mistake eating some Haribo. Legitimately swigging whiskey on a Sunday morning because you’re climbing a mountain and it’s in a hip-flask. Poking one’s finger into a bed of moss because it just looks so green. Unzipping every pocket in one’s waterproof jacket in turn before remembering the compass is in your hand. Taking off layers of man-made fibres so swiftly that crackles of electricity are heard. Letting one’s fingers trail through fields of crops and being unable not to picture the opening scene of ‘Gladiator’. Counting one’s steps completely unnecessarily for a bit until one’s mind wanders off. Retracing one’s steps a little bit to try and locate the source of a very pleasant smell. And playing pooh sticks.
working the walk
People often ask me what I do when I ‘recce’ a walk; why it is so important for me to walk the route in advance; whether it’s just to make sure I know the way. Well, it’s partly that. And despite being pretty good at map-reading, on nearly all ‘ipse’ journeys, there’s been a point where, if I hadn’t done the recce, I’d have led people a merry dance the wrong way for at least a few minutes. Not a good look for a walk leader. I also use the recce to write specific risk assessments for each journey, based on up-to-date information.
The main reason is to research exactly all the features, milestones and landmarks along the way. The map or guide book will alert me to historic locations, stories and place names, but it won’t point out evocative twists in the river, redolent views, or charming vistas. It won’t list all the furniture of well-maintained trails, such as well-placed benches, whimsical notices or communal cairns. And, of course, it won’t detail the organic gifts like fallen trees, symbolic plants or evocative mud patches. All these features, as well as the place names and obvious landmarks, are fodder to the wilderness therapist who, as well as empowering people to enjoy the journey for itself, is creating metaphorical connections which invite the landscape to ‘mean’, and to touch people’s emotional nature by functioning as a mirror for the self. In a cave we might explore how we ‘hide’ ourselves away. At a crossroads we might investigate our attitudes towards choices in our lives. Crossing a bridge, we might be invited to share the challenges we have got over to bring us to where we are today.
On a more pedestrian level, there’s the admin of checking the mileage, timings and access, and the practicalities of visiting the accommodation and food stops along the way to make sure the group will be comfortable and the process smooth. Sampling the food and drink on offer is of course wise too, just in case. Invariably, useful titbits are unearthed along the way too; the pub has recently changed hands and no longer does evening meals, that stile is unsafe and an alternative has been put in the corner of the field, a local organisation has placed a simple memorial on the path. Sometimes serendipitous meetings arise or chance inspiration lands, leading to a previously un-planned activity or diversion which will enrich the journey immeasurably.
But on top of all this, there’s the absolute pleasure and joy of needing to go for a long walk on my own. Absolutely having to. It being part of my job, albeit not a part I get specifically paid for doing. The cheeky unbelievable ‘winning-ness’ of this, as though I have lucked out and cheated the world into allowing me to do for ‘work’ what my soul yearns to do anyway, sets me off buoyed up and ebullient. The simple pleasure of ticking off items on the itinerary, noting down miles, marking in the key features is extremely satisfying and helps with the illusion that I am in fact hard at work. But the truth is, I spend an awful lot of time doing nothing aside from walking. The quality and extent of the nothing I can do while my body is otherwise engaged is a source of amazement to me. I have walked for hours with nothing at all on my mind. I remember noticing a blue flower and my brain just going ‘oh, a blue flower’ and then straight back to nothing. I think sometimes I talk to myself out loud, but I couldn’t say once I become aware of it whether I have been actually speaking in sentences, or key phrases, or just mumbling random words. Once I confessed to a friend that I feared I was boring since I could walk for hours and think of nothing. He congratulated me on achieving a state of mindfulness others pay to learn. I’m not saying I’ve achieved Nirvana, but if mindfulness is the cultivation of compassionate curiosity, I reckon I’ve got it nailed when I’m walking. Because mostly I just notice stuff; things useful for my facilitation of the journey, flora, fauna and birdsong, my own moods, and then I pass by and forget it, letting it drift out of view and out of mind. And after a good walk I really couldn’t tell you what I’d been thinking about.
Last weekend, I walked for 6 hours each day. I had approximately 4 conversations with strangers during that time; wasn’t it a lovely day, was it far to the pub, that sort of fare. My fitbit counted my steps and I just walked. Sure, I made plans, consulted maps and organised the logistics of the journey. But to me the combination of purposeful pointlessness was just perfect. My neocortex brain was busy planning and creating, my reptilian brain was dealing with my rhythmic walking, and my limbic brain, seat of the emotions, was just free to be.
Since we’ve lost the art of ‘being’ and filled the time with inactive ‘doings’, I think walking, where the ‘doing’ is just enough to occupy the body and free the mind for ‘being’, is vital. And I’d argue that maybe we need to make a bit of a fuss about walking right now, to rescue it from the oblivion of the defunct and old-fashioned. To make it clear that if we underestimate the simple we might lose sight of its value. To re-affirm the old adage that not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. Go outside, go for a walk, count your steps if you like, but make the walk count for what it is, in all its simplicity.