Escaping the vagaries of life on foot
An essay on sauntering, flaneuring, and other forms of walking
This is the first essay in Volume 1: Daily pleasures, inspired by the little things we take for granted that fundamentally shape the way we think and live.
The makeup of walkers in my area of the city changes throughout the day. At 6 AM, the serious walkers come out — the ones who need dawn’s crisp breeze to cool their sweating brows. The amblers come out at 11 AM, taking a break from work or using a phone call as an opportunity to stretch their legs. During the 5-6 PM slot, dog parents start their rounds. At 9 PM, when the day’s chores have been completed, the busy bees come out to wind down — and so do the friends who, after a long day, have a lot of catching up to do.
Walking is one of the most obvious things in the world. One step after another, one heel touching the ground as the other lifts, arms swinging accordingly. It is biped mobility that takes us from point A to B on days when the car’s gone for repair, the metro’s too crowded for comfort, and the taxi gods are particularly vindictive.
For something so basic, walking has been revered by creatives across time. We read stories of writers shaping their most famous works while on foot, or artists happening upon a scene so beautiful they had to capture it. Or a certain black polo-clad tech pioneer who, while building an empire, attended meetings during walks.
Walking is what delivered pilgrims to their places of worship, helped traders take their wares from Arabia to the Levant along today’s King's Highway in Jordan, and formed the basis of civil disobedience marches that changed the world as we know it. Walking is also what helps us clear our mind, exercise our body and ruminate on ideas like an ambling camel but on two feet.
To walk is to get exercise, strengthen one’s mind, get from one point to another, or just leave the house when things are getting a bit too much. Each one of us gets something out of it.
Henry Thoreau, for example, defined walking as a spiritual undertaking. His contemplative walking is less about mobility and more about rumination and aimless exploration. It is to forgo sitting at our desks— “as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon” —and stray far beyond our regular paths. Thoreau’s walks aren’t for the faint-hearted or the feeble-bodied. But sauntering might just be.
The word is thought to refer to idle people—Saint-Terrers—in the Middle Ages who roamed the country on the pretext of going a la Sainte Terre (to the Holy Land). But in a whimsical fashion, it also sounds like sans terre — one without land, but rather being equally at home everywhere.
To saunter is also to ruminate on ideas or, conversely, exit your mind to enter the world. This reminds me of Iris Murdoch’s unselfing, the act of stepping outside of yourself. On a true walk, you step out of your ego and echo chamber and open your senses to everything but yourself.
With the utmost love and attention the man who walks must study and observe every smallest living thing, be it a child, a dog, a fly, a butterfly, a sparrow, a worm, a flower, a man, a house, a tree, a hedge, a snail, a mouse, a cloud, a hill, a leaf, or no more than a poor discarded scrap of paper on which, perhaps, a dear good child at school has written his first clumsy letters.
The highest and the lowest, the most serious and the most hilarious things are to him equally beloved, beautiful, and valuable.
– Robert Walser
This ties into the concept of awe walks — walks during which, with the right outlook, reverential wonder can be found anywhere. Admittedly, this is harder to achieve given many of us walk with something to distract us: music, perhaps, or a podcast, audiobook or phone call. During an awe walk, you set the rhythm instead of letting Zedd or Britney Spears do it for you. Even better, you attune your inner rhythm to that of the world outside — and give yourself time to pause and look about.
If there is serendipitous joy in discovering new routes, then there’s a strange freedom in walking the same loop every day. Your body takes over mobility while your mind does the wandering.
Nietzsche extolled this — he walked the same routes one hour every morning and three every afternoon. He called it “hermit’s walking”, stopping only to scribble notes in a small notebook. The Wanderer and His Shadow was almost entirely thought out and composed on his hermit walks. Kant also walked a single route every day, but there the similarities end, because if Nietzsche walked to work, Kant walked to escape the vagaries of daily life.
Of course, all of this walking is dependent on having designated spaces to do it in. Thoreau had Cape Cod; we have Central Park and Lalbagh. But walking in a densely populated metropolis also offers up its own idiosyncrasies (ones that might turn into frustrations if we were in a hurry).
People are made for walking; we’re all not very good at it, but we do it. And when we welcome a shift in perspective—walking not as a means to an end but an end in itself—we can better appreciate this ambulatory solitude as a wellspring of presence over productivity.
You’re doing nothing when you walk, nothing but walking. But having nothing to do but walk makes it possible to recover the pure sensation of being, to rediscover the simple joy of existing, the joy that permeates the whole of childhood.
– A Philosophy of Walking, Frédéric Gros
Thanks to Michael Shafer, Rajat Mittal, Dan Hunt, Rodrigo Lopez and Stew Fortier of Foster, whose insightful comments made writing this a daily pleasure.