Walking may be the most natural way of getting from A to B, but there must be more to it than that. Are the dandy, the drifter, the dog walker, the peripatetic artist, tourists and their guide, barefoot pilgrims and sign carrying protest marchers all on the same footing? Tomes have been written and TV shows produced about why we walk, who loves to walk, and where to find enjoyable walks. A few famous and keen walkers are Wordsworth, Martin Luther King, Jr., Elizabeth Bennet, Nietzsche, Bob Dylan, and, of course, me.
But why do we do it? What is behind this temptation to get out and put one foot in front of the other? Nietzsche wrote, “It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.” That certainly bodes well for this blog, as I thought a lot about it while walking.
In mid-May, I began a two-week stay in East Sussex. Several years ago, a colleague from Rutgers University and I developed a summer class for students. A simple concept with so many possibilities: We would spend two weeks walking the South Downs and letting the rhythm and landscape, the people and events, provide a springboard for creative writing. An opportunity for these students to develop a sense of place and express it through poetry and prose.
As I walk through a meadow smothered in wildflowers near Kipling’s home in Burwash, my heart expands seeing the abundance of daisies, buttercups, cow parsley, poppies, and soft brush tops of a variety of grasses. A herd of cows eye me as I approach, all the while, slowly chewing, chewing, chewing, chewing the spring grass and clover. During this brief staring contest with the cows, my mind drifts to home and the field outside our kitchen window where pointy reed bushes provide a backdrop to the wild foxgloves poking through for summer. Together, both create a camouflage for the hidden-ankle-spraining granite boulders and rabbit holes that make walking through this field a challenge for all but the livestock. An outcropping of gorse, heather and a slow-growing, but determined Rowan tree are reminders of the nutrient weak soil.
Sussex! Oh, lovely Sussex! With its soft and forgiving walks, easily navigated with an OS map and a bit of intuition. Even a downpour of rain results in nothing more than getting wet and muddy. It’s rare to have a descending fog, relentless gale force winds and the cold weather that can spell curtains for a rambler gone astray on Dartmoor. I confess, it is wonderful to have a few weeks of walks offering forgiveness under my feet and the freedom of simultaneously walking and looking out at the horizon. While I strut along the South Downs Way, I watch birds soar above and the green undulation of the downs reaching out toward the sea. I let my mind drift. And drift it does.
In stark contrast is the country-side of our beloved Dartmoor, significant for its wild, untamed and elusive landscape. Its jagged outcropping of tors, torrential rivers and hidden bogs require a constant vigilance to prevent a misstep or an ankle twist. Remaining ever mindful to avoid stepping onto an unstable rock or into a boggy patch, drowning my boot and socks. As Roger and I cultivate a quieter life, we find ourselves in a more demanding location. In Sussex, I spy lovely cottage gardens – hollyhocks, gladiolas, forget-me-nots – and know none of this could ever survive our acidic soil, battering of rain and wind, cooler and cloudier days where nettle, moss, gorse, and lichen take their time to establish a tenacious existence. The hills and moors of Dartmoor fold over themselves deep into the distance. When one falls from sight, another appears. The only limit upon them is the horizon. Is loving this rugged and untamable landscape like lusting after a strong and silent cowboy? Despite all effort, it may never reciprocate my affections.
On a recent walk with Roger and Millie — Sam electing to remain napping on the cool kitchen floor — we set out with a soft sun and puffy clouds above and a strong breeze from behind. About an hour into the walk, a coolness descended and the light turned grey. As we paused to note this, the wind kicked up and we were soon being pelted by hail. The weather swirled around, causing us all to struggle with our steps as if we had been drugged. Racing up the hill, we took brief shelter behind a tor and bemoaned the limitations of a weather app in this microclimate. The wind eventually pulled back and the hail stopped, but not before we were wet, exfoliated and somewhat chilled. Soon, the sun poked out between layers of grey and white clouds as if nothing had happened.
We walked home where Roger fixed us a medium-enormous gin and tonic and we moved into the living room and sank into the sofa. Soon we would begin to prepare our dinner, discuss the news or our next project, watch the birds at the feeder, play endless games of fetch with Millie and massage Sam’s old and aging back legs.
So why do we stride out? In an ever auto-dependent world, it’s nice to see the country-side, get some exercise, take photos, learn about birds and plant life, catch up with friends, and even stimulate some creative juices unleashing a story or a song. But, it’s more than that. Whether in the company of others or not, there comes a time in every walk where we are alone with only our thoughts and observations, falling neatly to the rhythm of our pace and our breath. And in that solitude, there emerges a sense of self and grounding. Whether it is a familiar path walked daily, or a new trail yet to be discovered. It may just be that no one can provide a sense of place for someone else. We have no choice but to find it for ourselves and it is in doing that — taking it in our own strides, shuffles, struts, or lopes — that we cease to be alone.