The artist Maira Kalman summed up the current popular regard for walking when she said, “Go out and walk. That is the glory of life.”
Philosophers and thinkers have long pushed the idea of walking as respite, as a creative fountain — or as Nietzsche said: "Only thoughts that are reached by walking have value." But what if walking, far from being benign and noble, instead represents just another conflict of our ongoing culture wars, where the forces of progress have whitewashed the past to reach the present? This proxy battle celebrates the walker of leisure and ignores those who walk because they have no other choice.
In philosophical evocations, walking is routinely an experience described, and subscribed to, by those who don't need to walk. Walking is luxury, a high-minded ramble of the enlightened; its elitism hiding behind a ruse of apparent accessibility. Exactly what you think about when you think about walking is your own internal indicator of where you live, your status, your wealth, your class. Even walking at its seemingly most egalitarian can be anything but. When the father of America's National Parks, John Muir, declared that “going out was really going in,” he was speaking to people with time, to people whose lives weren’t monopolized by survival.
Walking is an activity through which the haves are separated from the have-nots. There are the walkers of leisure and the walkers of necessity, who walk to survive, because there is no other way for them to move.
Only thoughts that are reached by walking have value.
All across the world people walk. They walk in cities not designed for those without means. They walk not as a hobby, or to keep fit, or to save the environment, or to think. They walk out of necessity. While walkers of leisure may strive to escape humanity, “indentured” walkers seek it out; for trade, for food, for communication, for life. The essayist Edward Abbey once described walking as “... the only form of transportation in which a man proceeds erect — like a man — on his own legs," forgetting that the walker of necessity is often slumped, tired, searching for satisfaction at the destination, rather than from the act of walking itself.
In much of the world, this walking for survival remains something of a national pastime, with the people who need it most often ill-served by the hand of the state. In Botswana's barren Tuli Block game reserve, I watched workers hitchhike from the side of the road after work, surrounded by a wilderness of lions, elephants, hyenas, and leopards. Across the border in South Africa, I witnessed how a lack of infrastructure makes the process of walking uniquely dangerous. The same scene played on repeat in villages dotted all over the country; groups of men, women and children wandering the roads day and night, often without any source of light save for the headlights of the cars speeding by as darkness fell. The lack of streetlights, crosswalks, and sidewalks make the very process of walking hazardous, with pedestrians accounting for a large proportion of road deaths in the country. This situation is acknowledged by alcohol labeling that sometimes features a unique warning: “Don’t Drink and Walk on the Road, You May Be Killed.”
Social attitudes towards walking historically show a stark divide depending on who's doing the walking. When Muir was trailblazing across America, he was dismissive of the native Americans who'd forged such paths, regarding them as dirty and subhuman in the face of an ever wondrous nature. While his attitudes would change over time, this idea of walking being almost holy when practiced by some, dangerous when practiced by others, has long been established. Lauren Elkin's recent book Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London, notes that even today, walking for women remains a dangerous practice in cities around the world, and in the past was something that women were culturally prevented from engaging in. Both wondering and wandering were reserved solely for men.
In Australia the term “walkabout” has long been used to describe Aboriginal boys becoming men via long periods spent alone in the bush. In recent years the term walkabout has had to be recharacterized as "temporary mobility" due to the negative connotations it has come to represent. In regard to Nicholas Roeg's 1971 film Walkabout, which follows the intertwining stories of two white city kids and an Aboriginal boy, the critic Roger Ebert wondered: "Is it a parable about noble savages and the crushed spirits of city dwellers? That's what the film's surface suggests, but I think it's about something deeper and more elusive: the mystery of communication."
Walking is usually nothing more than a reflection of where we are at any given time. When Napoleon force-marched his men across the Egyptian desert, telling them upon seeing Giza's pyramids, "Forward! Remember that from those monuments yonder 40 centuries look down upon you," he was basking in the realization that such endeavors created on the backs of men were part of a living history. This was walking as triumphalism, for one man at least. But walking’s simplicity allows it to take on infinite forms and meanings; virtue or vice. Stalin used walking and work to break the spirit of men in the Soviet Union's Gulags, while Slavomir Rawicz's book The Long Walk details a journey of thousands of kilometers to escape them. Martin Luther King Jr., like others before him, seized the idea of walking as freedom, as protest, and in the 1963 March on Washington, a walk of less than a mile, stoked government fears that a domestic invasion was afoot. You can strip a man of everything, but short of penning him in, you can't strip his ability to walk.
Walking’s simplicity allows it to take on infinite forms and meanings; virtue or vice.
Walking is now big business. In almost every city in the world you'll find some kind of walking tour; modest, extravagant, historical, nature-gazing. There are walking retreats, walking holidays, walking to keep fit, walking as education, walking to "find yourself." When we're not thinking, we're achieving. We record the number steps taken, the calories burned, the Instagram photos taken, the milestones ticked off on any one of the hundreds of fitness apps available. Walking in many ways has become a luxury pursuit, serviced by multi-billion dollar brands like The North Face and Patagonia — originally started as bootstrapped operations to serve a few enthusiasts — that sell adventure, wilderness and silence to walkers everywhere. Well, to some walkers, at least.
Walking is now at the forefront of a push to boost public health, with its virtues increasingly discovered by authorities the world over. The U.K.'s National Health Service currently touts a myriad of benefits, from lowering the risk of certain cancers to controlling weight to reducing stress levels. Indeed one of the reasons walking is so good for us is ironically because we're so bad at it. Walking is complicated, and humans walk like a bad, inefficient pendulum. In Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit captures this simultaneous complexity and simplicity of walking:
It starts with a step and then another step and then another that add up like taps on a drum to a rhythm, the rhythm of walking. The most obvious and the most obscure thing in the world, this walking that wanders so readily into religion, philosophy, landscape, urban policy, anatomy, allegory, and heartbreak.
But what of the hardship of indentured walking? The sore limbs and muscles, the weight of the water on your head, the goods in your arms, or the child on your back. Walking for miles on end, only to wake up and do the same walk all over again; tired, stiff, aching.
When George A. Romero created the modern zombie genre in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead, he somehow captured this awkwardness, the exaggerated stiltedness as the undead seemed to be learning to walk all over again. Romero's allegorical films over the following decades served up social commentary on many of the perceived ills in American society, from consumerism to racism to suburbanization, something that with a sort of successive approximation led to perhaps the darkest depiction of this gait: AMC's hit show The Walking Dead. With its zombies literally called “walkers,” the show and the graphic novels before it unintentionally depict the less considered side of walking, with modern society using every tool it can lay its hands on to protect itself from the walkers. In this divided society, the walkers are reduced to using only their ability to walk against the people of means — at least until they can sink their teeth into them.
The safe zones of The Walking Dead, brief islands of tranquility until they're eventually breached, are reflected in the design of many of the world's cities. When Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann set about renovating Paris in the 1850s, his assignment wasn't to create the walking wonderland we may know today, but rather an attempt to eradicate disease, overcrowding and crime, and allegedly the threat of revolution. Narrow streets where revolt could be and had been fomented were demolished, in their place vast boulevards carved. Haussmann would be sacked without finishing the job, but he set in motion a vast vacuum that the state — and later the walkers of leisure — could fill once again.
Walking through the streets of Paris late last year, it was hard not to be won over by the city, but the centuries of social cleansing that followed Haussmann's renovation has resulted in a Paris today where the walkers of need are marooned outside the walls, in forgotten banlieues, unable to take advantage of the boulevards, instead penned into great poverty traps. Such is the stark inequality at the heart of this that a new lexicon has arisen to deal with it: the comfortable suburb is the banlieue aisée, the disadvantaged suburb the banlieue défavorisé. As thousands of cars are set alight in these banlieue défavorisé every summer, it's hard not to be reminded of The Walking Dead.
In Doha, Qatar, I witnessed a city where planners had been confronted by the opposite problem: to raise a city from the dust where there had been none before it. Founded in the early 1800s, but transformed by the discovery of oil and gas, this archly global city has in recent decades seen huge injections of cash. Billions of dollars have been pumped into skyscrapers, modern art and museums, designed by world-renowned architects like Jean Nouvel and I.M. Pei. Visiting it, it seemed fitting that the city was recently named one of the New7Wonders Cities "...that best represent the achievements and aspirations of our global urban civilization."
In some, small, significant way, however, the walkers of necessity may be having the last laugh.
The end result for the inhabitants however, is a city dripping in wealth but permanently under construction, where Land Cruisers driven by impeccably dressed young men careen at high speeds down monstrous highways. When the city's indentured laborers have their rare days off, they make their way to the waterfront, not via carefully designed sidewalks but crammed against the barriers of highways, playing a constant game of chicken with the very fabric of the place they live, the place they're building.
In some, small, significant way, however, the walkers of necessity may be having the last laugh, realizing at least some of the benefits of a lifestyle we were designed for, rather than the one of endless progress. As much of the world struggles with soaring levels of obesity and diabetes, it's not hard to see why we're being encouraged to get out and walk more. In doing so we should perhaps come to the realization that walking can be both indentured and free, that the walkers of necessity have something to offer that much of the modern world now claws for. For now, the irony persists that the more we embrace the romanticism of walking, the more we seem to look down on those who walk because they have to.
Walking recently in the valleys of North Wales, far away from the inequalities of the city, on routes and paths that appeared Genesis-like, but were carved by need and nurture and nature, I was steadily seduced by Maria Kalman's words. The moorgrime thick round my shoulders, the silence at times all-embracing save for the work of the inefficient pendulum. I'd escaped the dumbfound town, discovered like Henry David Thoreau that “This was that Earth of which we have heard, made out of Chaos and Old Night,” and become sodden, enlightened, charged — revived even of the glory of life.
On my return, I tried to remember that the dirt in the soles of my boots contained no less than an alternative story of man.