Over the past four months I have been fortunate enough to complete two epic multi-day hikes. The first was the Tour du Mont Blanc, a 170km circumnavigation of the Mont Blanc massive that traverses the Alps of France, Switzerland and Italy. In a close-knit team of two, Chris and I carried everything with us, from tents, to pots, food, wooly jumpers, swimsuits, red wine and cheese. We wild camped (illegally so in Italy - don’t tell!) all nights but one, and got an immensely privileged insight into Alpine communities, culinary delights and livelihood. The second hike spanned all of October during which I joined my brothers, sister-in-law, and aunt for a journey across the eastern corner of the Nepalese Himalayas. We took the approach trial to Makalu Peak, the 5th highest mountain in the world (soaring above 8400m), and reached 5300m to see Makalu base camp, before descending to warmer and more oxygenated mountains. We had an immensely over-qualified and talented team of Nepalese porters, sherpas and cooks. In both instances I was out of connectivity throughout and luxuriated in a feeling of freedom, of the heady awareness of how time takes on an alternate beat without app notifications. I read avidly in the evenings and thought a lot. I thought in particular about walking.
Walking is in one sense banal and functional. It is a practical unconsidered locomotive means between two sites. And yet, like eating and breathing, it can and has been invested with a vast array of cultural meanings and significances. In her treasure of a book, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit describes how the history of walking is part of the history of the imagination and culture. It is intertwined with spiritualism, revolutionary acts, personal aspirations and artistic pursuits. We walk on pilgrimages to fire the light of our relation to the divine. We’ve walk to Mecca, across temples in the Himalayas, along the Camino, through the cobbled alleys of Jerusalem. We walk when we want to make our voices heard regarding political and social issues. We’ve walked to end colonialism, racism, sexism and capitalism (none of which has been kicked to the curb in totality - but we’re still walking, and that indicates the fight is still in us to aspire to end it!). Some of us walk to escape the everyday, to structure our vacations and revive the senses from the dull oppressiveness of an office-bound life. Others have no choice but to walk miles for food, for water, for warmth and livelihood, in spite of the physical toll on the body. Artistic luminaries have walked for creativity and inspiration - notable examples are Virginia Woolf, William Wordsworth, Jean Jaques Rousseau, Charles Dickens, Earnest Hemingway, Jane Austen, and Henry Thoreau. Since (roughly speaking) the Enlightenment, creatives of all stripes from authors, philosophers, musicians, painters, architects, geographers, and urban designers, have been avid walkers and their work oftentimes has been conceived of, mapped out, or energised on daily wanderings. Monumental moments of human history have been walked.
The history of walking in general is virtually infinite, yet the history of walking of one person is partial, specific and defined. Solnit writes that the history of an individual’s walking has two layers. The first is geographic. A trail of paths followed, intersected and rerouted. On this point I think of an infographic I once saw, created to represent the pattern of nightly wanderings by one monitored cat in a suburb of an American city. This pattern of feline explorations over a month was then superimposed on a map of the city of its habitation. The scope of its adventures was astounding and rather beautiful. It made me wonder what the pattern of my walking in different cities would look like. In South Africa, where driving in vehicles is the norm, my walking map over a month would be truncated and unimpressive. It would involve clearly defined small repetitions, around parks, gardens and koppies, malls and shopping plazas. In Amsterdam, however, if my walking included my cycling paths, it would involve wide, dizzying arcs, turns and roamings across many reaches of the city. If it didn’t include my cycling paths, well, it would be a very confused and disjointed map, indicating short walks from a bicycle path to a bridge, a ferry, and back to a bicycle.
Written into my discussion on the possible patterns of my personal walking maps in a city is the point that urban walking is rich material for political commentary. Where and when a middle class person walks in a city is different from that of the working class, and both are distinct from the paths walked by the homeless. A map of your physical walking routes is a map of your expenditures, performances, and time spent. Understanding and addressing the needs and tribulations of the urban poor is comprehending the pattern of their movement in an urban scape.
The second layer of mapping is defined (or, confined) by the person’s knowable world and interests. It is an idiosyncratic path of a person’s dreams, interests, fantasies and banal deliberations. This is because when we walk, we think. Solnit explains that walking is “thinking made concrete”, but this layer of the map is intriguing and harder to visualise. It could not be a linear record of progression from here to there, for the motions of the mind cannot be singularly traced. Yet, certainly the things we encounter on a walk are relational to our thoughts, and our bodies are what transmutes the connection between the two. So I understand this secondary map as a psychosomatic permutable sheath that pervades over and elaborates beyond geographic relief. This map is a personal history of imagination and if ever ‘read’ by another could be seen as a meandering through the various reaches of culture.
What do you think about when you walk? How does the subject, pace and tone of your thought change from the start to the end of the walk? Does it matter that you walk alone, or are there certain people you walk with that allow you the space for mental clarity and solitude? Do you think different things when you’re in a verdant forest in comparison to a concrete jungle? Have you ever been on a walk that only reaches its conclusion when the problem or idea you’ve been mulling over has been exhausted?
Walking is the art of being alone with yourself and your thoughts - like the capacity for silence and intimacy with oneself. Its when the mind, body and world are aligned and these three characters are finally in conversation with each other. And yet there is a simple safety in a framework of ‘doing something’ instead of ‘doing nothing’ - which is the only other way that mind, body and world come into alignment. In this way walking is meditation. Its the closest thing to doing nothing that is still engaging the unwilled rhythms of the body, the breath and the beating heart. It allows us the freedom for roaming, unhurried mental processing without being completely consumed and lost in our thoughts.
Walking is an extension of yoga practice for me. I understand yoga as a daily ritual of solitary pattern-making, of a pilgrimage through movement and breath with awareness. Its time when I digest emotions and thoughts, physically and mentally. Its time when I observe rather than react. Its time when I move through and lean into uncomfortable realities, without ever having to dwell on them. This is what happens when I walk with awareness. When I wander with no destination in mind, but for the pure joy, the innocent ecstasy of repetitive pattern-making over the city or nature scape I inhabit. Like with yoga, walking is best done when its a delicate balance of doing, being and idling. As Solnit observes, its “a bodily labour that produces nothing but thoughts, experiences, arrivals”.
Perhaps walking is best understood through refining the verb into two types or concepts. There is walking as a travel means, to get from ‘a’ to ‘b’, and walking as movement, as I am describing it. The former is a necessary means to an end and goal-orientated. It need not call on the walker to commune with their surroundings, or state of mind. This is also the walking of mountaineers who are out for ‘peak bagging’, for breaking records, for completing races and challenges. Conversely, the later is walking that is unhurried and immersive. It produces a duality of maps - physical and imaginative - and simultaneously is a solitary movement practice that gives rise to encountering sights and sounds. This does things to the mind. It’s “ambiguous and endlessly fertile; it is both means and end, travel and destination”.
The immersive walking I am describing has a particular pace to it. Its the rhythm that each person’s feet allows for without getting huffed and harried. On average, its about 4km an hour, and that’s slow in comparison to so much in modern life. Its certainly slow in comparison to the rhythm of thoughts when our minds race and we’re unaware of our surroundings, or consumed by pressures and organisational tasks. I like this pace. Its the pace of thoughtfulness, rather than productiveness. And in the contemporary age of obsession with being a productive unit, rather than a present, thoughtful being, this pace is like decompression therapy for the mind.
There is something so reassuring, self-contained, and liberating about a multi-day trek/walk in wilderness. Each day there is only one intention - to walk. Each day is measured by the length of that day’s walk and each day is judged only by the act of a singular departure and arrival. So much happens between these two points, so much is discovered, observed, held in the imagination, and then left behind. Perhaps this is how and why pilgrimages are so often multi-day walks. It is a mental and emotional cleansing. Your imaginative map of thoughts includes memories, emotions, griefs, grudges and deliberations. They arise, and are churned up, as your feet clamber over and contend with rocks, muddy paths and gorges. You digest the fruits of your mind and heart, and then, like the passing vistas, you leave them behind. You cannot become attached to anything on a walk (other than perhaps your trusty veldskoen - ‘bush shoes’). The traveller on foot is an observer, a momentary visitor, and so they learn the art of letting go.
On the Himalaya trek, where we had an ‘expedition’ team of 30, I found a particular challenge with the proximity of others. Artist Agnes Martin proclaimed “the best things happen to you when you’re alone”, and I wholeheartedly agree. Creativity, presence, all the things associated with walking I write about are best experienced in solitude. And yet this paradoxical challenge in finding solitude whilst being in vast stretches of untouched raw nature was good for me. It made me seek out inner solitude, in contrast to a superficial notion of ‘aloneness’, and cradle moments of presence and quiet as I would the most rare bejewelled object. Nan Shepherd, Scottish female mountaineer, poet, and a personal heroine of mine, reminded us to “let the hills speak” . The hills speak only when you’re open to listening.
Listening requires presence of mind. Walking is a practice in presence. On a walk the body is not made negligible, as it is in so many other forms of transportation, but rather, it is paramount. Flesh is fulfilled and is the home for the full purpose of the activity - motion. Flesh is also, through walking, the instigator for imaginative and cathartic work as I’ve discussed. One is therefore not bodiless, but essential body. With no smartphone and no other intention for the day but to walk, one has no option but to be immersed in the present moment, and aware of our contingency to nature. Indeed, Nan Shepherd observed on a windswept slope of the Scottish highlands that “when the body is keyed to its highest potential and controlled to a profound harmony deepening into something that resembles a trance, […] I discover most nearly what it is to be. I have walked out of body and into the mountain.”