People walk for a variety of reasons, although in general, probably not as often as they should. There’s the walking that has to be done, the type we take for granted and hardly even notice. There’s walking for exercise or leisure – think of a good long hike that really gets the blood pumping, or a stroll on the beach whose intended effect is the opposite.
In his essay “Walking,” Thoreau describes what he calls the “art” of walking:
“I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of talking walks,–who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering, which word is beautifully derived ‘from idle people who roved the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre,’ to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, ‘There goes a Sainte-Terrer,’ a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander.
They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as a I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.
But I prefer the first, which, indeed, is the most probably derivation. For every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels.”
Here he describes walking as a sort of pilgrimage, which indeed for many walkers, it is, in the both the strictest and loosest spiritual sense. And yet even as he frames his ideas in spiritual terms, it is a non-religious message he drives at. Walking and being outdoors ought to be a means of stepping back from the world around us, from its trappings and its often hectic nature. Walking, then, is a mission of release and reclamation.
Later in the essay, Thoreau describes the role of walking in his daily life:
“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”
That aside, Thoreau makes a valid point about the preservation of one’s health and spirits in relation to walking. It’s good for the body and the mind. According to a May 2015 New York Times write-up of a recent study, replacing sitting with walking for even two minutes of an hour may have beneficial health effects.
Surely the sweet spot is found somewhere between the bare minimum of two minutes and Thoreau’s preference for at least four hours, and it will undoubtedly vary by individual. So if you find yourself able to steal a bit of time from the rest of your day, walking may just be the best way to spend it. A stroll around the block, a short outing to a river or lake, even a necessary trip to the grocery store if it’s within walking distance (mine used to be! I miss it!) – they’ll all do.
But let it be more than a mode of transportation – or, as Thoreau puts it, “You must walk like a camel, which is said to be the only beast which ruminates while walking.”
Thoreau quotes from The Essays of Henry D. Thoreau, Ed. Lewis Hyde, 2002.