When I began this post, I wondered how I would tag it: #health #mindfulness, #sustainability, #writing #frugal #community. All those reflect what walking means to me, and all are components of something larger, something I am going to call wholeness. I am not whole if I do not walk.
From my earliest years I have learned by walking, dreamed of walking, found solace and healing in walking, tapped creativity by walking. My memories of all the places and countries and continents I have been to are memories of walking, of the way one soil feels different underfoot than another, of the contours and smells of the land around me, the flow of rivers, the flight of birds, the shape of trees. I learn new places by walking them, and once I have done so I am never lost.
I was the youngest by some years in our family, and was frequently solitary. But I had fields and woods and farm lanes to roam, and those were different days. I explored further and further afield, usually on foot, sometimes by bicycle, and with the dog for company. I learned to look, at wildflowers and trees, at birds and mammals, snakes and frogs, at insects.
Then I went to university a long way from home, choosing the university in part because it was not in a town, but set some miles out of town, on a large expanse of land. But a new reality faced me there: girls – women – were warned not to walk alone beyond the lighted and paved campus, and none of my new friends wanted to walk. I stayed a year, became depressed, gained too much weight, and changed universities. This one too had a large open area, an arboretum with trails that linked to other trails extending out beyond and through the town, and I met friends who wanted to go walking, to look at trees and rivers and birds. I lost the weight, stopped being depressed, and fell in love with a man who walks more than I do.
Walking informs almost all my writing, either as a theme (sometimes transmuted into other forms of travel through a landscape) or as how I tapped into whatever it is in my brain or the cosmos that creates fiction. I will go walking with a problem to solve, one of plot or motivation or background, and after a good walk or two, even if I haven’t been directly chewing over the problem as I walk, the solution will appear. I find letting the problem swirl around in the back of my mind, not looking at it directly, while I focus on watching birds, or fish, or searching through a stand of milkweed for Monarch butterfly caterpillars, often produces the quickest results.
When I start walking I’m stiff, sometimes sore, depending on the day, the weather, and the vagaries of arthritis. That will pass after the first ten minutes. Some days, I’m out of sorts, or worried, but being back in touch, physically and spiritually, with sky and land and wind provides perspective, and calms even my most persistent or serious concerns. Most days I walk for an hour or two; at this time of year, when the mosquitoes and deerfly of summer are still active, I walk at the university arboretum. As summer winds down, I’ll go back to the conservation area trails that surround us. Only when the weather is at its worst – heavy snow, torrential rain, extreme humidity – do I resort to indoor walking, either at the local shopping mall, or on my treadmill.
Walking together fosters community, whether its the community of our marriage – BD and I talk best when walking together, and face our most difficult challenges that way; the community of friends you’re sharing a walk with; the more casual community of people met on the shared paths and trails, or the neighbours you meet walking down to the mailbox. It’s also a pretty frugal way to exercise: good shoes are recommended, especially for aging feet, but otherwise there aren’t too many places where you can’t find somewhere to walk without paying an entrance fee.
I wonder, sometimes, who I would be, had I not been that youngest child, free to roam a safe rural environment, touching, tasting, watching the wild world, letting my mind and imagination run freely along conscious and unconscious channels, an experience unstructured and unguided. Would I – could I? write? How healthy – mentally and physically – would I be? Questions that can’t be answered, because every choice of path, every turn we take or don’t take, every hill we do or don’t attempt, changes us, in ways we can’t begin to imagine.