When you walk, the basso continuo of joy comes from feeling the extent to which the body is made for this movement, the way it finds each pace the resource for the next.
Anyone who loves long, tiring walks probably already has any instinctive appreciation of why the process is so satisfying. It’s something to do with the rhythm; the physical endeavour; the distance from telephones and schedules. I’d always enjoyed being outside, and exercise, but over the past few years I’ve found that long walks are the only way I ever really get close to shedding the burden of work. Walking has become something of a necessity. I wrote about this back in the summer, when Neil and I had just finished Hadrian’s Way; as I said then, for a few days everything slips away in the rhythm of the trail, and the modern demand for distraction is replaced by attention to maps and stiles and aching feet.
In A Philosophy of Walking, Frédéric Gros interrogates that sensation, and isolates the pleasures to be found in a long walk. Interwoven in his gentle philosophizing are histories of some of the most famous walkers and the impact it had on their lives, art and politics: Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Rousseau, Wordsworth, Thoreau and Gandhi. None of them are figures I know a great deal about, but I enjoyed Gros’ exploration of their lives through the prism of their walking. I can only imagine that the book would be even more pleasurable if you had an existing interest in any of these men. (It would have been interesting to include a woman’s story here, too – someone like Robyn Davidson, perhaps.)
For me, the book struck an ideal balance between ratifying feelings I was already half-aware of, and introducing me to entirely new people and ideas. He begins, for example, by explaining the tantalizing anonymity of walking. By walking you escape from the very idea of identity, the temptation to be someone, to have a name and a history. Being someone is all very well for smart parties where everyone is telling their story, it’s all very well for the psychologists’ consulting rooms. But isn’t being someone also a social obligation which trails in its wake – for one has to be faithful to the self-portrait – a stupid and burdensome fiction? That expresses it perfectly – it isn’t that walking is a kind of self-abnegation, more that the “selves” you require day to day become surplus to requirement, like the extra jumper you thought you ought to pack for the journey. It’s a relief to shed job-titles and status-updates, and by extension the labels people may use to define you at home. In Wild Cheryl Strayed doesn’t travel as a griever, a daughter or a divorcee – she is a walker, and the process of leaving those identities by the side of the trail is her salvation. When you encounter fellow-walkers, they don’t care what you do, what your circumstances are, or even if you’re happy. They just want to know how far you’ve come, if there’s a camp-site ahead, or somewhere to get food.
There is a playful, rebellious political undercurrent here, too. In a consumer-driven world, one of the most shocking things an individual can do is to strip their life back to the essentials. Like Patrick Leigh Fermor striding across Europe with nothing but some books, a walking stick and a limited supply of clothes, walking necessitates simplicity. Just below the useful, there is necessary, as Gros says. In one chapter, Gros explains just how subversive a figure the urban flâneur can be: because in the world of crowds and merchandise, he does nothing other than look – he subverts solitude, speed, dubious business politics and consumerism. A walk may last a few hours, a few days, a few weeks – but in that time, you are doing nothing other than move, sleep, and eat. You can step away from the grindstone, your wallet, and your status, and rediscover the wild.
If walking is subversive for the flâneur, it was also the ideal means of protest for Gandhi. In 1930, at the age of sixty and after years of failing to overthrow the rule of Empire through his entirely peaceful methods, he decided to march to the coast to collect salt. For years, Gros says, the British had held a monopoly over salt. There was even recourse to destruction of deposits when natural salt was found close to populations who might take it for their own use. Salt: a free gift from the sea, a humble but indispensable foodstuff. It was an obvious injustice, and Gandhi decided to use it as a symbolic destination for a long journey. This is a particularly beautiful, and timely chapter; ahead of the launch of COP21 this week, hundreds of thousands of people around the world took to the streets to demonstrate how important an issue climate change is to them. The legacy of Gandhi’s peaceful march lives on in moments like this, where walking takes on a particular significance.
Gros’ book put something I enjoy very much into a fascinating new context. The best way I can think to describe it is to say that it reminded me of the way in which the Greeks have different words for love – and in that way, the most simple of things can acquire a myriad of different meanings.