I am a morning walker. I get up from bed early and set out on foot. Some days I walk two miles, other days five or six. When I return home my wife and children are up, spreading jam on toast and rubbing their eyes as they stand in the kitchen. When I greet them the words feel strange in my mouth. It’s been hours since I spoke and my morning walk can feel like an appendix to sleep, a half-dream from which I still need rousing.
They say there is an art to walking, but I am only an amateur. I walk to feel the unenclosed air, to see what’s growing or overgrown, blooming or dying, in my neighbors’ gardens. I walk to admire the old houses, both the well-kept and those that languish in picturesque disrepair. I like to find the shops and parks and public spaces empty and abandoned. I will gladly walk in a rainstorm.
Some praise aimless walking while others praise method; then there are some who want both. On first visiting a new city, Zbigniew Herbert (in Barbarian in the Garden) recommends a rule of “straight ahead, third left, straight ahead, third right.” I have no rule or guide. I trace familiar routes, or I search out virgin territory. The only sure destination is home again.
The Latin phrase solvitur ambulando means “it is solved by walking” – and many claim they’re able to sort out their problems this way. I find, however, that while an afternoon walk may help to untie the mental laces, a morning walk is no help at all. In the early morning the puzzles and worries of my waking life are still obscured; they stand aloof in a twilight fog. It’s not until I’ve eaten and had some tea that they step forward. But I always walk on an empty stomach.
To saunter means to walk in a leisurely way. Thoreau in his essay on walking derives the word from Sainte Terre and suggests that a ‘saunterer’ was one who begged alms in medieval villages while claiming, truthfully or not, to be on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Thoreau admires the etymology. “For every walk is a sort of crusade,” he writes, “preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels.”
The infidels in this case are those persons burdened by the cares of the workaday world, blind to the Mount Zion atop which they already stand. But it surprises me a little that Thoreau, who was such a gentle person, should reach immediately for the martial image of the crusader. Can one call the crusaders pilgrims? Pilgrimage was first of all an act of penance, and God knows we’ve each played the infidel.