Wanderlust

Over the last couple weeks I’ve been slowly making my way through this book called Wanderlust — A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit. I’ve had it on my shelf for quite some time (it was originally published in 2000). This is the first book of Solnit’s I’ve read, though I’ve been a fan of her columns and essays, particularly the ones I’ve read in Orion (one of my favorite magazines for years now) and Harper’s (another I’ve grown to love due to a steady supply via gift subscription from Julia’s dad).

I think since I started reading Wanderlust I’ve read two other books, and at least one graphic novel. I haven’t found this book to be one where I’ve felt compelled to blaze through it; I’m about midway along, and hope to finish it up by the end of the weekend. It’s a little different than I expected, and the first chapter in particular was a bit slow, but it’s picking up speed for me. As a guy who loves to walk, and hike, it has had some interesting passages about humans and our relationship to walking, whether via theories on when humans first started walking upright or when afternoon strolls got out of the garden and into the wider world. Good stuff, if you’re into that kind of trivia. Solnit has pointed out that this book is “a” history of walking, not “the” history. There certainly is a difference.

A couple passages I’ve noted so far as being particularly interesting. Here’s the first, pretty early in the book, where Rebecca notes how she first started walking regularly near where she lives in San Francisco, thinking about writing about walking:

These linked paths and roads form a circuit of about six miles that I began hiking ten years ago to walk off my angst during a difficult year. I kept coming back to this route for respite from my work and for my work too, because thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented culture, and doing nothing is hard to do. It’s best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking. Walking itself is the intentional act closest to the unwilled rhythms of the body, to breathing and the beating of the heart. It strikes a delicate balance between working and idling, being and doing. It is a bodily labor that produces nothing but thoughts, experiences, arrivals.

I really like that. Most of my best ideas have come while walking, while out combining a kind of exercise with an activity where I’m not really striving for anything but to just move, both the body and the brain. It is something that I almost always feel better afterward than I did when I started. That line, “thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented culture,” is so spot on. I’m a firm believer in idleness as a path to enlightenment, whether it is a spiritual thing or just trying to calm the brain through a plot hurdle one can’t quite get over (or a key change, lyric, design project, etc.). Whenever I start feeling creatively, uh, constipated, I know I haven’t been getting out and walking or hiking enough. And all the running and stuff I do doesn’t count, because in those cases I’m usually wearing headphones to get me through it. It’s a different experience, at least for me.

Here’s another one I really liked:

Part of what makes roads, trails, and paths so unique as built structures is that they cannot be perceived as a whole all at once by a sedentary onlooker. They unfold in time as one travels along them, just as a story does as one listens or reads, and a hairpin turn is like a plot twist, a steep ascent a building of suspense to the view at the summit, a fork in the road an introduction of a new storyline, arrival the end of the story. Just as writing allows one to read the words of someone who is absent, so roads make it possible to trace the route of the absent.

I don’t know, I just dig that, the metaphor of road or trail as story. I bet there are many, many writers and creative types who find the simple effort of walking to be a kind of creative reset button. It definitely is for me.

5 thoughts on “Wanderlust”

  1. >I like that last comment, "Just as writing allows one to read the words of someone who is absent, so roads make it possible to trace the route of the absent." Books for me are always a felt absence, the traces left by someone else's thought. Never quite thought of footpaths like that until now.On the subject of walking, I always think of Thoreau, who says he walks from the time he gets up until he comes home at night – maybe 6-8 hours just walking from place to place. And without an iPod. How physically different our bodies would be if we did that every day, and how different our minds.

  2. >I often run my Saturday morning errands by walking, and more often than not, do a lot of thinking/soul searching along the way.Be it thinking about how to jumpstart a novel, going over the events of the week, or even composing an entire short story, the simple act of walking (or hiking for that matter) often can bring a much need clarity that you really can't get anywhere else.

  3. >David — it's worth checking out. Ron — Rebecca mentions Thoreau many times in this book, and Wordsworth as well.G and Leah — that's exactly how it works for me too.

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