The Perfect Walk


I am joyful walker but reluctant hiker.

Both involve putting one foot in front of the other, but beyond that share little. A walk is an umbrella term that includes saunters, strolls, meanders or moseys – all are defined by their low-energy expenditure and modest distance. In contrast, hikes – including treks, tramps, trudges, tromps, slogs and climbs – are all high-energy uphill affairs that involve sweat. The question is really just how much.

I can let my mind wander as I walk along a well-trodden and even path, but the hard physical work of the hike consumes my mental energy. Is the weather unstable? How far is the next campsite? Is the anti-grizzly pepper spray within reach? What can I do about the back pack strap that is digging into my armpit? Yes, the hike may culminate in a glittering vista, and a side benefit is that the relentless defiance of gravity can crowd out the everyday thoughts of a cluttered mind. Hikers are forced to remain in the simplified here and now, reaching the blissful Zen of the trail.

I do enjoy the occasional modest hike, achieving a goal and plucking the buried strings of my hunter and gatherer heritage. And there are other agenda-driven hikes I enjoy – the birdwatching hike, the fern hike, or just merely getting from point A to point B. But achieving the Zen of the trail, to be alive in the moment, to dissipate the stewing juices of the nattering monkey-mind – in my default slothful state I wonder “Isn’t there an easier way? Do I have to climb a mountain and sweat to do this?”

The walk is my decluttering device. When properly executed, a contemplative walk moves beyond the here and now to harness the minds’ creative energies – free-wheeling, whimsical, fanciful, imaginative and curious, a mind that doesn’t need to focus on the task at hand. I don’t have to think about the physical demands of a hike; in fact it is this uncoupling of physical and mental energy that is the beauty of the successful walk. With a steady put-put pace, the physical energy just fades into the background and my mind is set free to pursue its own agenda.

This balance between the mental and physical energy is well illustrated by a companionable walk with friends. Imagine the same group facing each other around a dinner table. Conversation is pinging back and forth and the evening is being driven by the collective mental energy of the group. Suddenly there is a lapse in conversation. As the hostess you immediately feel the anxiety of a sliver of silence, ratcheting up to the exquisite discomfort of one second of complete silence. You are desperate to reignite the flow, perhaps reaching for the old standby, “Anybody read any good books, lately?” The other option is to introduce some physical energy to the mix to absorb the silence, perhaps getting up to clear the dishes. Unfortunately that awkward silence can become the tipping point for chairs to start scraping as your guests get up to leave. It’s not even 9:00. Silence is poorly tolerated in social events that are driven by mental energy.

Walking, however, is a sponge that sops up silence, in fact walking makes silence a social necessity. Unless one of the walkers is oddly agile, the group cannot face each other and is either arranged side by side or in file. My personal preference is a single-file walk on a wooded path where I can let my mind roam free in the inevitable conversation gaps. Once the group reconvenes, perhaps where the path provides the first glimpse of a nearby lake, I often find that individual trains of thought have veered off in astonishing directions. I might have been discussing the stock market a quarter of a mile ago, only to discover that my walking companion now wants my thoughts on the practical implications of cage-free versus free-range chickens or whether infinity is a an odd or even number. The meandering mind is one of the pleasures of the walk.

I feel like I am in excellent company with Mark Twain, who makes a similar observation in his book “A Tramp Abroad,” recounting his walking tour of Europe with his friend the Reverend Joseph Twichell:

“And what a motley variety of subjects a couple of people will casually rake over in the course of a day’s tramp. There being no constraint, a change of subject is always in order, and so a body is not likely to keep pegging at a single topic until it grows tiresome. We discussed everything we knew during the first fifteen to twenty minutes that morning and then branched out onto the glad, free and boundless realm of things that we were not certain about.”

Twain then traces the trajectory of his conversation as he walked with Twichell, drifting from the rules of grammar, to dentistry, to Civil War surgeons, to skeletons, to a skeleton in his closet, to a character from his Hannibal childhood named Nicodemus Dodge, who ultimately became a character in one of his classic humorous sketches. That is one fruitful walk.

Twain delighted in the companionable walk, but some of my best walks have been solo efforts that serve as the infrastructure for brainstorming. I want my rational mind to step aside, open the stable door and give my paired team of curiosity and imagination a quick switch on their haunches and tell them to run wild across the plains. I pray that they are spirited steeds with flowing manes and flaring nostrils.

Sometimes the horses can just lose their spunk, turn into weary Dobbins and plod back to the stable looking for a fresh bag of oats. Without intervention, a weary imagination can insidiously devolve into wheel-spinning nattering – fussing about the sock that keeps falling into my shoe, stewing over a perceived insult, or wondering if I put enough curry in the chicken salad. This is a critical juncture. I know that I must stop abruptly and reboot. My favored technique is to stand still for a moment, look around, tap into the surrounding visuals and become a “noticer.”

Virginia Woolf relied on the streets of London for her noticing environment. In her essay Street Haunting, she wanders around London on the contrived errand of buying a pencil. She describes the “carnal spendour of the butchers’ shops with their yellow flanks and purple streaks” and then pauses to consider what life must be like for a dwarf that she spots. While Street Haunting is a much-anthologized essay, I like to think that Woolf initially started her walk as the brain-storming basis for her extended essay on gender equality, A Room of Ones’ Own. Perhaps as she walked along she suddenly realized that she was now fuming over the superior education and easier path of her husband and brother-in-law. And perhaps she realized that such fuming was unproductive and far from the intellectual tone she needed for her essay. She stopped in the middle of the block, and that is when she rebooted with the dwarf.

My reboot, my dwarf, my fresh bag of oats, is nature. I look to Charles Darwin as a mentor, the greatest “noticer” of all, someone who didn’t require visual splendor or grand vistas for inspiration. In the Galapagos it would be easy to become besotted with a giant tortoise, a blue-footed booby or a marine lizard. But Darwin noticed everything, even a group of drab, visually blah finches. He applied his curiosity and imagination to the different shapes of their beaks; the theory of evolution was the result.

Back home in his humdrum life in Shrewsbury, Darwin again focused on the small details around him, specifically his beetle collection:

“One day on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as well as the third one…”

I’m certainly not so delusional to think I could become Darwinian, but perhaps I can take timid steps and become an eager “noticer” of everyday life around me. When free-form brainstorming peters out, I stop and look around, arouse curiosity and imagine. The nature walk provides an environment where I can seamlessly glide between brainstorming and noticing.

Each summer I visit the same secluded woods along the south shore of Lake Superior. On the first day of vacation, I leave the cabin unencumbered with gear – no back pack, no hiking books, no heavy bottles of water, no maps, no walking sticks, no agenda. This is my brain-storming walk, just me putting one foot in front of the other. I head over to the trail that skirts an inland lake, deep woods on my left and open water on my right. It is a narrow but well-worn trail; in fact I am the fourth generation to follow its two and a half miles, looping back home through a jack-pine forest to Lake Superior. The terrain is steady and even, the earth is soft and springy and the trail is bracketed by moss. There are no roots or jutting rocks to distract me. Now I just step aside from the here and now and let the horses run.

This brainstorming walk has resulted in some valued decisions. One year I devised a way of working at home, and then on the same path ten years later I decided to quit altogether. I have decided to commission a piece of music for a handbell choir, developed a board game based on the origins of idioms, and conjured creative solutions to complicated family logistics.

When imagination and curiosity flounder and need a little more direction, I transition to my noticing agenda. Overhead, leaves and needles shuffle in the slight breeze, waves ripple to my right. All senses are now engaged. I can look at the patterns of bark and wonder what evolutionary pressures have resulted in the peeling bark of the hickory versus the diamond shaped pattern of the ash. What beetles have specially adapted to live in these cracks and crevices? Why there is foam along the edge of the lake? Could I ever engineer a nest as snug as the pendulous home of a Baltimore Oriole? Where do all flies come from when there is a south wind? Some of these random thoughts then mature into further projects, such perusing a book on animal architecture, or consulting with entomologists on fly behavior.

The brainstorming walk is not an everyday event. The next day I might take a hike, cinch up the backpack, pack a lunch, seek out a vista. But for the first day of vacation, I have found the perfect walk, one without an agenda other than a willingness to branch out into Twain’s “glad, free and boundless realm of things that we are not certain about.” And all of this within ten to twenty minutes of my door.

The missing words in the following poem are anagrams (i.e. share the same letters like spot, post, stop) and the number of asterisks indicates the number of letters. Your job is to solve the missing words based on the above rules and the context of the poem. Scroll down for answers.

Your work is ******* and dull and mentally you have hit the wall

And your twin steeds of imagination and curiosity sit dumbly in their stall

Take a walk, give those horses a switch and tell them to run all out

And only return to the barn when their energy **** ***,

Then stand *******, perhaps on that wooded path running along the shore,

Refreshed, they’ll charge off again ready to brainstorm some more.







Answers: tedious, outside, dies out

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