“When we walk, we naturally go to the fields and woods: What would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall?” wondered Henry David Thoreau (“Walking,” The Atlantic, May 1862). When I started to reread his article today, I wondered how he could sit still to write all those words – there are more than 12,000 of them – on the virtues of walking and resist the impulse to actually walk.
I confess I walk little now, except through my local neighborhood, with all its houses and pavement. In my twenties and thirties when I had a day off I could spend hours walking the woods and fields of Cape Girardeau County, Missouri, where my family has made its home for at least six generations. Then came the years of hiking the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks and – similar in its effect on my soul – occasionally canoeing the St. Regis basin of those same mountains. Now aging knees and a life out of balance have made me a stranger to the landscape and the blessing of knowing it so intimately.
Aging knees I can cope with better than living a life out of balance – one being a condition of this season of my life, the other being primarily a choice I make, or a series of choices. Regardless of my reasons for walking less, the urge to walk remains alive. When I read about walking I feel an impulse akin to the one Walt Whitman must have felt as he sat in a lecture hall listening to an astronomer expound about the stars.
“How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,” he wrote, “Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself, / In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, / Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars” (“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer, 1865). In the same way, when I read about walking I soon want to push back the commitments I’ve made and the work I have to do, get up, and walk.
And now that I have a break in my responsibilities before taking up a new parish assignment, it’s time to do just that. Logan and Gracie, my two four-footed companions, will come with me to teach me again how to saunter – to walk sans terre, “without earth,” without the burden of a homeland, or as a Saint-terrer, a Holy Lander, a name given to pilgrims seeking their destination in the promised land. If they teach me that about walking, it will also be a good lesson for the rest of my life. More about that later, undoubtedly.