Why I Walk
The first answer to the question “why walk?” is because I can, a claim I don’t make lightly. I turned 59 just before starting this particular trek–the Te Araroa in New Zealand–and I am constantly reminded of the need for good health and strength in order to backpack long miles day after day. Some years ago, my orthopedist told me to stop running, but when asked about backpacking he said “no problem,” so I immediately started hiking the Appalachian Trail which is how I got my trail name–Tinman. During that first stretch, I kept having to go back to Atlanta to get injections in my surgically repaired knee, creaking and moaning like my counterpart from Oz. In the years since I have completed the Appalachian Trail, the English Pennine Way, part of the Pacific Crest, and been trekking in the Dolomites and Croatia. To me, walking has never really been about completing tracks. I’m not interested in bragging about hiking the triple crown as if it were a merit badge. Rather walking is a form of living that brings insight, gratitude for certain abilities, all enabled by a resolutely simple encounter with the big outside.
Long-distance hiking is an experiment in bare life. I don’t really mean to echo Georgio Agamben (Homo Sacer, 1995) here as my use of “bare” does not signify a legal “state of exception” but instead life outside–outside of society and outside in a world without (many) humans. The need to pack light demands simplification and a constant interrogation about what is necessary. I am carrying things that I have not yet used though I have nearly completed this particular trek–things I probably should have abandoned months ago, but there are also those fundamental bits of equipment that enable living (see pointless essay “Care“). At the same time, being out a long time simplifies your relationship to the natural world. Life becomes bare and elemental: the extraordinary taste of water, palpable morning light, the surface of the earth through your bootsoles, breathing on a mountaintop.
The philosopher Michel Serres noted that the French word for time (temps) is the same as the word for the weather. Walking is fundamentally about temps. Backpackers experience the weather in most of its forms. I rarely check the forecast unless I am going into a particularly treacherous area since I will be out in it whether it is sunny or a storm. On rainy days, I just gear up and start walking. The big outside brings all the subtle shifts of the day, the wind changes, there is a little patch of blue in the sky, or a layering of clouds that signals the breakup of a downpour. In the United States, people speak of climate-controlled environments. They aren’t talking about fixing global warming; they simply mean staying in a heated/air conditioned space completely unaware of weather. Clearly there is nothing particularly virtuous about standing out in a storm. On the Te Araroa I have run from lightning bolts across lowland dykes, fought hypothermia on the edge of the Tongiriro crater, and shivered in knee deep, ice cold stream water on an early morning trek. Rather, being in the weather is part of bare life, of being in the world, and it brings a nuanced sense of what a (your) body can do, and how the world responds.
Of course weather is not just a daily experience–it is also seasonal which is where time clearly comes into play. Earl Shaffer, the first Appalachian Trail thru hiker, described his experience in a book called Walking with Spring, the title signaling the seasonal nature of his hike (and the time-frame most AT hikers continue to follow). My Te Araroa blog is called “South with Spring” in acknowledgement of Shaffer and to mark the same seasonal tactic in the Southern Hemisphere. The time of hiking–daily, monthly, seasonally– is the heart of walking. With long-distance hiking, your body gets into a particular rhythm, generally waking at the same time, getting hungry at specific points in the day, and exhausted at the end. Then there is just the pure walking itself which takes on its own temporality governed not by a clock but by the pendulums that are your legs, marching out a pace, a time, a day, a season. I started the Te Araroa in early spring when the days were short. A good hiking day generally requires more than 12 hours of daylight, so I would find myself waking in the dark and packing up waiting for first light, learning that greeting the dawn is an exquisite element of the big outside. Walking across the seasons is a subtle experience. Unlike home-dwellers who often express surprise at the seemingly sudden appearance of spring or fall, walkers have been noting fine-grained temporal variations daily, the slow budding of plants, feeling days begin to stretch out, watching the sun linger longer on the horizon.
Walking with a backpack, day in and day out, also brings a different relationship to your body. We are accustomed to thinking of our bodies as close, as fundamental to daily life, but actually our experience of corporality can be quite distant. By staying out of the weather and living within industrial time, bodies become objects to be observed in the mirrors on the gym wall rather than occupied as our first-form materiality. Backpacking brings with it a constant inventorying of your body, monitoring hot spots on feet, nutrition needs, and tight muscles. It also brings transformation. Out in the bush, it is virtually impossible to consume as many calories as you are burning (the good news is that long-distance hikers can eat all the ice cream they want). Although the time varies, most people experience significant late afternoon energy drops after tramping a few weeks, the result of having burned off most stored body fat. Initially it is a phenomenon hard to recognize, but after several long treks, the symptoms are familiar, and the only choice is to eat more food (which means carrying a heavier pack). Clothes fit differently as general body shape changes, and transformed vascularization brings out veins that once were hidden. But true nearness to your body comes from experiencing what it can do, how walking in the big outside involves a constantly shifting surface bringing rapid micro-adjustments to stride and foot placement. These are cognitively complex gestures that, on consideration, can only be marveled at. We have a tendency to regard thought as some “higher order” cognition while walking is a simple internalized gesture, but that is to forget the amount of time it took for each of us to learn to walk. It is a neuronally intensive process at least on a par with learning mathematics or composing a poem.
The link between walking and thinking runs deep. Evolutionarily our sensorium is optimized for a 3 kph pace which is one reason it is so easy today to be thrilled through technologically induced acceleration. But there is something about a walking pace, particularly in solitude over long hours, days, weeks and months, that enables careful observation and clears a space for thought. While walking, the sensory stream rarely overwhelms. Instead it offers a different, simpler engagement with the material world and our sense of self (which actually cannot be disentangled). The curve of a hill brings back memories of hills climbed in childhood. Unidentifiable smells, or quality of air shifts (heat and humidity variation), or changes in the light are all lures for thought, a thinking uncoupled from distraction (by distraction I mean that which derails a particular line of thought before it has a chance to fully form). Walking is flow, but a flow at some distance from that of television, the Internet or other media forms. The pacing is its own time and quality: the pace of human bodies and human thought which makes me want to recast Descartes’s formula as “I walk, therefore I think.”
Addendum: In my blog walkinghome.lmc.gatech.edu there is a category called “Pointless Essays.” I’ve been taken to task about that term, but with it I am trying to signal a practice that is only tangentially related to traditional economies. They in some way resemble academic essays but would have no home in an academic journal. They are part of a blog economy, but my readership is precious and few, so their place in any larger economic system is provisional if not pointless. But there is a relationship between pointlessness and walking–particularly long-distance hiking–which is perhaps quintessentially pointless in a capitalist economy. Now I’m not so naive as to believe that there isn’t a huge industry surrounding walking practices, including outdoor equipment providers, hostellers, national parks, and the media (which of course participates in the manufacture of the very idea of Nature), but the personal act of walking in itself is deliberately non-productive in most economic senses. Long-distance hikers are often marginal participants in traditional economies (see my earlier pointless essay “Just a Bindlestiff“). Perhaps a way to phrase it is to appropriate a term from Kant’s Critique of Judgment: walking is “purposive without purpose.” It is motivated but not rewarded (in a monetary sense). Its world is perhaps best articulated by my favorite economist, Henry David Thoreau, who claimed: “It is true, I never assisted the sun materially in his rising, but, doubt not, it was of the last importance only to be present at it.” I’m present at that rising. I walk because I cannot stop.
T. Hugh Crawford