Before that summer, I often had romantic visions of myself as a flaneuse, elegantly dressed walking the streets of Paris as if I were the female version of Baudelaire. Smoothly sashaying in my Coco Chanel as I twirled my long strand of pearls, I’d act nonchalant as people would walk by and smile at me so intense was my allure.
But I lived in Maine and with my limited funds knew it just wasn’t going to happen. So I decided to pacify my dreams with a hike on the Appalachian Trail thinking it would be easy to pretend it was Haussmann Boulevard. Unfortunately my imagination was not prepared for all the mosquitoes and ticks and squirrels and snakes not to mention the rocks in my shoes. I was starting to really feel sorry for myself when out of the blue this huge bear showed up. I started screaming hysterically and thought I was going to die when a wiener flew by me and got the bear’s attention giving me the chance to run away.
I was huffing and puffing when this elderly woman walked up to me and said: “ Honey, you need to watch where you’re going. If it hadn’t been for my wiener, you’d be dead.” The woman had to be at least in her late sixties. She was wearing dungarees, some kind of zip up sweater, Keds snickers, and had a denim sack resting on her shoulder. She introduced herself as Emma aka Grandma Gatewood.
That’s how Emma and I became friends. We started walking the trail together and shared secrets as we women do. She told me she had 11 kids and had been married to a jerk who use to brutally beat her. Finally she found a way to kick him out, take over their farm and raise the kids herself. But then a few years ago she’d read an article in National Geographic about the Appalachian Trail. That no woman had ever walked it seemed like a divine provocation so one day she got a few things together and headed east. Without saying a word to anyone.
Emma showed me how to forage for food (oh the rampions are so good), sleep on a pile of leaves, and ask people for a meal. Maybe because of her age, she enjoyed “trail magic”, unexpected acts of kindness that she in turn would share with me.
When we finally arrived at Mount Katahdin. I was so tired I fell to the ground but Emma, instead, raised her shoulders and started singing “America the Beautiful”. In that moment I understood that walking was a spiritual practice.
Walking is good for us both spiritually and physically. Walking changes our chemistry because it pumps blood and sends oxygen to the body and brain. This animation helps create new brain cell connections as well as stimulate the growth of neurons. It also increases the size of the hippocampus, an area of the brain that’s fundamental for memory.
Walking is also good for the knees because it helps to get joint fluids flowing. It also helps take pressure off the knees as it builds leg muscles.
Earthing is the act of walking barefoot in nature. Since the earth is a conductor, walking barefoot permits free electrons to be absorbed by the body thus promoting wellbeing. It also helps us reconnect with the earth. The soles of the feet have more nerve endings than any other part of the body per square centimeter. Walking barefoot stimulate the soles so walking on sand gives the soles a real tingle (and also gets rid of dead skin).
Walking is also about inter-relating with your surroundings. Driving, instead, reduces your visuals to little more than a blur (even though blurs can be beautiful like Arthur Dove’s painting “Fields of Grain as Seen from a Train Window”). Focusing on the road, you concentrate on where you’re going and not where you are. Walking, instead, gives you the possibility to observe the world around you. Walking gives you details.
The way we move our body influences the way we move our thoughts. Walking at our own pace helps us regain our personal rhythm. A good stroll is a means of resynchronizing ourselves with ourselves. As many women walkers know, solitary walks give you a chance to be alone and intimate with yourself.
George Sand (1804-1876) was born in Paris but spent much of her childhood in the countryside where she created a personal rapport with nature. She enjoyed walking but walking is a physical activity and, way before Coco Chanel, George understood how men’s clothing made moving around so much easier. She also understood that “There is only one happiness in life, to love and be loved.” When her lover Chopin was at Nohant, he would often shut himself in his room to play the same bar over and over again for days. No wonder George like taking walks.
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) After writing about Mrs. Dalloway’s walks around London, Virginia wrote “Street Haunting”, an essay exploring the voyeuristic aspects of walking around town. But the narrator needs a destination to justify the walk so she creates the need to buy a lead pencil. As she passes strangers on the street, she imagines their lives. “What greater delight and wonder can there be than to leave the straight lines of personality. To feel ‘that one is not tethered to a single mind, but can put on briefly for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others.” Walking is a means of connecting with others even if indirectly.
Sophie Calle (b. 1953) More than a walker, Sophie is a stalker. At a party, this French photographer met a man, Henri B., who, without his knowledge, she decided to follow to Venice. With camera in hand, she walked around Venice looking for him and published her efforts in the book Suite Vénitienne. The idea of following others came to her because she was bored and needed a social life. More than a photographer, Sophie is a performance artist.
Martha Gellhorn (1908-1998) was a war correspondent during WWII. This meant she had to do a lot of walking even alongside military tanks. For a few years she was married to Ernest Hemingway (he dedicated For Whom the Bell Tolls to her) but the couple was too big for one another’s breeches. In her seventies she liked strolling the Wye Valley Walk in Wales. That is, before she swallowed a cyanide pill after a long battle with cancer.
Jean Rhys (1890-1979) moved to London where she was snubbed because of her Creole origins. Social prejudice transformed her. Then she went to Paris where her origins were better accepted. Nevertheless, a woman walking the streets was a magnet for the male gaze. And the gazers not only scrutinized but moralized as well ready to take advantage of a woman’s desperation. Rhys was in dire straits and wrote “poverty is the cause of many compromises”. And that pretty much sums up her life.
Freya Stark (1893-1989) was a Brit Italian. A wild and wonderful aunt gave her a copy of One Thousand and One Nights for her birthday. It was the beginning of her love story with the Orient. She became the Poet of Travel hungry to know the Middle East. In Baghdad Sketches she wrote that “personally I would rather feel wrong with everybody else than right all by myself.” Freya liked riding camels but she liked walking, too.
When in doubt, go take a walk!
(from Cool Breeze, aka The Age of Reconfiguration ©)