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A Walking Life
Reclaiming Our Health and Our Freedom One Step at a Time
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THE FIRST STEP
My guide and I are leaving Africa the way our forebears did during the Pleistocene—on foot.… It was that primordial diaspora that made the world ours, that made us truly human.
—PAUL SALOPEK, January 21, 2013, first dispatch from his multiyear Out of Eden Walk
A STORY WAS WALKING WEST.
In the damp, early hours of September 5, 2015, young men began appearing in the tiny Austrian town of Nickelsdorf. Exhausted and footsore, they were walking the last stretch of an epic, heartbreaking journey through a nondescript parking lot that led off the road. Young women came behind them, then families, and, finally, those in wheelchairs.
All of the people streaming into Nickelsdorf were war refugees. They’d come from cities that had been centers of culture and commerce for thousands of years before the Roman Empire was even thought of, cities that were shaped by centuries of conquest, tradition, and progress; and they came from rural soils that had given birth to the first human agriculture.
Bethany Bell, a reporter for the BBC, had been waiting for this story for months, through late August and early September 2015. She reported on the migrant crisis as wave after wave of Syrian war refugees piled into the train station in Budapest, Hungary, hoping to cross the border into Austria. Along with journalists from The Guardian, The New York Times, Le Monde, Deutsche Zeitung, and publications from all over the world, she waited while the governments of Germany, Hungary, and Austria bent to xenophobia, nationalism, and the strong countering wind of human compassion, wrangling back and forth about what to do with the now-countless refugees fleeing the war that was devastating their homeland.
When word filtered to Budapest that Germany would accept the people and their attendant needs, some of the exhausted thousands waited for buses, but others did what any one of us billions of humans might do in their situation: they stood up in the darkness and drizzle and began walking. A hundred miles from Budapest, they crossed the border into Austria.
Along with reporters waiting at Nickelsdorf, the Red Cross stationed itself to greet the refugees. They handed out food, clothes, and water. But what the people wanted most was shoes. Their footwear by that time had become worn-out and inadequate to the monumental task they were given. In between interviewing refugees, Bell took pictures of bedraggled shoes and a prosthetic leg abandoned on the pavement. Another pile of donated shoes waited to be put to use: teenagers’ tennis shoes, women’s dress shoes, high-top children’s sneakers, black rain boots, polka-dotted rain boots, pink rain boots with red hearts. Aids we use to help us navigate this world on our feet.
Bell described the scene that Saturday morning in 2015 as imbued with an unexpected sense of hope, despite the horrific causes of the refugees’ arrival. “Which country are we in now?” the young men asked. On being told they were in Austria, they cheered. The families came much more slowly, far behind. “I want my son to grow up in a place without war,” an engineer told Bell of his decision to leave his beloved Damascus with his teenage son.
A sense of hope, said Bell, and, she told me, “for me there was something deeply human in it. For all the things we create for ourselves, the homes we build, the lives, sometimes you just have to walk away.”
Walking is both our first step and last resort when fleeing war or persecution. Our feet don’t need access to gas stations fed by fuel pipelines, or electric rails, or even roads, all the manufactured boundaries that structure how we maneuver through our physical space. The highways are bombed, the trains aren’t running, and suddenly questions of borders and gridded networks of transportation lose relevance. A refugee doesn’t have the luxury of restraining his step with respect to political margins. Through our feet, we are reminded that the planet is a whole thing, and that we are animals evolved to traverse it with a sure step and elongated spines.
HUMANS EXIST WITHIN moments and days, the short spans of our lifetimes, in which we see our homes and communities, our national borders, as immovable realities. We forget how wide-roaming our species has been across this living planet, how often violence or starvation or environmental devastation has uprooted us and driven us out, how many miles we’ve walked in search of hope or adventure or safety, how very large our story is when told by the way we amble across the earth, set loose by the freedom of our feet.
Walking is essential to our physical health and creativity, to children’s brain development, to mental well-being throughout our lives, and to our understanding of our place in the world. Walking is not, can never be, just about burning calories or counting steps. It’s an ancient act evolved over millions of years and is deeply integral to our sense of belonging, both physically and psychologically.
But driven by a combination of a car-centric culture and an insatiable thirst for productivity and efficiency, we have been designing walking out of our lives for nearly a hundred years. Losing walking might seem the stuff of science fiction, but the fact is that most Americans lack access, time, and often the desire to walk even the bare recommended minimum of thirty minutes a day. We’re busy people. We have things to do and places to go, and we need to do those things and get to those places fast. And we think about walking so little that it might seem arbitrary, a small, creaky, slow thing in a world of big human concerns and urgent human needs, but the stark truth is that if we lost our ability and right to walk, the results would be devastating. The loss of walking as an individual and a community act has the potential to destroy our deepest spiritual connections, our democratic society, our neighborhoods, and our freedom.
Walk, perambulate, saunter, tread, stroll, amble, hike, trudge, wander: for decades the act of walking has been consigned to the realm of art, a place for poets and physicists and philosophers to wander and think. But walking extends paths into every aspect of our everyday lives, from how our bodies and brains have evolved, to how democracies function, to how we manage and mitigate our health as we rush headlong into a future where digital technology seems destined to manage our lives at levels increasingly intertwined and microscopic.
This is not a path we are predestined to choose. We can change the course of our mobility. And we need to.
This book will explore walking’s role in many areas of human life—health, creativity, spirituality and grief, the structure of our communities—and it will explore the ways in which we’ve lost some of these things (health, creativity, community) at the same time that we’ve begun to lose walking. It will also describe how we are beginning to reclaim our birthright as a bipedal species and the benefits we gain from our singular form of movement—the visible benefits, but more importantly, the unseen ones.
At its core, this book is about deep human connection. Connection to one another, to the planet, and to our own selves. We evolved as creatures who traverse the earth on two feet at a rate of about three miles an hour. That is the speed at which we learned to hunt, use tools, gather food, raise children, exchange goods, form tribes and societies. It’s the speed at which we muse, think, ponder, soul-search. We have always walked the planet. It’s who we are.
It’s only very recently that large masses of us have taken to moving at other paces and connecting in other ways, and neither our bodies, our minds, nor our societies have adapted to these shifts. We may not for a very long time.
There is no reason, either, why those changes should be permanent. With all our human ingenuity and self-knowledge, we’re perfectly capable of creating lives and infrastructure that include walking as a primary means of daily locomotion and interaction, without giving up the ability to travel across the globe at a faster, more mechanical pace. In doing so, we could find that we reconnect to much of what many people feel they’ve lost over the past hundred years or so: a sense of community, a feeling of time as an expansive, friendly gift rather than an anxiety-inducing taskmaster, and the sheer luxury, the almost pure animal pleasure, of moving through the world under the power of our own miraculous bodies.
IMAGINE THERE IS a path before your feet. It’s firm and clean, broken by tree roots and rocks, sprinkled with golden larch needles, or perhaps red-orange maple leaves, or it’s a noisy city sidewalk packed with fellow humans, or it’s soft with white chalk exposed by millennia of passing feet. Pick the landscape that speaks most to your sense of place, of home. This path is anywhere, nowhere and everywhere. It leads through space and through time.
Now stand up and move as if to stride forward. Before your foot even lands on the ground, your step vibrates in response to millions of years of human evolution. Your hips shift weight onto the foot still pressed on the ground, while your knee works as a pendulum to swing forward. A sensory system made of tiny bones and organs in your inner ear maintains your connection to the gravitational pull of the planet, keeping you upright. Another sensory system gives you a keen awareness of how and where your body is moving, telling your foot, before it lands, how heavily to fall, while at the same time providing feedback to your brain so that you can adapt to the terrain you’re in the process of traversing.
There’s a lot going on when we take a step. And most of us do it unwittingly, sometimes thousands of times per day if we’re lucky. Each of those steps is a falling forward, taken with the knowledge that the ground will catch us before we tumble. Walking is often described as an act of faith, but faith, I think, is the wrong word. It is closer to an act of trust, the kind that comes from a decades-long relationship made strong through the fractures and strata of experience. Faith is given to that which we can never, in this life, know for certain. Trust is given to that which has proven itself. And this relationship, of our bodies and our motion with the planet that gives us life, has developed not over decades or even millennia, but over so many millions of years it’s beyond the stretch of human imagination. We step forward in complete trust because we know exactly how our footfalls will be met.
THROUGHOUT THIS BOOK, I will refer more than once to the concept that bipedal walking is what makes us human. This claim begs the question: where does that leave those whose disabilities mean they can’t walk, or can’t walk without support? Considering how long we live and how dependent an increasing number of us are on complex medical technology to do so, where does that leave all of us?
The definition of “human” has never been consistent. At various points in history it has left out women, African Americans, Jewish people, Christians, non-Christians, enslaved people of any race or ethnicity, the mentally disabled, the physically disabled, and countless others. To clarify: The idea that “walking makes us human” applies not to any individual’s claim to humanity, but to a scientific classification that helps to categorize our species. We are not chimps or gorillas or macaques; we are Homo sapiens, defined in part by our habitual bipedality. Our evolutionary shift to that habitual bipedalism, says world-famous paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey, is what makes us human, but it’s also just the beginning of our shared story.
Walking itself can mean different things to different people. We stride, but we also roll and shuffle and tap. Walking gets us places under our own power, or with whatever assistance is necessary to do so, and we do that in whatever way our bodies direct. And although the words and descriptions used in this book most often assume an able-bodied person, I have come to think of walking as more than a form of transportation; it is a manifestation of being as fully present in the world as is possible for each individual. The words we use as stand-ins for walking are due, I hope, for expansion, opening a door to this wider reality.
SEVERAL YEARS AGO, while I was living in semirural upstate New York, I sat in the children’s section of a Barnes and Noble, watching my kids play at the Thomas the Tank Engine train table. I had about an hour before my two-year-old needed her nap, and we had to get groceries before that. We were out of milk, among other necessities. My then five-year-old son tried to coax his sister into sharing her engines, but gave up after she threatened to bite him. I closed my eyes, riding on the never-ending exhaustion that comes with parenting small children, and thought of how badly I didn’t want to take them grocery shopping.
It wasn’t the shopping itself that made me balk; it was the location. The grocery store was immediately across the street from Barnes and Noble. If I could take my kids by the hand or put them in a stroller and walk there, the door-to-door trip would probably have taken five minutes. But I couldn’t walk there. It was, in fact, impossible for anybody to cross the five lanes that separated the two stores’ parking lots, at least legally and safely. There was no crosswalk, no crossing light, nothing to indicate that the designers of this road had ever contemplated using it for anything but cars. Getting to the grocery store was an ordeal that began with persuading my kids out the door and back to the car, buckling them in their booster seats, buckling myself, starting the car, cursing the hundred-degree weather and broken air conditioning and the fact that I hadn’t found shade to park in, reversing out of our space, navigating the traffic between Barnes and Noble and Lowe’s, waiting at the traffic light, parking again, unbuckling the kids, telling them sharply to stay put until I’d gotten our grocery bags out of the trunk, picking up my daughter and holding my son’s hand, and proceeding warily through the busy parking lot to the store’s front doors, where they would fight over who got to push the child-sized cart without the wonky wheel. The entire process would be punctuated with stabs of pain in my lower back as I twisted to buckle them in their seats and folded myself behind the steering wheel.
It was insane.
The store was right there. If there hadn’t been so much traffic exhaust from the road, we probably could have smelled the grocery store’s bakery from the bookstore. If we could have walked, the grocery store visit would have been an organic, nearly pleasant side trip in our morning. Instead, it was a car-dependent nightmare.
OVER THE PAST hundred years we have designed and built a world in which most of us no longer have the time or desire to walk, although as far as desire goes, one might ask—when did we ever, except for the Stoics, poets, and the elite? Most of humanity has always walked, but “going for a walk” has generally been a luxury for those with both enough time and enough calories. Now, the converse has become true: the ability to walk as a way of life—to work, school, social events, food, and services—has become the luxury.
After several years of driving my children across the road from Barnes and Noble to the grocery store, and to everywhere else we needed to go, I finally moved my family back to Montana, where I was born and raised, a fifth-generation descendant of homesteaders on my mother’s side. We returned to my hometown, where walking and its offshoots are a way of life. We gave up one of our two cars without regret, and our kids slowly learned that they could get places on their own two legs, without being buckled into a car seat, and more importantly they learned that doing so was a lot more fun than driving, that a walking life gave them far more freedom over their own mobility. The lessons of our previous car-dependent life, though, stuck with me, and in my work I returned repeatedly to its consequences, not just for myself but for all of us.
When we walk, time slows down, and our multitasking brains rest and reconnect with our creative selves. When we walk, we become something we’ve forgotten during centuries of technological revolution and the race to make our lives ever more efficient and productive—we become more human. And in walking we find the space to ask ourselves a question that perhaps we’ve been avoiding, one that, in part, I wrote this book to explore: What does that mean?
THERE ARE MANY stories in these pages, and many of them have a solitary component, an essence of aloneness. But in each of these, that aloneness is offset by human bonds. Our walking stories nearly always hold these connections, even when they’re unacknowledged. In her memoir Wild, Cheryl Strayed recounts a solo journey she took hiking the Pacific Crest Trail to process her mother’s death and her own broken sense of self and self-worth. The point of the journey is Strayed alone, but the lingering memory of her story, for me, was how many people helped her along the way, how many connections she made through the simple act of others’ spontaneous generosity. Even when we are solitary, we do not walk alone.
Toward the end of his nonfiction book On Trails, Robert Moor ends up in Morocco trying, with two guides, to map a trail that would be a kind of extension of the Appalachian Trail—separated by the vast Atlantic Ocean but linked geologically by the rocks underfoot, ranges and dirt that had, millions and millions of years ago, been part of one gigantic land mass. Musing on the connections and misunderstandings between people of different cultures, different value systems, and what he calls the problems of “connection without fellow feeling,” he wrote: “We can travel at the speed of sound and transmit information at the speed of light, but deep human connection still cannot move faster than the (comparatively, lichenous) rate at which trust can grow.”
As our digital world connects us more quickly every year but without much depth, we find ourselves dizzy, addicted, confused, not sure how to keep up—or if we should keep up—and wondering how the speed of connectivity is changing who we are as individuals and societies. These connections are, though, still new and still shallow. To balance them, to learn how to develop them and live with them, we need to allow ourselves the deeper connections that are built, step-by-step, over lifetimes and as physical beings in the physical world. To answer an hour on social media with the irreplaceable delight of walking out our own doors and breathing in this wild world while we wander. The trust we build with one another still occurs, despite all our technological advances, at a human pace.
IN 2013, JOURNALIST Paul Salopek embarked on a decade-plus, twenty-one-thousand-mile journey on foot to trace the ancient migration of humanity from our cradle in Ethiopia’s Great Rift Valley to Tierra del Fuego in Chile. He set out to rediscover that human tempo, the motion at three miles an hour that has defined the way we narrate and interpret landscapes for tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of years. A pilgrimage, in a way, to answer what it means to be a human traversing the world at a walking speed and on his own two feet. Salopek is chronicling his journey in regular online Out of Eden dispatches for National Geographic.
I’ve become drawn deeply into his journey, not just because of the walking or the luxury of time and space and slowness. The true gift also lies in Salopek’s telling of it: we are lesser creatures without our stories, whether they’re told with footprints, or with our words. “Walking has made my legs and heart stronger,” he wrote three years into his journey. “But more important, it’s limbered up my mind. Spanning nations, continents, and time zones on foot—day after day, month after month—has altered the way I experience life on the planet.”
We walk, and dams in our minds begin to crumble; our thoughts find new paths to explore; our prejudices and assumptions about ourselves, about other people, about the world around us, begin to erode, to shift, to blur. Our bodies become alive again and we learn, maybe for the first time since we were little children, what a giddy, vital, physical thing it is to be alive.
The story that walked into Nickelsdorf that rainy day in 2015 under the footsteps of refugees was not the transient headline chased by Bethany Bell or any other journalist. It was a human story, the human story, and it belongs to all of us.
“You’re conscious now. It means you want things. You just have to figure out what.” “How do I do that?” “Go for a walk. See the world.”
—HUM∀NS, Season 2, Episode 5
CONSIDER YOUR FEET. NO, REALLY CONSIDER THEM. NOT “Feet are smelly, gross, weird, sexy.” Not what feet mean; consider what feet are. Delicate limbs with the barest hint of a fin’s shape; they hold up your body, one at a time bearing your full weight with each step you take. Heel bone rolling briskly toward sensitive arches, landing that weight on a network of metatarsals and steadying for a whisper of a moment on the flats of your toes, holding aloft your entire, complex human form in a beautiful, unconscious balancing act. And then your opposite knee and ankle pendulum forward to land your weight entirely, accurately, on your other foot, starting the whole swaying, miraculous dance over again.
We take thousands of these steps per day, performing an infinity of miracles throughout our lives as long as we are able-bodied. Our feet are one of our most sensitive translators of the world. We give credit for this to our eyes, our brains, and sometimes our ears, but without our feet’s ability to read the terrain beneath them, most of us wouldn’t go anywhere. They tell our brains and internal balance systems if the ground is icy, rocky, hilly, flat, made of cobblestones or of smooth asphalt. Our feet take a pounding every day of our lives, yet never stop reading the earth with perception that’s light and sensitive, like a downy feather floating in a light breeze.
DO YOU REMEMBER learning to walk? Most of us don’t. Yet, as infants, learning to walk takes our complete attention. To walk fluidly, we must learn to plan instantaneously: to shift our weight while using feedback from our feet, our eyes, and our internal sense of balance, adjusting to slopes, obstacles, and dangers like ice. There are so many considerations the brain has to weigh when walking that it’s a wonder it doesn’t take several minutes for humans to accomplish each of our own steps.
Every time we take one of these steps, we fall, catch ourselves, fall again. A “two-beat miracle,” Paul Salopek calls it—“an iambic teetering, a holding on and letting go.”
When we walk, our ankles and knees work to balance the body’s weight over a single foot, allowing the other to release and swing forward. Just before that leg’s foot leaves the ground, its knee bends and elastic energy that was stored in the ankle tendons releases. The combination of elastic energy, pivoting, and lifting is what allows humans to walk using comparatively little energy, but the process is complicated. It seems to lean significantly on the brain in ways we’re only beginning to fathom, and has so far been almost impossible to replicate with precision.
In 2015, a twenty-seven-year-old single mother named Rebekah Gregory stepped across the finish line of the Boston Marathon and collapsed to the ground. Head on her arms, wearing a blue T-shirt that read “Rebekah Strong,” she sobbed from both pain and emotional overload as her trainer lifted her to her feet. Gregory, who had lost the lower part of her left leg as a result of the 2013 bombing of the same marathon, ran across the finish line wearing a bright pink tennis shoe on one foot and a prosthetic limb in place of the other. Gregory’s legs had fortunately shielded her then five-year-old son from the worst of the 2013 bomb blast, but after seventeen surgeries to save the left one, and a life of constant pain, she opted for amputation.
Running the last three miles of the marathon—the most her doctors would allow her to do—was an act of strength and resilience. Gregory had not been a runner before her amputation; running the marathon was, as she put it in a Facebook post, a final step in reclaiming her life.
Rebekah Gregory’s story is not just about one woman’s courage and determination, although it is also that. Nor is it about the technological advances in medicine that allowed her to run at all, although those developments play a role. It is a story about how deeply the act of walking is intertwined with our sense of self, our sense of freedom.
Walking is our first full-body act of independence. Toddlers will gleefully totter away from their parents and then turn back, giggling, knowing that they now have access to unimaginable power—the power to go where they wish under their own steam. As adults, we turn to walking to express our freedom, our frustrations, our goals. When we lose that ability, when it is taken from us, the inability to walk can rock us to our cores. There is a reason that “Will I ever walk again?” is a reliable trope of medical dramas.
“Upright walking is a hallmark of human evolution,” said Dr. Jeremy DeSilva, an assistant professor of paleoanthropology at Dartmouth College, in an online course on bipedal walking that I took in 2017. “It was a critical adaptation; a gateway to becoming human.”
- "Reading this wise, soulful book by Antonia Malchik feels like treating yourself to a good walk. By the end, you're thinking more clearly, you've had some unexpected insights, and you're really glad you took the time to do it."—Alan Weisman, author of the New York Times bestseller The World Without Us and Countdown
- "Antonia Malchik's walkabout reconnects us to what it means to be human -- finding community, citizenship, creativity, mental and physical health, and ultimately, freedom -- through the perambulation that distinguishes us from other creatures. This is an important book for our time: we must reincorporate walking in the fabric of our environments if we are to remain resilient to the challenges that face us."—Wade Graham, author of Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas That Shape the World
- "This charming and poignant book really brings home what it means to walk. Look no further for evidence of what we have forsaken by allowing so much of our country and planet to be reshaped, no longer around the human stride, but around the demands of a two-ton steel carapace that, for only 20 percent of our income, grants us obesity, asthma, daily carnage, unending traffic, and climate change."—Jeff Speck, city planner and author Walkable City Rules
"The overall message is eye-opening, revealing the somber reality of our car-centric world but also inspiring a desire to reconnect with our primeval desire to wander on our own two feet."
- "Readers interested in green living and libraries that support ecology and urban studies programs will want this far-reaching book about how to maintain a sustainable lifestyle."—Library Journal
"A travel writer who now lives in her native Montana after decades of more urban life, Malchik hasn't simply written a self-help book on the physical and psychological benefits of walking, though there is plenty of that here. The author also delivers a manifesto that involves urban planning, technology, political protest, the environment, and the future of the planet. Humans were not only designed to walk, she writes; they are all but defined by their bipedal nature. [...] She also explores the ramifications of refugees walking hundreds of miles for asylum, protestors mobilizing in the thousands for political action, and pilgrims undertaking long journeys by foot for spiritual reasons. (She finds walking meditation more beneficial than sitting meditation.) If we walked more often, we'd feel better, think more creatively, suffer less depression, have more connections as a community, breathe cleaner air, and have a more profound understanding of our place on the planet...[Malchik] makes a convincing plea for better balance."
- "No wonder, then, so many writers have, of late, taken to the page to give encomiums to walking. Few do it as warmly as Antonia Malchik, who reminds us in A Walking Life that walking is about so much more than movement--our footfalls, she demonstrates, are about longing, freedom, connection, belonging, and home. ... Reading her book is tantamount to taking a walk with a generous friend whose curiosity and hope fills you with the compulsion to walk and open yourself to the world and its infinite stories."—Garnette Cadogan, Literary Hub
- On Sale
- May 5, 2020
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Hachette Go