Walking changes the world. When protesters demanding racial justice march on Washington on August 28, they will be following in the footsteps of defiant walkers throughout history. From Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian independence movement to Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement, walking and protest have been joined at the hip.
In 1930, Gandhi and 80 of his followers set out from his ashram in Ahmadabad, heading south, toward the Arabian Sea. By the time they reached the coast, 24 days later, the number of followers had swelled to several thousand. They watched as Gandhi scooped up a handful of salt from the natural deposits, in blatant violation of British law. The great Salt March marked a turning point on the road to independence.
Years later, King, an admirer of Gandhi who had traveled to India, deployed the “stern love” of nonviolent resistance, as well as the walking protest, in the civil rights movement. The Birmingham campaign of early 1963 began with a series of marches, culminating in the historic march on Washington in August of that year. These marches were peaceful but not passive. As King’s fellow activist John Lewis knew so well, walking can be a powerful act of defiance and can lead to “good trouble.”
Not every potential walker has equal access to walkable paths. According to research by the Trust for Public Land, some 100 million residents across the U.S. do not have a park within a 10-minute walk of home. An act that became law this month is pumping money into parks and wild spaces with the goal of supporting conservation, infrastructure, and access.
Walking is about more than walking, and always has been. Walking soothes. Walking inspires and sharpens the mind. The act of walking is democratic, although access to safe walking isn’t always guaranteed, as many in the Black and brown communities know. Freedom is walking’s essence, and everyone should be able to experience that freedom to depart and return when they wish, to meander, and, as writer Robert Louis Stevenson put it, to “follow this way or that, as the freak takes you.”
A pandemic panacea
The pandemic has robbed us of much. Not only lives and livelihoods, but agency too. We feel trapped, powerless. There is much we can’t do. We can walk, though.
With the right mindset, every walk is a pilgrimage, a doorway to the new and revelatory. Many a breakthrough has been stumbled upon while putting one foot in front of the other. We run from problems. We walk toward solutions.
While working on A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens would walk 15 or 20 miles through the back streets of London, turning over the plot in his mind as the city slept. Beethoven found inspiration while ambling in the verdant Wienerwald outside Vienna, Nietzsche in the Swiss Alps. “Do not believe any idea that was not born in the open air and of free movement,” the feral philosopher said.
The novelist Louisa May Alcott regularly embarked on long walks through the countryside near her Concord home. Sometimes she was joined by her fellow author and Transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau. They’d spend hours sauntering (Thoreau loved that word) through the meadows and fields of rural Massachusetts, partaking in their “portion of the infinite,” as Thoreau put it.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau bested them all. He’d regularly walk 20 miles in a single day. “I can scarcely think when I remain still,” he said. “My body must be in motion to make my mind active.” (As he walked, he’d jot down thoughts, large and small, on playing cards he always carried with him.)
The benefits of a stroll
Recent studies confirm Rousseau’s hunch. Our mind is at its most creative at three miles per hour, the speed of a moderately paced stroll. In one study, Stanford University psychologists Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz divided participants into two groups: walkers and sitters. They then administered a test designed to measure “divergent thinking,” an important component of creativity. They found that creative thinking was “consistently and significantly” higher for the walkers than the sitters. It didn’t take a lot of walking to boost creativity, either—anywhere from 5 to 16 minutes.
When we walk, posited the late psychologist Colin Martindale, we enter a state of “defocused attention.” Someone in this state is not scattered, at least not as we normally think of the word. They are both focused and unfocused at the same time. We see more when we walk, as author Edward Abbey notes in his memoir Desert Solitaire: “You can’t see anything from a car; you have got to get out of the god-damned contraption and walk.”
People who walk regularly are healthier and live longer than those who don’t, several studies have found. And you needn’t walk very fast or far to enjoy this benefit. One recent study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, put the 10,000-step myth to rest. It is an arbitrary number. People—older adults in particular—accrue health benefits by taking only a few thousand steps each day, and at a leisurely pace.
Walking is a proven way to lose weight, not only by burning calories but also by reducing our appetite. A study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that a 15-minute walk “reduced chocolate urges” and, in turn, stress eating. Walking has also been shown to ease joint pain, boost immunity, and reduce the risk of developing breast cancer. Gandhi walked throughout his life and attributed his vitality, in part, to this habit.
You can tell a lot about a person by how they walk. The Pentagon recently developed advanced radar that can identify up to 95 percent of individual walks, as distinct as a person’s fingerprints or signature. Walking is personal. People strut and swagger in front of others, but rarely alone. These are social gestures. Walking, the slowest form of travel, is the quickest route to our more authentic selves. As author Cheryl Strayed recounts after her epic 1,000-mile trek along the Pacific Crest Trail: “By the time I finished my long hike, I’d lost six toenails and gained everything that mattered.”
Walking, done properly, is humility in motion. It’s one of the few unadorned activities still available to us, one that, as author Rebecca Solnit points out, remains “essentially unimproved since the dawn of time.”
About six million years ago, early hominids got off their knuckles, stood up straight, and walked on two feet. This new, erect posture had many unexpected benefits. It freed up hands for tool making, as well as pointing, caressing, gesturing, hand-holding, bird-flipping, and nail-biting.
National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek is retracing the steps taken by the first humans who migrated out of Africa during the Stone Age and settled across the planet. He is doing so slowly, one step at a time.
His decade-long venture is noble, though not painless. We walk on two feet, but do so on a skeleton designed for four. This disconnect between ancient anatomy and modern usage keeps podiatrists in business. Flat feet, swollen feet, blisters, bunions, and hammertoes are just a few of the podiatric prices we pay for our bipedal existence. Yet, it is a cost we gladly bear.
For me, walking is the perfect pandemic activity. Socially distanced, yet not isolated, I wave to a neighbor or a postal carrier, engaging in one of those precious micro-encounters that the pandemic has largely robbed us of. Sometimes I walk like a flaneur, strolling aimlessly through the streets of my hometown of Silver Spring, Maryland, watching without wanting, moving without arriving, going where the freak takes me.
Other times, I am more of a Rousseauvian nature walker. My favorite walking trail is in northern Vermont, in a wildlife preserve called Eagle Point. Hugging the Canadian border, it packs a lot of nature into its 420 acres: wetlands, meadows, forest, as well as a menagerie of beavers, muskrats, racoons, coyote, black bear, white-tailed deer and 60 species of birds. It is the ground itself that I like the most, though. Soft and springy, it was made for walking. I traveled there recently, as I do each year. The late-summer sun warming my face, I put one foot in front of the other, repeatedly, defiantly—and joyfully too.
Eric Weiner is the author, most recently, of The Socrates Express: In Search of Life Lessons from Dead Philosophers.
Editor’s note: This article was updated to correct the date in the photo caption describing John Lewis’s 1982 march.