Teen: You’re walking?
Teen: Where are you going?
Me: Home. It’s four blocks from here.
Teen: Wow, four blocks is a long way to walk in the rain.
Me: [jaw hits ground]
People in my town, upon learning that I walk from place to place, tend to regard me, kindly, as mentally ill. Of course, I am mentally ill, but I the cause, I think, has more to do with genetics than with my chosen form of transportation. If anything, I probably don’t walk enough: most days I walk the four blocks to and from the post office and back, and while I suppose this is more walking than some Americans do — quite a lot more, at least in the rain, to judge by the conversation I had this afternoon — it pales in comparison to the amount of time I spend sitting in front of a computer. I thought about that as I was walking home, and so when I got home I thought it might be a good time to go for an actual walk, one whose purpose was simply to walk, not to get from place to place. It was drizzling slightly, or trying to, and turning cold, which meant the golf course would likely be empty, and so I changed into boots and layered on my rain gear and off I went.
(Yes, we have a golf course in my town. 351 people, 9 holes of golf. The course is laid out over a ridge and its surrounding lowlands just south of town, and in addition to the nine holes, it has a great many home sites, most of which remain unsold and none of which have been built on yet. I will rue the day someone does build out there, as I tend to regard the place as my own private nature preserve, but I’ve been informed that, due to bureaucratic tangles of which I remain happily ignorant, it will be a long, long time before anyone builds there.)
I walked for over an hour, mostly up on the ridge, keeping away from the roads, which are all named for surrounding mountains and formations: Phelps Way, Irish Rock, Pinnacle Rock, etc. I am reminded of what Billy Collins says about the naming of subdivisions: that Pheasant Run and Deer Creek are not descriptive but elegiac, honoring the creatures that were displaced so that development could occur. The mountains have not yet been displaced, of course, but some of them have been mined and drilled, and others will surely follow.
When I got home, I pulled a tome off the shelf and sat down to reread Thoreau’s “Walking,” which seemed to me to be the thing to do. I thought about copying out a few paragraphs and leaving them in conspicuous places around town, but doing so would undoubtedly be a further indication of my mental illness, so I did not. The funny thing to me is that for as odd as my walking is considered here, I am, according to Thoreau, no kind of walker at all. Happily, Thoreau wasn’t completely convinced that he was much of a walker himself:
It is true, we are but faint hearted crusaders, even the walkers, nowadays, who undertake no persevering, neverending enterprises. Our expeditions are but tours, and come round again at evening to the old hearth side from which we set out. Half the walk is but retracing our steps. We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return, — prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again, — if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk.
I have read a number of the currently popular genre of book, the “I went and did this thing for a year” book. There are a great many of these about — years without shopping, without buying anything made in China, living as if it were 1900, living according to the Bible, getting all your food locally, making everything in Mastering the Art of French Cooking — and one is tempted to think of something so trendy as a new idea. But of course Walden was the original “I went and did this thing for a year” book. Thoreau even foreshadowed our current concerns about the accuracy of nonfiction narratives — he actually lived at Walden Pond for two years, but he condensed his experiences into a year for the sake of the narrative. And, as Thoreau detractors are wont to point out, he cheated — he ate half his meals at his mom’s house, or Emerson’s house. Thoreau doesn’t include that, but I doubt he would apologize for it: the point was to live deliberately, and he felt he accomplished that. If you want to get hung up on exactly how he did it, go read the chapters on Economy and bean planting again. Edward Abbey also neglects to include the wife and two children who were living with him during most of the period recounted in Desert Solitaire, which seems egregious in some ways. But including the things they left out would make Thoreau’s narrative, and Abbey’s, more like the current crop of books, which are forever agonizing over the rules and whether they are sticking to them.
It’s hard to imagine anything like Walden getting taken seriously today. Try to imagine a chapter excerpted in Harper’s or The Atlantic Monthly. It’s too sincere, and, as Lionel Trilling pointed out, sincerity got trumped by authenticity a long time ago.
It has always been my desire to live closer to the roots of things, to learn by going where I have to go, to get there by my own means, and while I do not deny the genetic and biological underpinnings of mental illness, I’ve always felt as well that the things I want — to live closely, to take my waking slow, to walk upon the earth and not the pavement — are not an expression of my illness by a desire for health.