Take a Hike: Week #7 of 52 Mini-Essays Project

On recreational ambling, getting lost, and existential dread

Topic idea: Diana Bellonby


Here, for the first time ever in print, is the Official List of activities that always turn out to be less fun than you think they’re going to be: roller coasters, making croissants, the Academy Awards, class reunions, scrolling through Twitter (or Instagram or Facebook or YouTube or TikTok), pie-eating contests, cocaine, clothes shopping, Tom Hanks movies, drive-in theaters, and convertibles. And here is the obverse list—things that are way more fun than you usually anticipate: weddings, clipping your nails, trivia contests, headstands, re-reading mystery novels, lying in a hammock, essay writing, brushing a cat, yard work, road trips, flossing, and Billy Crudup. 

It pains me deeply to report that there is a small group of puzzling activities that can be assigned to neither list, that flummox and disconcert with their uncategorizability: sex, walking, and tubing. About the last one there isn’t that much to say: sometimes it’s so raucously fun and cliché-perfect that you feel like you and your friends are in a powdered-lemonade commercial; sometimes the sun is too hot and you’re worried about E. coli and your swimsuit keeps riding up your butt crack. About the first one there is far too much to say: it depends not only on timing, mood, partner(s), setting, but also on a host of conditions over which we don’t always have control—access to contraception (where required), lighting conditions, whether or not anything is riding up your butt crack.

That leaves us with walking. Obviously the question of whether any given walk is more or less fun than you had hoped depends not only on the actual amusement quotient of said walk but also on your level of anticipatory excitement. Basically, it depends on how you feel about The Idea of Walking. Does the prospect of placing one foot in front of the other and swinging your arms slightly from the shoulder thousands of times in a row leave you slightly cold? Or do you romanticize the entire enterprise, perhaps picturing yourself strolling under the bending willows, dappled by sunlight, a picturesque straw hat shading your noble brow as you benevolently regard some gentle cows munching herbage in your neighbor’s paddock? Do you tend to imagine yourself as Elizabeth Bennet striding purposely Netherfield-wards to rescue her sister from snobbery, or as a whimsical woodland creature clutching an enchanted gewgaw that you must cast into a forbidding volcano? Do you currently have in your possession a pair of “walking shoes” or a crooked wooden stick of any kind? Have you been brainwashed by Big Hike?

If you answered yes to any (or—bless your heart—all) of these questions, well, welcome to the club. Like most female academics of a certain age, I am both obsessed with walking and spend somewhat more time picturing it than actually doing it. I devour articles reminding me of the underappreciated health benefits of walking or outlining hacks designed to make my walks more productive or pleasurable. Above all, I am a total sucker for the category of essay I will hereby dub “This Famous Person Did a Lot of Walking and Also a Lot of Writing and Probably Those Two Things are Connected Although *Shrug* We’re Not Promising Anything.” Now, I love LitHub down to the ground, so this is totally not meant as a dis, but I estimate that 64% of articles on that website fall under this general rubric. In the past couple of years I have learned that Thomas Hardy took the exact same walk every day for 107 years, carefully noting the subtle changes in the landscape around him, which is clearly why he was so good at describing subtle changes in landscape in his writing, and also that Charles Darwin wrote for 14 hours every day and walked for 18 hours every day which is why he was so good at noticing evolution. (N.B. do not try these regimens yourself without a full staff of domestic servants to attend to your bodily needs.) I’m not sure why writers are such pushovers for vague claims that some other, wholly unrelated, activity will somehow magically help them with their life’s work—I don’t think carpenters spend a lot of time fantasizing that recreational bungee jumping will help them build better tables—but it definitely seems to be a thing.1

While I remain skeptical of all such claims of increased creativity among walkers, I am interested in the question of why some folks (including me) love the idea of walking so much—perhaps more than actual walking itself. I identify as A Walker and present myself as such in public, and to back up my claim I try to take a walk every day, especially since the beginning of the pandemic.2 My sister even referred recently to my “walking problem”—which, predictably, made me feel both embarrassed and a little bit proud. That said, there is a loose connection somewhere between my persona/ego ideal/projected self and my deepest unspoken desires. (I mean—duh. Of course there is. There always is.) I have a couple of theories for this phenomenon, and you’re not going to like either one of them. As painful as it might be to confront these uncomfortable truths, perhaps certain of my fellow semi-ambulists will recognize their own experiences herein.

The first theory is that I am fundamentally afraid of getting lost. My sense of direction is so profoundly bad, so impaired, that I honestly feel it’s tantamount to a disability. Hear me out for a second: my crap sense of direction means that I cannot do many things alone that others take for granted, that I cannot perform certain basic daily tasks without the help of elaborate and expensive prostheses. Now it just so happens that said prostheses (GPS, smartphones, Apple watches and the like) are so ubiquitous that our reliance on them has become nearly invisible;3 that said, for the vast majority of my life these props did not exist and I had to make my trepidatious way to the grocery store and back all on my own.4 The existence of these fancy navigation gimcracks does not, furthermore, obviate the deep shame I feel about my problem, or particularly help me to cover it up. How many hours of my life have I spent crouching in the driver’s seat of a car, surreptitiously typing my home address into my phone and hoping that the friend I just had coffee with doesn’t discover that I don’t know how to get from one end of the town I live in to the other? Even worse is having other people in the car with you when you’re driving somewhere you’re “supposed” to know how to get to, or—cringecringecringe—being the passenger and having to direct the driver off the top of your head, like some kind of sideshow freak savant.5

Obviously the prospect of getting hopelessly lost takes some of the joie out of walking. I don’t like to carry my phone with me when I head out cause it’s bulky and annoying, and furthermore I can’t rely on cell service in most of the places I like to walk. For that reason I tend to repeat the same memorized walks over and over again, desperately trying to convince myself I’m being Hardy-esque. I also like to go walking with people who can orient themselves in space, even though walking with others does not seem as romanticizable as the solo, brow-furrowed stroll through the countryside. A closely related Sub-Theory of Theory #1 also has to do with fear, but since I didn’t provide fair warning, I won’t make you read a discursus on rape culture. This time.

My second theory has less to do with fear than with existential dread. I wonder if, on some level, I occasionally resist the idea of recreational walking for the exact same reason I’m attracted to it: it’s not “productive.” (Which might also explain the recent vogue for linking aimless walking and creativity.) It does strike me as deeply odd that in the great sweep of human history, from our earliest hominid ancestors trotting for miles at a stretch in search of elusive game to medieval pilgrims plodding for weeks in order to bathe religious shrines with their penitent tears, we have arrived at a place where middle-class people regularly leave their houses, stroll for a fixed period of time/distance, and then return to their houses—for no apparent reason or purpose. (Sometimes they even get in their cars and drive to different ambulation departure points!) Hence, perhaps, my own ambivalence. I have to admit that a big theme of my life is the struggle between my admiring envy of those who are capable of Doing Nothing and my deeply internalized self-loathing whenever I try it out myself.

Many (not all, but many) Global Northerners have no living memory of a time when walking—even for commuting purposes—was anything other than a choice. Hardy himself walked for pleasure and recreation, even as he was turning over in his mind the desperate fate of his favorite heroine: “Thus Tess walks on; a figure which is part of the landscape; a fieldwoman pure and simple, in winter guise.... Inside this exterior, over which the eye might have roved as over a thing scarcely percipient, almost inorganic, there was the record of a pulsing life which had learnt too well, for its years, of the dust and ashes of things, of the cruelty of lust and the fragility of love. Next day the weather was bad, but she trudged on.”

The other day Scott and I were taking a walk in Black Mountain when we stumbled across a theretofore-unknown-to-us greenway north of downtown. As we turned off the main street onto the sylvan pathway, we were immediately enchanted by the dense green woods and sparkling Swannanoa River flowing by directly to our right. After a short stretch of bosky beauty, we turned a corner, saw spread before us an enormous trailer park, and nearly bumped into a single-wide perched just feet from the path. We waved cheerily and called “Good Morning!” to the two undershirted gentlemen sitting out front at a splintered wooden trestle table, and they enthusiastically returned our greeting. We continued on with our walk, hale and hearty in our bourgeois workout uniforms, with trailers sprawling in the sun as far as the eye could see to our left and the babbling river and overhanging trees accompanying us on the right. After another short stretch we encountered a middle-aged Latina woman trudging toward us on the path. She was clearly exhausted, carrying a white kitchen-sized knotted trash bag stuffed with what looked like dirty clothing, and wearing an orange-and-shit-brown uniform dress with the “Super 8” logo stitched over the breast pocket. We also greeted her cheerily, but she barely lifted her eyes towards ours and gave a wan half-smile as she shuffled wearily past. The path continued on between the trailers and the stream, until it turned another corner and the trailers were abruptly gone, replaced by a newish development of fake-mid-century single-family houses, all identical in design but painted different muted colors. As we passed one of these pristine homes, a trim older white woman pulled her SUV up to the curb and jumped out. “Oh my!” she cried when she saw us walking by. “Good for you! Look at you walking! That’s just great—I really wish I walked more. I’m going to take a walk this afternoon!” “Yes!” we chirped merrily in reply. “It is a marvelous day for a walk!” And then we continued on our way.

1

Some of the essays of this type will occasionally speculate about the reasons for the purported connection between Walking and Writing Productivity. Usually it’s something to do with our ancestors on the savannah and how we’ve evolved to walk continuously for dozens of hours at a stretch, or some dubious claims about 19th-century flânerie and certain areas of the brain being stimulated by strolling and gazing at lingerie window displays at the same time. I’m not buying it.

2

Speaking of Writing and Walking, here is a hilarious essay that I totally wish I had written myself. I freaking hate when that happens.

3

I recently read about a theory that GPS is actually impeding the development of people’s “natural” sense of direction.

4

I swear to God it was just 15 minutes ago that I was printing out Mapquest directions on my dot-matrix printer, and just 15 minutes before that that I was flipping through AAA Triptik maps on cross-country road trips. (N.B. AAA still provides free Triptiks for those members who also cannot figure out how to unmute themselves on Zoom.)

5

Even so, I don’t have it as bad as some people. If I apply myself and work hard, I am capable of building up mental maps of places I frequent. It just doesn’t come naturally—I have to study physical maps and practice memorization drills in order to stuff the info into my recalcitrant brain pan. I have one friend whose sense of direction is so bad that she once infamously pulled into a driveway to turn around and then couldn’t remember which direction she had come from in the first place.