“In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to Society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is–I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?”
-Henry David Thoreau, “Walking”
Wearing my sunglasses, I descend the front stairs and Dad offers me his arm. Already, Ozzie pulls at the leash in Mom’s hand. We traverse the small sidewalk that bisects our front yard and reach the curb. “Curb alert!” Dad says cheerfully. He steps off the curb and waits for me to do the same. When we are both on the road, he turns to the right, and we begin the first lap.
Mom leads the stroll, holding Ozzie’s leash as he tries to investigate everything at once. Shortly, we arrive at a small grassy area, where Dad and I wait in the shade as Ozzie explores each tree and bush. When he is finished, we resume, following the curve of the road as it rounds the neighborhood. Dad narrates various characteristics of our surroundings, commenting on the state of the trees, the construction of the houses, and the weather. With my hand firmly wedged into the crook of his arm, I glide forward, appreciating his commentary. My cane scratches along the level pavement, and I don’t have to think about where we’re going. Relying on my guide, I can relax into ambulatory reflection.
I am excited by the certainty of my steps – the rush of confidence as each foot obeys the commands of proprioception – and the comforting sensation of warmth as my muscles come to attention. I feel the ground through my feet, and the invigorating pressure of each step dispels the drowsiness in my legs. A small breeze, not powerful enough to rustle the leaves, cools my face. The sun seems to exude less heat; the air is not oppressive. I can smell the beginnings of autumn – an unlikely aroma on a September day in Florida. For us, fall is rarely a season of dramatic foliage and crisp air, but some strange hint, some spicy undercurrent, recalls the inspiring nature of autumn afternoons.
In a remarkably short time, I notice how our strides have aligned. Dad and I easily fall into an identical pace, keeping an equal distance behind Ozzie and Mom. Our small pack seems cohesive, determined, and relaxed. Traveling with this group – social ambling – calms and comforts me. I am soothed not only by my own steps, but by the audible footfalls around me and the sound of Ozzie’s small legs persevering along the road.
I think about the nature of strolls and the muscles we use to create them. I wonder how much of the stroll is made in the legs and how much of its emollience comes from the walking-place. Walking by myself, I rarely have the luxury of reflecting as I move; I deploy my cognitive resources and sensory observations in the task of traveling safely. Among the group, I can abdicate these duties and appreciate what I imagine Thoreau appreciated in his familiar woods and fields.
It takes some practice and more leisure to become the kind of walker Thoreau describes. It is not enough to engage in the mobile preparation, to possess the ability to move and direct your own course. I believe that Thoreau’s kind of walking, the spiritual experience of movement through the world, demands a level of sensory commitment and mental calm. You must know the path you’re traveling – you must be able to travel it with relative ease so that you can lose and find yourself in the walk. Without the foundation of sensory familiarity and muscle memory, the walk cannot take place.
If I say that I walk more with my mind than my body, I run the risk of dismissing my sensory, physical experiences of the world. So I will not say it. I think that the mind and body make the walk together, so that walking itself does not depend on legs, but on the idea of them. It depends on a person’s willingness to stroll by any means, to embody the mind’s need to rove.