The Walking Man

“I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life,” Henry David Thoreau wrote, “who understood the art of Walking.” His 1862 article in the Atlantic magazine was titled, appropriately enough, Walking. A little over a hundred years later, singer / songwriter James Taylor took up the subject in a song that has become my anthem—the Walking Man. Now, here I am in what might be called my twilight years trying to be James Taylor’s walking man while understanding Thoreau’s art of walking. Some days, when my arthritis is acting up, I feel more like the aching man. But James Taylor’s lyric usually nudges me out the door. “While any other man stops and talks, the walking man walks.”

I look forward to my morning walk. It is part of my daily ritual along with getting dressed, having a cup of coffee, and brushing my teeth. Some days are better than others. It depends on the weather, my daily schedule of chores and errands, and how my worn-out old body feels. I am fortunate that I am physically able to walk, that I have a safe neighborhood in which to do it, and I have a family heritage of walking.

I usually walk alone listening to a podcast on my headphones. That is when I do my best thinking. I wrote this article in my head while on one of my walks. I try to walk through fatigue and injury, in all types of weather, dodging cars, lawn service trailers parked in the street, and the occasional dog running loose. I also enjoy walking with my wife. We talk more on our walks than we do when we are busy at home. It is, I think, good for our marriage.

When I began my daily walks, I tried to walk two miles and three miles on alternate days, but I have had to dial back a bit to ease my aching back. Now I try for about two miles a day with a couple of days off each week.

I obviously enjoy walking, or I wouldn’t do it. It is good exercise. I see interesting scenery, including birds and wildlife. And I get to be a nosy neighbor as I casually inspect houses and yards. Karen and I have a good time with this. When are they going to mow their lawn? Why did they paint their house that color? And, a pet peeve, why is that car parked on the lawn and not in the driveway. And why has it not moved in over a week?

I regularly encounter fellow walkers. These include the serious walkers (fast pace, head down, arms pumping); the strollers (Thoreau calls them saunterers); the buddy walkers locked in conversation as they go; the cell-phone talkers; the dog walkers; and the half dozen walkers on the golf course who walk up and down the fairway side by side in a line. My wife and I call them the crime scene finger-tip search team.

I come from a long line of walkers, although it skipped a generation with my parents. They didn’t walk much, but my grandparents sure did. When my brothers and I spent weekends with Grandma Porter, she walked us all over St. Petersburg, Florida. We walked to the grocery store and drug store when she needed supplies. We walked to the ice cream shop after dinner. When she needed to go to downtown, she walked us four blocks to the bus stop on Sixteenth Street. When the bus dropped us downtown in Williams Park, we walked through the park to Maas Brothers Department store, down to the pier, and other destinations as needed. Then it was back to the park to catch the bus home. It wasn’t like she couldn’t get a ride in someone’s car. She just didn’t want a ride. She had her own two feet—and the City bus.

It is hard to imagine, but there was a time when exercise wasn’t a thing. Grandma Porter didn’t walk because it was good for her health. She wasn’t worried about her cardio workout or how many steps she got in. She was just a walker. Sometime in the late 1800s, she walked behind a covered wagon with her family as they trekked from the Florida panhandle to Nacogdoches, Texas—a journey of more than six-hundred miles. According to Google Maps, I could drive that trip in ten hours. My grandma’s walk, at about three miles an hour, would have taken several months. That was a walk of Thoreau proportions.

In his essay on walking, Thoreau said, “I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

Four hours is a heck of a walk, but he only walked in the fields, forests, and woods. And he embraced the idea of sauntering, so he probably stopped frequently to sit on a log and contemplate nature. Thoreau would have laughed at my pathetic excuse for a walk. I am out for less than an hour and the only wildlife I see are the squirrels, rabbits, and birds that peer at me from my neighbors’ lawns.

A real walk, according to Thoreau, is when “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.”

Good grief. Who can measure up to that? The only thing that gives me hope is that he also said, “[Walking] comes only by the grace of God. It requires a direct dispensation from Heaven to become a walker. You must be born into the family of walkers.” 

There, I do have some “street creds”. I do come from a family of walkers, and I have Grandma Porter’s “dispensation”. So I will continue my daily walks with Thoreau’s inspiration in my heart and James Taylor’s anthem in my head. “Moving in silent desperation toward a hypothetical destination. Who is this walking man?”

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