I’ve been on short walks; I’ve been on long walks. I’ve walked from villages and to cities. I’ve walked through the day and through the night, from lovers and to friends. I have walked in deep forests and over big mountains, across snow-covered plains and through urban jungles. I have walked bored and euphoric and I have tried to walk away from problems. I have walked in pain and in happiness. But no matter where and why, I have walked and walked. I have walked to the ends of the world — literally.
One thing that seems to be keeping many people sane at the moment, and seems to be the same regardless of whether you’re a city or country dweller, is the mind-clearing peace of going for a walk. It’s been one of the few things people locked down (most places) can still do, and the almost deceptively simple restorative magic of putting one foot in front of the other has helped immensely.
Personally, I’ve found walking in my New York City neighborhood generally more stressful than stress-relieving during the worst of these Covid-19 times because there are still always too many people around, but reading this gave me something to look forward to when even our walking options are in a better state.
Walking is Norwegian publisher and explorer Erling Kagge’s homage to and meditations on walking, its mental and physical benefits, and the breadth of meanings it can provide. Kagge should know a thing or two about a good walk — he’s walked on both the North and South Poles, the top of Mount Everest, and through the sewer systems under New York City’s streets.
He’s dedicated to the idea of, more or less, walking away from one’s problems, which is of course reductive, and yet. How often have you gained clarity from even a short walk during a stressful, confusing time or used it to defuse a heated argument? My husband and I often go for long walks together when we have ideas to turn over or plans to make. Kagge even describes wanting to suffer when he was trying to walk away from wrenching personal problems, like a relationship ending painfully (why else would you punish yourself with a trek through the Manhattan sewers, after all).
I walk away from my problems. Not all of them, but as many as possible. Don’t we all? Some of my problems fade away as I walk. They might vanish within an hour, or a few days. Perhaps they weren’t as big as I had imagined? It’s often like that. Something that I view as problematic, that stirs me up, turns out not to be so troublesome or important, after all, once I have gained some distance from it.
I loved being reminded of all the little ideas that can pop into your head while walking, how it can become a mini-journey of its own, and everything that can be revealed, sometimes near-prophetically, to us from the depths our own thoughts just by physically moving forward. (“I began to believe that the world is not as it appears, the world is as you are.”)
He also explores the idea of using a walk to transition from one state of mind to a necessary next one, describing the chaos of his morning getting ready for work, and then the mindset he has to shift into once actually there: “These are two different worlds, and as I walk, I feel I have the gift of an additional stretch of time to transition myself from the one reality to the other…If I choose to go by subway or car, my transition from home to the city happens so quickly that I’m unable to fully detach from my home life.” This felt eminently relatable.
The book is loosely structured, almost like one long essay divided by anecdotes and looks at some studies on walking’s benefits in humans, animals, even cockroaches. The downside is that some ideas and sentiments become repetitive, but it’s less bothersome than in a book with a more formal tone. This reads dreamily and meditatively and some looping back around generally works.
Kagge weaves in quotes and theories from other famous walkers, like Charles Darwin and Steve Jobs, as well as other writers and even scientists and doctors. Kagge believes that walking is a medicine on par with or better than any drug available, an idea he credits to another walker (and recognized father of modern medicine), Hippocrates. He espouses the idea that walking itself has played a greater role in the history of human health than any medication, an idea I’m not sure I totally agree with, but Kagge makes a decent case nonetheless. He links his grandmother’s decline to when she was no longer able to walk, juxtaposed with his daughter taking her first steps, and her world opening up.
The range of anecdotes peppered throughout are fascinating, even if some are less clearly connected to walking itself than his own musings and experiences. The book’s last story, of his grandfather’s final walk during Norway’s time under German occupation, gave me chills. It’s a haunting, immensely powerful message to close out a book that begins with a story of his grandmother.
So this gives you a lot to think about, on many levels, not least his tracing of how the act of walking has fundamentally changed mankind.
It’s another book whose US paperback release comes at the perfect time. It’s soothingly dreamy and distracting while providing some hope — that there are still easy, free, healthful, and mentally boosting things we can do for ourselves even now, and in the near future, even when things aren’t back to “normal” as fast as we’d like them to be. The proven benefits of a walk shouldn’t be overlooked and this was a quietly powerful argument to underscore that.
I appreciated it more while turning it over in my head after I’d finished it. While reading it I was too expectant for something to happen, so it’s good to go into it knowing that it’s slow-paced, meandering, without a solid destination, just meant to be enjoyed for what it is and how it shapes your thinking — like some of the best walks themselves.
Walking: One Step at a Time
by Erling Kagge
translated from the Norwegian by Becky L. Crook
Vintage paperback edition released April 17 2020,
originally published April 23, 2019
I received a copy of the paperback edition from the publisher for unbiased review.