Meditations and Musings on Walking

Walking: One Step at a Time, by Erling Kagge, translated from Norwegian by Becky L. Crook (Amazon/ Book Depository)

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.

Amazon/ Book Depository

15 thoughts on “Meditations and Musings on Walking

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  1. I am among those for whom walking during lock down has helped to keep my sanity. I’m working from home, but almost every day for the past two months I’ve gone for a lunchtime walk (I don’t say lunch hour walk because I frequently am gone for more than an hour – but with no one (literally) looking over my shoulder now, who’s counting?). Anyway, it’s been a silver lining to the tedium of lock down.

    A lot of your comments about the book ring true also. The author’s belief that his grandmother’s decline began with her loss of mobility, especially. Many of my friends who work in the medical field have shared this same belief. I also had forgotten that Hippocrates himself was a walker (a shame for a former Classics Minor to admit!). Sounds like an interesting book overall.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m glad to hear walking has been a refuge for you at the moment! Normally for me it helps me keep my sanity on a daily basis but it’s just been more stress than anything in a residential NYC neighborhood where there are too many people around all the time. I try to go in the evenings or early weekend mornings, but even then! This book is pretty perfect for the current moment though, especially if it’s your silver lining right now. This was such a lovely celebration of something we maybe take for granted sometimes.

      I didn’t know that about Hippocrates so won’t hold it against you 😉 But was definitely interesting that he placed such emphasis on it as a way of taking care of ourselves or healing what’s ailing us. It’s certainly pushed me out for a few more walks than usual since reading this. I think you’d like this one!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My city (Indianapolis) relaxed some restrictions as of last Friday so I am having to do more people-dodging now, but I think changing my routes to avoid certain areas will work. My nephew is a serious runner and talked me into buying some expensive shoes for walking and they are so much more comfortable than what I used to wear (i.e., whatever was on sale at Target or wherever!) that it’s made it more of a pleasure. I’ll have to put this book on my goodreads to-read list (it’ll be 27th in line – hahaha)

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Oh how cool, I love Indianapolis! My aunt lived there for years and it was a great city to visit. I would think you could find some possibilities by switching up your route a bit, even downtown there always felt like plenty of space.

        Good shoes do make a difference! I’m always wearing cheap ones from H&M and then wondering why my feet hurt. Maybe I’ll have to take your lead and invest in a good pair too! Glad I could convince you of this one, I think you’d get a lot out of it.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. great review! unfortunately, i’m having the same issues with walking that you are. it seems like everyone is out in the nice weather right now and it gives me too much anxiety to go out walking! i keep telling myself i’ll do it early in the morning, but it’s hard to motivate to go out then haha.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is just so frustrating. I went for a walk last night and people were gathering in big groups, especially outside of restaurants picking up food and alcohol and acting like it was a normal night out at the bar. No distancing. I don’t think even half were wearing masks. It’s madness. I’m sorry you’re having the same problems, I don’t know why this is proving so difficult for so many people. I’d be happy to go early in the morning but it’s my busiest working time, so I can only manage it on the weekends, and then I’m just not motivated either, haha! I hope you can find a better walking route soon!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. ugh that’s horrible!! people here at least to be wearing masks for the most part but people are not great about giving space. my roommate found some smaller roads she’s been using for runs, so i may try out her route soon! I hope you’re able to get walking again too.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. If you can find lesser trafficked areas that makes a big difference 🙂 My neighborhood has been awful. Going for a walk is an exercise in patience and just tends to make me sad because we’ve been hit with the worst of it yet people have been totally casual about it. So frustrating!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a really great, and thorough, review of this book.

    I have read this title, and two others by Erling Kagge, and what I really enjoy about his books is the thoughtful quality of them; I take much away, and they give me food for thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree, it does give you a lot of food for thought. I’ve been turning it over in my head a lot since reading it. Did you like his other books too? And thank you so much, by the way!! 🙂

      Like

  4. I’ve noticed a number of books about trails and walking lately and it does seem like a particularly good time for these kind of arm chair travels! Unfortunately, I don’t have somewhere I feel particularly comfortable and relaxed walking near my apartment, but with parks opening back up, I’m just starting to be able to do some getting out and about 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so sorry you’ve had that experience too! It’s been really tough in densely populated cities, I think. I *just* moved home to New York before all this started and was so looking forward to wandering around and reacquainting myself with the place again, and then this. I hope it’s getting better soon, and glad that the parks are opening back up where you are! Hopefully people will maintain distance and you can still get out and about while feeling safe!

      Liked by 1 person

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