Walking with purpose
You see them everywhere, the walkers. More of them now that spring is fully here. If you are like me, you are among them. Walking and meeting them.
And sometimes, if you choose, you meet yourself.
I have on my office wall a small framed photo with an inscription by the venerable walker/writer John Muir. It reads:
"I only went out for a walk
And finally concluded to stay till sundown
For going out I found I was really going in."
Pedestrian advocates frequently complain that our quadrant of Portland is "sidewalk deficient." That is certainly true, but in my meanderings I find that we are far from walker deficient. And while we rightly grumble about the lack of sidewalks and celebrate the few that exist, there is something to be said for our deficiency.
Without sidewalks, we watch our steps. We don't take safety for granted. We learn where the ruts are. We are forced to share the road. Normally oblivious drivers became aware of us. By being unsegregated, we have a relationship with others.
We appreciate sidewalks more when we do find them, but they also numb our awareness.
I have a book titled "How to Walk," by the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Walking for him is a meditation and a constant "arriving." He writes, "When you walk, arrive with every step." I find that when I'm walking on a trail or along a road shoulder, I am far more aware of every step.
I am present.
Somewhere along in here, I must salute SWTrails for their many gifts to walkers. Maps, trail-building, trail maintenance, organized group walks — the list goes on and on.
All of that serves the physical needs of walkers. But what about the spiritual — Muir's "going in?"
The other day, I saw a SWTrails member walking on the other side of the street. I hailed him but got no response. I yelled out his name. Nothing. Then I thought that he, like me, was slowly going deaf.
Finally, I noticed he was wearing headphones and that his blank gaze was transfixed on the pavement in front of him. He neither heard nor saw me — or much else of his surroundings that matter. Just two or three paces behind him was his dog.
Like so many walkers, he was not walking himself, but multi-tasking: walking his dog while listening to some sound having nothing to do with where he (or his dog) was.
I confess I have slapped on my headphones while walking. Multitasking, maintaining my physical health and feeding my brain. If I had a dog, I no doubt would be walking her.
On a recent walk, I was listening to some of Orwell's essays on Audible, a digital audio book company. I was in England at the time of the Second World War. I was also feeding my Fitbit, set on meeting my daily goal of 10,000 paces.
I was in a bifurcated 20th and 21st century state of mind. I was similar to Thoreau when he wrote in the early 19th century, "I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit."
"Alarmed," he wrote. Am I alarmed in this physical fitness-obsessed age when I fall short of 10,000 paces at day's end? Actually, if I make my goal, I'm frankly proud. Thoreau reminds me I should be chagrined. Do I really know where or why I'm walking?
I'm reminded of Alice's encounter with The Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carrol's classic, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland."
"Alice asked the Cheshire Cat, who was sitting in a tree, 'What road do I take?'
The cat asked, 'Where do you want to go?'
'I don't know,' Alice answered.
'Then,' said the cat, 'it really doesn't matter, does it?'"
Alice is physically lost in the woods; the cat tells her she is lost in purpose. Even if she finds the way, she will still be lost.
I walk from my house to Hillsdale. I walk from Hillsdale to Multnomah Village (avoiding the bustle of Capitol Highway, even though it has sidewalks). I walk through the Village to Gabriel Park. I know what "road to take," but do I know why I'm taking it?
It helps to be like the ship captain who expects to get "orders at sea." I set out with no particular destination in mind. I greet a neighbor. A cat wanders across my path and rubs itself against my leg. I notice trees dancing with my paces. Or flowers brightening my way.
The purpose of the walk is the encounters along the way. Walking is itself the destination. So often that destination is simultaneously outside and in, for aren't they really the same, if we allow them — it — to be?