September 13, 2010
An ancient Latin saying, solvitur ambulando, simply means, “It is solved by walking.” Taking up this most basic practice often leads to clarity and even healing. When out-of-sorts and off-balance, perplexed or confused, depressed or upset, searching or praying, I walk. And I am not the only one - Christian pilgrimages linked walking and healing. Not surprisingly, numerous books vividly portray lively connections between soles and souls, feet and faith.
A Plain Life: Walking My Belief by Scott Savage (New York, NY: Ballantine Press, 2000).
Scott Savage took his commitment to plain living to a logical conclusion by becoming an Old Order Quaker and relinquishing electricity and powered vehicles. This meant giving up on driving, so he walked for a week across the state of Ohio to turn in and abandon his driver’s license in the state capitol. Along the way, he reflects on what it means for him and his family to abandon high tech and modern media. He charmingly points to a way of life that many of us know that we need but that too often seems elusive, one that includes love of place, communion with others, integrity, honesty, and self-reliance. His seven day pilgrimage reflects on and reinforces his commitment to simplicity, living more fully with less. Savage has his eyes on the prize of a healthy, holistic and contented life.
Planetwalker: How to Change Your World One Step at a Time by John Francis (Point Reyes Station, CA: Elephant Mountain Press, 2005).
If a week of walking sounds long, wait until you hear the story of John Francis. As a young man in 1971, he was stunned by witnessing a 1971 California oil spill. (Who knows what he would make of the Gulf of Mexico oil well leak?) Assaulted by the environmental catastrophe, he gave up driving and walked for the next twenty-two years—most of the time in silence except for the banjo that he carried. He moved across a good part of both North and South America and encountered numerous remarkable people. He was overwhelmed by generous hospitality and also disheartened by those who took his refusal to drive as an invitation to argument or others who make no secret of how they despise a black man on foot. He settled down from time to time, long enough to earn several college degrees. This book contains wisdom on how to treat the earth, each other, and ourselves with more compassion and care. It testifies to how lives can be changed by the faithful eccentricity of one lonely prophet. And it celebrates the fact that Francis walked away from bitter despair to a life of purpose and meaning.
Walking it Off: A Veteran’s Chronicle of War and Wilderness by Doug Peacock (Cheney and Spokane, WA: Eastern Washington University Press, 2005).
Doug Peacock was traumatized for years by experiences as a Green Beret medic in Vietnam, with the devastating consequences of rage and hostility, not to mention addictive habits and broken relationships. A restless soul, he was drawn to the wilderness out west and was befriended by the legendary writer Edward Abbey. Abbey based one of his major characters on Peacock, George Washington Hayduke in the classic book The Monkey Wrench Gang. This is a complicated story of healing and friendship amidst turmoil and sorrows. In long walks in the wild, he grew more and more at home with himself and in love with people and nature; he realized that he needs to live near wilderness. He is particularly known for work and advocacy on behalf of grizzly bears. On a long hike in Tibet he writes: “I come here in my fifties to walk myself into good health: to walk off the roll of belly fat around my middle-aged gut, to walk away from war, to walk up and on in defiance of my hereditary gift of high cholesterol and blood pressure into a dimly perceived better world and maybe a new beginning. I wanted more life and more out of the living I had left.” The wounded warrior found peace.
A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson (New York, NY: Broadway Books, 1998).
Not all walkers are as intense as the previous three. Bill Bryson is best known for humorous travel memoirs. He was drawn to explore the 2,000-plus mile Appalachian Trail (AT) as the perfect way to get reacquainted with the US after living for two decades in England. It was also an opportunity to get to know many people en route. When I read this book, I too fantasized about walking the AT but even while I was impressed by the described beauty of mountains, woods, and lakes, I also realized how daunting a challenge it would be. Bryson recounts the Trail’s history, the importance to our well-being of wilderness, and our strange captivity to driving and aversion to walking. His winsome self-deprecating stance draws us into reflecting on how we too might move a little more lightly on earth.
Two funny books by Canadians are also worthwhile. Charles Wilkins walked from Thunder Bay, Ontario, to New York City—over 900 miles—after his marriage broke up and tells the story in Walk to New York: A Journey Out of the Wilds of Canada. Will Ferguson ponders his Irish heritage and the blood-soaked legacy of too many religious battles in Beyond Belfast: A 560-Mile Walk Across Northern Ireland on Sore Feet.
Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit (New York, NY: Penguin, 2000).
This is my favorite book on walking. No surprise, as I consider Rebecca Solnit to be one of the finest writers in the U.S. these days. This book more than any other inspired me to walk the 500 mile Camino de Santiago in Spain. Solnit does not just explore the bare history of the most “pedestrian” – pun intended – way of travel. She also considers what walking means. She notes its connection to thinking, pilgrimage, social criticism, and, yes, healing. This mode of movement, she proves, leads into a richer experience of time. She considers what we can learn from famous walkers: Jane Austen, Peace Pilgrim, Thoreau, Bruce Chatwin, Charles Dickens, Mahatma Gandhi, Werner Herzog, John Muir. And she ponders plaza promenades, labyrinths, Stations of the Cross, and walkathons.
Other fine books in the genre are Joseph A. Amato’s On Foot: A History of Walking (New York, NY:New York University Press 2004 and Geoff Nicholson’s The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, Philosophy, and Literature of Pedestrianism (New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2008).
The old Latin saying, solvitur ambulando, has been attributed to Diogenes several centuries before Christ, Augustine several centuries after Christ, and Thoreau who lived on this continent not so very long ago. No matter who said it, the phrase’s persistence convinces us of its perennial. No wonder that while some consider walking boring or ordinary, Thich Nhat Hanh calls it a miracle.
Arthur Boers is the author of The Way is Made by Walking: A Pilgrimage Along the Camino de Santiago and holds the RJ Bernardo Family Chair of Leadership at Tyndale Seminary (Toronto, Canada).
Read the interview with Arthur Paul Boers>>