Walker’s Paradise

Exploring the transcendent pleasures from one of humanity’s most basic acts.

Walking, for those with functional lower limbs, is the most natural thing to do, and if we make it an artful practice it will exercise our higher faculties and turn us into superior beings. So argues the author of Born to Walk: The Transformative Power of a Pedestrian Act, a former journalist and sports writer who recently converted to walking as a way of life. An avid runner until knee surgery forced him to slow down, Dan Rubinstein discovers a therapy not just for his own recovery but for a humanity in need of a cure for the diseases of sedentary modernity. With its argument that technologies that diminish our penchant for walking inevitably derail our evolutionary trajectory, Born to Walk is a book on a mission to get us back on track to what we were created to be.

A born-again walker, Rubinstein organizes eight chapters around themes that reveal the diverse and potentially transformative benefits of walking. “Body,” “Mind,” “Society,” “Economy,” “Politics,” “Creativity,” “Spirit” and “Family” trace walking’s capacity to shape and refine a basic set of anthropomorphic traits into a web of interrelated virtues. Like the other chapters, the “Body” chapter features a particular walk, its specific aims and passages, along with supporting testimonials to illustrate and develop the chapter’s focal theme. In this case the featured walk is the Innu Meshkenu or “Innu Road,” a mythical journey that Innu surgeon Stanley Vollant reinterprets as a healing pilgrimage for Inuit and First Nations suffering from alcoholism, drug abuse, diabetes, depression and other ailments of colonization. Involving “a six-year, 3,800-mile series of walks, in all seasons, between every Aboriginal community in Quebec and Labrador, and a few in Ontario and New Brunswick,” this journey revives a tradition once crucial to the survival of nomadic peoples. Those who partake reportedly feel not only physically uplifted (after their blisters are taped and their fatigue has passed) but also socially and spiritually reconnected to the land as they tramp and camp together across their traditional territories.

Rubinstein’s writing style mimics his walking style, which is to follow myriad leads on secondary paths without getting totally sidetracked. He might begin a chapter with an eyewitness report of a feature walk, testifying to its particular challenges and revelations before breaking off to investigate relevant research. If his narrative of experience and encounter seems casual, even serendipitous, his review of empirical sources is rigorous and comprehensive. He describes the pain and exhaustion he and his companions endure, along with their growing camaraderie and sense of achievement, as they trek the rough roads and bushy terrain of Innu Meshkenu, and he pauses intermittently, as if to catch his breath and reboot his perseverance, to consider the dire and disturbing statistics on aboriginal health. His pauses last as long as his peripatetic narrative, implying the proportionate amount of thinking this kind of walking both calls for and engenders.

Opening on a stroll with “Walk Glasgow,” the “Mind” chapter reports directly the testimonies of participants who believe walking has saved them from depression and isolation. It then segues to current medical research to present evidence on how walking delays Alzheimer’s, reduces anxiety and subdues attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

In the “Society” chapter, Rubinstein tells of donning a flak jacket to walk with cops on their beat in North Philadelphia’s most violent neighbourhood. Prepared for confrontation but meeting mostly respect, he explains how patrolling is radically more effective by foot than by car. Why? Because the former allows cops and residents to get to know one another and to share neighbourhood concerns. In “Economy” he develops this theme of walking as a mode of urban renewal by outlining the cost effectiveness of replacing car-friendly with pedestrian-friendly infrastructure. His “Politics” chapter further reports on how campaigning candidates and caring cabinet ministers best come to know and serve their constituency by walking door to door.

“Soft fascination” is the term Rubinstein accords walking’s cognitive state of perceptual drift that stimulates unfettered, free-association thinking. Such a relaxed state of mindfulness, he confirms, not only relieves the walker of anxiety and depression and focuses attention-deficient brains, but also inspires new forms of creative imagination and experimentative engagement. If only Rubinstein’s prose could stir such transcendent drift or aspire to the peripatetic virtuosity of a Virginia Woolf. Instead, his hyper-attention to secondary literature tends to mire his insights in prosaic detail. Often he advocates more than he reveals so that “soft fascination” becomes, paradoxically, a mantra of hard-headed proselytization.

To whom, then, does Rubinstein address so ardent a mission? Clearly not the residents of the developing world where walking is a dangerous and demanding employment (as it is, say, for the Sherpas of Nepal) or a certain exposure to brutal violence (as for girls and women of northern Nigeria and rural India). Rather, he explicitly appeals to members of the metropolitan middle class who have yet to experience walking for its more than utilitarian functions. To entice this class, he features walkers who are worldly, charismatic (politicians, activists, peace pilgrims) and off-beat, eccentric (street-artists, flâneurs), as well as routinely athletic (mail carriers, dog walkers). Rubinstein, himself, seems most taken with Rory Stewart, a Tory member of Parliament from Cumbria who walked across rural Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, India and Nepal before setting out on foot to meet every farmer and villager across his sparsely populated constituency of England’s Penrith and the Border. Another favourite is Matt Green, a New York City transportation engineer who quit his office job to be imaginatively self-employed walking every street of every one of the city’s boroughs.

Rubinstein might have investigated that most rarified class of walkers who feel “called” by none other than the walk itself. But all of his walkers harbour a cause. Even Matt Green keeps busy tallying errant street signs and other urban oddities. Some “find” themselves via walking’s soul-searching facilities. He mentions Cheryl Strayed, a young woman who overcomes a history of self-abuse by trekking the Pacific Crest Trail and who pens her progress in her bestseller Wild. But he neglects to mention Robyn Davidson, another young woman who, with three and a half camels and a dog, treks 2,750 kilometres across the deserts of west Australia—not to escape inner demons or to reclaim her humanity, and not to draw attention to herself or to a higher aim, but simply and purely to discover what limitless walking alone makes possible.

Focused on the powers of the pedestrian act, Rubinstein aptly favours the quotidian over the epic walk. And what could be more quotidian than walking your kids to school? His chapter on “Family” features himself and his daughters on this daily routine cum ritual. Their passage takes a critical turn when a car runs over his ankles as they cross a busy intersection. His daughters remain unhurt but become enlightened about the importance of being ever alert however well trodden their route, while he, lucky to suffer only a minor injury, proceeds to lobby the municipality to rezone school areas for improved traffic control.

If walking nurtures familial bonds, the bonds of walking are not always familial. Walking possesses a libidinal dimension that Born to Walk somehow bypasses, although love of walking is the book’s implicit prime mover. Few books treat walking so big-heartedly and open-mindedly as this one or with such exploratory, wide-ranging study, and with a slight digression on “ambulophilia” it might just have covered walking’s every power.